If all the law does is show me what I must but cannot do, then the law is basically nothing more than a constant reminder of my failures. That’s not much to celebrate, is it? Well, the truth is that we have been focusing on only one of the law’s uses, but it actually has three. It functions as a curb, a mirror, and a guide.
First, the law “helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world” (Luther’s Small Catechism). In this respect, it doesn’t change human nature for the better. It simply restrains us from doing what we would otherwise do.
Second, the law “accuses us and shows us our sin” (Luther’s Smaller Catechism). It lets us see our reflection—and the sight is horror-film-level scary. This is the use of the law I had become familiar with—too familiar.
The law has a third use: It “teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to lead a God-pleasing life. . . . The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel” (Luther’s Small Catechism). With this use, the law warmly lights our darkened path and reveals where we need to go.
The law shows us a beautiful standard: God’s standard. It proclaims what He values and what He hates. By revealing God’s will to us, it helps us see who God is and what He is like. It shows what is possible only for the Christian: loving obedience to His commands.
In the first two uses, the law brings an outward control on us that may provide some societal benefit (peace and order), but it doesn’t bring any inward reformation. Our behavior might change (to a limited degree), but our hearts do not. With these two uses of the law, we only experience what Paul calls its dominion over us (Rom. 7:1). It can only coerce and condemn.
The third use of the law comes into play only after a person experiences the new birth. Once a person is born again, the law does something it couldn’t do before—provide an inward control. When the gospel bears fruit to salvation, God puts His law in our minds and writes it on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). With this use of the law, we are compelled to love God from within.
When the law comes down on us from the outside, bringing its condemning power with it, our hearts respond to the pressure in this way: they “bear fruit to death” (Rom. 7:5). But when we die to the outward dominion of the law and experience the inward dominion of the law, the fountain of our heart changes: we “bear fruit to God” (Rom. 7:4). An outward compulsion of the law brings forth sin and death. An inward compulsion of the law brings forth righteousness and life.
Notice that I haven’t contradicted any of my earlier statements. Even as believers, we can never obey the law of God by ourselves. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Php. 4:13) isn’t code for, “I can now do all things by myself.” No, Jesus tells His disciples, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Obedience to the law of God only comes by the power of the gospel of God.
So we see that the law and the gospel are vastly different, though not in a contradictory sense. Just as melody and harmony combine to provide greater musical texture, so the law and gospel work in unity to glorify the saving work of Jesus Christ. The law shows us what is good and right and true—but gives us no power to follow it. Through the gospel, God promises to do in us that which is humanly impossible: willingly and happily obey Him.
This article concludes our series on the distinctions between law and gospel. You can read the series in its entirety by clicking on the “law vs. gospel” label at the bottom of this post.