What is Law/Gospel Theology?
The “proper distinction between Law and Gospel” refers to a theological rule of thumb or interpretive insight for understanding the workings of God in the world. It asserts that God operates in two distinct ways: Law and Gospel. The Law refers to that activity through which God both places demands upon us (summarized by Jesus in the two love commandments: love of God and love of neighbor) and evaluates us in accordance with those demands. Those who fall short of God’s demands are described as “sinners” and inevitably reap the due consequences of that judgment. The Gospel, by contrast, refers to that activity through which God graciously promises to reconcile sinners to himself by joining them, through faith, to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Trusting this promise of God in Christ, sinners are adopted as children of God, regarded as holy and precious in God’s sight for Christ’s sake, and made new creatures by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The idea of a “proper” distinction between law and gospel highlights the fact that these two activities of God in the world can easily be confused or separated or overlooked or misunderstood by those of us who experience them in our daily lives. Law is always Law and never Gospel; Gospel is always Gospel and never Law – and a person’s standing before God is ultimately determined by one or the other. The question is always which applies to our present standing before God, Law or Gospel. Are we relying on how well we keep the Law or are we relying on the mercy of God offered in Christ? The proper distinction of Law and Gospel, therefore, reminds us that Christian ministry has as its goal the transfer of a person’s standing before God from Law to Gospel.
In the Crossings Template, the left hand column, called “the Diagnosis,” identifies the way the Law exposes the fallacies that riddle our lives: beginning with our external worldly relationships, moving to our internal personal self-assessment, culminating in an honest appraisal of our standing before God and the deadly consequences that result. The right hand column, called “the Prognosis,” identifies how the Gospel proposes to rectify this fallacious life, picking up where the Law’s deadly consequences have left us: beginning with God’s gracious intervention as Christ both assumes those deadly consequences on our behalf and overcomes them at Easter, moving to our receiving this grace-gift as our own by trusting the Giver, culminating in a new re-engagement with the world. The Diagnosis tells the old story of a life under law, the Prognosis tell the new story of life under gospel. Crossings is about having our lives transferred from left-column living to right-column living. Because, this side of the resurrection, this transfer is always tenuous, always in danger of sliding back, the Christian life is one in which the distinction of Law and Gospel is an integral part of spiritual care.
The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is, therefore, the insight that informs both a faithful interpretation of Scripture and an honest understanding of the Christian life. It has its roots in Jesus’ own teaching as expressed in the New Testament Gospels and is the organizing insight of the New Testament Letters as they seek to ground and clarify the Christian Message for the early church and its heirs. Throughout history this rule of thumb has emerged to guide the Church when it found itself adrift on choppy theological seas: whether it be Irenaeus against the Gnostics, Athanasius against the Arians, Augustine against the Pelagians, Luther against the Neo-Pelagians, Walther against the New Measures, Elert against the Barthians or Bonhoeffer against the pseudo-Lutherans. The Crossings Template is offered as a methodological tool to help Christians practice the art of properly distinguishing Law and Gospel as they wrestle with Scripture and think about their own vocation as Christians in the world.