Martin Luther on the Distinction between Law and Gospel

Martin Luther on the Distinction between Law and Gospelby Charles Fry /



I do not nullify the grace of God,
for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died needlessly.
Galatians 2:21, NASB

In the year 1496, a boy of around 14 years of age observed a startling sight: a prince named William of Anhalt walking the streets of Magdeburg, Germany, emaciated and begging, carrying a sack on his back like a donkey. “He had so worn himself down by fasting and vigil that he looked like a death’s-head, mere bone and skin.”[i] William had given up the realms of earthly nobility to save his own soul by suffering, self-denial, and purgation.

This was the medieval religious system, a system of self-effort and suffering to gain the halls of paradise—a system that included relics, purgatory, penance, fear, and uncertainty, without providing assurance that one had ever done enough. Years later that 14-year-old would commit himself to this system in hopes of gaining a clean conscience and assurance that he would one day be in heaven.

The young boy, of course, was Martin Luther. No matter how hard he tried to get to heaven by “monkery” or by plumbing the depths of the mystic’s surrender to God, he could never be calm before the majesty, justice, and holiness of God. The more he tried to please God, the more he hated him. Over time, however, as Luther studied the Scriptures, rediscovering the good news of the gospel freed his tormented conscience.

For Luther, there were five critical elements to the true gospel:

  1. The distinction between the law and the gospel
  2. The doctrine of justification by faith alone
  3. The definitions of repentance and faith
  4. The bondage and inability of man’s will concerning salvation
  5. The reality of sin in the Christian’s life and the subsequent need to live daily by the gospel

The first four elements explain and buttress one another. The fifth underscores the fact that the believer is at the same time just and sinful. This last point is critical, for if we do not understand this reality, we will doubt the grace of God and plunge ourselves either into arrogance or despair. This post and the several that follow will examine these five aspects so that we might gain greater clarity, joy, and assurance in knowing the gospel.[ii]

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.

The Distinction between the Law and the Gospel

How much commitment to God is enough for a person to be saved? How much obedience to the commands of God must one give in order to go to heaven? How much sacrifice and how much faith?

Luther rightly noted from Scripture that full obedience to the law of God—both in actions and in heart—must be rendered throughout a person’s life to go to heaven. The law demands a pure, holy, unalloyed obedience given from birth to death, without sin, condemning absolutely anyone who does not obey perfectly. And so, as we observed earlier in this series, Luther tried to render this radical obedience to the law. He failed. He then learned that in all history, Christ is the only one who kept the law, the only one who surrendered in perfect obedience.

A World Upside Down; Four Essays on the Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. FryThis leads us to the pure good news of the gospel. The gospel is an announcement about what Christ has done on our behalf. As both God and man, Jesus is the only one in all of history who could actually keep the law perfectly and have that obedience credited to us. Thus, there is no adding of our obedience to the work of Christ: no need for it, and no possibility of it.

Luther considered an understanding of God’s law and the gospel (and the distinction between the two) essential to comprehending the entire Bible and coming to truly know God. This distinction taught in the Scriptures brings immeasurable peace and comfort to the believer.

  • Without this distinction, one is left with his own efforts in trying to earn heaven by obeying God’s commands, all the while kept from knowing and embracing the free, joyful, and glorious promise found in the message of the gospel.
  • Without this distinction, the gospel turns into command, rather than an announcement of good news of what God has done for the sinner.
  • Without this distinction, one is left with a false religion, in which man ascends to God by his own righteousness, wisdom, and good works (1 Corinthians 1:21).

For Luther, being able to distinguish between the word of God’s law and the word of God’s gospel was the essence of true Christianity:

Distinguishing between the law and the gospel is the highest art in Christendom, one who every person who values the name Christian ought to recognize, know, and possess. Where this is lacking, it is not possible to tell who is a Christian and who is a pagan or Jew. That much is at stake in this distinction.[iii]

[Future posts in this series will continue to unpack Luther’s five critical elements of the true gospel.]

Part 10 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] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand; A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1950), 13, 14. The quote is from Martin Luther.

[ii] While other primary sources are used for these posts, the main reference used with respect to Luther’s understanding of the gospel is Luther’s Lectures on Galatians published in 1535 (Middleton version, Logos software). This work was done later in Luther’s life and thus reflects his developed thought concerning the gospel. He said of this edition, “But since I recognise as mine all the thoughts which the brethren have taken such pains to set down in it, I am forced to admit that I said as much and perhaps even more.”(Preface to 1535 publication of Lectures on Galatians, 16).

[iii] Martin Luther, The Distinction between the Law and Gospel, January 1, 1532, Willard Burce, translator, Concordia Journal 18 (April 1992), 153.

5 thoughts on “Martin Luther on the Distinction between Law and Gospel

  1. Wouldn’t this also bring despair that we can never strive perfection, that we never do anything good?

    1. I’ve found as a believer in this doctrine that it doesn’t bring despair. By believing this I can still strive to be perfect but during the process when I fail I have the comfort of knowing that I’m still perfect in God’s sight because of Christ. After realizing that and confessing my sin and realizing the Gospel I’m able to dust myself off and try again without the condemnation that trying to obey God’s Law without Christ brings.

  2. It is so hard to read about Martin Luther because of his bad reputation of being saved by faith alone. I have read other articles about Luther where he hated Jews and on the 10 commendments where he left out the second on worshipping idols. seemed to me like he still had much of catholic doctrine in him. Anyway, where can some one find all of his writings to read about him. I am interested to learn more about him.

    1. I would guess your local Lutheran Church. The LCMS is probably the most conservative. may give information LCMS is Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

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