FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING: Chapter 2: What is Law and Gospel?

by Steve Albertin

Here are some of Steve Albertin’s thoughts on Law and Gospel. 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.


No. And yes, two words, absolutely opposite and either or. They cannot ever be combined into one word. I, Martin Luther, as he sought to be a faithful theologian and pastor of the church also at the heart and center of his thought, saw two words. Two words that came from God. Two words that were absolutely opposite and contrary. Two words that were absolutely necessary to interpreting scripture and understanding God’s relationship to all of life. These two words, no. And yes, God’s No. God’s yes are absolutely also central to the way the Crossings community does its work and ministry in the world. It is absolutely essential to the way, number one, the way we interpret scripture and secondly, how we connect faith and daily life. These two words know and yes are the distinction between law and gospel. The distinction between law and gospel, longstanding tradition and use within the Lutheran church, but also have broad ecumenical and Christian influence and impact for everyone everywhere. The law is God’s. No. The gospel is God’s yes, and each function with its own particular kind of logic and grammar. The law is always filled with conditions. It is always a kind of, if you do such and so then such and so will happen. I mean, Johnny, if you eat your spinach then you’ll get you dessert. I mean, if you show up to work on time, then you might get paid. You might say rewards and punishments.

The gospel operates an entirely with entirely different kind of grammar. It is unconditional. It is a statement of fact. It announces the offering of a gift. It is mercy, it is love. It is grace and the grammar rather than being if then is how might we put it? Because therefore, because of God’s love for you in Jesus Christ, therefore your sins are forgiven. Therefore, you have a new life,

Another way of looking at the grammar of law and gospel law says it’s up to you, you got to do it. The gospel says, no, it’s up to God. God has done it for you in Jesus Christ through the law. God runs the world in good ways through the laws of science and physics and chemistry and economics and social relationships and how we deal with one another and human beings. The old simple Cate way of putting it is like the law, first of all operates, is a kind of curb that runs down the street, guarding you, protecting you, keeping you going in the right direction. If you don’t fo, you ignore the curbs, you end up in a ditch or your wheels will get knocked out of alignment. I mean, you suffer the consequences all for the sake of the world. It is good, but it is tiring.

It is exhausting. It is work to keep up with the demands of the law. And that’s why it leads us to the second use of the law. The curb always becomes the mirror. We look into the mirror to see what we really look like, right? I mean, maybe when you were a teenager, you wake up in the morning and you got that funny little thing on your face and it hurts and you wonder what it is, and you go looking in the mirror and you go, ah, yikes. It’s a zi. It tells me the truth about what is really there and it isn’t nice. That’s what the law does, tells us the truth. Always pressuring, exposing, accusing scriptures, say killing, finally even bringing death. And God forbid, God is the one who was doing it. Oh, the law. God’s note says, do this. The gospel says the gospel gives this, gives us God’s love in Jesus Christ and saves the world.

And that is good news. God’s mercy, God’s love and action through the gospel. And you may not always hear this in churches, but it is never a to-do list. The gospel is not a to-do list about what you’re supposed to do to follow Jesus. Rather, the gospel is God’s love letter. God’s offer in Jesus Christ always connected with his story. So this important distinction between God’s no and God’s yes, the law and the gospel is the way to read the Bible. It is the way the crossings community does it. You see, it’s spread all over our website and all those years of text studies where readings for the scriptures appointed for the week are read through the lens of the distinction between law and gospel. The distinction between law and gospel, God’s two words, the no and the yes is also a way to read the world.

And you also can see lots of examples of those all over our website, particularly in the Thursday theology, our current blog and other places, book reviews about how God is relating to the world in terms of his law, his promise, law, and gospel, which raises the final and most fundamental question, we live under God’s know on God, yes, but which finally is the last word. And the last word is the gospel is Jesus Christ because of his death and resurrection, because on the cross there he suffered the accusations and demands of the law and they were all silenced and brought to an end, trumped by God’s love and Jesus Christ and confirmed by his resurrection, that is life giving good news. As our beloved now sainted friend and teacher, ed Schrader reminds us in these crossings videos that maybe you have seen. The gospel is good because it has freed us from the accusations of the law and from the power of sin. And it is new because it is so utterly different from what you’re going to hear anywhere else in the world, and that is good news. And making that fundamental distinction between law and gospel keeps the good news, good news. Because if the good news is not good news, then it’s not good news.

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In the early 1970s two seminary professors listened to the plea of some lay Christians. “Can you help us live out our faith in the world of daily work?” they asked. “Can you help us connect Sunday worship with our lives the other six days of the week?”  That is how Crossings was born.


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