How to Stop Making Gospel into Law

10 Theses on the Law from Stephen Paulson

Todd Brewer / 4.22.21

In 2016, a dialogue between Lutheran and Reformed theologians on the topic of Law and Gospel was hosted by the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. One of the Lutheran representatives, former Mockingbird speaker Stephen Paulson, presented a talk on “The Law-Gospel Distinction in Lutheran Theology and Ministry.” He concluded the paper with 10 theses (in bold), and I have provided explanations to them with quotations from the paper itself.  

1. God gave the law to creatures, but God is not the law.

The dream of finding Law [that inspires and gives life] imagines the theological project to be equating God and law, … to claim that God’s eternal, objective, righteous essence is none other than a graceful, nonthreatening, ordered, beautiful, eternal law as the thing that unites the complicated contradictory attributes of mercy and justice. […]

The law is taken to be the form of the will or mind of God … and so we mold our god into the shape of our happy life. […]

[Luther] knew that if one tried to describe God’s essence apart from forgiveness, what he got was God = law, which is God naked in majesty without any gospel, and that the end of that quest was death.

2. The law has two “uses,” but used by God. One use fosters and preserves life in the old world, and the other makes a person run from God’s threat/wrath to the mercy of Christ’s promise.

The law is not there to give ears [of faith], but to take them away. It does not give, but removes faith in God’s word. Worse, the law is there to kill sinners wherever it finds them.

3. The law always accuses, in both its uses, which is the essential or constant voice of the law.

The problem Paul had with the law is the same that you and I have: it kills us in whatever form it comes — ceremonial or moral — and we don’t want to die. It does not make us righteous; it condemns.  … God gave the law for this one and only purpose: to threaten us with death, and carry out the death wherever there is sin.

4. Christ alone fulfills the law, and so is the point, the “thing” that law wants, needs, and demands — and which sinners cannot give.

Luther is very precise on this matter. Christ’s crucifixion and ministry do not abolish the law; he fulfills the law. But fulfilling is not the moment the law hands out its prize. Christ’s unexpected fulfillment of the law on the cross has a most dramatic effect on the law, evacuating or emptying it.

5. But Christ did not take a reward from the law (even to give to sinners later), but rather bore the complete accusation of the law. He who knew no sin became sin — that is, the curse (Gal 3:13 and 2 Cor 5). The law attacked and killed him as the one and only sinner in the cosmos.

Put simply, the law killed Christ, and yet on the third day he was raised, but the law — unexpectedly — was not honored with the feat, but was emptied, having nothing more to do.

6. Thus, the law is not only fulfilled but came to an end, telos (Rom 10:4), where and when Christ is.

The end of the law is the negative way of declaring the bright light: Christians are free! Free from sin, wrath, death — and even God’s law, which becomes for the saints “an empty matter when it comes to our paying back.”

7. The law’s demand is for Christ to be present and give eternal life to Adam and Eve (speaking forgiveness for sinners); the Father is not satisfied until this happens.

8. The end of the law is only Christ — not in part, but wholly, present with all he has (human and divine complete interpenetration in himself), and conveyed to sinners by preaching, that is, by the Holy Spirit.

The only thing dead people can use is the resurrection of the dead. The Spirit resurrects the dead through a preacher recklessly giving a new word that counteracts the law. … What is done with the Spirit’s word cannot be done with anyone else’s word: God covers sin with the blanket of Christ.

9. When this happens — Christ and faith — the law is quiescent, evacuated (lex vacua), and stops accusing only so far as it says nothing at all.

10. Such is Christian freedom, lived in love, given by and as the Holy Spirit, doing what the law demands and more — without the law. Look, Mom! No law!

A life with the eternal law behind me, emptied of its content and form on account of Christ who fulfilled the law for me, would mean I would never know where I fit on the divine chart of good works. Worse yet, it would be impossible for me to sin, no matter how hard I tried. Despite myself, good works would come pouring out despite my feeling that it was all too much to believe, and that the consequence was finally my own death as an old Adam. I would be good soil on account of the seed sown, not on account of my deeds or my character.