Proposed Catechism Explanation Revision — The Distinction Between Law and Gospel

Here is another guest article on the proposed revisions to the Catechism. Note that the deadline for comments on the revision is coming up fast — October 31st!

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20161006_143222_resized“The distinction between law and gospel is a particularly glorious light. It serves to divide God’s Word properly and to explain correctly and make understandable the writing of the holy prophets and apostles. Therefore, we must diligently preserve this distinction, so as not to mix these two teachings together and make the gospel into a law. For this obscures the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of the comfort that they otherwise have in the holy gospel when it is preached clearly and purely. With the help of this distinction these consciences can sustain themselves in their greatest spiritual struggles against the terror of the law.”[1]

The Lutheran confessors wanted their children in the faith to know the difference between the two great doctrines of Holy Scripture. What’s at stake if the Law and Gospel are mingled and confused? The Bible becomes obscure and terrifying. It’s like trying to read a book in a pitch black room that might as well be a tomb. But with the distinction, Christ is glorified and frightened consciences find peace. It’s like a light is turned on and you can see that through the text the Holy Ghost is putting aside your guilt with the Savior’s voice by saying, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2).

The Missouri–Synod has taken upon itself the difficult task of revising the explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism which serves as the go-to text to teach the youth and laity in most congregations. Therefore, this essay will examine how the new Explanation of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism treats the distinction between Law and Gospel.


Let’s start by finding where in past Explanations the distinction between Law and Gospel was explicitly mentioned. Remember that the Catechism is divided into six chief parts: Ten Commandments, Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Office of the Keys, and Sacrament of the Altar. Each of the editions has some preliminary questions before explicating the meat of Luther’s Catechism. Also, there are straddling sections between the chief parts that supply additional material to both summarize and prepare the student for the next section. Since there’s no chief part of Luther’s Small Catechism that’s called “Law and Gospel” it makes sense for the discussion to show up in either the introduction or in one of the straddling sections, and that is exactly what we find.

Looking back to the 1912 edition, the distinction pops up in a small preview of what to expect from the Apostle’s Creed. The ’43/’65 edition moves questions on Law and Gospel to the Explanation’s introduction before getting into the Commandments.[2] It seems like the ’91 edition likes the idea stating the distinction clearly in both places, so it appears both before the Ten Commandments and after the Commandments and before the Creed. The 2016 edition actually goes back to treating the distinction in one place, between the Commandments and the Creed, similar to the 1912 edition.

So, why would “Law and Gospel” be dropped from the introduction? I’m not sure it’s a big deal. When the topic on Law and Gospel appears at the beginning, as in the ’43 and ’91 editions, it follows previous questions concerning the Bible or Holy Scripture. So the ’43 edition asks, “What are the two great doctrines of the Bible” (q. 14)? The question is a little different in the ’91 edition which asks, “What basic distinction must we keep in mind in order to understand the Bible” (q. 6)?[3] Both questions remind me of how Francis Pieper brings great clarity and focus to the topic of religion at the beginning of his Christian Dogmatics.

“How many essentially different religions are there in the world? The preceding chapter has already shown there are not a thousand…, not even four, but only two essentially different religions: the religion of the Law, that is, the endeavor to reconcile god through man’s own works, and the religion of the Gospel, that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, belief wrought through the Gospel by the Holy Ghost that we have a gracious God through the reconciliation already effected by Christ, and not because of our own works (χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου).”[4]

The point is, if you’re after clarity and precision in your students’ minds, it might be nice to say Law and Gospel are what you find in the Bible and how we should think about religion in general.

However, when the distinction isn’t brought up during the treatment on Scripture, it’s not necessarily wrong. It’s enough to know that because the Scriptures are clear, Law and Gospel will be found, which is established by the substantial material of the Catechism. When we treat the Commandments, we’re actively distinguishing the Law. When we talk about the Creed, we’re actively distinguishing the Gospel. The Commandments and Creed teach what we find in the Scriptures when we don’t twist God’s words. Luther’s own practice in the Large Catechism was to bring up the distinction between Law and Gospel to highlight the essential difference between the Commandments and Creed.

When introducing the Creed Luther writes,

“Thus far we have heard the first part of Christian teaching, and in it we have seen all that God wishes us to do and not to do. The Creed properly follows, which sets forth all that we must expect and receive from God; in short, it teaches us to know him perfectly.”[5]

At the conclusion of the Apostle’s Creed, the second chief part, Luther writes,

“From this you see that the Creed is a very different teaching than the Ten Commandments. For the latter teach us what we ought to do, but the Creed tells us what God does for us and gives to us. The Ten Commandments, forever, are written in the hearts of all people, but no human wisdom is able to comprehend the Creed; it must be taught by the Holy Spirit alone. Therefore the Ten Commandments do not succeed in making us Christians, for God’s wrath and displeasure still remain upon us because we cannot fulfill what God demands of us. But the Creed brings pure grace and makes us righteous and acceptable to God. Though this knowledge we come to love and delight in all the commandments of God because we see here in the Creed how God gives himself completely to us, with all his gifts and power, to help us keep the Ten Commandments: the Father gives us all Creation, Christ all his works, the Holy Spirit all his gifts.”[6]

The main point to take away from Luther is that he lets the Law do the speaking when he treats the Commandments. When the subject matter treats a righteousness not our own, he lets our Redeemer speak and comfort. I would argue that he’s not trying to drag his readers down some sort of existential path to feel the terrors of the Law only later to be comforted by the promises of the Gospel. Rather, he assumes the whole catechism is being taught to Christians who have gained an understanding of the particulars of Christian doctrine from their youth (Psalm 71:17). It’s is perhaps the same for the new edition which treats Law and Gospel following the Commandments in a supplement that also includes a discussion on sin and anthropology (q. 82-88).


There are two ways to distinguish the Law from the Gospel. What are these two doctrines? And, what do they do?

The Field Test Edition begins to define the Law objectively by asking “What are the Ten Commandments?” Answer: “The Ten Commandments summarize God’s Law, namely, his good and loving will for the lives and well-being of all people within His creation” (q. 11).

Compare this to the 1912 edition: “They are the holy will of God, or the Law, wherein God tells us how we are to be and what we are to do or not to do” (q. 7).

The 1943/65 edition: “The Ten Commandments are the Law of God” (q. 18).

And the 1991 edition: “The Ten Commandments are the Law of God” (q. 13).

It’s good that the new edition looks back to the 1912’s language of the Law being related to God’s will. It’s also good to see that the Law is given according to God’s goodness, not arbitrarily or capriciously.[7] Though, I wonder if this might just be avoiding the prickly language of “requirement” or “demand.” Either way, whereas the previous editions made an equation between the Commandments and God’s Law, some ambiguity has been added by saying that the Commandments “summarize” God’s Law. I’m not sure what the authors have in mind. They could be getting at what Luther teaches when he states that the Ten Commandments as they are worded (Exodus 20:1-17) were given only to the Israelites, but the gifts that the Commandments protect belong to all people in all places.

For instance, Luther argues in the Large Catechism that adultery was specifically mentioned in the Sixth Commandment because it was the primary way marriage was attacked when the Law was delivered to the Jews.[8] However, we can imagine numerous other unchastities through history that have attacked the estate of marriage which is what God desires to protect with the Commandment.[9] Thus the Commandment forbids any sort of lewdness, corruption, or indecency that undermines the marital estate. All that being said, I have to assume that when the new edition calls Commandments a “summary” they mean that the Law also pertains to situations in our own life that attack the gifts of the Church, family, life, property, reputation, and so on. In that case, they would be correct. But that’s just a guess. There is little deviation at this point with the rest of the Catechism editions, other than the fact that the identify the Law being revealed in other places in Scriptures like in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), which I think is fine.

We’ll jump ahead to the Field Test Edition’s formal questions on Law and Gospel (q. 86-88). It starts out by describing the “three uses of the Law.” At this point it follows pretty closely with previous editions with a special emphasis on the second use (q. 87) which I think is appropriate. Because I’m a curmudgeon, I was hoping they would return the language of the third use from “guide” to “rule,” but I suppose the ’91 edition’s precedent isn’t easily broken.

The 88th question asks “How does the Gospel differ from the Law?” What follows are three different points on what Law and Gospel respectively teach, show, and to whom it must be proclaimed. This nice little back and forth first appeared in the 1912 edition which had five different points, but in subsequent editions the list was reduced to the thee I just mentioned.[10] What’s new here? Something strange appears on the point about to whom Gospel should be preached. “The Gospel must be proclaimed to sinners who seek freedom from their sin” (q. 88). Compare this to past editions.

1912 edition: “The Gospel (must be preached) to such as are alarmed and terrified” (q. 101).

The 43/65 edition: “The Gospel must be preached to sinners who are troubled in their minds because of their sin” (q. 17).[11]

The 1991 edition: “The Gospel must be proclaimed to sinners who are troubled in their minds because of their sins” (q. 85).

It might be worth discussing the possible distinctions between troubled and terrified consciences, but the difference between the new edition and its predecessors is much more pronounced than that. Rather than saying that sinners must be terrified, alarmed, or even troubled by the Law, it’s enough that the sinner “seeks freedom from their sin.” This is far too bland and weak. Every hardened sinner that I know is trying to seek some kind of freedom from their sin and its effects, usually in various forms of self-justification. But that doesn’t mean that they have been pricked by God’s Law to fear God’s judgement which I think is exactly what’s required by the Law. Why else would Luther have included the harsh conclusion of the commandments? I’m afraid that in avoiding actually calling sinners to fear God’s judgment, the authors are justifying the easy way out, preaching the Gospel to hardened consciences who have no desire to amend their lives. That won’t do them an ounce of good. It’s casting pearls before swine. Perhaps there’s a different intention here. If so, I’d like to hear the reasoning behind this change of language.

I’ve already carried on too long, so I’ll suggest some tentative conclusions. First, the positioning of the discussion on Law and Gospel is fine I think, though I would have liked it to remain at the beginning. Second, I am troubled about the changed wording in question 88 and would like it to return to the articulations that we had before. Other than that, I commend the work of the Synod to bring update our expanded explanation to confront the specific attacks of the world, devil, and flesh in our day and age.

Rev. A. Brian Flamme
Hope Lutheran Church
Aurora, CO



Endnotes —

[1] SD V, 1 (Kolb-Wengert, 581).

[2] However, the distinction makes a subtle but clearly stated encore appearance after the conclusion to the Commandments during the discussions on the fulfillment of the Law (q. 87-88), the purpose of the Law (q. 90), and Sin (q. 91-99).

[3] The wording of the 91’ Explanation, and perhaps my whole introduction, brings up a question as to whether or not we should construe “Law and Gospel” as a hermeneutical principle. Of course you can, but only with careful qualifications. Using the language of “hermeneutical principles” might wrongly imply is that Law and Gospel must be grasped prior to hearing and reading your Bible for it to make sense. That’s an attack on the clarity of Scripture and I’m sure that’s not what the authors of the 91’ edition want to say. Still, it’s better to state simply that Law and Gospel are what you’ll find in the Scriptures, like in the ’43 edition, and that keeping these two words of God distinct is the only way the Scriptures make sense. This is nothing more than saying that Scripture interprets Scripture. It acknowledges that Holy Ghost alone is responsible for teaching and maintaining these doctrines which are intrinsic to the Bible. It’s not something the Lutherans invented.

[4] Pieper, Christian Dogmatics I, 10.

[5] LC II, 1 (Kolb-Wengert, 431).

[6] LC II, 67 (Kolb-Wengert, 440).

[7] Remember The Law of God is Good and Wise (TLH 295)?

[8] “Adultery is particularly mentioned because among the Jewish people it was ordered and commanded that one marry. Young people were married at the earliest age possible, and the state of virginity was not commended, nor were public prostitution and lewdness tolerated as they are now. Accordingly, adultery was the most widespread form of unchastity among them” LC I, 210 (Kolb-Wengert, 413).

[9] “However, because this commandment is directed specifically toward marriage as a walk of life and gives occasion to speak of it, you should carefully note, first, how highly God honors and praises this walk of life, endorsing and protecting it by his commandment” LC I, 206 (Kolb-Wengert, 414).

[10] By the way, the 1912 list articulated what the two doctrines teach, show, require, work, and the appropriate audience to whom it should be preached (q. 101).

[11] The emphasis is not my own.

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