Law is not Gospel, Gospel is not Law

Law is not Gospel, Gospel is not Law

by Charles Fry /


Luther defined “law” as all of God’s commands both in the Old and New Testaments and “gospel” as all of the promises in Scripture, freely given in and through Christ, apart from our works—by sheer grace. “We should understand ‘law’ to mean nothing else than God’s word and command, in which he directs us what to do and what not to do, and demands from us our obedience and ‘work.’“[i] He then defines the gospel:

On the other hand, the gospel or the faith is a doctrine or word of God that does not require our works. It does not command us to do anything. On the contrary, it bids us merely to accept the offered grace of forgiveness of sins and eternal life and let it be given to us. It means that we do nothing; only receive, and allow ourselves to be given what has been granted to us and handed to us in the Word.[ii]

Luther hereby reminds us that the law and gospel are two entirely distinct categories: law is not gospel, gospel is not law. The beauty and power of each vanish when they are blended together. The perfection and majesty of the law is compromised, and the announcement of the good news that Christ kept the law for us and suffered the curse of the law for us is entirely lost. Blending the two leads one into suffocating moralism, anguished guilt, or a lofty legalism that destroys everything and everyone in its wake. The pure message of Christ keeping the law for us becomes lost.

Read all the posts published to date in this extended series on the life and theology of Martin Luther, as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the birth of the Reformation.

In his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, Luther explains in greater depth the inability of anyone on earth to be made just in God’s sight by obedience to the law or to have a conscience set at peace by good works:

For the law requireth perfect obedience unto God, and condemneth all those that do not accomplish the same. Now, it is certain that there is no man living which is able to perform this obedience; which notwithstanding God straitly requireth of us: the law therefore justifieth not, but condemneth, according to that saying: “Cursed is he that abideth not in all things written in this law,” &c. (Deut. xxvii. 26; Gal. iii. 10).[iii]

In speaking of the monks’ efforts to be justified by keeping the law, he writes,

Neither is it possible for them to have quietness and peace of conscience in great and inward terrors, and in the agony of death, yea though they have observed the law, loved their neighbours, done many good works, and suffered great afflictions: for the law always terrifieth and accuseth, saying: Thou never didst accomplish all that is commanded in the law; but accursed is he that hath not done all things contained therein, &c. Wherefore these terrors remain still in the conscience and increase more and more.[iv]

What then was the purpose of the law for Luther? Its primary purpose was to show us the truth about ourselves before a holy God and drive us to look for righteousness outside of ourselves. All the law can do is show us our guilt and present us naked before God. Referring to Israel’s terror at the foot of Sinai as the law was given, Luther wrote,

So the proper office of the law is to lead us out of our tents and tabernacles, that is to say, from the quietness and security wherein we dwell, and from trusting in ourselves, and to bring us before the presence of God, to reveal his wrath unto us, and to set before us our sins. Here the conscience feeleth that it hath not satisfied the law, neither is it able to satisfy it, nor to bear the wrath of God. [v]

Luther’s A World Upside Down; Four Essays on the Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fryteaching here is extremely important and should not be missed. He is saying that the law of God is what God uses to bring us before the face of God—”into the sight of God.” It is one thing to know the right theological phrases and to glibly talk about them. It is another thing to be brought into the sight of God by the Holy Spirit using the preaching of the law in order that we may see our true condition.

It is at this point that our consciences are taught of God and we treasure the gospel of grace with all our hearts. Some in our day are critical of talk about grace, for such talk can devolve into trivializing the holiness of God. Yet to those who have been taught the lesson of the law—to those who have begun to see the holiness of God and their own sin in the light of God’s holiness—grace means everything. It is all such a person has.

Luther wrote,

When a man is thus taught and instructed by the law, then is he terrified and humbled, then he seeth indeed the greatness of his sin, and cannot find in himself one spark of the love of God: therefore he justifieth God in his Word, and confesseth that he is guilty of death and eternal damnation. The first part then of Christianity is the preaching of repentance, and the knowledge of ourselves… Wherefore the law doth nothing else but utter sin, terrify, and humble, and by this means prepareth us to justification, and driveth us to Christ.[vi]

In his teaching on the law, Luther was expounding what God has said through the epistle of Romans: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20, NASB).” In his sermon on Isaiah 9:6, where Christ is called “Everlasting Father,” Luther explains how faith in Christ frees us from the law’s condemnation:

When you, therefore, believe on Christ, the law has no further claim on you. For all eternity Christ does not wish to condemn you, but to be your Father, and you his child… This we must learn well, that above all things Christ in his kingdom does not wish to condemn, but to forgive, and to be our everlasting Father… If there’s need for the law, however, then let it be laid against your flesh, to keep it chaste and submissive to God’s Ten Commandments. Your faith, however, your heart and conscience, must remain free from the law and by virtue of this name, “Everlasting Father,” should crush the law in your heart, like ice melts before the summer’s heat.[vii]

As Philp Watson explains, the law of God humbles us and removes all hope in our own righteousness.

[The law] no longer prescribed the terms and conditions of salvation, but was the hammer of God to break down man’s pride and self-reliance and drive him to surrender in faith to the forgiveness and grace revealed in Christ, and supremely in his cross. By the fire of this grace, the entire medieval Catholic scheme of salvation, with every thought of merit and worthiness, was reduced to ashes.[viii]

The law causes us to seek a righteousness outside of ourselves, the righteousness found only in the gospel promise and the righteousness that comes only by faith alone. Thus the law/gospel distinction leads us to the critical doctrine of justification by faith alone, which Luther believed was the heart of the gospel.

Part 11 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.

Charles E. Fry

Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.

[i] The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 volumes, Eugene F.A. Klug (ed.), Eugene F.A. Klug, Erwin W. Koehlinger, James Lanning, Everette W. Meier, Dorothy Schoknecht, and Allen Schuldheiss, translators (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 156.

[ii] Luther, 157. Emphasis added.

[iii] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Based on Lectures Delivered by Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the year 1531 and First Published in 1535, Philip S. Watson (ed.), A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 151.

[iv] Galatians, 152.

[v] Galatians, 153.

[vi] Galatians, 131, 132.

[vii] Festival of Christ’s Nativity, Fifth Sermon, December 27, 1532, Sermons, vol. 7, 251.

[viii] Philip S. Watson, Let God be God, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1947, 1966), 21.

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