What is Law and Gospel?

What is Law and Gospel?
In this blog post, I follow the order and outline of the chapter, “Law and Gospel” found in Called to Believe: A Brief Introduction to Christian Doctrine, published by Concordia Publishing House and edited by Steven P. Mueller. 

Maintaining a proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel is of utmost importance.  This proper distinction is maintained throughout all of Lutheran systematic theology and is at its heart connected to the doctrine of justification.  All of God’s word comes to us in one of these two ways, Law or Gospel.  Anytime, any passage of scripture is read, one should ask the questions, what is the law in this passage and what is the Gospel.

To define God’s Law, it is that which God commands and demands of us.   Exodus 20 with the issuance of the Ten Commandments immediately springs to mind when asking what does God commands of us.  In Luke 10:27, Jesus boiled the Law down to two essential commands, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Lord speaks the Law in even briefer terms in Leviticus 19:2 by saying, “Be Holy, because, I the Lord your God, am holy.”  James explains that if keep all of God’s law but stumble in just one area of the Law we are guilty of breaking all of God’s Law (James 2:10).  Throughout scripture, it is taught that if we obey God’s Law blessings will follow, but if we break God’s Law curses will follow.  From an honest look at what is demanded of us by God’s Law, it is evident that we have all broken it and the result of falling short of God’s Law is death, spiritual, physical, and eternal!

To define the Gospel, it is the work of God alone to save mankind.  The Gospel is not exhortation, it is declaration.  The Gospel is a gift which is freely given to us with no strings attached.  If there is any demand put upon us in our salvation, then it is no longer the Gospel being taught and shared.

Similarities and Differences

God’s Law and the Gospel are as different as night and day.  The Law brings death for all who break it.  The Gospel brings life.  The Law brings despair because who can fulfill God’s righteous requirements.  The Gospel on the other hand brings hope for all who receive it.  The Law judges and condemns us.  The Gospel sets us free!  The Law brings wrath and destruction upon sinners.  The Gospel brings love and restores the relationship of fallen mankind with the holy Lord.  The Law demands us to fulfill all God of commands.  The Gospel promises us life at Christ’s expense.

Despite being exact polar opposites in what they do and proclaim, the Law and Gospel share similarities.  Since they have both come from God, they are both good and holy (Romans 7:12).  Some make the error of saying that the Law is evil because it brings death to mankind, but that is a complete and utter lie.  Both of these apply to all people.  God’s Law is a standard placed upon all people, just as God’s Gospel is a gift given to all people in that Christ was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world (2 Corinthians 5:19 and 1 John 2:2).  It must also be said that God speaks both of these out of love.  He does not speak the Law out of hatred to us.  The Law is spoken out of love to us for our good that we might see our sinfulness and turn to him for our salvation.

3-D Law                 

When we read through the Bible we will see many different commands given.  Some of these were given to certain people in a certain time in history.  Should certain commands like animal sacrifices or laws about stoning certain sinners still apply to us today?  To fully understand how to interpret and apply all the laws present in scripture, a person must know and understand the three dimensions, or types of the law.  They are the civil-political dimension, ceremonial dimension, and moral dimension.

Civil-political law – These laws are the laws which are given to governments by God.  Romans 13:1-5 clearly teaches that all authority on earth has been given by God and we should thus obey the laws of the governments.  However, we should disobey these laws if the government’s laws directly contradict God’s moral law.  Does this mean that I should obey the laws of the Chinese government if I am in America?  No, but if I am in China I should obey the Chinese laws regardless of what country I am from.

Some of the laws we read in the Bible are laws given to the nation of Israel under the theocracy of God.  Since this nation no longer exists, we do not need to obey and follow these laws anymore today.  An example of this is the command to put to death homosexuals (Leviticus 18:22, 20:12).  This is no longer the law in America, where I live, so I shouldn’t put homosexuals to death, and if I did, I would actually be breaking my country’s laws, and thus breaking God’s law!

Ceremonial law – These laws mostly centered on the Jewish tabernacle, later to be replaced by Solomon’s temple.  These laws dealt with the manner of sacrifices, Sabbath observance, Jewish festivals, purity and cleanliness, and temple practices and activities.  What’s important to remember about these laws is that they pointed to Jesus Christ.  Read Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement for a great example of how these laws foreshadowed Christ.  Other verses that explain the purpose of these laws are Colossians 2:16-17, Acts 10:9-16, John 1:14, Hebrews 8:13, and John 2:12-22.  When we read Scripture we need to decipher if the commands we are reading are ceremonial.  Some ceremonial laws can still be of benefit to observe today, but some of the laws, such as the ones dealing with animal sacrifices should certainly not be practiced because Christ was the atoning sacrifice for sin once and for all.

Moral law – God’s moral law might best be summarized with the Ten Commandments, but even then questions arise about the manner and method of what is required with observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy in light of Christ.  Jesus’ two essential laws “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” could serve as good summaries of the moral law.  This dimension, or type, of the law applies to all people throughout all time!

3 Uses of the Law

There are also three uses of the law, or functions of the law.  These can be considered as ways in which the dimensions of the law can be applied to our lives.  The three uses of the Law are as a curb, as a mirror, and as a rule.

1st use – Curb – Think of a street curb.  The purpose of a street curb is to prevent accidents and to keep cars on the correct path.  Likewise, God’s law functioning as a curb prevents and restricts evil in the world.  This use of the Law is given and applied to all people, whether they know it or not.  The laws of authorities and governments function as a curb by rewarding law-bearers and punishing law-breakers.  In addition to these laws, God has written his law upon the hearts of men as another way of curbing the external sinful actions of mankind.

2nd use – Mirror – When you look into a mirror, you must see your reflection, unless you are a vampire or you are on the wrong-side of a two-way mirror.  God’s law functioning as a mirror shows us our sin.  When we gaze into God’s perfect Law, we see our reflection – we’ve fallen short of God’s command and we deserve eternal punishment.  The second use of the law is necessary for us to know our need of a savior.  A good dose of the Law in this function leaves us in despair, but it is exactly what we need to drive us running to the cross of Calvary for our salvation.  This use of the law is for Christians and non-Christians alike.  Non-Christians need to hear that they are sinful before a just and holy God in order to come to repentance and Christians need to daily be reminded of their sinfulness, unless we become self-righteous or forget our utter dependence upon God for our salvation.

3rd use – Rule – Rule is the term commonly used to describe the 3rd use of the Law.  When the term rule is used, picture a ruler which gives a standard of measurement.  God’s Law likewise gives us a standard for which we can measure ourselves.  Sometimes, instead of using the word rule to describe this function, the word guide is employed.  Once a person has come to salvation, the Law no longer serves as an instrument to bring guilt and repentance, but as a guide for how God would have us live our lives.  This function of the Law only applies to Christians who are living under God’s grace, who follow the path the Lord has set before those who believe to follow in this life.  Interestingly enough, as soon as one starts to follow God’s Law – almost instantly, the 3rd use of the Law, the Rule, converts back into the 2nd use of the Law, the Mirror; again our sinfulness is made clear to us and we are again clinging to the Gospel.

The Good News

Gospel means good news.  After being dealt a crushing blow by the law which shows our sinfulness, we are in desperate need of a savior.  The Gospel shows us our savior – Jesus Christ.  The good news is that the condemnation which we deserve for breaking God’s Law has already been paid in full by Christ.  Christ who was sinless became sin and took the full wrath of God upon himself and suffered hell on the cross and died.  However, because of his faithfulness in fulfilling the Law and serving as a substitute for us to receive the punishment we deserve, God the Father had Christ raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit!

This entire process has been called the “Great Exchange.”  Our sins have been credited to Christ.  Christ’s righteousness has been credited to us.  This exchange occurs through faith in this good news!

John 3:16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Philippians 2:5-11 “Christ Jesus: Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very natureof a servant,  being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Galatians 1:3-4 “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Ephesians 2:4-9 “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Distortion and Confusion Leads to Danger!

Properly administering Law and Gospel can be very difficult.  Sometimes it can become easy to distort Law and Gospel from their proper biblical sense and thus it becomes easier to apply these two concepts to our lives, but if we do so we are in grave danger of losing the Christian faith.  The following are possible examples of how Law and Gospel can be distorted or confused:

  1. Weaken the Law.  If we weaken the Law we turn God’s Law into a commandment that we can fulfill.  This is utterly wrong because it is impossible for us to live up to God’s perfect and holy standard.  If a person hears again and again a message that says that they can “do it” then he or she will literally start to think that they can.  Weakening the Law leads to self-righteousness in which one no longer needs Christ because righteousness has already been achieved by a person who thinks he has fulfilled the Law.  Or, in this weakened state of the Law, a person thinks the Law can be fulfilled by one’s own merit and that person will strive for perfection but will fall short of it again and again.
  2. Hear only Law.  If a person hears only the Law, that person is left in utter defeat because he or she will always fall short.  It’s Mission: Impossible.   It can’t be done.  However, many people go to church and only hear the Law.  The messages given are all Law-centered and speak only of what the Christian should be doing.  This might be ok for a while if the hearers do know the Gospel, but over a period of time, this will lead to guilt and depression and sense of inadequacy.  Often times, if the Law is only preached, then the Law is being viewed in its weakened state because it is being viewed as an obtainable standard, when it is not.
  3. Mixing Law and Gospel.  The Gospel is God’s work alone to save mankind.  However, sometimes there is the tendency to insert our work or a level of performance into the Gospel.  An example of this might be to say that if a person truly believes in God they wouldn’t sin in certain areas or to certain degrees.  Another example of doing this is setting a prerequisite to coming to faith.  I once heard a preacher say that you had to get the filth out of your life to come to God in a message that was directed towards non-Christians.  This of course is completely false.  If we had to get the filth out of our life to become Christians, no one would be a Christian.  Anytime the Law and the Gospel are mingled, salvation is in doubt because our works our involved and not just God’s.
  4. Hear only Gospel.  If a person hears only the Gospel, this can lead people to think they can do anything they want, because God loves them and will always forgive them.  It might even lead them to think that they can believe anything they want and worship anything they want because they’ll always be forgiven.  While, it’s true that God always forgives us on account of Christ’s work, but if our sin is left unchecked by only hearing the Gospel, our sin could grow to the point that we love our sin so much that we reject faith in God and replace him with the sin that we love so much.


Both the Law and Gospel are needed.

Law S.O.S.Shows our sin.

Gospel S.O.S.Shows our Savior.

We need both of these.  Without the Law to show us our sin, we don’t need to know our savior.  Without the Gospel to show us our savior, we would constantly strive for the perfection that God’s Law demands of us and always fall short, or we would just give up and live in guilt until facing our coming judgment.  The two complement each other and go hand in hand.  Because of this Christians need to hear both Law and Gospel.  However, sometimes we need to hear one and not the other.  If a person feels the weight of his or her sin and is in a state of confession, dosing on more Law would be utterly wrong.  This person desperately needs to hear the good news of the Gospel.  If a person is unrepentant, sinning away and has no sorrow or contrition, then that person needs to hear the Law.

Anytime we read the Bible, we need to ask ourselves “What is the Law in this passage?” and “What is the Gospel in this passage?”  If we find that a passage only has Law, we should seek to find the Gospel in related passages, and conversely if a passage only contains Gospel we need to find Law in related passages.

We should always listen to every sermon carefully and recognize how the Law is used in it and if the Gospel is free of the Law.  If you ever come away from a church gathering, feeling guilty and questioning your salvation, check to see if the message preached only contained Law, and if so, run to the Bible and read clear Gospel proclamations!

Above all remember that out of love for us, God shows us our sin and out of that same love he graciously shows us our savior.