The distinction between the Law and Gospel of God is one that has been fraught with disagreement and misinterpretation for a very long time, perhaps even since the beginning of the church. It is easy to understand why, not simply because of the difficulty in grasping what each of those words mean, but also because of our human nature to want or need to emphasize one over the other. Some of us want rules and checklists to follow so that we know that we are “in” or that others are “out”. Some want to know we can do “whatever” and not have to live our lives a certain way or with any kind of restraints and still know that we are “in”. Each are nonsensical on their own and focusing on one or the other leads us to a distorted understanding either law or gospel and of God. Rather, we should see them as interconnected halves of one whole purpose; that purpose being life lived in the presence of God, showing us just how well he thinks of the human creature he created.
A primary question when looking at the distinctions and connections between law and gospel might be: what exactly do we mean when we say law and gospel? Lutherans in particular seem to use these words somewhat loosely and giving them clear definitions would help to better define how they are connected.
We may begin to understand what we mean by the divine law of God by the use of the Hebrew word we often translate as law: Torah. Torah also means instruction or guidance, both of which would add to our understanding of law. Psalm 119 speaks at length about God’s law and says that it makes one wiser than the enemy, gives understanding, lights one’s path, is sweeter than honey, causes one to hate the path of evil and is taught by God himself. Scripture repeatedly testifies to the law coming from God and being the very will of God. Going back to our understanding of the nature of God as the definer of what is good (among many other things) and willing what is good, then we may say that God’s law is itself good by virtue of its being God’s.
Now that we can define the word, it is helpful to see what law is. The law is not merely a list of do’s and do not’s engraved in a slab of ancient stone. Nor is it a list of restrictions, requirements and moral promulgations recorded for posterity in the scriptures. Rather, it is “a unified and all-encompassing ‘idea’ of what the human creature can and should be.” (Yeago, pg. 168) It is God’s will that we be in relationship with him and the law provides an understanding of what that looks like as well. Because it is God’s will for humanity, it shows the marvelous things this God-created humanity is capable of. This means that the law comes to us as an inborn natural law, a covenantal starting point as found in the ten commandments, a description of the Kingdom of God as found in the Beatitudes or even as the two “greatest commandments” of loving God and neighbor. It also means that the law is not something that can be numbered and listed in a handbook for easy reference. Rather, it is something for which we require a living, breathing, flesh and blood law fulfiller to be able to grasp its full meaning and purpose.
The problem with the law occurs when it bumps into sin. After the fall and the loss of God’s image of holiness in his creature, the law can only be something that stands in opposition to humans. Because of the disorder of humanity, though the law itself never changed or moved, it is now humanity’s accuser. Humans are, in principle, still able to be as God created them to be because to be human is to be created in the image of this same God who gives the law. However, it is no longer possible in a practical sense to live in accordance with God’s will (due to the corruption of sin) and humanity is incapable of becoming what God wills without his intervention. The law of God, once a beautiful idea of humanity’s possibility, becomes an accusing mirror to show humanity its concupiscence. It also means that this relationship between God and humanity is broken as well.
The defining of the word gospel appears to be a bit easier, perhaps because it is one Word, one manifestation, one story, one promise. The gospel—the good news, which is what the word gospel means—is “the announcement of the singular thing that God has done for the redemption of his creatures.” (Yeago, pg. 184) It is the proclamation of all that God has done for us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. To proclaim the gospel is to tell the story of Jesus: the Word in the beginning, the birth to a virgin, the ministry of repentance and proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, the suffering death, the resurrection and defeat of death itself, the ascension to the right hand of God and the promise of his coming again to judge and rule the world with a kingdom that has no end. God’s redemptive action for his creatures in this story is good news, in fact, the best news in all of history because his action returns humanity to right relationship with him. In using legal language we may say that the law is a witness to and accuser of human sin and guilt and testifies to our practical, concrete inability to fulfill all that we were created to be and to remain in relationship with our creator. However, our judge, Christ, restores us to right relationship, not by tearing up the law or declaring it invalid, but by fulfilling it to perfection in himself. Our judge is our redeemer. Our redeemer is that living, breathing, flesh and blood law fulfiller that we required in order to grasp what the law is.
The law and the gospel are clearly very different in many ways. The law is something that shows us how marvelous we could be as humans and how miserable we actually are. It shows us what the Kingdom of God looks like and how deeply in sin humanity is mired. It can even be said that the law shows us what the Christian life looks like and how very un Christian we live that life. It regrettably convicts humans on all sides of guilt and makes clear humanity’s need for God’s mercy and grace because of the creature’s broken relationship with its creator. The gospel declares us righteous before our creator. It comes to humanity externally and declares to us the story of the one, holy fulfiller of all law who redeems the created humans and restores the right relationship between humanity and God. The law, the will of God for us not to fall away from him, does not move to save us from our sinful concupiscence. It remains in exactly the same place it has always been and because of humanity’s failings, it now condemns us to death. The gospel, the very proclamation of Christ’s complete and living fulfillment of that same law, moves to save us from our certain death before the law and redeems us for the very giver of that law.
Yet, law and gospel are inextricably connected. The law is not declared by one god and the gospel by another. The one whose will defines the law itself and the one of whom the good news is declared is, in truth, the same God. Law and gospel also have the same purpose: righteousness, holiness and right relationship with God for us. They both illustrate that God has a plan and purpose for humanity and that we are loved by God in seeing the nobility that he created humanity to poses and the lengths to which he will go to deliver us from the sin and death of our own making.