One of the difficulties of trying to communicate something like the distinction between law and gospel is that it is notoriously hard to pin down. Like my supervisor says, if knowing German made you a theologian, then it would be a simple matter. Likewise, knowing (or even acknowledging) the difference between Law and Gospel (indicative vs. imperative, promise vs. accusation, cashmere vs. merino) is simply the first step. In fact, it is just this little amount of knowledge that, without further and constant reflection, can be just as pastorally dangerous than ignorance of the two altogether. It doesn’t matter if you change the “application” section of a sermon to the “indicative;” what looks like the Law, walks like the Law, quacks like the Law—you get it.

What we are involved in here, to varying degrees of success, to be sure, is a virtual practicum of sorts, where this distinction is being worked out and applied across all manner of disciplines. Sometimes, it may seem that we trivialize the seriousness of God’s Law by equating its demands with speed limits or Gold’s Gym or Singapore, so I went to the Lutheran Horse’s Mouth: Jonathan Mumme, (pictured to the right) a good friend of mine who is currently living in Berlin and writing a PhD under the supervision of Oswald Bayer(!). His thoughts on this issue were too good not to share with you all. Enjoy, or else. (law or gospel?) I’ve turned our email conversation into a hypothetical interview—this is his answer.

Dear Jonathan,
I hope you are well. Thanks for “helping” me work through these questions. Although, as you know, I’m fully versed and completely capable of answering all questions on my own, I thought that I would double check with you to see if we agreed on how distinguishing the Law and Gospel was more an issue of pastoral discernment than systematic categorization. Could you explain?

An oversimplification of the distinction between Law and Gospel is something of a labeling method – a bit like if we were to run through the Bible with a red pen in one hand and a blue pen in the other, marking some things one color and some another. Words cut two ways, as two words. For example: “The Son of God died for your sins.” That is one sentence. Red or blue? One person may hear that God’s Son took upon himself the deadly burden that he has been bearing. Another will hear that they are guilty of the death of the Son of God. And the same person might hear both of those at different times. So too “Be perfect, for I the Lord your God am perfect.” Would tend to work in the way of the Law, but can it not cut the other way also?

Demand or God speaking someone into perfection, making them perfect by his saying so? Think here on “Let there be light”/”Be light!” or “Be healed!” or “Take up your bed and walk!” “Fear not!” This is more complex than a red pen and a blue pen; it is living people with living problems and/or lively attempts at self-justification. What they are hearing and what is going on with them is in need of our ears and our distinguishing, of the proper portion given at the proper time.

If I may make a poor analogy, it is a bit like going to the gym: This game is for lack of a better way of putting it (the quantity works in the way of the Law and leads to the breakdown of the analogy) 90% about form and 10% about the weight you lift. Distinguishing Law and Gospel comes first and foremost in the listening, then and only then in the speaking. The text and the person in front of you are waiting for careful exegesis; when that goes on then we are faithful stewards meeting out proper portions to the proper persons at the proper time. But this is an art that you can find going on in Luther all over the place, though not all scholars may see it. “Command = Law, Promise = Gospel” and they may not get much further than that. But Luther can be found distinguishing these all the time without ever using the only terminology the most people would recognize. His “Von den Schlüsseln”, 1528, for example, (editors note: or in this sermon, here) is an absolute masterpiece, as is the Large Catechism on confession; but even many Lutheran scholars will not quite see what is going on there.

Perhaps we could sum our conversation about Luther yesterday up like this: There is a different dynamic between when Luther is talking about the Law and the Gospel and their proper distinction and between his applying that distinction without talking about it. A first step is to hear someone talk about it. In some ways it is a vocabulary lesson (“Law, Gospel, command, promise, accuse, free” etc.) A further step is hear it and see in being applied, or not, which in some ways begins with an expanded vocabulary lesson (for example the workings of the modal verbs and mathematics).

But the paradoxical pendulum keeps swinging further and further out, opening the distinction ever further, ever more (for example things operating by force or coercion, or not – and if not, how would we then talk about? What drives things when they aren’t being “driven”?). Going back to what we were talking about – we might posit that Luther is difficult to systematize precisely because the motor of his theological workings is to be found in the way in which he goes about things (for lack of a better term, applied theology, theo-logia applicanda). Others sometimes attempted the systematizing somewhat on his behalf. . .

Ok, so those are just some thoughts from our “man on the straße”:) to add to the conversation. Law and Gospel are much, much more than conceptual placeholders for two ways of speaking; they are descriptions of two ways of existing—either by works or faith—that can turn any and every event into an opportunity for joyful witness or painful doubt. Our work here is to try to interpret the day-to-day life in light of the Law/Gospel; consequently, we are trusting that “by the renewing of our minds” we continue to learn what it means to have been Justified “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” one movie review, NYTimes Article and YouTube clip at a time!
I’ll leave you with the Law (or is it the Gospel?), you decide:
Romans 7:7-8: