Shoot don’t Shoot: The Proper Distinction between Law and Taunting, by Jonathan Townsend

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan is a laymen from Michigan. His posts can be found in his regular column “I Desire Mercy and Not Satire…” He also writes and produces the John the Steadfast radio spots heard on Issues, Etc.)


It is the year before I was born, 1971, and a hardboiled detective named Harry Callahan was busy keeping the streets of San Francisco clean. His tactics are “dirty”, but who can blame him? Murderers, rapists, scum….they deserve what they got coming to them. Isn’t this what we want to see? We want the guilty punished!


At the end of the movie “Dirty Harry”, Harry has the bad guy with his back against a lake and a hostage in front of him. Harry is at least 40 feet away, but he shoots the bad guy in spite of the human shield. The hostage runs free and the bad guy is on the ground, halfway between kneeling and prone, with the gun he had two feet from his hand. Our hero, Dirty Harry utters these famous words:


I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?…. Well, do ya, punk?


The bad guy reaches for his gun and Harry pulls the trigger. He did fire only five and his prophecy comes true. Harry walks up to the body pulls out his badge and throws it far out into the lake.


The truth is that Harry threw his badge away before he even pulled the trigger.


At times Lutherans can be like doctrinal Dirty Harrys. There is a real sense of power when you are walking around with the theological equivalent to a .44 Magnum, namely the Book of Concord. That book is no .22! Couple that with the dead eye accuracy of a Christocentric approach to scripture and the hollow point stopping force of CFW Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel and you are loaded for bear! You can get out there in your 8 mile per gallon Grand Torino and be the bane of Papists, American Evangelicals, Calvinists, Liberals, Seminexers and whoever else crosses your path and looks at you the wrong way.


Guns don’t kill people, people kill people


Lutheran doctrine is awesome! It is good, it is right on the money. It is perfectly balanced – but the balance is not always for perfect positioning on a shot of Law between the eyes. The balance is to heal what the Law does with the Gospel. That Gospel is Christ’s mercy freely given through His obedience, suffering, death and resurrection.


To carry on the analogy, the Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel is a lesson in shoot/don’t shoot awareness. We have the Law and it is deadly. Walther correctly instructs us to use it in all its sterness on sinners. He also instructs us to give the Gospel in all its sweetness to the penitent.


So, you already took a shot at a law breaker and hit him. He is down. He is seething. The gun is out of his hand, but not out of reach. Is he going to surrender or reach for the gun?

Who cares, right? Let him reach for the gun. If he does, it is his own fault that he dies. Give him a verbal jab, watch him act out and finish the job.




If Dirty Harry were a good cop, he could talk about his .44 Magnum all he wants and explain what the next shot would do. In mercy he must at some point say, hands up! Since he is “Dirty” he taunts the criminal to break the Law again so that he can play executioner.


Not everyone at gun point begs for mercy. Some freeze. Some put their gun at their side. Some drop their weapon to the ground, but don’t raise their hands in surrender. A good cop keeps his gun pointed at the criminal with his finger on the trigger, but he does a few things to get the situation more under control. 1. He calls for backup. 2. He closes the distance.


1. Calling for Backup

15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ Matthew 18:15-16


Calling for back up is obvious. The officer radios into dispatch what the situation is and asks for additional help in subduing the fugitive. This is a no brainer right?


In terms of the Christian and the use of the Law to bring people to repentance, once we have spoken the hard words of the Law, we need to ask God to send His Holy Spirit to come and subdue our old Adam and the person to whom the Law is being applied. It is not safe for us or for the other person in this case to go it alone. An “officer down” or case of “police brutality” can easily happen – and our Lord doesn’t need a dashboard camera to see it.


2. Closing the Gap

Most who have studied some kind of martial art know of the concept of the closing the distance or closing the gap. The closer you are to an opponent, the harder it is for them to generate force to strike out; or if they are armed it gives you a chance to disarm them – the type of attack or weapon they are using helps one make the decision on what the distance should be. You don’t want to be an arm’s distance from a man with a knife, but if he has a sword you actually want to be closer to him than an arm’s distance if you plan on defeating him. But let’s go back to the Dirty Harry scenario. Closing the gap to about 15 feet is good. The suspect who has to reach a few feet for a gun most likely will not because your chances of a missed shot at 15 feet are very low – and he knows it too.


The internet allows for the Dirty Harry scenario all the time – the distance is too large for a clean shot. There is no way to close the gap. There is no way to tell if the suspect is in terror or is madly and unrepentantly defiant. You can’t hear the waver in the voice, you can’t see the fear in another’s eyes – the suspect can’t hear the earnestness in your voice, he can’t see the concern in your eyes. Because of the distance the suspect is encouraged in his defiance.


Applying Law and Gospel tactics in the internet environment can be a gross misapplication because the subtle shift that shows one when to apply the Gospel part of the equation is often unapparent in the written word. The speed of the internet makes one think it is a live and close scenario, but the technology does not allow for the whole range of communication – the context, subtext, visual cues and body language are all missing and without the entire picture making the shoot/don’t shoot call can end up in disaster.


The success of teaching others about historic Lutheran theology and spreading a Confessional worldview is aided by an awareness of our limitations. The Word must be applied correctly. When the Law is spoken or written, it acts as curb, mirror and rule – it warns of impending doom. The Law administered by one living in the mercy of Christ does not taunt. Taunting is how satan twists the Law. When a Law situation occurs we need the Holy Spirit to comfort us so that we do not become full of a wrath that we have no claim to and that we cannot control. We need the Holy Spirit to call and enlighten the other sinner involved. We need the backup of other Christians in witness and wisdom. We have to come close enough to judge what is really going on and to let the other one involved know that the true intention of the Law is to drive one to flee to the Gospel, found in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.


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