A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: Law and Gospel

V. Law and Gospel


The Principal Question In This Controversy.

1 Whether the preaching of the Holy Gospel is properly not only a preaching of grace, which announces the forgiveness of sins, but also a preaching of repentance and reproof, rebuking unbelief, which, they say, is rebuked not in the Law, but alone through the Gospel.

This controversy grew out of the Philipists and Johannes Agricola who insisted that repentance and reproof belong to the preaching of the Gospel and not the Law.  That part of the Gospel’s office is to rebuke and work contrition. As we will see this confusion of Law and Gospel makes the Gospel into Law and robs people of Christ and His comfort.  We must properly distinguish between the two or lose the Gospel entirely.

Affirmative Theses.

Pure Doctrine of God’s Word.
2 1. We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence as an especially brilliant light, by which, according to the admonition of St. Paul, the Word of God is rightly divided.

When properly understood the distinction between Law and Gospel becomes a brilliant light by which the Scriptures are read clearly and precisely.  The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is of similar to the importance of a Christocentric reading of Scripture, which Christ teaches us in the Gospels). It turns the Scriptures from a closed opaque book of contradicting statements into a clear and self evident work proclaiming God’s work for us in Christ.

We must strive to keep this division properly and clear at all costs else we lose everything again (2 Timothy 2:14-16).  It is hard to maintain, but if held properly it makes Scripture clear.  However since it is hard for our mortal mind, we tend to blur it which makes the Scriptures confusing.  As C. F. W. Walther says in Thesis IV of the Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel:

The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.

C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel Thesis IV

Note that Law and Gospel are not a construct or paradigm we force on Scripture.  It is the way that God deals with us in truth and purity.  Law and Gospel are drawn from the Scriptures not forced on it. The Epitome continues:

3 2. We believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a divine doctrine, which teaches what is right and pleasing to God, and reproves everything that is sin and contrary to God’s will.

4 3. For this reason, then, everything that reproves sin is, and belongs to, the preaching of the Law.

The Law is a divine doctrine and good.  It is given so that we can see what we ought to do and what pleases God.  This is why the 10 Commandments are given, this is what Proverbs is meditating on, this is what the Psalms extol (Romans 7:12).

Since we are fallen, the Law becomes a mirror to show us our sin.  As the theologians say, lex semper accusat, the Law always accuses.  That however does not mean that the Law is evil but rather it shows us just how far we have fallen.  For this reason all preaching of rebuke, penalty, and repentance belongs to the Law not the Gospel.  The Law shows us our need for these things and commands us to do them.  The Law demands contrition and repentance but provides no remedy other than God’s wrath.  Luther has an interesting way of looking at it in a quote from the Solid Declaration:

11 Therefore the Spirit of Christ must not only comfort, but also through the office of the Law reprove the world of sin, John 16:8, and thus must do in the New Testament, as the prophet says, Is. 28:21, opus alienum, ut faciat opus proprium, that is, He must do the work of another (reprove), in order that He may [afterwards] do His own work, which is to comfort and preach of grace. For to this end He was earned [from the Father] and sent to us by Christ, and for this reason, too, He is called the Comforter, as Dr. Luther has explained in his exposition of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, in the following words:

12 Anything that preaches concerning our sins and God’s wrath, let it be done how or when it will, that is all a preaching of the Law. Again, the Gospel is such a preaching as shows and gives nothing else than grace and forgiveness in Christ, although it is true and right that the apostles and preachers of the Gospel (as Christ Himself also did) confirm the preaching of the Law, and begin it with those who do not yet acknowledge their sins nor are terrified at [by the sense of] God’s wrath; as He says, John 16:8:

13 “The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin because they believe not on Me.” Yea, what more forcible, more terrible declaration and preaching of God’s wrath against sin is there than just the suffering and death of Christ, His Son? But as long as all this preaches God’s wrath and terrifies men, it is not yet the preaching of the Gospel nor Christ’s own preaching, but that of Moses and the Law against the impenitent. For the Gospel and Christ were never ordained and given for the purpose of terrifying and condemning, but of comforting and cheering those who are terrified and timid. And again: Christ says, John 16:8: “The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin”; which cannot be done except through the explanation of the Law. Jena, Tom. 2, fol. 455.

14 So, too, the Smalcald Articles say: The New Testament retains and urges the office of the Law, which reveals sins and God’s wrath; but to this office it immediately adds the promise of grace through the Gospel.15 And the Apology says: To a true and salutary repentance the preaching of the Law alone is not sufficient, but the Gospel should be added thereto. Therefore the two doctrines belong together, and should also be urged by the side of each other, but in a definite order and with a proper distinction; and the Antinomians or assailants of the Law are justly condemned, who abolish the preaching of the Law from the Church, and wish sins to be reproved, and repentance and sorrow to be taught, not from the Law, but from the Gospel.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article V 11-15

In fact Christ’s suffering on the cross is a preaching of the Law (and of the Gospel too).  It shows us the penalty of our sins and what we rightly deserve because of them. The Epitome continues:

5 4. But the Gospel is properly such a doctrine as teaches what man who has not observed the Law, and therefore is condemned by it, is to believe, namely, that Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sins, and has obtained and acquired for him, without any merit of his [no merit of the sinner intervening], forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life.

Properly then the Gospel is nothing but grace and forgiveness.  Where repentance belongs to the Law, the promise that repentance holds on to is found in the Gospel.  Else we are lost despairing.  The atonement Christ won on the cross and given to us is the Gospel (Romans 5:1-11).

This is the pure and life giving Gospel.  That Christ has paid for our sins, and now we are free.  Death no longer has hold over us.  The Law accuses us no longer as the Law has been fulfilled in Christ.  This is the gift of the Gospel.  It must be preached as we would never understand or comprehend the Gospel without the revelation of God.

6 5. But since the term Gospel is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures, on account of which this dissension originally arose, we believe, teach, and confess that if by the term Gospel is understood the entire doctrine of Christ which He proposed in His ministry, as also did His apostles (in which sense it is employed, Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins.

7 6. But if the Law and the Gospel, likewise also Moses himself [as] a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with one another, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or reproof, but properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation, and a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify, but comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points alone to the merit of Christ, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of the grace and favor of God, obtained through Christ’s merit.

The original confusion about Law and Gospel arose due to the Scripture using the terms Law and Gospel in different ways at different times.  Thus we should understand that there are two understandings of the term Law and Gospel. These two senses are the broad sense and the narrow sense.

The first is the broad sense.  In this sense Gospel (and Law in the case of some of the Psalms) means the entirety of God’s Word. In Mark 1:1-15, and Acts 20:17-38 as well as in other places it is clear that the term Gospel means the whole Word of God, not just the grace of God.  Likewise in the Psalms when it discusses the love of God’s Law (Torah) the meaning is for the whole Word of God, not specifically the Ten Commandments. Though sometimes it does mean specifically God’s Law, context shows which meaning it is.

On the other hand the Scriptures do use both the Law and the Gospel in a narrow, specific sense.  In this sense, the Law is properly the commands and ordinances of God which are to be followed and thus we cannot keep.  Likewise the Gospel is the work of Christ for our justification on the cross, which is given purely by grace.  For this reason Moses and Christ are contrasted against each other, even though both preached Law and Gospel (John 1:17). So we should from the context which way Scripture is speaking about the Law and the Gospel.  The context is crucial here else confusion will reign.

8 7. As to the revelation of sin, because the veil of Moses hangs before the eyes of all men as long as they hear the bare preaching of the Law, and nothing concerning Christ, and therefore do not learn from the Law to perceive their sins aright, but either become presumptuous hypocrites [who swell with the opinion of their own righteousness] as the Pharisees, or despair like Judas, Christ takes the Law into His hands, and explains it spiritually, Matt. 5:21ff; Rom. 7:14. And thus the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all sinners [ Rom. 1:18], how great it is; by this means they are directed [sent back] to the Law, and then first learn from it to know aright their sins-a knowledge which Moses never could have forced out of them.

9 Accordingly, although the preaching of the suffering and death of Christ, the Son of God, is an earnest and terrible proclamation and declaration of God’s wrath, whereby men are first led into the Law aright, after the veil of Moses has been removed from them, so that they first know aright how great things God in His Law requires of us, none of which we can observe, and therefore are to seek all our righteousness in Christ:

10 8. Yet as long as all this (namely, Christ’s suffering and death) proclaims God’s wrath and terrifies man, it is still not properly the preaching of the Gospel, but the preaching of Moses and the Law, and therefore a foreign work of Christ, by which He arrives at His proper office, that is, to preach grace, console, and quicken, which is properly the preaching of the Gospel.

If the people hear nothing but the Law they will have the veil of Moses over their eyes as St. Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3. As such they will not even receive the Law properly.  They will either become prideful thinking they have kept the Law, as the Pharisees did (Matthew 23). Either that or they will despair like Judas (Matthew 27:3-10). Both of these effects happen due to an improper understanding and application of the Law.

A proper application of the Law is done as Christ did, to reveal sin (Matthew 5:17-48, Romans 1:18-32, 7). This is done to see how far we have fallen. Thus the Law must not be merely presented, as Moses did, but preached and applied.  It must be a full and complete condemnation of the sinner. However, the condemning preaching of the Law is the alien work of Christ.  The proper work of Christ is the preaching of our salvation through His death on the cross.  Thus both the full depth of both Law and Gospel must be preached to the sinner.  As C. F. W. Walther states in Thesis VI of Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel:

In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.

C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel Thesis VI

The Epitome continues:

Negative Theses.

Contrary Doctrine which is Rejected.
11 Accordingly we reject and regard as incorrect and injurious the dogma that the Gospel is properly a preaching of repentance or reproof, and not alone a preaching of grace; for thereby the Gospel is again converted into a doctrine of the Law, the merit of Christ and Holy Scripture are obscured, Christians robbed of true consolation, and the door is opened again to [the errors and superstitions of] the Papacy.

Thus it is clear that the preaching of repentance and rebuke is properly a part of the Law, and not the Gospel.  Else the Gospel will be turned purely into preaching people to repent without giving them the promise they need to cling to.  Repentance must be preached, but as a work of the Law.  Thus we will know that our work of preaching is not complete as we will know we have not delivered the Gospel yet.

The danger is that the preacher may think his work complete when he has preached repentance, thinking that in it he has delivered the Gospel.  Sadly, he will have not done so but only preached more Law, the Law of repentance.  The true Gospel, the only Gospel, is that of Jesus Christ and His fulfillment of the Law in our place. His death and resurrection are the Gospel.  They must be trumpeted and preached with all boldness.  Woe to the preacher and congregation who does not hear them regularly as no comfort will be given to troubled consciences without this preaching.

Both the Law and the Gospel must be taught, as the church has done since the days of Adam and will continue to do until the Last Day. The Solid Declaration states:

23 From the beginning of the world these two proclamations [kinds of doctrines] have been ever and ever inculcated alongside of each other in the Church of God, with a proper distinction. For the descendants of the venerated patriarchs, as also the patriarchs themselves, not only called to mind constantly how in the beginning man had been created righteous and holy by God, and through the fraud of the Serpent had transgressed God’s command, had become a sinner, and had corrupted and precipitated himself with all his posterity into death and eternal condemnation, but also encouraged and comforted themselves again by the preaching concerning the Seed of the Woman, who would bruise the Serpent’s head, Gen. 3:15; likewise, concerning the Seed of Abraham, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, Gen. 22:18; likewise, concerning David’s Son, who should restore again the kingdom of Israel and be a light to the heathen, Ps. 110:1; Is. 49:6; Luke 2:32, who was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities, by whose stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5.

24 These two doctrines, we believe and confess, should ever and ever be diligently inculcated in the Church of God even to the end of the world, although with the proper distinction of which we have heard, in order that, through the preaching of the Law and its threats in the ministry of the New Testament the hearts of impenitent men may be terrified, and brought to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance; but not in such a way that they lose heart and despair in this process, but that (since the Law is a schoolmaster unto Christ that we might be justified by faith, Gal. 3:24, and thus points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who is the end of the Law, Rom. 10:4)

25 they be comforted and strengthened again by the preaching of the holy Gospel concerning Christ, our Lord, namely, that to those who believe the Gospel, God forgives all their sins through Christ, adopts them as children for His sake, and out of pure grace, without any merit on their part, justifies and saves them, however, not in such a way that they may abuse the grace of God,

26 and sin hoping for grace, as Paul, 2 Cor. 3:7ff , thoroughly and forcibly shows the distinction between the Law and the Gospel.27 Now, in order that both doctrines, that of the Law and that of the Gospel, be not mingled and confounded with one another, and what belongs to the one may not be ascribed to the other, whereby the merit and benefits of Christ are easily obscured and the Gospel is again turned into a doctrine of the Law, as has occurred in the Papacy, and thus Christians are deprived of the true comfort which they have in the Gospel against the terrors of the Law, and the door is again opened in the Church of God to the Papacy, therefore the true and proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel must with all diligence be inculcated and preserved, and whatever gives occasion for confusion inter legem et evangelium (between the Law and the Gospel), that is, whereby the two doctrines, Law and Gospel, may be confounded and mingled into one doctrine, should be diligently prevented. It is, therefore, dangerous and wrong to convert the Gospel, properly so called, as distinguished from the Law, into a preaching of repentance or reproof [a preaching of repentance, reproving sin]. For otherwise, if understood in a general sense of the entire doctrine, also the Apology says several times that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Meanwhile, however, the Apology also shows that the Gospel is properly the promise of the forgiveness of sins and of justification through Christ, but that the Law is a doctrine which reproves sins and condemns.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article V 23-27

For more on this I highly recommend C. F. W. Walther’s classic work “The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel”

1 Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.

2 What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.

3 It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.

4 From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart–
So deep is our corruption.

5 Yet as the law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and has God’s anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He has for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.

6 Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Your death is now my life indeed,
For You have paid my ransom.

7 Let me not doubt, but truly see
Your Word cannot be broken:
Your call rings out, “Come unto Me!”
No falsehood have You spoken.
Baptized into Your precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.

8 The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes us conscience-stricken;
But then the Gospel enters in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.

9 Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.

10 All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God who saved us by His grace;
All glory to His merit.
O triune God in heav’n above,
You have revealed Your saving love;
Your blessed name we hallow.

(LSB 555)

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