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Bible Law Gospel: A Conversation

May 20th, 2006
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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.

Ted writes:

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.



McCain responds:

Hi Ted,

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.


Ted responded:

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).


McCain responds:

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?


Ted responds

So we should stick with Law/Gospel and not inject any additional categories in interpreting Scripture.  Right?

McCain responds:

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.


Ted responds:

You should post this conversation on your blog site, but don’t use my name since I should know all this already.

McCain responds:

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.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Jon C. Bischof
    May 20th, 2006 at 10:28 | #1

    Paul: I too appreciate Ted’s insightful questions. He has no need to be fearful or embarrassed about learning more about Law/Gospel distinction. The great majority of our pastors did not learn what they should know while they were at seminary. I always got a good laugh when guys who were about to graduate mocked those of us who were staying an extra year to work on STM classes. They said we were STM students because STM stood for “scared to minister”…to which I would always reply: “and you are not scared to minister?!” But those were the men who really didn’t know what they were getting into!
    In regard to “the 10 Commandments” as we call them. They are actually not commands, not even imperatives in Hebrew. Grammatically, most of the “ten words” as the OT calls them are Qal Imperfects, which means that they are simply indicative statements of what will happen. (Although “Honor your father and mother” is imperative; I have to remember that next time I see my Dad).
    I’m not saying that the 10 Commandments should not be distinguished doctrinally as Law. Certainly they are always Law to unbelievers and most of the time applied correctly as Law to believers. But there is a sense in which they can be applied as Gospel to the forgiven person. For example, with the 1st Commandment I might pray: “I thank You, Heavenly Father, that You have fulfilled this promise to me through Your Son Jesus Christ; through whom you have rescued me from all my other gods so that by Your mercy, I now have no other God but You! Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our only Lord and God.”

  2. revcwirla
    May 20th, 2006 at 10:40 | #2

    This is an excellent exchange. The distinction of the Law/Gospel is not a categorical distinction, but a paradoxical polarity of the Word.
    Nicely done.

  3. Frank Marron
    May 20th, 2006 at 13:00 | #3

    Pastor McCain – you did a nice jod distinguishing Law andd Gospel. In your response to Ted, you used the traditional 3 uses of the Law. I always find it extremely useful to think in these terms: There are two basic types of people:
    1. those who live under the Law
    2. those who live under the Gospel
    “Law” does not merely refer to “Torah”, the first 5 biblical books, nor merely the 10 commandments, but the will of God as found throughout the Scriptures. Certain people read passges of Scripture as commands or prescriptions for their lives-these are those who live under the Law, thinking that what they do makes a difference to God as to their salvation. The same verses of Scripture read by a person living under the Gospel are seen as a description of his status before God on account of the finished work of Christ. What a difference it makes! Since all men are born under the Law, there is a natural tendency to view everything from this perspective. However, continued bible study, hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments, enlightens the mind to give men freedom and true life in their Christian lives. Hence, we are free to love our neighbor through good works, whereas living under the Law commands us to do so. We live out of being saved and adopted by God as his child, not in order to please Him.
    A couple of examples might help. The person living under the Law would read John 3:16 as something he must do in order to be saved: he must believe in Christ. Hence, this verse would be read as a command of God, His will, what we should do. On the other hand, the person living under the Gospel sees this verse as a PROMISE of God which he trusts. This man knows that he is already saved by the finished work of Christ and that the Holy Spirit has created that saving faith within Him miraculously through hearing the Word. Living under the Gospel is such a comfort and assurance, whereas the man who continually lives under the Law is never positive about is relationship with God.
    2. The first epistle of Jojn is chicked full of apparent contradictions to the man living under the Law. 1John 1:6 says the man who sins walks in darkness with no life; verse 2:4 says we need to keep His commandments, and 3:10 says we must practice righteousness. These are plain commands of God to the man living under the Law. However, the man living under the Gospel reads the entire context of John’s letter, seeing in verse 1:9 that even though we will always sin, God is pleased with our confession of sin because it always appeals to His Beloved Son’s sacrifice as atonement for such. Also, in 3:23 we see that God’s true will for us is to believe in His Son. To the person living under the Gospel, although he still sins while in this mortal body, he is not proud of it and confesses it. This man knows that he automatically produces fruits of the Holy Spirit because he is grafted into the true vine(Christ-John 15), and a good tree automatically produces good fruit. This man lives a live of continual repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ. This man understands that as long as he lives in the world, there are two natures within him: the Old Adam, as descibed by Paul in Romans 8, and the New Creation referred to throughout Paul’s letters(e.g. Gal 3:28; 2Cor 5:17). The Old Adam always sins as is also reffered to as flehly, while the New Creation never sins and automatically loves, trusts, and obeys God. Hence, John’s first epistle remains contradictory and confusing until we realize that John is at oneplace chastising the Old Adam and at another praising the New Creation within each believer.
    Frank Marron

  4. Rev. Paul B. McCain
    May 20th, 2006 at 15:59 | #4

    Superb dialogue on such basic and cricital understanding of God’s Word and of our Confessions.
    I grew in my understanding from the exchange.
    I am sad that we have so man who really, in everyday life, live primarily under the Law and even more sadly feel that they are alright wih it.

  5. Rev. Jeffery Grams
    May 21st, 2006 at 08:15 | #5

    Especially useful is remembering that Jesus Christ our Lord is central to the Law/Gospel relationship. We know that the Gospel confesses the work of Christ Jesus for us, but how many fail to remember that the Law shows us what he has accomplished in our stead? Thanks for the opportunity to once again consider the blessed Law/Gospel distinction.(but not separation!)

  6. Steven G.
    May 21st, 2006 at 20:16 | #6

    One of the things that jumped out at me was the confusion between ways of differating types of Biblical writing and ways of applying the Scripture to our lives. “Wisdom Literature” like Narrative or Apocalyptic Literature are all genres or types of writing that contain certain features. This is helpful when we read Scripture. We do not read Revelation the same way we read Acts. While the “Law and Gospel” distinction is an application of the Scripture. In fact I would say the only correct application of Scripture, but then again I do share that “Lutheran bias”.

  7. Frank Marron
    May 22nd, 2006 at 19:32 | #7

    Stephen – You are correct regarding the various types of literature contained in Holy Scripture. Consequently, one reads Revelation differently than the book of Proverbs. Most people, even trained theologians, understand these principles, and yet within Christendom there is rampant denominationalism. I maintain that the primary reason for significant disagreements between Christians is a result of the inability to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. For example, a person living under the Law would read verses in Proverbs and believe they are formulas or prescriptions of what a man is to do in order to be wise. The person living under the Gospel reads the same verses and views everything through the finished work of Christ. Consequently, this person sees these same verses as DESCRIPTIONS of believers from God’s perspective on account of Christ’s perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection for the atonement of the sins of the world. What a difference the proper distinction between Law and Gospel makes! Are the verses DESCRIPTIONS of what a man must do to please God, or DESCRIPTIONS of his status before a just and loving God on account of His Son?
    Frank Marron

  8. Steven G.
    May 22nd, 2006 at 21:43 | #8

    Amen to that Frank. I suffered for years under the tyranny of the Law. I was told that if I wanted to please God that I needed to get the mind of Christ or have some additional experience of God other than the real experience of Him in His Word and Sacrament. I was told that The book of Proverbs was practical advice on how I could please God. I guess the really sad thing is that since I have been in Lutheran church I often hear the same confusion of the Law and Gospel. May the Lord have mercy on us all!!
    McCain: As always, my standard caveat, in our zeal to properly distinguish Law and Gospel, and to avoid the errors of moralism, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water and neglect sanctification and the third use of the law. Now, back to the show.

  9. Darren Harbaugh
    May 25th, 2006 at 17:31 | #9

    Rev. MacCain,
    Thank you for posting this. It was very helpful. I grew up in a law-heavy environment and am a recent Lutheran convert. The Law/Gospel distinction has been eye-opening and a wonderful change from sermons and teachings I have encountered in the past. Our bible study at church is planning on delving into the topic of Law and Gospel. I’ll be sure to share this.
    I’m one of the many readers who gives this blog record-setting days when you don’t post. Can’t get enough. Thanks for the insight!

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