I woke up yesterday morning feeling like I had time traveled 10 years back into the wonderful world of mockingbird.blogspot.com. Back then, a group of us were invited by David Zahl to start up a blog dedicated to the exposition of justification by faith alone as understood through the hermeneutical lens of the distinction between law and Gospel. This was not our first attempt at blogging, but it was different in that, as I wrote in a 2008 post, “Can’t See the Forest for the Blogs,”

Most theological blogs that I’ve found, like many political ones, are so rife with acrimony and pretension that I can barely read any of them without developing an ulcer… When InclusiveChurch91837, BarthSuks231, Godisawesome7987, and Jim all get in a room to argue, nobody wins…I’ve come to realize that the Mockingbird Blog is different from many blogs in one fundamental respect: we’re not trying to argue. Yes, the distinction between Law and Gospel is important to many of us. Yes, we (on the whole) reject what is known as the “3rd use of the Law,” and yes, this viewpoint is incompatible with many other theological traditions–its not a semantic argument. But, if I may speak for the group (think The Borg) the strength of our conviction lies not in some sort of Gnostic appeal to higher or more profound insights into human nature, but rather in our shared deep and persistent need to both hear and proclaim this particular message of the God who justifies the ungodly. This blog is merely our attempt at chronicling our observations as to the extent that this need is both reflected in the world around us, and met in Jesus—-that’s the whole point.

Fast forward to yesterday morning, when my inbox was flooded with email links to Dr. Garwood Anderson’s piece in The Living Church’s blog entitled, “500 Years After Luther, The Law/Gospel Insight Remains Almost True,” which was a polite and very irenic if not highly critical assessment of the Christianity Today cover article written by David Zahl on the enduring importance of the distinction between law and gospel as constitutive of the rediscovery of the Gospel at the time of the Reformation. In his article, Dr. Garwood writes:

A substantial cadre of New Testament scholars doubts that Luther got this distinction quite right, and some think he got it quite wrong. Count me among the former. Reading Zahl’s article illustrates two things for me: the tremendous liberating appeal of this “almost right” understanding of the gospel and the grave hermeneutical consequence of being almost right in this way. I might say that the article demonstrates that the law/gospel antithesis has much greater psychological appeal than it has hermeneutical integrity.

In other words, the “law/gospel antithesis” (correction: distinction) sounds really good, but it isn’t actually what the Bible is saying…ouch! Damning with faint praise, indeed! I commend Dr. Garwood’s essay insofar as one wants to engage with countervailing viewpoints, but I was also reminded of an even earlier post I wrote back in May of 2008 when I sat down to write the definitive and unassailable refutation of the then theological blog battle royal of the day, the (so-called) New Perspective on Paul, I wrote:

When I had the idea of writing a series on the “New Perspective,” I initially thought that it would be a group of posts about its intricacies and arguments, how it distorts and misunderstands the Gospel. But then I realized – it’s simply not that interesting.

Like the man born blind in John 9 when repeatedly questioned about his healing, I met Dr. Garwood’s reasoned and polite dismissal of “Zahl and his colleagues,” with a distinct sense of bemusement: I don’t know what you’re talking about (or which scholars question what or have doubts about this or that distinction)—all I know is I was blind, but now I see. Given the history of our defense of this idea, and how few people in our Anglican orbit seemed to even care about it back then, I also felt a smidgen of pride—look how far we’ve come! He rightly rejects the excessive psychologization of the law/gospel distinction (a critique made mainstream by Krister Stendhal’s seminal essay The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West), and we’ve written elsewhere about this very misunderstanding; however, for the uninitiated, it could be a persuasive rebuttal…

For Paul, following Jesus’ repeated admonition “oh, ye of little faith!” the problem of the world for which he died is not lack of works, but lack of faith, and this lack of faith is exacerbated and even aroused by the promise, then curse, of the law “which promised life” (Romans 7).

Now, this is not the place to hammer out each of Dr. Garwood’s assertions. If you wanted to do that, and perhaps you’re a bit of an insomniac, allow me to recommend (with great self-promotional flair) my recently published book with the sure-to-be-bestseller title, The Distinction Between Law and Gospel as the Basis and Boundary of Theological Reflection (Mohr/Siebeck 2016) as a place to start, particularly the section entitled “The Psychology of the Lutheran Paul.”

I would also point to the rich and incredibly deep resources often cited on this blog. I’m currently working through a monograph I recently found by Lowell C. Green with the much more accessible title, Adventures in Law and Gospel. Or, for that matter, pick up anything by Steven Paulson, Oswald Bayer, Gerhard Forde, Mark Mattes, Gerhard Ebeling. Even embedded in my own Anglican tradition is the claim made by none other than Dom Gregory Dix—no friend of the English Reformation, to be sure—claiming that Cranmer’s 1552 Book of Common Prayer stands as “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’” (Shape of the Liturgy, 672), the heart of which is the often maligned and rarely understood distinction between law and gospel.

As compelling as some of these theologians have been for us, I’d like to go back before Luther to John, and then to Luther on John, for a short defense of Zahl, from his colleague and friend, for the sake of our shared work together.

In the intro of his immensely helpful “A Brief Introduction to Law and Gospel,” Dr. Hans Wiersma writes:

There are some interesting words at the beginning of John’s Gospel—words that appear to drive a wedge between Moses and Jesus. The words go like this: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 NIV). These words are noteworthy because of the implied converse: Grace and truth do not come through Moses; the law was not given through Jesus Christ. Distinctions like this one—telling the difference between Law and Grace—are the hallmark of the Lutheran understanding of, well, just about everything.

This brief statement—with a slight correction, replacing “Lutheran” with “Reformation”—encapsulates the hazards of making the distinction between law and gospel a second-order hermeneutic, just one understanding amid a variety of understandings of the Bible. Wiersma more correctly describes this as a distinct way of relating to God himself—either on the basis of works or on faith. Or, to use a distinctly Pauline conception, it’s a question of boasting—either in what one has earned, or in what one has been given (Rom 4). The lives that result from earned wages as opposed to an unearned gift can, and often do, bear similar-looking fruit; however, and this was the genius of Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel, how one appreciates this either/or makes all the difference.

As I’ve written about in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Luther and the Reformation on the section entitled “Faith and Works,” this was, in fact, Luther’s own reaction to this distinction, cf., LW 54:442–443 where he writes:

For a long time I went astray [in the monastery] and didn’t know what I was about. To be sure, I knew something, but I didn’t know what it was until I came to the text in Romans 1 [:17], ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ That text helped me. There I saw what righteousness Paul was talking about.” Here Luther once again gives an account of his “tower experience” in a somewhat different context. “Earlier in the text I read ‘righteousness.’ I related the abstract [‘righteousness’] with the concrete [‘the righteous One’] and became sure of my cause. I learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the gospel. I lacked nothing before this except that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded both as the same thing and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection. But when I discovered the proper distinction – namely, that the law is one thing and the gospel is another – I made myself free.

You see, the distinction between law and gospel is not related to grammar, semantics, or even theology, but power: the gospel silences the accusation, curse, and demand of the law. Now, this is not, as some will be quick to say, the (impossible) heresy of anti-nomianism, as if we could somehow will away the demand of the law, or simply be freed from it’s accusation. It is, instead, when G-D becomes Father, when Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus remains, when this “true saying that is worthy for all people to receive, that Christ Jesus came to save sinners,” is heard, then he/she is one whom the Son has set free, and is free indeed (Jn 8:36).

Zahl makes this point clear in his article when he writes:

But Luther, inspired by Paul’s epistles, recognized that the law also referred to a kind of overarching spiritual principle of life in the world. It is an elemental force that we all experience every hour of every day, present whenever we experience accusation and constraint and control and condemnation—which we are all constantly relying upon to justify ourselves. This means that the law is at work on us even when we aren’t actually hearing specific divine commands. This means that it isn’t so much what the law says that causes us to lie awake at night; it is how we hear it.

Just as the phrase, “I’m coming to get you!” is dependent on the relationship between the two parties involved, being either wonderful or terrifying, so can the voice of God be understood. “You will have no other gods but me,” is terrible news for those of us with other gods, but a great comfort and promise to those who want only one.

So we’ve come to this point. 10 years in with Mockingbird, 500 years in since Luther, 2000 years in since Jesus and all the way back to the garden, where fearful, ashamed, and guilty people were promised that one day a savior would come who would free them from the curse of sin, exacerbated by the law of the unknown God, and deliver them out of darkness and into light, out of their blindness. Like the man born blind, we can quibble about various interpretations, and goodness knows scholars will (and can!) never full agree as long as books and papers need to be published, but for all I know is we were bound, but now we’re free.