Law and Gospel

My friend and colleague Kevin Powell once tried to explain Lutheran theology to me by referencing the Apostle Paul and his distinction between Law and Gospel. I did not grow up with Lutherans, in Halifax most religious folks were Roman Catholics, Anglicans and United Church (with a smattering of Presbyterians). So I took my tutorial seriously. As I understand this important distinction Law points to the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people throughout history. Through prophets and other holy persons the law was revealed in covenant, that is God would promise to this and the people would be required to that. It was a partnership of sorts, though not an equal one. God was behind the law and the law was to uncover a larger purpose. Thus the laws would change, be interpreted differently in different eras, but always toward a path that God desired as truth and justice.

But the law was not an end, it was a means. Thus while the law was never to be dismissed it was not to be taken as the definition of what it means to follow and live by God’s covenant. The famous Ten Commandments, given in a context of displacement and nomadic uncertainty, would provide a needed structure to a people who were without any kind of hope or clarity. I can see the truth of this in both personal and structural ways. For women and men who are lost, hurting and adrift getting into a structure, a routine, a disciplined life, allows them to be set free from their enslavement to something other than the fullest form of humanity. Time and again I have seen individuals who were completely and utterly lost begin to find their way back with a regimented life.

And the same goes for communities. If nations have become amoral in their indifference to justice and truth then finding tangible ways for citizens to “give back”, to connect with each other, to work together for common goals, have a liberating effect. This shift takes a will at the governing level and a follow-through by the populace to come together and meet the common challenges. 

But the problem with law as a saving entity is that the means really do get mixed up with the ends. Time and again I have met the same people who were liberated by the law lose sight of how the law itself can never be a substitute for justice, love and truth. To so narrowly define the ends of God into a law is to open up the possibility that the law becomes an idol and that idol does exactly the opposite of liberate, it condemns and hurts and thwarts God’s intent. 

Martin Luther said, “The person who can rightly divide Law and Gospel has reason to thank God.  He is a true theologian” (Commentary on Galatians). In this context I think Luther uses Gospel to refer to the love and grace of Jesus the Christ. I find at least two direct corrections to law as an end, 1) that it is not what we do that matters as much as why we do it and 2) that the underlying reality of God, which is find the lost and set them free, can never be completely experienced within the law. Watch any charitable act of kindness, what the way the person offering this carries her/himself in that act. If the act is done with reciprocity and judgement than the person who receives finds nothing but shame and separation and misery. But if the intention, if the heart, if the offering is made with the understanding and experience of a God who loves unconditionally, because we were all loved first, then that act has the potential to inspire and lift the receiver into the reality that s/he is worthy of consideration and care. That is what I believe Luther and Lutherans mean by grace and by Gospel as a contrast with Law.