Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel: A Brief Guide

This handy guide comes from the first appendix to our newest book, Law and Gospel: A […]

Mockingbird / 6.3.15

This handy guide comes from the first appendix to our newest book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), coauthored by Will McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl. Hope you enjoy:

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Mbird LAW AND GOSPEL Cover options4A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.


Grab your copy of L&G today!


10 responses to “Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel: A Brief Guide”

  1. Patricia F. says:

    I am DEFINITELY going to purchase this book!! I came from a Church of Rome background, where ‘works salvation’ was always rearing its ugly head. It is difficult to get out from under that ‘should-be-doing’ kind of thinking/living. I feel like Paul, in Romans 7.

    An order for this book is coming soon, from me. Thanks.

  2. Ron Coulter says:

    One other principle I’ve learned: Any time you are counting something, it’s law.

  3. BW says:

    I agree, people shouldn’t get a steady diet of law. Law/Gospel need to be rightly divided in every sermon. People shouldn’t feel like their justification hangs on keeping the law. But Luther also was not afraid to encourage believers on to good works

  4. Ron Coulter says:

    David – I honestly wasn’t trolling. It was meant sincerely in the context of ‘how many times do I forgive?’ If I am counting the number of times I’ve forgiven someone or the number of times I think I’ve been wronged, I am following the law. By answering 70×7, Jesus wasn’t saying it’s ok to stop forgiving the 491st time.

  5. Bobby Capps says:

    #4, yes! No burdens with grace, “i will rest your soul”… For me, anytime I ask the question “what do I need to do to…. (get closer to God, grow, get victory over…, feel the passion, love God more) I know I’ve gotten into the law. Unless of course the answer is “trust in the finished work of Jesus on my behalf.”

  6. William Robertson says:

    My desk is covered with Mockingbird-recommended books (started with Christian Wiman and progressed from there), but upon reading this excerpt I realize I must add one more. As the epigraph from Luther suggests, this is truly the heart of the matter. It’s all so complex, and if it can be made comprehensible without being watered down, that’s good work.

  7. Luther believed that the way to know whether you’re hearing law or gospel is the effect it has on your conscience. The law is loud, disquieting, leaving one unsettled. Bound up. The gospel is quiet and calming. Like a balm for the conscience. Many thanks that you all are anchored by this theme!

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