Rev. John T. Pless is assistant professor of pastoral ministry and missions at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is a visiting professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa. He is also the author of Handling the Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today, Praying Luther’s Small Catechism, and Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross. He is also the co-editor of Closed Communion? and The Necessary Distinction.
We recently caught up with Pless to talk about The Necessary Distinction, which is now available on cph.org.
Why is it important to make a clear distinction between Law and Gospel?
We distinguish between God’s Law and His Gospel because the Scriptures make this distinction. This is not a distinction superimposed on the Bible; rather, it flows from the fact that God speaks two different words to us in the Holy Scriptures. God speaks both commands and promises.
It is important that the Law be distinguished from the Gospel for three reasons. First, so that Christ Jesus alone is trusted in for salvation, not our own good works. Second, the distinction between the Law and the Gospel clarifies the two ways that the triune God is working in the world. Through the Law, God is restraining the effects of sin in creation. Through the Gospel, He is forgiving sin and enlivening forgiven sinners to live before Him by faith. Third, Law and Gospel are to be rightly distinguished for the sake of articulating God’s message of salvation to unbelievers. We need to be clear that salvation is through faith in the promises of Christ Jesus and not in our own moral or spiritual achievements. Where the distinction between Law and Gospel is not made, people will fall into the trap of “lawfulness” or “lawlessness.” They will either believe that they are righteous because they have kept the Law, or they will set God’s Law aside and live by their own standards.
What impact does it have on an individual Christian if the two are not properly distinguished?
Where Law and Gospel are confused, individual Christians are caught in confusion, doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty. Confronted by the Law, they can see only their sin, and if the Gospel does not follow they will be left in either despair or arrogance. Either they will conclude that it is impossible for them to be a Christian because of their own sins, or they will misuse the Law to justify themselves. Law and Gospel are properly distinguished to guard against both despair and arrogance. Only when the Law is properly distinguished from the Gospel are we able to see that while the Law does not save it shows us God’s will for the lives of His human creatures in creation.
Why did pastors drift away from this clear distinction between Law and Gospel?
Martin Luther once commented that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a most difficult art taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience. Sometimes pastors are tempted to take what they perceive as an easier path, reducing preaching into a generic declaration of God’s love without regard to sin and the Law. Others might, in frustration over the spiritual apathy of their people or the moral chaos of our decadent culture, wrongly conclude that stronger and stricter application of the Law will change things. Both of these approaches bypass the arduous work required of those who would rightly handle the Word of truth. It is the hope of the editors of The Necessary Distinction that our book would challenge and encourage pastors both in the work of preaching and pastoral care. Like any good art, it must be honed, sharpened, and practiced. We believe that this book will help refine that art.
Where the art of distinguishing Law and Gospel properly is put into play, preachers will avoid the notion that the Law is just preached to make people feel guilty and the Gospel is then proclaimed to make the guilty feel good about themselves. When the Law is preached incisively as the prophet Nathan preached it to David (see 2 Samuel 12:1–15), it functions as a mirror to show us the reality of our sin so that our hearts are open to God’s Gospel, which declares the forgiveness of sins, imparting the power of the resurrection for a new life in Christ. The authors of The Necessary Distinction demonstrate that there is nothing formulaic about this functional use of God’s Law and Gospel.
How does the failure to properly distinguish Law from Gospel affect the Church’s mission, the carrying out of His mandate to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching?
Genuine mission work requires the preaching of both the Law and the Gospel. The Law identifies and crushes whatever false gods the human heart is looking to for meaning, security, and direction. The Law, however, does not have the capacity to restore broken sinners to life with Gospel. Only the Gospel creates Christians; it is exclusively the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation (see Romans 1:16–17). The Law brings about the knowledge of sin, but no human being will be declared righteous by the Law (see Romans 3:20). We proclaim God’s Law not to make disciples but to show how people of whatever background have sinned and fall short of His glory. But the word that makes disciples is the word of the cross, the good news of forgiveness of sins through the reconciling work of Christ.
In your opinion, would a resurgence of (or return to) the proper distinction between Law and Gospel help to reunite the Christian Church? If so, how?
Every division among Christians can, in one way or another, be traced to a confusion of Law and Gospel. The great Lutheran theologian of the last century Franz Pieper once commented that there are finally only two religions in all the world—the religion of the Law and that of the Gospel. As the Augsburg Confession reminds us, it is sufficient for the true unity of the Church that the Gospel be preached purely and the Sacraments be administered according to this divine Word. The Gospel is not preached purely if it is mixed with the Law. If the Law is dismissed, there is no need for the Gospel, which alone unifies the Church.
How could a congregation be impacted by a return to a clear distinction between Law and Gospel?
Where God’s Law and Gospel are rightly distinguished, the Gospel will predominate. This means that people are set free from the bondage to sin, delivered from the fear of death, and given the confidence to live in faith in Christ and love for their neighbors. Knowing the difference between Law and Gospel means that Christians are not looking to their own spiritual lives as a means of achieving salvation. Instead they are liberated to live by faith in Christ (see Galatians 2:20) and devote themselves to caring for their neighbors according to God’s commandments. When Christians know that Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to those who believe (see Romans 10:4), they are freed from trying to rely on the Law for self-justification. To paraphrase a line from the chapter by James Nestingen, then the Holy Spirit harnesses the Law so that it is rightly used in creation, identifying the good works that God has designed to serve the neighbor. Only then can we do good works from a “free and merit spirit,” to borrow language from the Formula of Concord. Where Christ Jesus is exercising His lordship over believers through the Gospel, there you will find Christians living under Him in His kingdom and serving Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, to use the words of the catechism. It is no wonder then that C. F. W. Walther referred to preachers who rightly distinguish Law and Gospel as “helpers of joy.”
To order The Necessary Distinction, visit cph.org or contact CPH at 800-325-3040.