This post features the presentation of John Pless Summarizing C.F.W. Walther’s Six Ways In Which the Law and the Gospel Are Different in his book “Handling the Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today”
First, the Law differs from the Gospel by the manner in which it is revealed. The Law is inscribed in the human heart, and though it is dulled by sin, the conscience bears witness to its truth (Romans 2:14-15). “The Ten Commandments were published only for the purpose of bringing out in bold outline the dulled script of the original Law written in men’s hearts” (Walther, 8). That is why the moral teachings of non-Christian religions are essentially the same as those found in the Bible. Yet it is different with the Gospel. The Gospel can never be known from the conscience. It is not a word from within the heart; it comes from outside. It comes from Christ alone. “All religions contain portions of the Law. Some of the heathen, by their knowledge of the Law, have advanced so far that they have even perceived the necessity of an inner cleansing of the soul, a purification of the thoughts and desires. But of the Gospel, not a particle is found anywhere except in the Christian religion” (Walther, 8). The fact that humanity is alienated from God, in need of cleansing and reconciliation, is a theme common to many belief systems. It is only Christianity that teaches that God himself justifies the ungodly.
Second, the Law is distinct from the Gospel in regard to content. The Law can only make demands. It tells us what we must do, but it is impotent to redeem us from its demands (Galatians 3:12-14). The Law speaks to our works, always showing that even the best of them are tainted with the fingerprints of our sin and insufficient for salvation. The Gospel contains no demand, only the gift of God’s grace and truth in Christ. It has nothing to say about works of human achievement and everything to say about the mercy of God for sinners. “The Law tells us what we are to do. No such instruction is contained in the Gospel. On the contrary, the Gospel reveals to us only what God is doing. The Law is speaking concerning our works; the Gospel, concerning the great works of God” (Walther, 9).
Third, the Law and the Gospel differ in the promises that each make. The Law offers great good to those who keep its demands. Think what life would be like in a world where the Ten Commandments were perfectly kept. Imagine a universe where God was feared, loved, and trusted above all things and the neighbor was loved so selflessly that there would be no murder, adultery, theft, lying, or coveting. Indeed such a world would be paradise. This is what the Law promises. There is only one stipulation: that we obey its commands perfectly. “Do the Law and you will live”, says Holy Scripture (Leviticus 18:5; Luke 10:25-28). The Gospel, by contrast, makes a promise without demand or condition. It is a word from God that does not cajole or manipulate, but simply gives and bestows what it says, namely, the forgiveness of sins. Luther defined the Gospel as “a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace. It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.” This is the word that the church is to proclaim throughout the world (Mark 16:15-16). It is the message that salvation is not achieved but received by grace through faith alone. (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Gospel is a word that promises blessing to those who are cursed, righteousness to the unrighteous, and life to the dead.
Fourth, Law and Gospel are distinct when it comes to threats. Walther puts it simply: “The Gospel contains no threats at all, but only words of consolation. Wherever in Scripture you come across a threat, you may be assured that the passage belongs in the Law” (Walther, 11). The Law threatens sinners with punishment, pronouncing a curse on all who fail to live up to its requirements (Deuteronomy 27:26). The Gospel announces forgiveness for those crushed by the threat of the Law, for Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue the unrighteous (1 Timothy 1:15).
Fifth, the effects of Law and Gospel are different. Walther summarizes the threefold effect of the Law: (1) It demands but does not enable compliance. (2) It hurls people into despair, for it diagnoses the disease but provides no cure. (3) It produces contrition, that is, it terrifies the conscience but offers no comfort. Walther echoes the early Lutheran hymn writer Paul Speratus, who captured the biblical teaching of the Law’s lethal effectiveness: What God did in is Law demand And none to him could render Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand For man, the vile offender. Our flesh has not those pure desires The spirit of the Law requires, And lost is our condition. It was a false, misleading dream The God his Law had given That sinners could themselves redeem And by their works gain heaven. The Law is but a mirror bright To bring the inbred sin to light That lurks within our nature. Public debates have raged over whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed in courtrooms and classrooms. Sometimes well-meaning people have argued that placards containing the Ten Commandments would have a positive effect on public morality. Actually, Scriptures teach that the Law makes matters worse, not better. Knowledge of the Law does not entail the ability to keep it. The Law not only identifies the sin but also, like a swift kick to a sleeping dog that arouses the animal to bark and bite, the Law stirs up the power of sin (Romans 7:7-9). The Law brings death, not life, for it is a letter that kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). Without the Gospel, the Law can only be the cause for grief, as it was in the case of the rich young man who thought himself capable of keeping the Law (Matthew 19:22). At each point, the Gospel is completely different from the Law. While it is only through faith that we receive the benefits of the Gospel, the Gospel itself creates faith (Romans 1:16; Ephesians 2:8-10). Rather than provoking terror of conscience, anguish of heart, and fear of condemnation like the Law, the Gospel stills every voice of accusation with the strong words of Christ’s own peace and joy guaranteed by the blood of the cross. The Gospel does not set in place requirements of something that we must do or contribute. “[T]he Gospel does not require anything good that man must furnish: not a good heart, not a good disposition, no improvement of his condition, no godliness, no love of either God or men. It issues no orders, but changes man. It plants love into his heart and makes him capable of all good works. It demands nothing, but gives all. Should not this fact make us leap for joy?” (Walther, 16).
Sixth, Law and Gospel are to be distinguished in relation to the persons who are addressed, “The Law is to be preached to secure sinners and the Gospel to alarmed sinners” (Walther, 17). The secure sinner is the person who glories in his own self-righteous-ness. In the words of Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, the secure sinner is “addicted either to what is base or to what is high, either to lawlessness or to lawfulness. Theologically there is not any difference since both break the relationship to God, the giver.” Addicted to that which is base, secure sinners will excuse or rationalize their sinful behavior. They will live, to use the words of the confessional prayer, “as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.” They will assert that their body and life and that of their neighbors are theirs to do with as they please. Or secure sinners might be addicted to that which is high. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), secure sinners will trust in their own righteousness, their self-made spirituality., The sinners who are snug in their own righteousness rehearse the Ten Commandments and conclude that they, like the rich young man in the Gospel narrative, have kept all of these rules and are deserving of God’s approval. To those ensnared in either of these securities, blind to God’s demand for total righteousness, the Law is to be proclaimed full blast so all presumption might be destroyed. To those who have been crushed by the hammer blows of the Law, no longer secure in their lawlessness or self-righteousness, there is only one word that will do. That is the word of the Gospel. The Gospel is not a recipe for self-improvement. It is that word of God that declares sins to be forgiven for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. It is all about Christ and what He has done for us. “Law is to be called, and to be, anything that refers to what we are to do. On the other hand, the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or word of God which does not require works from us and does not command us to do something, but bids us simply accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of our sins and everlasting bliss offered us” (Walther, 19). When Law and Gospel are muddled or mixed, the Holy Scriptures will be misread and misused. Without the right distinction of the Law from the Gospel, the Bible appears to be a book riddled with contradiction. At one place it condemns and at another it pardons. One text speaks of God’s wrath visited upon sinners, while another declares His undying love for His enemies. Throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, the Scriptures reveal both God’s wrath and His favor. The Scriptures show us a God who kills and who makes alive. This God does through two different words. With the word of His Law, sinners are put to death. It is only through the word of the Gospel that spiritual corpses are resurrected to live in Jesus Christ.