The Debate: Part I

Ok, so if you have read my previous posts you just might have come away with the impression that I am not a super serial guy.  You’ve probably read some of my most outrageous ridonculousness and thought “Surely, you cant be serious…” Which of course my instant and immediate response would have to be…..HAVE. TO. BE.


You might have even thought that I take theological matters or working through the mystery of doctrinal doodads and hickeys with the sophistication of this guy


Hey, look….cut me some slack and give me a little mercy…God’s grace has me hysterical at this point in my life and I am the first one to admit it…One morning I was minding my own business beating myself up over not being able to concentrate and be spiritually disciplined enough to stay focused on God for more than five minutes without thinking about how delicious coffee is, thinking myself a worm, thinking myself a failure, thinking God was disappointed in my lack of concentration to have God basically tell me “well….run!” followed up with His laughing into my soul….which to me communicated in a very clear and specific way that He loves me, that I am his, I am his child and that he does not hate me and is not displeased with me all because of Christ and well that had me all like a Tasmanian Devil whirlwind of laughter with tears flowing down to my running shoes that surely had anyone who drove by me that morning thinking I had just broken out of the funny farm…I am sure it sounded like laughter or uncontrolled sobbing because well….it was both…

But in and with all the seriousness that I can fight to muster I would like to over the next few posts present something that I wrote for Seminary in regards to the Law Gospel debate.  I can’t get enough of this topic.  Partly because it is fresh and new to me.  Mostly because it has helped me to understand difficult passages in the Bible and how to reconcile them with passages that sound like good news.  All of which has set me free on a level that I can’t even fathom, like all of a sudden realizing the complete liberty of the thought that there are no speed limit signs on the roads.  I finished reading a book by John T. Pless titled “Handling the Word of Truth” which helps in better understanding a foundational book on The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel written by this guy

Walther_cfw_oldDr. C.F.W. Walther

I am also waiting for my copy of this to come in the mail (Amazon you beautiful beast you)


So without any further a do (that’s a lie) here is the first part of what I wrote for Seminary which is tilted “The Debate.”

I have been inspired by many of you on the twitter….I tried very hard to remember where I heard original thoughts before and give credit to where and who I heard the original thought from…If you see something in the below that you said to me and I am posturing as if it was me that came up with it, forgive me…I am a liar and a self-glory-hog (is this disclaimer I am writing right now me seeking glory for acknowledging my faults before man? Maybe? Yes? No? I don’t know!! I don’t trust me!  Wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death!!?) so the odds are high that I forgot everything altogether and chose to just go with it anyway.  It was not my purposeful intention of not pointing to you, however it is by the grace of God my intention to point to Christ.  Have mercy and may what is below point you to Christ.


     There has been a debate raging as far back as the Reformation over how to accurately distinguish between God’s Law and God’s Gospel.  In more succinct terms it would be a debate over what is the response for the Christian; to do something or to rest in what Jesus has done already.  The side of the debate that affirms that there is not a distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel displays the understanding to say that both God’s demand for holiness and his promise of grace in the work of Christ are both in play for the Christian.  They will reject the idea that there is no responsibility for the Christian to do their part when it comes to how they live their life as a true follower of Christ.  The side of the debate that affirms that there is a distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel are meaning to display that by grasping this concept will assist to illuminate scripture in its proper understanding.  That the call of the Law to be perfect is a call for the sinner to cry out for mercy which He receives in full from Christ.  It rejects the idea that the Christian life revolves around the work of the Christian and instead revolves around the finished work of Christ.

How one affirms either side will have to reconcile how either side of this debate will impact how the Character of God is reflected.  If there is no distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel, if both are applied in their full measure to the sinner, what does it mean about God and who He is?  In same fashion, if there is a distinction revealed between both Law and Gospel, what does it mean about God and who He is?  For the most part, both sides of the debate emphasize that their desire is to display the character of God accurately according to scripture.  It will only be the opposing views of the debate within the realm of Christianity that we will be focusing on.  This paper will display both sides of the debate, the reasons for why they affirm their stance and why they reject the other.  The thesis of this study is to bring attention to the fact that the character of God is reflected in the Law/Gospel debate.  How one understands the character of God is greatly influenced by how one responds to the Law/Gospel debate.  This study will introduce the main responses in this debate and what impact each response has in the understanding of God’s character.  It will be further revealed how a misrepresentation of God’s character is given whenever certain theological traditions fail to respond biblically to the Law/Gospel debate such as a dependency on self, meriting God’s favor, and displaying the concept of cheap grace/cheap law.  Weighing the merit of each response in this debate is important in understanding how one views the character of God.  This will have a direct impact on how the Christian will live their life as a follower of Christ.  Knowing what the Bible says about the character of God and how his character is displayed in His Law and the Gospel will paint a more accurate picture for the Christian and for the Christian faith.

The Debate

     Throughout this section this paper will attempt to identify and flesh out the debate as it is understood as a response to the thesis.  The first understanding of the debate that needs to be addressed is to display how it has a connection with the character of God.  The character of God is illuminated by His Law.  God’s Law is the perfect standard given to display what it means to be Holy.  Not only does it reveal what actions are necessary to avoid in order to refrain from becoming unholy, but it also reveals what actions are necessary in order to be holy.  God’s Law is not simply abstention from unholy acts but perfect performance in righteous acts.  Dr. C.F.W. Walther writes that the Law has the final aim of man’s salvation but it cannot lead man to salvation.[1]  God’s Law is revealed in the Ten Commandments, Levitical law and other commands given throughout the Old Testament.  It can also be found in the New Testament, passages that display Jesus revealing a deeper understanding of the value of the Law that it is not only the outward actions of the person that defile Him according to the Law, but that it is also the heart that can defile one that would justify condemnation from the Law.  Jesus said in Matthew 5::27 that “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  This is one of many passages that illuminate the full weight of the Law.  Which also assists in illuminating a characteristic of God; His Holiness.  His righteousness and justice are also directly related to His Law.

With God being completely perfect, His Law is completely perfect, void of any unrighteousness.  Apart from functioning as a proclamation of God’s holiness it functions as a means to rightly condemn all who fall short of it.  This has a direct effect on sinners.  What does God’s Law mean for sinners?   Quite frankly it means death.  Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death.  The sinner by being a sinner and sinning earns death.  God in his divine holy character, not only hates sin but because He is holy and just He must punish sin.  He is an infinitely holy God and the just punishment for what amounts to cosmic treason is infinite wrath for an offense against Him.  Anything less than his full wrath for the sinner is not justice at all.  Walther writes that “the Law tells us what we are to do.”[2]  However, because sinners are not able to perfectly fulfill the Law, therefore, God’s Law means death for the sinner.  Not because the Law is evil, but because sinners are evil.  The Bible says in Romans 3:23 that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  God’s character, His glory, His holiness and His justice are illuminated by the full weight and value of His Law.  No mercy, no compromise, nothing less than 100% perfection.  Any 1% less is in foul of the Law and deserves God’s wrath as a just response.

This brings us to the next question.  What is God’s Gospel?  The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ.  Walther writes that “the Law issues only command and demands.  The Gospel, on the other hand, only makes offers.  It means, not to take anything, but only to give.”[3]  It is that Jesus living the life that we should have, dying the death that we should have and promising us the resurrection that we will have one day, all of which are given to us as a gift of God’s grace and love.  In a divine act of mercy, God through Jesus atones for those who are given faith in him.  Jesus atones for the sin of sinners.  He consumed the complete and full just wrath for sinners on the cross.  Those who are in Christ, have been given salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  The gospel is God’s one way love to sinners.  It is Jesus acting as our substitute.  Sinners in Christ, are given the righteousness of Christ.  All of the wrath for the sinner’s sin has been purchased by the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Hope in Christ is what saves.  The Gospel can be found in Romans 5:8 as the good news that God chose to display his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died us.  It is also good news that all of this is a gift of God’s grace, given not earned.  We are justified by faith alone.  Romans 4:5 states that “and to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

What does this mean then about the characteristic of God?  Is God “winking” at sin by giving sinners a free pass?  By no means, look at the cross and observe the cup of God’s wrath for sin consumed by Christ.  God’s justice and holiness and Law are still upheld.  Christ fulfilled the Law for us and died the sinner’s death for us.  God’s justice is upheld and his love and mercy for us are proclaimed.  God’s love, grace and mercy are on full display in the Gospel.  To observe God consuming the punishment for our transgressions so that we might be reconciled to him is an act of love unparalleled.  The fact that we are not expected to earn or work towards deserving such a gift is also a display of his merciful character.  The idea that we could ever earn his favor would effectively stop it being his favor.  The moment that His grace can be deserved, is the moment that it stops being grace and is wage.  Being in Christ, being adopted as a child of God, covered with the righteousness of Christ means that not only are we counted as if we never had sinned but we are counted as if we had always obeyed.  That is what the Gospel means for sinners.  God’s love is on full display in His Gospel.


                [1] C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 7.

                [2] Ibid., 9.

                [3] Ibid., 9.

Published by

Zachary James Cole

Born in Atlanta, Georgia. Living in Atlanta, GA. Well kinda, in a city NE of Atlanta in Metro Atlanta called Sugar Hill, but everyone close to ITP just says they are from Atlanta. Marine Veteran. Simul Iustus et Peccator. The verse that could best sum my life...Galatians 2:20...I am blown away by the Grace of God. What Jesus did for me just leaves me in awe and in thanksgiving...It was all Him...and the peace that comes with that is I am free to lose everything because I have everything in Christ.

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