Law is a theological term that refers to one of the two ways God speaks to human beings. In his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian,” Protestant Reformer Martin Luther hit on an essential element of Christian theology when he wrote, “the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments [Law] and promises [Gospel].” The basic distinction is straightforward: the Law tells us what we ought to do; the Gospel tells us what God has done. The Law, with it’s ‘you must’s or ‘you must not’s, both defines the universal standard of divine goodness and reveals human weakness. It typically does its work of accusation in the form of a commandment attached to a condition. “If you do/are ________, then you will __________.”

In daily life, Law is not primarily a matter of what is said or written; it is a matter of what is heard. It is defined by its function and effect (i.e., constraining and accusing) rather than by its content. As such, it cannot simply be reduced to a moral code or grammatical pattern. For example, the common assumption that “imperative = Law” does not do the Law justice (though most imperatives are indeed heard as accusations). We often perceive headlines or even tones of voice as judgments as well. In practice, then, the requirement of perfect submission to the commandments of God has the same effect as the requirement of perfect submission to the innumerable drives for perfection that drive everyday people’s crippled and crippling lives (you should be successful, you must be skinny, you ought to be happy, etc). You might say that divine demand upon the human being is reflected concretely in the countless internal and external demands that we devise for ourselves, religious or not. Everyone is subject to it.

Finally, while the Law, in its biblical expression, is true and good, it is also impotent in inspiring what it calls for.  In fact, it tends to create the very thing it seeks to avoid. As a motivating agent, it is not just impotent but actually counterproductive. Which is where the Gospel comes in. As St. Augustine once wrote, “The law… contributes nothing to God’s saving act: through it he does but show man his weakness, that by faith he may take refuge in the divine mercy and be healed.”