Bible Law Gospel: A Conversation
A friend of mine, whom I’ll call "Ted" for the purposes of this post, recently e-mailed me perceptive questions, as he always does, and inquired about the distinction between Law and Gospel and Bible interpretation. I thought you might like to read our conversation, which I offer here with Ted’s permission.
Greetings, Paul. I’m helping someone with a manuscript. In it, he
says that in addition to the Law and Gospel, the Bible also contains
"wisdom literature," which gives wise, prudential counsel for everyday
life. For example, the Book of Proverbs does contain Law when it tells us
what to do, but it also just describes earthly consequences. When it
talks about how men sharpen one another like iron sharpening iron, it
isn’t really telling us to sharpen one another (which would be Law), it
just states a truth about life. That might be like other passages in
the Bible that just convey some historical or geographical fact and
thus might not either be Law nor Gospel. I’m familiar, of course, with the category of Wisdom Literature. But
would a Lutheran hermeneutic still insist that Law and Gospel are the
only two categories by which we should apply Scripture? The author of this manuscript is a Lutheran layman, and he asked me to check the doctrine, but I thought I’d run it by you.
It is my understanding that the Wisdom literature, traditionally, includes: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. I would say that "Law" is best understood in the three ways the Holy Spirit uses it, mind you, there are not three "kinds" of Law, but we distinguish the way in which the Holy Spirit uses the Law, hence, the three uses of the Law include:
1) To curb the gross outbursts of sin in the world, to maintain order, to order things.
2) To show us our sin.
3) As a guide for the baptized child of God.
In that sense, then, could we not understand "iron sharpens iron" to be, yes, an observation on "how things work" but also, Law in its first use? If people "sharpen" one another that would sever a nice curb on gross outbursts of stupidity with people doing whatever enters their head [we sure could use a whole lot more sharpening!]. It is also second use in that when I read this I am reminded, immediately, of where I have either been "sharpened," or have failed to sharpen others, or…how I have *failed* to let myself be sharpened, and as third use, a guide for my behavior and interactions with others: how can I better serve others and so sharpen them? ?But how could this comment be heard as Gospel, as healing balm. I would suggest one way. When I read about iron sharpening iron, I am reminded of the One who bore the sharpened points of the iron nails, whose life and death is the atoning sacrifice for my sins, by which and through which I am set free to be sharpened, and to sharpen others.
Those are just some thoughts…I hope they help, and make sense.
I find the Law/Gospel distinction to be a "particularly brilliant light" as the Confessions refers to it, a true dynamic and powerful distinction that is used by God the Holy Spirit, the "two edged sword" of the the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
So is it true that every Bible passage is not so much either law or gospel,
but that there is both a law and gospel dimension, if we could only see
it? Working on the study notes, that seemed to be the implication,
and, indeed, I could nearly always see both law and gospel. Or are
some passages one or the other? (I can see how gospel passages would
not be law).
I would say it truly is an art, not a science. It’s why Luther said that the *only* person who really deserves to be called "doctor" in the church is the one who can always properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. And then he quickly admitted he has not mastered it [typical Luther overstatement]. I would put it this way. If you were to take a red marker and highlight every verse in the Bible that is Law and then do something similar with a blue marker to mark every verse that is "Gospel" you would discover that the Passion of our Lord passages are a beautiful shade of purple.
I think that is the point. It’s about distinction, not separation. Yes, some verses clearly are Law, others clearly Gospel, but at the same time, applying those passages to ourselves will always be an exercise in receiving both Law and Gospel, as the Holy Spirit uses them on us.
For instance, when I read the Psalms I like to apply the verses as both Law and Gospel in a devotional way.
I believe the Holy Spirit can use every part of His Word in our lives as Law and Gospel.
How, for instance, could the commandments be both Law and Gospel? Well, obviously they are LAW and the Christian considering/meditating on them will always be driven to repent, they are the LAW — Do this, and we do not! The Law always–always–accuses us of our sin. O, Lord have mercy! But then I start to think of Jesus and how perfectly he kept the commandment in every possible application of it and I am moved deeply to consider how He did this …for me, for the world and that, to me, then is Gospel working as I meditate on the specific commandments, and of course, I consider my station and calling in life and consider how the commandment applies to me as a child of God and consider how I can apply that commandment in my life, third use? And once again I return to consider my failure to do that, and again return to the Gospel.
And consider how Gospel passages could be law!
Can I be moved to repent of sin by considering the crucifixion? Yes. Why was Jesus nailed to the tree? What put him there? My sin!! I hope this is helpful. I am *not* suggesting that we turn Law into Gospel, but it seems to me that here we are dealing with matters of application of Law and Gospel.
Does that help?
So we should stick with Law/Gospel and not inject any additional categories in interpreting Scripture. Right?
Well…I will be pondering that question…but…my gut reaction is, "If we have Law and Gospel what else do we need?"
I think the Lutheran insight into the Bible’s own "method" of understanding it is SO powerful precisely because it is so comprehensive and all inclusive.
I sure would welcome understanding what other categories there may be, but Law and Gospel just seem to me as so wonderfully "all inclusive."
But of course, I’m hopelessly Lutheran in my "bias" so I can only answer according too that point of view, but….I’ve not seen anything better.
I love this comment in our confessions, from the Epitome of the Solid Declaration:
"We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be kept in the Church with great diligence as a particularly brilliant light. By this distinction, according to the admonition of St. Paul, God’s Word is rightly divided (2 Tim. 2:15)."
Another *very important* point here.
We need to be very, very, VERY careful when we speak about and talk about and embrace the concept of "distinction" that we not let it become something that is not , separation.
I’ve noticed recently in another debate that I’ve been monitoring that the "distinction" between the two natures in Christ leads some, in practice, to separate the two natures.
Similarly we would never want to take the Word of God and regard Law and Gospel as "separations" in the Word of God, but as distinction!
So, that would be, in my opinion, how it is that that we always distinguish between God’s Law and God’s Gospel, but we do not separate the Word of God into "only Law" and "only Gospel." Thanks for giving me a chance to reflect on all this.
You should post this conversation on your blog site, but don’t use my name since I should know all this already.
Ted, No, not at all. I think your question points to a real problem we have in our church. Pastors love to use "jargon" and "buzz words" and think in repeating them, nearly like mantras, somehow what these terms actually *mean* will "infuse" itself into our people. The older I get and think about these things the more I conclude that all our wonderful theological terms and categories are wonderful distinctions, but they have, in some respects assumed the role of being the substance of our theology, rather, than guidepost, maps, user’s guides, helpful instruction, etc. They are means to an end, not the end itself. Sometimes I get the impression that some among us believe that if we all just mouth the same words all will be well. And then you have the other extreme with people running around thinking the best way to go is to invent new buzz words, phrases and such. The pattern of sound doctrine as we have it in Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions has to take root in meaning for each person. Your questions are spot on and reveal that Law and Gospel have been treated nearly like scientific categories when we approach the Scripture. Thanks for the opportunity to come clearer in my thinking and articulation of these things. Remember, iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another! So, thank you!
And there you have our conversation. I welcome your observations and responses.