If you’re ever a contestant on the Jeopardy quiz show and the clue is: “A THREE-WORD PHRASE CENTRAL TO LUTHERAN THEOLOGY” (well, it could happen!), a good response would be: “What is Law and Gospel?” Though other denominations of course also use these terms, Martin Luther had a unique emphasis that we Lutheran Christians still find a very powerful tool for unlocking our understanding of God’s plan of salvation revealed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture.
Let’s start by defining those terms as Luther used them:
- “Law” is, of course, the commandments and warnings found in the Old Testament. But it also includes all of the moral/ethical teachings found in the New Testament. In a nutshell, Law is everything that points out our sinfulness and its dire consequences.
- “Gospel” is the “good news of salvation in Jesus Christ” which is proclaimed in the New Testament, but it is also all of God’s words of promise and encouragement that are found throughout scripture – including the Old Testament.
To put it simply, Luther saw two major themes weaving through all of scripture (both Old Testament and New Testament) like distinctive strands in a tapestry: the dark threads of God’s just and unremitting demand for a standard of righteousness that we are unable to produce, and the bright threads of God’s work of pure grace by which He makes salvation available to us, despite our woeful inadequacy. For Luther, the whole of scripture is a single testimony to Jesus Christ, but the somber requirements of the Law provide the necessary background against which the gleaming grace of Christ’s redemptive work must always be viewed: thus when we read Scripture we must everywhere and always discern both Law and Gospel.
Now there wasn’t anything novel about Luther seeing “good news” in the Old Testament: Jewish teachers had a long tradition of reading their scriptures as revealing both God’s ‘words of instruction’ (halachah) and His revelation through “gracious works” (haggadah). Similarly, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church which Luther sought to reform recognized both Law and Gospel as important. However, in both cases the practice tended to focus on a righteousness or merit that could be earned by obedience to the Law – what is commonly called “good works.”
Luther in his many debates with the Catholic theologians of his day was unwavering in his insistence that the Law was important to salvation only as it points us to the Gospel – the Good News of forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ in an outpouring of pure grace, without any merit earned by ourselves. Again and again Luther would cite passages such as Romans 3:20: “ For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
In modern times, Lutherans and Catholics have come to publicly agree that our salvation is an act of God’s pure grace, received by faith, and not something we earn through our own efforts (though we do continue to have healthy debates over the proper role of “good works” in the Christian life). But Luther’s distinctive teaching of Law and Gospel continues to have great relevance for contemporary Christianity. On the one hand, there is a tendency in some quarters to make faith into a ‘work’ that must be achieved by human effort in order to merit Christ’s salvation. On the other hand, there are those who would minimize the importance of Law to the Christian believer, emphasizing instead a counterfeit gospel of unqualified approval that makes God’s commandments irrelevant.
Luther stood squarely opposed to either of these modern tendencies. For him, the Gospel was pure grace, without a whiff of the requirements of the Law, yet the radiance of the Gospel could not be viewed without the sobering reality of God’s just Law and its demands. For Luther, Law and Gospel are the polar opposites that cannot be understood independently of each other, like death and life, darkness and light. Yet it is only in the pure light of the Gospel, dispelling the gloom of the Law and its sentence of death, that life is to be found.