The hallmark for Lutheran preaching and teaching has long been the presence and proper distinction of law and Gospel. In short, it is the division of God’s Word that, on the one hand, declares what God demands of you, and on the other hand, proclaims what God has done for you in Jesus Christ.
In his classic work, Law and Gospel, C. F. W. Walther asserts that the “Law is anything that refers to what we are to do,” while “the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or word of God that does not require works from us and does not command us to do something but bids us simply to accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of sins and the everlasting bliss offered us.” This division of law and Gospel has long been one of the defining characteristics that make Lutherans, and their theology, distinct in their understanding and application of God’s Word. Historically, it has been standard Lutheran operating procedure.
However, the current “missional” and “emergent” church debates have drawn this practice into question. In short, the movement’s stated goal is to return a wayward church to its original “mission” by unabashedly following the Great Commission and calling all Christians to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. Consequently, it often critiques Christians, congregations, and whole denominations, for dismissing the need to seek and save the lost.
As Lutherans feel they have always maintained theological clarity regarding the nature and mission of the church, (AC VII) the movement is viewed with uncertainty by some, particularly when the Gospel is portrayed as a demand of obedience. Thus, when “traditional” Lutherans and “missional” Lutherans (for lack of better terms) debate the nature and mission of the Holy Christian Church, the issue often gets boiled down to the nature of what Jesus told us to do versus what Jesus has done for us. To be sure, Jesus did both. But how we speak about them (i.e. our preaching and teaching), as well as our (in)ability to talk collegially with one another, has become the issue.
On the one hand, there is the refrain, “Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples and we have to obey that command. Jesus demands it.” If we don’t, depending on the author or person speaking, the legitimacy and authenticity of our faith may be called into question. On the other hand, there is the simple exhortation, (as above) that the Gospel makes no demands.
True, Luther was unequivocal about the Gospel: “The Gospel, however, is a blessed word; it makes no demands on us but only proclaims everything that is good, namely, that God has given His only Son for us poor sinners. This good news also includes that He is to be our Shepherd, seeking us starving and scattered sheep, giving His life for us, redeeming us from sin, everlasting death, and the power of the devil.” Yet, Jesus did say, “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19). What’s a Lutheran to do?
Maybe it comes down to letting all the words of Jesus be the words of Jesus, and not just our favorite few. And maybe it means duly noting and distinguishing all of His words (and actions) of law, and all his words (and actions) of Gospel. This way the law remains the law, and the Gospel remains the Gospel.
Historically, for a Lutheran to make the Gospel into a burden of obedience is a high offense. Lutherans have long cherished the claim that the Gospel frees. That is, it does not coerce, it does not force, and it does not insist. Rather, Lutherans have long held that it is the law that demands: “You shall do this” and “You shall not do that.”
What is more, not only does the law demand obedience, but it accuses us when we fail to fulfill it. But the Gospel makes no demands whatsoever! It is all gift. It is all love. It utterly frees. It frees us from our sins. It frees us to love others. Not because we “have” to, not because we “get” to, but simply because that is what Christ’s love for us and in us does to us.
Likewise, the Gospel frees us to share our faith and to give witness to others, not because we “have” to, not because we “need” to, but because (by the Holy Spirit) we are freed to. This is the proclamation of the Gospel. To make it a demand (i.e. following Jesus means you must sell your house, you must give to the poor, you must go on a mission trip, you must forget retirement, and you must work only for the Gospel), burdens the conscience, destroys the freedom of the Gospel, and no longer trusts the Holy Spirit to do what He says He will do. Sure, the law can demand things of us, but the Gospel does not “demand.” It does not burden. It frees.
Yes, the freedom of the Gospel permits us not to love others. But then we must deal with the law. For here is the right work of the law: it convicts and condemns us for our lack of love and drives us to repentance, back into the gift of the Gospel, and back to the freedom and power of the Gospel, wherein we go about doing the works (loving, serving, witnessing) God has prepared in advance for us to do.
It is a high art to rightly preach and teach law and Gospel. Lutherans have long held to this endeavor. Given the current church debates, and current confusion about the mission of the Church, I think it is worth revisiting.
What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? Does the recent mandate to be “missional” have tendencies to make the Gospel into law? Or is the desire for right doctrine (rightly dividing law and Gospel) promote hair splitting?
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).