What I Love about the Lutherans – the distinction that makes ALL the difference

Herman Utics.  A Dutch theologian?  Oh, wait.  I mean “hermeneutics.”  Seminary debt justifies the use of such words.  Hermeneutics is the discipline of biblical interpretation – how to properly understand God’s Word.  A right understanding of God’s Word is essential for the right understanding of the Gospel.  The Reformation is a result of hermeneutics.

Confessional Protestants are the grateful heirs of the “solas” of the Reformation.  We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – according to Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.  Can I get an “amen”?  But, sadly, fewer Protestants are aware of how we got there.  And some today are downright opposed to the way we did.  Hermeneutics isn’t just a fancy word.  Proper biblical interpretation is essential to our salvation.  It was essential to the Protestant Reformation – and the recovery of Gospel clarity.  And yes, we have Luther to thank for it – and by extension, those crazy, lovable confessional Lutherans.

Some well-taught Protestants are aware of one aspect of hermeneutics clarified during the Reformation.  We call it the analogy of faith.  Behind the diverse human authorship and varied historical contexts of Scripture, we have one Divine Author.  And so we believe that the Triune God speaks clearly in His Word – at least on the important stuff like how sinners are made right with a holy God.  All this assumes another fancy word – perspicuity.  That word basically means “clarity” – which the word “perspicuity” itself clearly lacks.  (But again, I paid a lot of money to expand my theological vocabulary.  So there.)  However, we do not read the Scripture as detached scientists – despite technical jargon like “hermeneutics” and “perspicuity.”  We read the Scripture as Christians – as sinners in need of God’s mercy.  We read it as God’s Word – to us, and for our salvation.

This analogy of faith means that Scripture interprets Scripture.  More specifically, we are to understand the less clear passages of Scripture in light of the clear.  The most basic application of the analogy of faith is that the Old Testament is interpreted in light of the New.  Thus we read all the Scripture in a Christ-centered way – as the apostles & co. do in the NT.  We are not free to interpret the covenants or prophecies of the OT according to our whims or our obsessive end-times imaginations.  “The New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed,” according to the Augustine-attributed maxim.

But there is another Reformational Herman Nautical principle that has sadly found itself in stormy seas these days.  In fact, our little Gospel boat is getting swamped once again, and in danger of sinking.  (Forgive me my puns, and work with me on this metaphor, please.)  What do we need to navigate to the safe harbor Christ has won for us?  We need to properly distinguish between Law & Gospel – that is the true north by which we navigate.  God’s Word is two words:  His Word of command, and His Word of promise.  His Word of judgment, and His Word of justification.   His Word of guilt, and His Word of grace.  In the Law, God shows us our sin.  In the Gospel, God shows us our Savior.  So this is not about the OT / NT division.  This is about how God speaks to us as our holy Maker and Judge – and how He speaks to us in Christ crucified and risen, as our gracious Redeemer.  And how He does so, from Genesis to Revelation.

Luther recovered this distinction, as he saw it imbedded in the Scripture itself.  The Law & Gospel hermeneutic is even more important than the analogy of faith.  As a sinner, prone to error, you may fail to properly interpret a less clear text in light of the more clear (like entire swaths of Christians do when they read the rest of the Bible through the grid of Revelation!).  That might make you weird, but it doesn’t necessarily kill the Gospel.  But if you consistently confuse Law & Gospel, the outcome is spiritually devastating and may be eternally fatal.  The recovery of this distinction is why we had a Reformation in the first place – and put the “sola” in sola fide.

Medieval Catholicism specialized in muddying Law & Gospel.  In fact, they called the Gospel of Jesus Christ a “new law.”  Wait a minute, they still do that (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1961-1974).  Yikes!  That’s as bad as a hipster, soul-patch pastor who tells us to “live the Gospel, and be the good news.”  And it’s ALMOST as bad as allegedly Reformed guys of the Federal Revisionist variety explicitly REJECTING the Law & Gospel hermeneutic.  They assure us that the Law can be heard as “good news by the faithful and the gospel by the rebellious as intolerable demand” (Google their JOINT Federal Vision statement – as in, “Joints may have been involved in the writing of this statement,” as in, “What were you guys smoking?”)  Um, when Paul cried out, “Wretched man that I am!”, I don’t think he was hearing the Law as “Gospel.”  In fact, Paul apparently wasn’t feeling very “faithful” at the moment.  But rather rebellious.  And still in need of the real Gospel – the one that declares that Christ crucified is our only righteousness before God.

Oh, that’s right.  Romans 7:13-25 doesn’t apply to Paul – or the Christian’s real time experience.  You know, the one where Paul indeed loves the Law according to his inner man – but is driven to near despair because it continually points out his sin.  When Paul says, “I” – he clearly DOESN’T mean, “I, your beloved Apostle Paul, who still struggles with sin and therefore still needs the ‘therefore, there is now no condemnation’ of Romans 8:1.  Just as YOU do!”  It’s obvious Paul means, “I, NOT-Paul, using a highly sophisticated, subtle-as-a-snowflake literary technique to mean, ‘I-corporate-Israel-in-Adam.’”  NT Wright said it.  Fawning and forgetful “Protestants” believe it.  That settles it.  Apparently, first century hearers of Paul’s Epistle had advanced degrees in such highly complex literary techniques, which would make Wright’s interpretation immediately obvious to them.  So if you’re struggling with remaining sin, Christian, look for help elsewhere.  Maybe do some penance, or something.  I think Luther tried that.  (Full disclosure:  I use a lot of sarcasm in my writing – which is, of course, the only biblically sanctioned form of humor.  See 1 Kings 18:27 & Galatians 5:12, if you want the proof texts.)

Hermeneutics really matters, people.  And so does history.  And so does the Reformation.  Lose the Law & Gospel hermeneutic, and you lose the “sola” in sola fide.  And the rest of the solas fall away, as well.

Luther defined his terms this way:  “By ‘Law’ we should understand nothing but God’s Word and command in which He commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience or service… The Gospel is such a doctrine or Word of God as does not demand our works or command us to do anything but bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation and be satisfied to have it given to us as a present” (What Luther Says, CPH, 732).

On the importance of this distinction, Luther wrote:  “This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom.  Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference.  If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation.  This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating among Christians of these two doctrines, the Law and the Gospel.  To be sure, both are God’s Word… But everything depends on the proper differentiation of these two messages and on not mixing them together; otherwise one will know and retain the proper understanding of neither the one nor the other; nay, while under the impression of having both, one will have neither…. Therefore place the man who is able nicely to divorce the Law from the Gospel at the head of the list and call him a Doctor of Holy Scripture, for without the Holy Spirit the attainment of this differentiating is impossible.”  (Ibid.)

Confessional Lutherans continue to champion this biblical hermeneutic.  Gotta love ‘em for it (and I do).  They believe, teach, and confess it in the Formula of Concord (Epitome V, Aff. Theses 1-4):  “1. We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between law and Gospel is an especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church so that, according to St. Paul’s admonition, the Word of God may be divided rightly.  2. We believe, teach, and confess that, strictly speaking, the law is a divine doctrine which teaches what is right and God-pleasing and which condemns everything that is sinful and contrary to God’s will.  3. Therefore everything which condemns sin is and belongs to the proclamation of the law.  4. But the Gospel, strictly speaking, is the kind of doctrine that teaches what a man who has not kept the law and is condemned by it should believe, namely, that Christ has satisfied and paid for all guilt and without man’s merit has obtained and won for him forgiveness of sins, the ‘righteousness that avails before God,’ and eternal life.”

Though we should credit and thank Luther and our Wittenberg brothers – this “especially glorious light” dawned on the Reformed, as well.  These connections are well-documented by R. Scott Clark over at Heidelblog, and by Mike Horton & company via the aptly titled Modern Reformation magazine (last minute gift idea:  buy a subscription for your favorite FV pastor!)

One quickie from the Continental Reformed.  From Ursinus’ Prolegomena to his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism:   “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures. The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith” (2).

What about Westminster?  It’s right there, folks, implicitly undergirding the bi-covenantal structure of Reformed theology in the covenant of works (Law) and the covenant of grace (Gospel).

If you don’t think such a distinction is biblical, read Romans again.  Read Galatians again.  Slowly.  Prayerfully.  Not as a scientist.  But as a Christian.  A Christian sinner, still in desperate need of a Savior and His Word of grace.  And you will find this distinction still makes all the difference – between despair and comfort, pride and humility, and yes, even damnation and salvation.

Published by pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI

14 replies on “What I Love about the Lutherans – the distinction that makes ALL the difference”

  1. Pastor Tony,
    Getting hold of this distinction completely changed my Christianity. Have you ever read Walther’s “Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel”?


  2. Thanks for your comment, Andrew. Yes, I have read (most of) Walther. I also appreciate Pless’ brief exposition of the same entitled Handling the Word of Truth. All good stuff.


  3. I wish to make sure I am understanding your point as you intend for it to be understood, and in particular, some specific implications of that point.

    Situation: A person claims to be a regenerated believer, yet is openly engaged in a practice which is clearly condemned by Scripture, and justifies that behavior on the basis of the grace of God, rather than seeking to “grow in grace” and put that behavior aside. Indeed, they ridicule the idea of needing to put the behavior aside, and claim that they have found freedom in Christ to continue in that behavior and still expect to reap the rewards of regeneration.

    Questions: How are we to treat that person’s claim to the operation of grace and regeneration in his/her life?

    Parenthetically, the sarcasm was a bit thick for my taste, but I can handle it…


    1. Hi Jeff – Thanks for your comment & clarifying question. In the situation you present, God’s Law should be applied in all its thunder, i.e., “Those who live in this way will not inherit the kingdom of God! Repent!” For the openly rebellious (e.g., “Sure, I’m fornicating – but hey, I’m forgiven!), we should preach and apply nothing but Law (1 Tim 1:8-11). If he refuses to repent, we should ultimately treat him as unrepentant, unregenerate, unjustified (i.e., as a covenant outsider / a “tax collector & sinner”, which is the ultimate result when the redemptive efforts of church discipline fail to win him back as a brother).

      Heidelberg Catechism, as you may know, is structured as Guilt (Law), Grace (Gospel), Gratitude (the new life of faith, which works through love). On the subjective side of that, the Christian life is lived out as repent, believe, and live/love accordingly. If one’s life does not accord with repentant faith – i.e., repenting when we sin, trusting the sole sufficiency of Christ, and quit shacking up/hooking up, etc! – we should not assure him his sins are forgiven (cf. Col 1:21-23, esp. v. 23). To continue in open fornication, for example, is to live in a way that is “contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God…” (1 Tim 1:11). The Law says, REPENT! “Do you not know the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God?” The Gospel says, “BELIEVE that Jesus died for your sins, including sexual immorality” – “And such WERE some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:9-11). Therefore, in light of the Law & Gospel, “flee sexual immorality,” etc.

      Does that help?


  4. Jeff: How are we to treat that person’s claim to the operation of grace and regeneration in his/her life?

    There is obviously a problem with a person who “is openly engaged in a practice which is clearly condemned by Scripture, and justifies that behavior on the basis of the grace of God”, and who will “ridicule the idea of needing to put the behavior aside”. If that person is a Christian, the “law of God is written in his heart”, and he will not be able to maintain that kind of distinction. Such a person needs to hear “the law”; in that case, God’s word will not return void.


  5. I am both in agreement with and grateful for your responses. I had no problems with the actual content of what you wrote in the post. Unfortunately, I have found myself in dispute with the direction currently being taken by a ministry with which I have a more than fleeting acquaintance. This ministry could currently be characterized by its belief in this statement, “As Christians, we should quit being concerned about the behavior of people who also claim to be Christians. God doesn’t care one bit about their behavior; why should we?” My interactions with this ministry have left me a bit shell-shocked. So whenever I run into a “Law/Gospel” or “Law/Grace” discussion, I look for the same clarification. Add to that the fact that I tend to the Arminian side of the street, and that should make my concerns clear. Thanks for clear & cogent answers.


    1. Thanks for your follow up, Jeff. Glad you found our responses helpful. It sounds like the ministry you are interacting with has sadly fallen into the ditch of antinomianism.

      The old cliche that preachers are to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” is a guide to how we are to apply Law & Gospel. Those who are comfortable in sin are to be afflicted with the Law – so that they might know the true comfort of the Gospel (or be disabused of their misapprehension of God’s grace!). Those who are already crushed by the Law, and know the guilt of their sins are in need of the sure comfort of Christ and Him crucified for sinners.

      The regenerate heart is the one which has been quickened by God’s Word and Spirit. It is the heart that believes the truth & authority of God’s Word – what He commands and what He promises – and responds accordingly (though not without struggle, due to remaining sin!). I think the Westminster Confession of Faith captures this biblical truth well, when it speaks of the true nature of saving faith: “By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2).


  6. Thank you Pastor Tony for pointing out this Lutheran contribution in such a helpful and clear fashion. It’s improved my understanding immeasurably.

    As an adjunct, albeit a critical adjunct, the Lutheran Law/Gospel suffers a fatal flaw when it says “Baptism is Gospel.”


    1. Hi Truth — I believe Tony is on vacation, and he may respond, although at this point you are stuck with me.

      I saw the “Law/Gospel” discussion that you are referring to; I believe the “law/gospel” distinction refers to the notion that “some things fall into the realm of law” and “some things fall into the realm of Gospel”. And without having jumped into that discussion, I wonder if the Lutheran you were talking with didn’t just say “baptism is gospel” in the sense of meaning “baptism falls into the realm of Gospel”. I still wouldn’t subscribe to Luther’s view of Baptism, but does that distinction take some of the hard edge of it?

      (James Swan mentioned Luther’s view of baptism somewhere, in the context of saying “Luther isn’t all ‘Bondage of the Will'”. But I’m not sure exactly where that is.)


    2. Hi TUAD – thanks for your comment. I understand what a confessional Lutheran may intend by the phrase, “Baptism is the Gospel” according to their theological convictions. In their understanding, baptism always “delivers the goods,” as it were. For the Reformed, especially via Westminster’s chapter on baptism, we think it is more biblically accurate to say that baptism is a means of grace to God’s elect. That phrase is so familiar to us, that it tends to become a cliche. “Means of grace” is an expression that describes the way in which God delivers the benefits of the Gospel to us. He does so by means of Word and Sacraments. Faith is His gift, and embraces the Gospel promises conveyed in Word and Sacraments (the “visible Word” as Augustine said). The verses Andrew quoted (and others) demonstrate the close connection Scripture makes between baptism & the benefits of the gospel. However, there is the sad and sobering reality that not all the baptized are in fact saved in the end. How we deal with that reality is our exegetical / theological fork in the road with our Lutheran brothers. They say baptism is always efficacious when administered, but we qualify its efficacy by the Spirit’s sovereign application of the promised grace only to God’s elect, and in God’s appointed time (see WCF 28.6, citing both John 3:5 AND 3:8). They say that the benefits of baptism can be lost by apostate unbelief. We say those to whom the grace belongs, i.e., those chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, will be preserved by and in God’s grace to the end. God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable. Hope that helps.


  7. TUAD,
    If baptism is law then we have a problem.

    1 Peter 3:21 “Obedience to the command to be baptized, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”

    Romans 6:3-4 “Do you not know that all of us who have been law keepers into Christ Jesus have kept the command to be baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by obeying the command to receive baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

    Colossians 2:11-14 “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in your obedience to the command to receive baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,”

    I know, I know, those passages aren’t talking about “baptism”. I have had that explained to me already. But since they say “baptism” I am willing to risk being wrong and go on believing that they are talking about baptism when they say “baptism”. If baptism isn’t, as John said, in the category of gospel, then we are saved, buried with Christ, and raised with him again through our obedience to a work. In which case we may as well lay down our arms and go back to Rome.


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