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How to properly apply law and Gospel

An open Bible inside a church. | Reuters

During the summer of 1985, I had the opportunity to serve at a church in Omaha, Nebraska, ministering to children and teens in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects. Two of us on the team stayed with Pete Friberg, a Lutheran pastor who grew up in Africa as the son of missionary parents.

On my 21st birthday that summer, Pete gave me a copy of Dr. C.F.W. Walther's magnum opus, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. This book consists of a series of 39 Friday night lectures Dr. Walther presented to his students at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1884-1885.

Walther wrote, “Now, of all doctrines the foremost and most important is the doctrine of justification. However, immediately following upon it, as second in importance, is this, how Law and Gospel are to be divided.”

Walther carefully explained: “According to God’s Word, we should not give a single drop of evangelical consolation to those who are still living in sin. On the other hand, we should not address the slightest threat or rebuke to the broken-hearted — but only promises delivering consolation and grace, forgiveness of sin and righteousness, life and salvation.”

And to illustrate Walther’s point, consider how Jesus declared the Law to certain people, while offering the good news of the Gospel in other situations. For example, the tone and message Jesus typically presented to the Pharisees was much different than the approach our Lord took with his disciples.

When Jesus addressed self-righteous religious leaders, he employed the hammer of the Law since their hard hearts were unrepentant. Jesus did not offer them so much as an ounce of Gospel refreshment because they were not yet ready to receive and cherish God’s redeeming grace. The Law was intended to break up the hard soil within their heart. After all, Gospel seed cannot be planted in a hard heart.

The Law shows us our sin as in a mirror. The accusations of the Law aim to terrify and convict people of their sins before a holy God. Paul wrote to Timothy: “The Law is made not for good men but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious...” (1 Timothy 1:9).

God always knows the exact condition of a person’s heart and the precise treatment needed at any given moment.

For example, a Pharisee named Nicodemus approached Jesus one evening eager to learn the truth about the Messiah. After informing this honest seeker that he must be spiritually reborn (“born again"), Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Rather than quoting the Law to Nicodemus, Jesus presented the Gospel. The Messiah administered the appropriate spiritual medication in response to this Pharisee’s honest and open-minded search for the truth. 

Pastors, teachers and seminary students must learn the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, and how much of each medication to apply in every situation. The Holy Spirit convicts hardened hearts through the Law, and comforts contrite sinners through the Gospel.

As Dr. Walther wisely pointed out: “Properly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the highest and most difficult art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

What if a stern rebuke had been given to penitent Peter after the impetuous apostle denied the Lord three times? It might have crushed Peter, who was already overwhelmed by the weight of his sin and the sorrow in his soul. 

And what if Jesus had condemned the woman caught in adultery when the religious leaders were ready to stone her to death? This woman needed the comfort of Christ's acceptance and love, rather than more condemnation. Like Peter, her broken heart was soft enough to receive and appreciate the grace of God.

In contrast to those two situations where the Gospel was applied, a rich young man came up to Jesus one day and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus proceeded to recite some of the 10 Commandments. You see, this self-righteous man needed to be convicted of his sins and realize that his good deeds could not save his soul. Since he was far too proud and greedy to joyfully embrace the Gospel, Jesus gave him the only spiritual medicine capable of bringing about godly sorrow and repentance. Nevertheless, the man “went away sad because he had great wealth” (v. 22).

As it turned out, he had no intention of loving Jesus more than his material possessions.

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote: “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it — I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while - yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).

The Law has the power to produce godly sorrow, which in turn prepares the heart to humbly and gratefully receive the soothing balm of the Gospel. Meanwhile, unrepentant sinners need to be confronted with the threats of the Law. How else will they come to their senses, repent, and turn to go in the opposite direction? And without repentance, a person cannot understand, accept and appreciate the Gospel. 

While “the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ,” (Galatians 3:24) the rules for holy living presented throughout the New Testament epistles instruct believers to “test everything, hold on to the good, avoid every kind of evil,” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22) and “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12).

No one becomes a Christian by obeying rules. And yet once you are saved through faith in Christ, (Ephesians 2:8-9) you can “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10) as you aim to obey God’s commands and “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit changes hearts and transforms lives when Christians, including ministers of the Gospel, properly apply Law and Gospel.

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska. 

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