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“Preoccupied” with the Distinction Between Law and Gospel?

November 25th, 2007
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I would like to express a fraternal concern with a comment made in the latest issue of Concordia Journal about the Lutheran distinction between two kinds of righteousness. It is said to be a "distinction which has sometimes been neglected or overshadowed by our preoccupation with the distinction between Law and Gospel." (CJ, Vol. 33, No. 4, p. 342).

I’m entirely in favor of a much more thorough exploration of, and appreciation for, the distinction between two kinds of righteousness. That is well and good, but, I’m not in favor of doing this at the expense of the distinction between Law and Gospel.

The Formula of Concord asserts that the distinction between Law and Gospel is a: "particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of rightly dividing God’s Word and properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles. We must guard this distinction with special care, to that these two doctrines may not be mixed with each other, or a law be made out of the Gospel. When that happens Christ’s merit is hidden and troubled consciences are robbed of comfort, which they otherwise have in the Holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely and purely." (Article VI.1).

And again:

"These two doctrines, we believe and confess, should always be diligently taught in God’s Church forever, even to the end of the world." (VI.24)


"The true and proper distinction between the Law and Gospel must be taught and preserved with all diligence." (VI.27).

Note also what Melanchthon states in the Apology, Article IV.5-6:

"All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises [the Gospel]. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, 
and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal. Moreover,in this discussion, by Law we designate the Ten Commandments, wherever they are read in the Scriptures."

I would respectfully submit that those who want to rouse interest in the distinction between two kinds of righteousness should avoid speaking in ways about the distinction between Law and Gospel that sound disparaging. I could not agree more with those who have rightly identified a problem in the way the distinction between Law and Gospel has come to be regarded: not as distinction, but apposition in which any and all talk about works is labeled as works righteousness; therefore, all the more reason to make clear what all these distinctions are all about. Here is one of the best articles I’ve read on the distinction between two kinds of righteousness.

Are we "preoccupied" with the distinction between Law and Gospel? If we aren’t, we certainly should be. And this does not in any way preclude us from learning more about, and deepening our appreciation for, the distinction between two kinds of righteousness.The distinction between Law and Gospel is the key to properly understanding the Sacred Scriptures; and therefore the key to understanding the two kinds of righteousness.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. November 25th, 2007 at 19:31 | #1

    I haven’t seen the whole CJ article so maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see anything in what you quoted that suggests that we should focus on the two kinds of righteousness at the “expense” of Law and Gospel.
    Rather, a healthy understanding of the two kinds of righteousness encourages us to consider how Law and Gospel works both before God and before others. However, not having the two kinds of righteousness as part of our core framework has opened the door for the antinomianism that you frequently post against.

  2. William Weedon
    November 25th, 2007 at 19:35 | #2

    You know, I can’t remember which said it. Or whether it was the one quoting the other. But it’s either Walther or Nagel:
    “Whatever goes wrong in theology can ultimately be traced to a failure to properly distinguish law and gospel.”
    That goes for getting in a muddle about the righteousnesses too.

  3. November 26th, 2007 at 21:29 | #3

    I think the problem is not with Law and Gospel itself; but when Law/Gospel becomes the paradigm, and it is not placed in its proper context of the Two Kinds of Righteousness, then it becomes, more often than not, Law versus Gospel. In other words, I think Two Kinds of Righteousness preserves the full-bodied Law and Gospel of Luther, Walther, etc., because it prevents it from devolving into Gospel trumping Law and making the Law bad instead of showing how sinners are bad.

  4. Bror Erickson
    November 27th, 2007 at 11:18 | #4

    Law and Gospel is THE paradigm for any Lutheran theologian. There is no other paradigm through which we dare read scripture. It is the paradigm scripture itself has given us.
    Tim, I think you are wrong. The two kinds of righteousness finds its proper context with in the Law/Gospel paradigm. Not the other way around. And Gospel must trump law, but that does not mean that it makes the law out to be bad. The law is just insufficient for producing our righteousness. At least it is insufficient for producing the only kind of righteousness that gets us into heaven.
    Civic righteosness though, righteousness before the world, Even that needs to be held to the light of law and Gospel. We Christians ought to remember that the world will hate us for Christ. In their eyes we may never look righteous, hypocritical maybe, but not righteous. This is because our moral compass is different than that of the world. In so much as the world even has a compass. Yes they have the law written on their hearts, but they quickly become hardened to it. We need to watch as Christians that we be not too eager to look righteous before the world. That is so eager that we adopt their rules for living. That we begin to condemn things the Bible is silent on, and condone things the Bible condemns.

  5. Dennis Voss
    November 29th, 2007 at 19:03 | #5

    I don’t know how much this has to do with the Law and Gospel distinction, but Paul you began about the distinction between the two types of righteous (I haven’t read the CJ article yet). You also mentioned a Lutheran Quarterly article from 2001. I just read The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther by H.J.Iwand in the Autumn 2007 volume of the Lutheran Quarterly. I thought he had some helpful things to say from Luther about the two types of righteousness. We must keep the Law-Gospel distinction or we write a new Gospel. At the same time, if we think that our civil righteousness without God’s justification is worth something, well then we have again created a new Gospel.

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