Law and Gospel—Taxis or Praxis?

The proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel in God’s Word is, according to the Lutheran understanding, the mark of a true theologian. Confuse, mix, or otherwise mishandle them, and the Gospel will be lost. And when the Gospel is lost, faith is destroyed, and salvation is lost also. Plenty has been written on the subject, and C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel remains a great work to go to (or Bo Giertz’s Hammer of God, if you prefer fiction to non-fiction, story to proposition).

Over the last couple of years, this topic has been the subject of renewed frenzy in the blogosphere, thanks both to a seeming controversy over the so-called third use of the Law, and also with the high-profile adoption of the Law-Gospel distinction by high-profile non-Lutherans. The most high-profile of this crop is probably Tullian Tchividjian, who has written several books on the topic, fallen out with The Gospel Coalition and started a whole new online ministry, Liberate [at the time of writing, Liberate.org is on a hiatus].

All of this has been very controversial, in the sense of stirring a controversy.

It seems to me that this controversy has in part been over mere words, with people talking past each other. Jargon is to blame for this, at least in part. When jargon and other shorthand is used, each speaker comes to the conversation with their pre-loaded semantic field for each term. If those terms are not unpacked in longhand, misunderstandings are inevitable.

However, there is more at stake, as Anthony Sacramone, Mark Surburg, Jordan Cooper and others have pointed out far better than I could.

There is a radical distinction between the Law and the Gospel in God’s word. The Law contains God’s demands on what we are to do, whereas the Gospel is God’s unconditional promise of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So much is uncontroversial (if you are a Lutheran, at least). What manner of distinction it is, however, is another matter. This is where we risk running into problems.

The proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel in God’s Word is, according to the Lutheran understanding, the mark of a true theologian. Confuse, mix, or otherwise mishandle them, and the Gospel will be lost. And when the Gospel is lost, faith is destroyed, and salvation is lost also. Plenty has been written on the subject, and C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel remains a great work to go to (or Bo Giertz’s Hammer of God, if you prefer fiction to non-fiction, story to proposition).

Over the last couple of years, this topic has been the subject of renewed frenzy in the blogosphere, thanks both to a seeming controversy over the so-called third use of the Law, and also with the high-profile adoption of the Law-Gospel distinction by high-profile non-Lutherans. The most high-profile of this crop is probably Tullian Tchividjian, who has written several books on the topic, fallen out with The Gospel Coalition and started a whole new online ministry, Liberate [at the time of writing, Liberate.org is on a hiatus].

All of this has been very controversial, in the sense of stirring a controversy.

It seems to me that this controversy has in part been over mere words, with people talking past each other. Jargon is to blame for this, at least in part. When jargon and other shorthand is used, each speaker comes to the conversation with their pre-loaded semantic field for each term. If those terms are not unpacked in longhand, misunderstandings are inevitable.

However, there is more at stake, as Anthony Sacramone, Mark Surburg, Jordan Cooper and others have pointed out far better than I could.

There is a radical distinction between the Law and the Gospel in God’s word. The Law contains God’s demands on what we are to do, whereas the Gospel is God’s unconditional promise of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So much is uncontroversial (if you are a Lutheran, at least). What manner of distinction it is, however, is another matter. This is where we risk running into problems.

Here are some possibilities:

A. Law and Gospel describe different portions of Scripture

This is what it would appear the Formula of Concord, one of the writings in the normative Book of Concord, states. But if this is all we are saying, we soon get into difficulty.

  1. There are plenty of passages in Scripture that don’t appear to belong to either category. There is plain narrative, prayer, reported speech, etc. Law or Gospel? Absurdities will ensue.
  2. More worryingly, there are plenty of passages in Scripture that could go to either category, depending on the situation. I know the case of a Christian who was convinced she wasn’t really a Christian. When a friend attempted to reassure her by quoting John 3:16, the lady replied in despair, “Yes, I know. But I don’t believe.” Law or Gospel? How about the First Commandment? “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” Law or Gospel? Promise or demand?

  3. On a more fundamental level, this division of the text of all of Scripture into two baskets is not something that Scripture itself clearly teaches. If that’s the case, then we had better be careful about imposing such distinctions on the text.

B. Law and Gospel apply to different stages of a person’s life

You know the drill: preach one kind of Law, followed by the Gospel, to the unconverted in order to convert them. Once they are in, give them “God’s will for their lives”—a different kind of Law—to teach them obedience to God. In some circles, they call this discipleship. I would call it something less kind (and hopefully better English).

I suppose you could read Galatians 3 and come away with this understanding. Sort of. But it’s a bit of a struggle.

C. Law does one (and really only one) thing, while the Gospel does another (only one) thing

The Law kills. The Gospel gives life.

Who could argue with this? You could make a small pile out of Scripture passages to support this approach. Couldn’t you?

From the little I have followed Tchividjian’s writings, the articles at Liberate.org, and the (very) few articles I have looked at out of the many that have been published at Christ Hold Fast, skate pretty close to this mark. The aim is simple: strip away both hypocrisy and doubt, pride and despair, by reminding everyone that there is absolutely nothing under the sun you can or should do for your salvation. Christ has done it all. For you.

To which I say “Amen”, together with countless Christians, from the Pope (sort of) to the minister of the chicken-shack-turned-to-Baptist-church in this borough.

But what does that mean? By “mean”, I mean “signify”. In other words, so what?

It’s a great and simple truth. But shocking as it may sound, while it’s nothing but the truth, it’s not the whole truth. That’s the heart of God’s word, but it’s not the totality of God’s word. And, therefore, it has only a limited amount to offer to those who are neither hypocritical nor despairing.

Lutherans have rightly reacted against the practice of only preaching the Gospel to the unconverted, or using the Gospel as merely an introduction or motivator for the meat of “application”. No, we preach the Gospel to all, all the time. After all, that is what the apostles were sent to preach.

But this constant preaching of the Gospel to the Christian can easily be abused as well. Instead of preaching “You’d be going to hell, but Christ has redeemed you” as the sermon for the unconverted, it becomes the sermon. Every sermon. The Christian life becomes a half-virtuous, half-vicious circles of “You sinned. Christ died. Go home.” It’s virtuous in that this is what Scripture says. It’s vicious in that it’s not all that Scripture says.

In short, we have turned the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel into a taxonomy, a set of baskets into which to portion Scripture, one way or another. There is a good and right way of doing that, so far as you can. Hence the statements in the Formula of Concord.

But more important than taxis is praxis, what we do with God’s word. In other words, we are here talking about preaching and teaching as forms of pastoral care. It’s about applying God’s word to actual people. And what those people need to hear depends on who and what those people are. Likewise, God’s word will have a different effect on them, depending on who and what those people are.

To the impenitent unbeliever, the same cross of Christ that comforts those in terrors of conscience, stands as the great accusation against their sin and unbelief.

To the Christian, who is in one person a depraved sinner and a holy and righteous child of God, God’s word speaks in two ways: it kills the old Adam, and it gives life to the new creature in Christ. The Law convicts the old Adam of his sin. The Gospel frees the conscience of the new creature. And the same Law gives form to the will of God the new creature is now freed to aspire to obey.

If it weren’t so, I fear all the apostles would fail their homiletics courses in a good number of Lutheran seminaries. As would Chrysostom and Augustine. And Luther and Chemnitz and Gerhard and pretty much every great Lutheran preacher prior to the 1950s.

Find me an apostolic letter that begins with an application of the Law designed to convict the sinner and bring him to his knees, before applying the sweet salve of the Gospel, followed only by the Amen. I give you thirteen letters of Paul, plus those of Peter, John and Jude, and Hebrews to make it a round 20, which fail to observe this homiletical strategy. Being addressed to Christian congregations, they begin by establishing their hearers in the faith, before moving smoothly, via a “therefore” to the implications of this new status of children of God freed from sin. They describe and prescribe a Christian life in accordance with God’s will, not in order to emphasise guilt and fallenness, but rather to direct the renewed minds of their hearers to God’s will. They use God’s gifts, both the objective gift of Christ’s saving work (as in Philippians 2 and 1 Peter 2), as well as subjective gifts such as baptism (as in Romans 6) not only as a means of comfort but also as a rationale for newness of life. Frequently, proclamation (Gospel) and exhortation (Law) alternate smoothly throughout their writings. Almost always, the Gospel comes first, followed by the “therefore”.

That is to say, they establish justification first, and build their teaching leading to sanctification upon justification. (Incidentally, this is precisely the order that the Augsburg Confession follows, too, when it applies the objective truths of sin and Christ’s work subjectively through justification, which is followed by the new obedience.)

This is how sanctification remains a gift. Not because it happens by itself without the believer noticing (that’s not what the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is about!)—that would be just a different sort of enthusiasm, and Lutherans aren’t supposed to be enthusiastic—but because it happens through and by the power of God’s word.

But, you quote the Book of Concord, “the Law always accuses”. Yes, that it does. But it doesn’t only accuse. Even as it instructs, it accuses. But, by the same token, even as it accuses, it instructs. But this is not a problem: because justification is prior, the believer (when he or she is receiving appropriate pastoral care through preaching and teaching) will know that the accusation has already been taken away, because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. What is left, once Christ has had his pass at the demands of the Law, is the new man who delights in the holy Law of God, and is eager and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to learn to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom, a member of His family.

This way, the half-virtuous, half-vicious circle is turned into a virtuous spiral: forgiveness does not become the goal of the Christian life, but the gateway into it. Or, to modify the metaphor, it’s not the house but the foundation. Sin bars the door to paradise—forgiveness releases that door—the new creature walks into paradise, in order to live “under [Christ] in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness”.

It’s not for nothing that Walther called the proper distinction of the Law and Gospel “the most difficult and highest Christian art—and for theologians in particular” (Law and Gospel, Thesis III). So, being a theologian of sorts, I know that once I have cracked it and turned it into a soundbite and umpteen Tweets, I should know that the game is already lost.

Less taxis, then, and a lot more praxis. Or as Walther goes on to say, “[to rightly distinguish Law and Gospel] is taught only by the Holy Spirit in combination with experience.”

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