Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know

A Charismatic, a Presbyterian, and a Lutheran walk into a bar. Okay, that probably would never happen, but if those three people were to somehow enter a bar, coalesce, and emerge from the establishment as one man (who realized he wasn’t too fond of beer to begin with), that one man could possibly be me.

Yes, many denominations have made an impact on my spiritual development. And while I could possibly be labeled as something of a Reformed Charismatic (which, I assure you, is not a contradiction in terms), I have also been heavily influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther. One Lutheran doctrine in particular has been especially helpful—the paradigm-shattering distinction between law and gospel.

As any Lutheran worth his salt will tell you, this distinction is critical for properly understanding the Bible. The law is defined as any imperative statement—i.e, a command to do (or not do) something. The gospel, on the other hand, is an indicative statement—a promise that God has accomplished (or will accomplish). Throughout Scripture, God speaks with the voice of either the law or the gospel, and we need to discern which voice is speaking whenever reading a verse or passage. Pretty simple, right?

While the concept itself is simple, understanding and believing and applying it is not so simple. We must understand that the law shows us what we ought to do, not what we can do. God designed the law to act as our tutor—to show us just how wide a gap exists between what we must accomplish and what we cannot accomplish. Then, when we see our plight for what it truly is, the gospel steps in and promises that God has done what we could not. If we interpret the law of God as being attainable through human effort, we will misinterpret countless Scriptural passages.

Or think about the gospel—a word that, in the Greek, literally means “good news.” As has been explained by men much wiser than I, there is a big difference between good news and good advice. The gospel is the former, not the latter. It is the story of the finished work that God has accomplished on our behalf, apart from our help or assistance or merit. The gospel is not a command, but we often interpret it as such. Just the other day, I heard a lady describe the gospel as being about what we should and shouldn’t do. That’s good advice, not good news—and good advice has no power to save a sinner trapped by the condemnation of the law.

One particular aid I have found for discerning law/gospel distinctions is the Lutheran Study Bible. Released in 2009, it has significantly affected my communion with God during Scripture reading. Throughout the entire study Bible, each section—or, at the very least, each chapter—is accompanied by a “Law and Gospel Application.” As the study Bible explains, “These notes summarize sections of Scripture, applying both Law and Gospel for the reader and providing a petition or praise to guide the reader into prayer, since studying the Bible is always a devotional act for Lutherans.” If you’re looking for a new study Bible, this is the one I would recommend most highly.

Regardless of our denominational upbringings, we have all interpreted commands as promises and promises as commands. We need humility, wisdom, and grace in order to rightly divide the word of truth. The Lutherans have been a means of such humility, wisdom, and grace in my life.

And now, since I’ve opened a can of, among other things, a Diet of Worms, I think we’ll need to take a closer look at the distinctions between law and gospel. We’ll check out some specific examples next week.

photo credit: Nick in exsilio via photopin cc