What’s Law Got to Do with It?

In explaining the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel last week, I made the claim that the law does not show us what we can do; it simply shows us what we ought to do. Since that is a controversial statement, further explanations are in order.

It is easy, and even logical, to assume that if the law only tells us to do things we cannot do, the law is meaningless. It only mocks us and makes light of our condition. That is the stance I had for most of my life, actually. Only when exposed to the keen Biblical insights of Martin Luther did I realize the fallacy of my reasoning.

The law does not mock a person who is incapable of obeying it. In fact, by commanding the impossible, the law helps him. How? To answer, let me paraphrase an argument from Luther’s Bondage of the Will: Imagine a man with his hands bound behind his back, but who clearly and fully believes he can move his hands in any direction, whenever he wished. How could you best help this person? Well, by pointing out the fallacy of his delusion—that is, by telling him to move his arms. Only then would he have hope to change his assumptions. This is exactly how the law treats all of us.

Some argue that we are capable of obeying the law, or that we are already aware of our inabilities. But Luther disagreed. He argued that a man who is either capable of keeping the law or aware that he cannot “is nowhere to be found. If there were such, then, in truth, either the commanding of impossibilities would be absurd, or the Spirit of Christ would be in vain. But the Scripture sets before us a man who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead, but who, through the operation of Satan his lord, adds to his other miseries that of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, possessed of liberty and ability, whole and live” (Bondage of the Will, eds. Packer and Johnston, 161-162).

When we grasp this truth, the Bible explodes with new meaning. It starts to make sense how God can command something in one place and promise it in another; instead of contradicting Himself, He is simply speaking with the different voices of law and gospel.

Let’s look at a few specific distinctions:

A Circumcised Heart
  • The law: “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deut. 10:16).
  • The gospel: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).

A New Heart
  • The law: “…get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Eze. 18:31).
  • The gospel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26).

Fear of the Lord
  • The law: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12).
  • The gospel: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (Jer. 32:39-40).

The law is contingent on man’s performance, whereas the gospel is contingent on Christ’s performance. When we fail to recognize this distinction, we create a perverse hybrid in our minds: We combine the main principle of the law (by works you will be saved) with the main principle of the gospel (by grace you will be saved). And what we end up with is a humanistic and performance-oriented gospel—which, in the end, is no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7).

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