The Art of Making Distinctions: Law & Gospel

Ash Wednesday
2 Timothy 2:14-19
March 1, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Law & Gospel

In the name of + Jesus.

“In the Phaedrus of Plato, Socrates says that he is especially fond of distinctions, because without these nothing in speech can either be explained or understood. If he discovers anyone skilful in making distinctions, he says that he pays attention and follows his footsteps as those of a god. (He instructs the one to separate the parts of speech in their very joints. So like an inept cook, he breaks some part of speech to pieces.) But the adversaries truly hate these basic rules and, according to Plato, are truly poor butchers” (Ap XXIV.16). Thus our Lutheran Confessions describe the necessity of making distinctions.

It has been said that theology is the art of making distinctions. They are necessary to know what something is and what it is not. Distinctions sharpen our understanding of words—and in theology, they sharpen our understanding of the Word. Poor distinctions—or none at all—are like a butcher trying to prepare a delicate filet with a cleaver and a hacksaw.

Lutheran theology in particular thrives on distinctions. The most well-known of the Lutheran the distinction of the Law and the Gospel. The Formula of Concord calls it the particularly brilliant light of the Lutheran confession, and Dr. Walther said that without it, the Bible remains a sealed book.

The Distinction of Law and Gospel Is the Particularly Brilliant Light of the Lutheran Church That Is the Key to Understanding Scripture Rightly


St. Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy: Be eager to present yourself as approved by God, as a worker without shame, rightly distinguishing the word of truth (v 15). Here is the apostolic mandate for the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. And it’s in recognition that the entire Scriptures contain two fundamentally different words from God—the Law and the Gospel. The Law is God’s Word of command, and because of the sin that corrupts our human nature, the Law is also God’s Word of condemnation.

How can you identify the Law? Whenever God sets forth His will, His expectations, His commands, you can be certain that this is a word of the Law. Whenever there is revelation and condemnation of sin, this is the work of the Law.

The Law was not laid down for the just, but for the lawless and the disobedient, writes St. Paul. If someone is already doing what He ought to do, then he doesn’t need a law. But the Law is given, and it’s given to us. Primarily, the Law is for the unbeliever, but even after coming to faith, we remain sinners, and so we still need the Law. It daily reveals our disobedience, our rebelliousness.

In revealing sin, the Law drives us to repentance. Because it reveals sin, it works contrition, that is, sorrow for sins. When we hear that we have offended God, and done what is evil in His sight—and when we truly believe it and don’t just pay lip service to it—we should despair of our ability to stand before God by virtue of our own works. In its theological function—and it always functions theologically—the Law accuses of sin.

But the Law is the first word, not the final word of God. Lutheran theologians have habit of calling it the alien work of God. As the prophet Isaiah writes of God’s judgment for sin: For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work! (Is 28:21). That is to say that God’s Word of Law for the condemnation of the sinner is a work that is not His nature. He does not delight in the death of a sinner. He is not a vindictive deity who gets His kicks off of watching His creatures suffer and writhe under His severe condemnation. Rather, this word of God serves another word of God, the final word of God. And it’s the other side of this fundamental distinction.


The Law is always a word in service to the Gospel. In its strict sense, the Gospel is the good news of the forgiveness of sins. In some cases, the word “Gospel” can be used to refer to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness (and likewise, the word “Law” is often used for the whole teaching of God). But in answer to God’s Law and its condemnation of sins, the Gospel announces the forgiveness of sins. The Gospel frees us from the Law’s condemnation and curse.

How can you identify the Gospel? Whenever you hear of the work of God on your behalf, you are dealing with Good News. Whenever the message of forgiveness is proclaimed, this is the Gospel at work. When God speaks blessings and gives gifts, this is the Gospel. Where the Law is commands and ought-to-do’s, the Gospel is declaration and already-been-done’s.

The Gospel was given for the sinner who recognizes his sin and is sorrowful over it. A sinner who thinks he’s just fine as he is, thank you very much, has no use for the Gospel of forgiveness, and so remains condemned in his sin under God’s righteous judgment. But the person who recognizes the enormity of sin finds in the Gospel of forgiveness sweet consolation. The Gospel should be withheld from an obstinate sinner, not because he’s not worthy of it, but because he sees no value in it. But someone who is keenly aware of his own imperfections will value the Gospel over all the gold in Fort Knox.

The Gospel is for sins of all shapes and sizes. From the slight offenses we make to others without even realizing it, to the Big Ones like embezzling, adultery, and murder, the Gospel has the same message: you are forgiven for Christ’s sake; He bore your sins and suffered punishment for them; all of it is covered by the blood He shed. You are counted righteous in God’s sight.

Where the Law demands obedience, the Gospel’s only requirement is faith. It’s not that the Gospel is a new Law that requires only one work, but that faith is the reception of the Good News of forgiveness absent any other work. The life of faith is to live passively before God.

This distinction must always be upheld, although it’s always more cut and dried in theory than it is in practice. Sometimes a particular Word of God is unclear and ambiguous—what is God saying through this text? Sometimes a particular Word of God can be both Law and Gospel at the same time—“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the foremost,” (1 Tim 1:15) is at the same time harsh Law and the sweetest Gospel, depending on which way you look at it and how it’s applied. This is why it is absolutely critical to distinguish Law and Gospel even in one statement.

It takes an entire lifetime to master this particular art of Law and Gospel distinction, and it can never happen without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the Master of the Law-Gospel distinction, because He is the Author behind all of the authors of the Law-Gospel Scriptures.

This distinction is foundational for all of the distinctions that follow. Indeed, it permeates the entire body of Christian doctrine, because is how the central article of justification is presented. A person is justified—called righteous—by faith in Jesus Christ alone apart from any works. That is the purest Gospel. The Law has its place, but only in service to this proper work of God.

Today we begin forty days of Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a time of more intense focus on sin and repentance and bodily discipline. That’s the Law. Let us not forget the Gospel this season. Even in our restraint, let us also intensify our faith in the forgiveness of sins that follows.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard