Getting Law and Gospel Right

Though I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church and went to church nearly every Sunday while I was growing up, I somehow managed to completely miss the significance of everything that made it uniquely Lutheran. By my late teens I was convinced that it was just a duller, more tradition-bound version of the other Christian churches in the Protestant tradition. During my first ten years or so in Pentecostal churches I was confident I had found and was living the truths about the Biblical way of faith and life in Jesus that the Lutheran church had only obscured. For the next ten years or so I became less and less confident. As I continued to try to honestly evaluate what I was being taught in Pentecostalism (not to mention how life in Pentecostal churches was actually unfolding!) against what the Scriptures say, I became more and convinced that Pentecostalism had led me down a rabbit trail—a trail that wanders just about everywhere but ultimately goes nowhere. (And here in this post I’m speaking about Pentecostalism in general outside of the particular issues raised by Oneness Pentecostalism, which rejects the doctrine of the Trinity as being a pagan invention. The process of coming to realize that rejection was also a bad mistake was a separate story for me.)

As I then started to re-examine Lutheran teaching in the light of my discouraging experiences in Pentecostalism and in the light of my more careful reading of the Scriptures, I realized that on doctrine after doctrine it could have straightened me out on all the issues that had led me into Pentecostalism in the first place if only I could have quieted my youthful self-centeredness, pride, and insecurity long enough to really hear what the Lutheran church had tried to teach me about salvation and life in Christ. One of the best examples of this is its teaching concerning the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. What Lutheran teaching showed me when I came back to it was that one of the main reasons Pentecostalism had failed me so badly was that, due to its roots back through the “Holiness” revivals of the 19th century and through Wesley’s Methodism before that, it confuses Law and Gospel.

Pentecostalism had told me that repenting and believing the Gospel comprised only the first step of the Christian life—I also needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues. And if that hadn’t happened spontaneously at my conversion, I needed to actively seek the Holy Spirit until He gave me that evidence. I needed to consecrate myself to God or completely surrender to His will or totally yield to His love, or maybe all of this at once (the terms describing the process would be different depending upon the Pentecostal teacher one was learning this from), and to pray for it until I got it. What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that however that process is described it always amounts to a concentrated effort on my part to make myself worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, or at least to get myself up above some minimum threshold of effort or perseverance to where God could give me the Holy Spirit.

Now there’s a lot wrong with this picture, biblically speaking. For one thing, it doesn’t at all fit the “Biblical pattern,” as Pentecostals claim. In the Bible, if speaking in tongues occurred, it always occurred spontaneously—the one receiving the Holy Spirit had no idea beforehand that speaking in tongues would be a part of it, and sometimes speaking in tongues isn’t even mentioned as occurring when believers received the Holy Spirit. The most important thing to note, however, is that this makes the basis of the complete Christian life, the “Spirit-filled life,” to be my striving, my willed conformance to a “Biblical pattern,” my obedience, rather than God’s grace extended to me without any merit on my part but only for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death for me. Faith in that Gospel is the only way our sins are forgiven and we become righteous in God's eyes. When the Jews who believed on Jesus asked him what they should be doing to be doing the works of God, Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:28-29). Pentecostals have lost sight of this distinction between works done in obedience to the Law and faith in the Gospel that was central to the truths of the Reformation that broke believers free from the works-righteousness of the Roman system.

The Bible makes it clear that our worthiness to receive God’s gifts is based only on what Christ has done for us, not on what we ourselves do. Our own efforts to fulfill what God expects of us (works done in obedience to His Law) even after salvation will always fall short of the perfection that is needed in God’s eyes for true righteousness and holiness. (Good works help our neighbor and thus make us somewhat more righteous in man’s eyes, but they never help us to grow more righteous in God’s eyes.) The more we think we are making ourselves any more worthy or righteous before God by our own works or effort, the more we are making ourselves into self-righteous fanatics.

Two of the places this distinction between Law and Gospel is set out the most clearly in Lutheran teaching are Luther’s Commentary on Galatians (of 1535—there’s an earlier one from 1519 before his thoughts on it were as fully formed as they were by 1535) and C. F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Both lay out the distinction and show its Biblical basis with far more detail than I can do in a blog posting. Both are available in several different editions from either Concordia Publishing House (the publishing house of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) or Amazon. Luther's Galatians commentaries are also a part of the American edition of Luther's Works published by Concordia Publishing House. Volume 26 and the first part of Volume 27 contain the Galatians commentary of 1535; the last part of Volume 27 contains the Galatians commentary of 1519.