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Law-Gospel: Not a Procrustean Bed

Luther BibleAs early as 1520, Luther identified a proper distinction of law and gospel as central to his evangelical understanding of the Scriptures:

“the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments and promises.”

The commandments are law and to be obeyed. The promises are gospel and to be trusted. Confusing these categories is the fast-track towards losing the gospel.

For Luther and the reformers, the theological use of the law is to convict us of sin and guilt and to drive us to Christ. His blood alone can answer the demands and damnation of the law.

And so, for Luther (and for many even in the reformed tradition), evangelical preaching involves this journey of law and then gospel - the demands that kill and the promise of Christ that brings life.

At which point, non-Lutherans are liable to say, "That's sweet. And artificial. Are we really meant to force Scripture into this mould?" It can seem a little alien.

Now I'm not a Lutheran, certainly not in the denominational sense. But let me suggest that something like "law-gospel" is not a Procrustean bed for the Scriptures, but the natural contour God's Word.

As I argue here - it's not just Genesis 1 that can be divided into forming and then filling. The whole of the bible runs from form to its filled-full reality. The law is a key example of this. The Good Life outlined by Moses is filled full by Jesus (Matthew 5:17).

And the journey from form to filled-full reality is a journey from death to life. First comes darkness, then light. First the seed, then the plant. First the curses of exile, then the blessings of restoration. First Adam, then Christ. First the cross, then the resurrection. First the old covenant, then the new covenant. First the old earth, then the earth renewed.

In all this, the ultimate reality is known and intended in advance, but there is a journey to undergo. And law-gospel is but one expression of that journey - through death to life. Luther was by no means the first to spot this pattern. I want to argue that this is the basic preaching of the prophets. Today we'll think about Jeremiah. Tomorrow, Isaiah.

In Jeremiah 1, the prophet is called by the Appearing Word of the LORD who puts His words in Jeremiah's mouth. At this point in history, the Word of the LORD will not appear to Israel en masse (Hebrews 1:1). Christ speaks through His prophets to the people. Only in the last days does the Word of the LORD come in the flesh as His own prophet (Hebrews 1:2).

But here in Jeremiah 1, what is the shape of the proclamation which Christ commissions Jeremiah to fulfil?

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  (Jeremiah 1:9-10)

Notice the pattern? Uprooting, tearing down, destroying, overthrowing. But then: building and planting.

As Jeremiah speaks to his own people he will proclaim total destruction. Exile will come.  Inescapably.

Essentially, those in Jerusalem respond: "Yeah, sure. We're with you on the total destruction thing. Total destruction for the nations. But we have the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" (Jeremiah 7:4)

But no, says Jeremiah. The temple is the first place to feel the flames. Judgement begins with the house of God (cf 1 Peter 4:17). God's people are not exempted from judgement. In fact they are judged more harshly. Doom is coming. And it is unavoidable. Your special status, special places, special rituals, special behaviours, special leaders are all worthless. The end is nigh. Your only hope  is God's Leader, His Shepherd:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteousness.  (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

It's law then gospel. It's Israel and all its worthless efforts then Christ and all His mighty salvation.

The whole pattern of prophetic preaching is like this. The prophets preach righteousness to the people. But they also make it clear that the people's righteousness cannot save. Exile is coming and the only hope is God's Messiah on the other side of judgement.

Law-gospel isn't a 16th century invention. It's at least 2000 years older than that.

28 thoughts on “Law-Gospel: Not a Procrustean Bed

  1. Michael Baldwin

    Enjoyed this, Glen. Breath of fresh air for someone to approach this well-worn subject through the seldom used glasses of Jeremiah and Isaiah! (Apart from the Jeremiah 31 reference ofc.)
    How does this sentence, "For Luther and the reformers, the theological use of the law is to convict us of sin and guilt and to drive us to Christ", fit with the 3rd use of the law? The 3rd use is theological, surely?

  2. Dave K

    That's great, and a much richer than most descriptions of law-gospel precisely because it uses more biblical language and concepts.

    The form and the form-filled-full is helpful way to see the positive nature of the law in pointing us to Christ. I hadn't thought of that terminology. On that description the law is promisory in so far as it says: This is the kind of Israel/man that Jesus will be... things start going wrong when we think that we become that Israel/man ourselves without faith in the Jesus who has already done it and then fills us full of the Spirit to grow into his likeness.

    Really good stuff.

  3. Glen

    Thanks Dave, hadn't properly linked the form idea to promissory language. And that helps to show how it's one united word of law and gospel, not two separate words (as someone somewhere has said!)

    Hi Michael, I was using "theological" as another label for what most call "pedagogical" (i.e. the 2nd use). The third use is usually called the "moral" or "normative." Someone should standardize the labels!

  4. Dave K

    Mmm... there is one Word of God: Jesus!

    He was the form of God and form of a servant (Phil 2), and he was filled with the fullness of God.

    In so far as we only see half the story, that he is only the form, he is just an example which condemns us. But, when we see he filled-full that form FOR us we are the happiest we could be.

    ...just riffing.

  5. Michael Baldwin

    Ah makes sense, thanks! Apologies for my ignorance!
    On a related note, how would what you've said here (and what Keller said in what you linked to earlier) square with an affirmation of the 3rd use? It seemed like the primary purpose of law in this model of preaching would be to "bring sinners to their knees" in seeing their futility without the gospel. But surely you wouldn't them add in a bit of law at the end of the sermon to offer the congregation some moral guidance in light of this gospel?

  6. Dave K

    Hi Michael,

    I think sermons are more organic than a rigid law-gospel outline would suggest and they are never in a vacuum but in the context of a service and a church life. Nevertheless, dealing in the abstract for now:

    Would you need 'law at the end of the sermon' in the light of this gospel?

    You've had the 'moral guidance' at the beginning (which you already know by nature anyway, even if you suppress it), you now have the Spirit and love in your heart through hearing the good news. Why do you need moral guidance again? Except perhaps to bring you repeatedly back to Jesus as a sinner in need of him?

    Jesus is surely where you want to end/telos your sermon. Thinking we're the last word is how we got into this mess in the first place.

  7. Dave K

    Let me correct that... I'm not very good at this.

    "Jesus FOR YOU is surely where you want to end/telos your sermon. Thinking what we do (either for ourselves or for God) is the last word is how we got into this mess in the first place."

  8. Cal

    I like Luther on some things but, as some said above, I think the Law-Cross dichotomy is rigid and uses language that seems to pit the two against each other.

    Now certainly Paul speaks like this at times, but also he says that the Law is not evil but is spiritual, we who are empty are killed by it. Yet when we have new hearts, the Law engraved on them, we have life and obedience is joy.

    When the foundation is not Christ, the false foundation needs to be rooted up and cleared away. Not every sermon needs to hammer Law (or to bring people to their knees) but every sermon needs the foundation of Christ.

    Maybe I'm not understanding Luther well.


  9. Glen

    Hi Cal,
    Yes, often law-gospel can be applied clumsily and unnaturally. But it ought to be a way of guaranteeing that "the foundation is Christ." (And not simply Christ as example or empowerer but Christ as Saviour and Gift).

    If the foundation is Christ then it's not about the powers of Adam, the flesh, the old man, but about Christ, His Spirit and new creation life. The preacher may never refer to 'law-gospel' or even be aware of Luther's paradigm, but if the foundation is Christ Alone (which, when truly understood is another way of saying Grace Alone), then that should come through in the preaching.

    The filled-full reality of the Good Life (the law) is won for us by Jesus and given to us as a pure gift. So yes, we are now free - to obey, to serve, to love - because love is the fulfilling of the law. To quote a verse Luther was fond of: "What counts is faith expressing itself through love." Receiving from Christ, pouring out to neighbour - that is the Good Life described in the law. And it is the property of the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the wicked.

    "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe." (Rom 10:4).

    I guess what I'm saying is "Christ as foundation" does not require a heavy-handed law-gospel hermeneutic. But it does rely on an Adam/Christ, flesh/Spirit, old creation/new creation theology which ought to inform our preaching.

  10. Glen

    Hi theologymnast,

    I can be yes. Interesting that the imperative is not used in the ten commandments. It's definitely preaching the form of the Good Life. And even as Jesus preaches the filled-out reality of the Good Life he again uses the future indicative "You will be perfect..."

    It depends how you say it and how it's received. "You won't murder" could be a promise. "Jesus died for you" could be a threat. It's not so much about the form of words but in how they are being used in the proclamation of the word.

    Gotta run...

  11. theologymnast

    Sure, I can run with that.

    I'm wary of dividing up scripture into the two types (which is implied in the Luther quote) - because as you say, the same verse can have both meanings.

    I wonder (thinking out loud here) if sticking with the terms commandment/promise is a more useful way of talking about it - since law and gospel are loaded terms in lots of other ways.

  12. Chris W

    Perhaps one could interpret "Law" as "problem" and "Gospel" as "solution"? So that Jesus becomes the 'ultimate' solution to every problem the bible poses. He solves the problem of darkness by bringing his light to shine. He solves the problem of enslavement by setting the captives free. He solves the problem of our sinful failure to obey the law (which is ultimately a failure to love him of course!) by satisfying the demands of the law in his death.

  13. Bill

    I think my problem with this approach to things like the sermon on the mount is that it doesn't seem to take Jesus at face value. Jesus clearly is NOT describing how he himself lives because he cannot pray the Lord's prayer - he has no sins to forgive. Jesus is not describing how he himself will live but rather simply describing the life of a local church. The end of the sermon of the mount is specifically Jesus saying that we really should put his words into practice... so it sounds very weird to say that Jesus is not telling us how to live in the church. My own local church is full of people from a non-church background... and if I read or preach the sermon on the mount it would be far too complicated to say that although Jesus gives commands he doesn't really want us to do them. Why doesn't Jesus ever speak like a Lutheran? Why doesn't Jesus say 'look, I don't really want you to obey my commands I just want you to freak out about the god's high demands... and then just leave it to me to obey my own commands." Why doesn't Jesus ever say anything like this? In fact, he always speaks about how important it is to do what he says, to show that we trust him by following his words. Jesus says "turn the other cheek" - so I ask luther if I should do that and he tells me 'no, don't do what Jesus says. Rather think about how hard it is to do what Jesus says and then ask Jesus to do it for you". To be honest this seems to make Jesus deceptive or even to speak with a forked tongue. Why does he issue commands if he doesn't really mean it? To those of us who are dealing with people whose lives are in a real mess, the wonderful news and deliverance of Jesus is not just that he saves from some future judgment but right now he delivers from our mess into a new way of living... free of charge with all our sins forgiven. I wonder if any local church minister could ever buy into this law-gospel complexity. It seems to undermine our confidence in the words of jesus and makes us not knmow whether to take jesus; words at face value or not. sorry for the long post... a bit emotional about this. I like luther on trusting jesus but this weird stuff undermines church life.

  14. Bill

    one other thought.. then i'm going out for a walk... doesn't this law-gospel thing leave us with that idea that jesus didn't preach the gospel but paul did? don't you end up with that 19th century thing where paul says what jesus 'should have said'? do you know what I mean? It makes jesus sound so incredibly different to the apostles, paul especially... jesus almost has to be 'decoded' through a weird system to make him edn up saying the things that paul says. I can't cope with that. I always think that jesus is the best gospel preacher and if anybody needs to be changed to 'fit in' then it has to be the apostles and the prophets rather than jesus. I like some of th stuff about taking jesus seriously in the old Testament... but don't forget to take him seriously in the new testament too... when he is telling us these wonderful words of freedom and life.

  15. John B

    As seen in this excellent illustration from Jeremiah, Law-gospel derives from scripture interpreting scripture. Luther was right, but, as you've said, Law-gospel wasn't a 16th century invention. This understanding is revealed in scripture itself. Reformed church leaders of that time were also very clear about this Law-gospel understanding.

    It's only a Procrustean Bed when the third use of the law is denied outright. Historically, Lutherans as well as Reformed have affirmed the third use. There's always a big temptation to deny it though. Seems to be especially so nowadays.

  16. Glen

    Thanks Chris W - yes it's all about: problem (in us), solution (in Him, *for* us)

    I hear you Bill. I absolutely believe the Christian life is one of cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving, secret righteousness, self-giving love, abandonment to neighbour, giving of self and stuff, etc, etc. Jesus is preaching the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst and with which He will fill us - the righteousness we are to put into practice, definitely.

    But I think 'taking Jesus seriously' means taking seriously His amplification of the law to the point of divine perfection (5:17-48). I'm certainly not saying "Therefore *don't* obey the freakishly high demands of Jesus" but I am saying that understanding why they're so high and how it is such a supernatural righteousness becomes ours is vital if we want to see sermon-on-the-mount-living in the local church.

    Perhaps shoot me an email on this because I know you have much to teach me on this.

    Thank you John, well perhaps this is where Jeremiah 31 comes in, which I didn't mention. The LORD our Righteousness writes the righteous requirements on the heart, transforming us from the inside out.

  17. theoldadam

    The Sermon on the Mount is Law.

    Jesus is re-presenting the Law, but in a much more hard manner.

    "Be perfect as your father in Heaven isn't something to shoot for...that Word of Law is meant to paint us into a corner and convict us of sin...and then drive us to Christ.

  18. Brian Midmore

    I like Bill's straightforwardness. If you surf the net for interpretations of parables such as the Good Samaritan you might imagine that Jesus was a crypto reformed theologian. He might say 'Go and thou likewise' but what he meant was 'Dont bother I've done it for you'. Perhaps a more scriptural dichotomy would be law/flesh versus Spirit. This reminds us that the blessing of Abraham is not sola fide but the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3v14). Also we are not released from the busyness of the law to paciveness but rather into the activity of a dynamic Spirit.

  19. John B

    Hi theoldadam,

    OTOH, I think that in the Sermon on the Mount the Gospel predominates. Jesus is telling us what life in the Kingdom of God looks like. The sermon begins with the promise of the Gospel, which reaches fulfillment through "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world". Jesus demands are heavy as he speaks to his disciples who have received forgiveness as the adopted children of God and stand now in the Kingdom and radiate it's nature to a fallen and perishing world. Jesus shows what the life of discipleship is like when his Kingdom breaks into this age, which is still under the dominion of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Kingdom of God shines! "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden." Jesus describes a lived faith that trusts in and receives the gift of God's favor as seen in the Beatitudes, and responds in obedience to God's will and is thereby transformed such that His selfsame will becomes our very own. Jesus tells his disciples that the sun of righteousness has now risen over their lives. What a glorious gospel!

    It is only with great difficulty that any of us can try to distinguish the teaching of law from gospel. But, for me, the Sermon on the Mount is gospel. Surely Jesus preaching skills were such that in any of his sermons the gospel was predominant! If we can only hear it!

  20. Brian Midmore

    Doesnt the above demonstrate the problem of setting up dichotomies. The temptation is to try and describe stuff as one or the other. You might make your point but you've just gone up a blind alley.

  21. Glen

    The Sermon on the Mount is definitely the "Gospel of the Kingdom" (Matt 4:23) - it's the Kingdom of Israel filled-full - the true Moses on the mountain proclaiming the Good Life, the true people of God as light of the world, the true city on a hill. The fulfilment theme is massive in early Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount fits right into that (5:17).

    It's just that, as with the prophets proclaiming the new Jerusalem, there's a judgement that comes first. The righteousness of the Good Life first demands a death before it establishes its life. The path to the new demands the death of the old, etc, etc. And if we're to fit the sermon on the mount within the Gospel of Matthew (and within the Scriptures as a whole) then there need to be ways of saying that. Otherwise it becomes a case of Adam trying to build the old Israel with the flesh, rather than Christ bringing about the new Israel by His Spirit.

    In other words, the Good Life of the Sermon is definitely the life that's given to the Christian but it judges us first. If we don't allow *that* movement of the word in our preaching, then there's a danger of preaching a beefed up kingdom of men, rather than the kingdom of God.

  22. Brian Midmore

    Surely if we accept that 'commandments are law to be obeyed' then this definition includes Christs commandments to us. This proves that this definition of law is false. When Paul uses the term Law he invariably uses it to mean Torah or the Old Mosaic covenant. He doesnt mean the legalistic application of any commandment. If we describe the situation covenantly it simplifies the situation. The sermon on the mount are Christs new covenant commands to his church to be obeyed in the Spirit.

  23. John B

    Glen, your comment on the Sermon on the Mount here, and your next post on Law-Gospel in Isaiah, brought to mind Isaiah 30. It is indeed essential to show the movement frrom judgment to fulfillment.

    And therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the Lord is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him. (Isaiah 30:18)

  24. Rev. Karl Hess

    I'm sort of surprised that the reformed make use of the distinction between Law and Gospel. When I was younger I was attending a church that was more or less reformed Baptist in its theology. And some of what the pastor preached resonated with me, having been catechized with Luther's catechism, particularly with matters around the bondage of the will in conversion.

    But after awhile I became pretty convinced that I was reprobate, and it wasn't until I read a book on the proper distinction between law and gospel (which I had gotten from my pastor as a kid and forgotten about) that I had any peace.

    I don't know if this book is widely known outside of American Lutheran circles. I'm suspecting probably not. But I wish it would be; I think it could be a very helpful book to many evangelicals. It has to be among the best things to have been written by a Lutheran theologian in America.

    The book is "The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel" by C. F. W. Walther. It is a series of lectures given during the late 19th century at an obscure seminary in St. Louis. There is also a condensed version called "God's Yes and God's No," and they should both be available on Amazon. But maybe you've already heard of it.

    Anyway, I'm glad I stumbled on your blog!

  25. Howard

    Re: C F Walther - a very helpful volume. Re-published as well under the title, 'God's no and God's yes' - both editions can usually be tracked down via sites like Book price for a reasonable cost.

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