Installment 14 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
The law and the gospel are two central concepts in the Bible. The law declares God’s righteous will, and the gospel is the joyous message of Jesus
Christ and His atonement work. The relationship between the law and gospel is central to the doctrine of how God justifies a sinful person
and how the person remains righteous, i.e. acceptable before God.
God Gave His Law through Moses
The book of Exodus describes in detail how God gave His law. He appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai and spoke to him amid fire and smoke (Exod. 19). God dictated to Moses the law of the Ten Commandments and commanded him to deliver it to the people of Israel (Exod. 20).
The Ten Commandment Law contains all that God demands of a person in relation to Him and in relation to one’s neighbors. In the law, God revealed His holy and righteous will and His commandments for humans and how they should live. The first three commandments deal with people’s relationship with God. The final seven commandments govern life alongside other people. The Ten Commandment Law was the constitution of the nation of Israel. It remains the foundation of Western legislation and values.
The Law Demands Perfection
In the language of the Bible, the law is more than just commandments and prohibitions. It expresses God’s unconditional demand on humans. The law demands perfection. Mere outward observance of the law is not sufficient; rather fulfilling the law requires that the mind and heart completely consent to what the law demands, every moment and in all things – even in one’s thoughts. Jesus said that one who is angry at his or her brother has already murdered the brother, and one who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her (Matt. 5:21–28).
The law is spiritual but humans, on the contrary, are corrupt, sold into slavery of sin (Rom. 7:14). Not one person can fulfill the law of God, which remains valid until the end of the world. According to our Savior’s own words, not “one jot or one tittle” will disappear from the law (Matt. 5:18). The law of God is not bound to time and thus does not change as people or humankind change.
Humans Corrupted by the Fall into Sin
God created humans in His own image. God’s creation work was perfect, and in paradise humans had a direct connection with their Creator. God spoke directly to the people and they had complete knowledge of God’s will and also the ability to fulfill it.
The fall into sin completely corrupted the divine nature that existed in humans. God’s will became inclined to evil. As a result of the fall into sin, original sin exists in every person, for which the person himself or herself does not have the ability or the desire to fulfill God’s law.
The Duty of the Law
The law awakens knowledge of sin in a person who has become separated from fellowship with God. It also teaches the person to know what sin is (Rom. 3:20; Rom. 7:9–13). The law curses a person, strips the person of all his or her own possibilities and reveals him or her to be faulty, a transgressor before God.
According to Luther, “the proper and the principal use of the law is to reveal unto a man his sin, his blindness, his misery, his impiety, ignorance, hatred and contempt of God, death, hell, the judgment and deserved wrath of God” (Commentary on Galatians). The law shatters one’s trust in one’s own strength and misconceptions about oneself.
The duty of the law is to awaken a person living in unbelief – whether in ungodliness or self-righteousness – and lead the person to Christ and His congregation to receive grace and forgiveness. Sin indeed exists without the law, but a person does not realize his or her own sinfulness unless the law reveals it (Rom. 7:9,10). The duty of the law ends when a person, owning the gift of faith, becomes a partaker in Christ and the righteousness of faith He prepared (Gal. 3:23–26).
The law performs God’s work when it reveals sin and cracks and overthrows a person’s self-righteousness. If, on the other hand, a person goes in search for personal merit and acceptability to God by fulfilling the law, then the enemy leads the person astray into works righteousness – the works of self-righteousness.
Jesus Has Fulfilled the Law
Jesus has completely fulfilled God’s law demanding perfection (Matt. 5:17). He did it out of love for sin-fallen humans. God was in Christ and reconciled the world unto himself and did not impute people’s trespasses unto them (2 Cor. 5:19). God did this in His eternal righteousness so that all people beginning with Adam have been born and will be born into this world as God’s creation and partakers of Christ’s redemption work. All people have been redeemed from beneath the law to grace; therefore, children are born as children of God, heaven-acceptable (Eph. 1:3–5). If a person is deceived by sin and thus loses childhood faith at some point in his or her life, the person is subject to the curse of the law and to condemnation and is separated from the living God.
A person who has fallen under the curse of the law nevertheless has the possibility to return to God’s grace and reconciliation with God. To this end God has established in His congregation on earth the office of the word of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). It is the office of the Holy Spirit, and it is performed by people who themselves have been able to believe their sins forgiven (Matt. 16:17–19).
Paul described in the letter to the Romans how regardless of the law, God has brought people righteousness to be owned by faith, that righteousness which the law and prophets testify. God’s righteousness comes by faith in Christ and it can be owned by all who believe. All people are in the same position, for all have sinned and are without God’s glory and the perfection that the law demands. All people who believe nonetheless receive by God’s grace the gift of righteousness because Christ has fulfilled the law and redeemed people free from slavery of the law and sin. God had placed Christ as the atonement sacrifice and for that reason His blood brings atonement that can be received in faith (Rom. 3:21–26).
For this reason Paul proclaimed, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38,39).
Human Works and the Law
The fall into sin corrupted humans so profoundly that human will, nature and mind became inclined to evil. People became incapable of all that is good before God (Rom. 3:12).
The law appeals to human reason and will, by which a person is able, at best, to bring about so-called societal righteousness. The law, however, becomes a danger in terms of salvation if it leads to the thought that a person could fulfill God’s law. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul strongly emphasized that those who rely on works of the law are under the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10).
Luther also referred to righteousness of the law as active righteousness. This label describes how it is based on actions and works. The opposite of active righteousness is gift righteousness which, as its name implies, is received as a gift, by the grace of God. Luther felt that both were necessary and both had their own role. Each must nonetheless remain in their respective roles. Faith and the endeavor of life, grace and works as well as worship of God and earthly matters must not be mixed together (Commentary on Galatians).
Jesus summarized the core essence of the law in two commandments: love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36–40). Even the law’s original purpose is love. Due to original sin, however, humans lack the ability to place God before all else, fulfill His will and love Him with all their heart. It is just as impossible for humans to love their neighbors as themselves.
Paul had to struggle with the fact that he could not find within himself anything that would have been according to God’s will. He felt that he had the desire to do good but yet he could not rid himself of evil because sin dwelled in him. He stated that in his innermost he joyfully accepts God’s law, but in his actions he sees another law fulfilled which battles against the law that affects him within (Rom. 7:15–23). Due to original sin, humans are by nature prisoners of the law of sin. A person can be liberated from this imprisonment only by God’s atonement and redemption work in His Son Jesus Christ. This redemption work can be owned by faith, which God gives as a gift.
One who has by faith become righteous consents in his or her heart to God’s law and wishes to fulfill it. This is a fruit of living faith and the Holy Spirit rather than a demand of the law.
The Gospel Liberates from the Bondage of the Law
The duty of the law is to strip a person of all his or her own possibilities before God and to drive the person to Christ in order to own that which Christ has performed and merited on his or her behalf. The gospel belongs to the one awakened by the law. The core of the gospel is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus himself said that God has so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in His should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Jesus Christ has atoned the sins of the whole world in His suffering and death. He has completely fulfilled the law of God and liberated humankind from bondage of the law.
Luther described one who believes the gospel as a “new man in a new world, where is no law, no sin, no sting of conscience, no death, but perfect joy, righteousness, grace, peace, life, salvation and glory.” He continued by asking, “Why do we then nothing? Do we work nothing for the obtaining of this righteousness?” He answered his own question, “Nothing at all…we believe this only, that Christ is gone to the Father and that he sitteth in heaven at the right hand of his father, not as a judge, but made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption” (Commentary on Galatians).
The gospel is on earth among people. Jesus left it to His own with the authority of the Holy Spirit and promised that whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them (John 20:22,23). This office of the gospel in connection with the office of the keys is performed by the Holy Spirit in God’s congregation through believing people.
The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace, where there is no law but rather righteousness, peace and joy (Rom. 14:17). A person who has been able to believe all his or her sins forgiven is no longer under the law but is taught by the grace of God (Titus 2:11,12). The Holy Spirit in the heart of the one who believes guides him or her to live life according to God’s will. Paul stated, “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:9–14). It is not a question of following the law, but rather of living in the freedom of the gospel.
The Gospel’s Light and Power
The Formula of Concord in our church’s [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland] Confessional writings states that God’s law belongs to a believer as a guide to living a Christian life (third use of the law). The Formula of Concord explains that the law belongs to a Christian because new birth is not complete in this life but is only beginning. However, there is nothing to be found in the Bible that supports the thought that a person could develop in faith. Christ either dwells in a person or does not dwell; there is no intermediate state. The Christian continues to fall into sin and in the battle against sin he or she needs the law and the gospel. Sin is real in the life of a Christian, but grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit are also real.
The Bible does not teach the third use of the law, but rather that is a doctrinal error of which Christendom will likely never be free. In this doctrinal error, the law and gospel have become mixed. The Bible clearly teaches that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes (Rom. 10:4). The law is the schoolmaster until Christ comes but Christians are not under a schoolmaster (Gal. 2:23–25). The law is not made for the righteous but for the ungodly (1 Tim. 1:9,10). Believers are not under the law but under grace (Rom. 6:14).
Luther stated that the law is not an instructor to the conscience: “The law and Christ are two contrary things, whereof the one cannot abide the other. For when Christ is present, the law may in no case rule, but must depart out of the conscience and give place only to Christ. Let him only reign in righteousness, in peace, in joy and life” (Commentary on Galatians).
Self-righteousness and permissiveness of sin are real dangers, but a believing person is not protected and guarded from these by the teaching of the law, but rather by God’s grace and the power of the gospel. The child of God cannot have two teachers. Paul said, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). He continued, “But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). At the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles stated that the yoke of the law should not be put on the neck of the disciples (Acts 15).
The office of the law ends where the office of the gospel begins. When by the power of the Holy Spirit a believer proclaims the gospel of the forgiveness of sins to one awakened by the law, God transfers the person from a state of soul under the law to grace and gives the person the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit. When by the power of the gospel a person has been able to believe, a new teacher enters the person’s heart: God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not speak in His own name but reveals that which He receives from Christ and the Father. It is the duty of the Holy Spirit to reveal what is sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8–14).
In considering how the law teaches compared to how grace teaches, old Christians described the difference in precision as follows: grace is like sunlight that shines into a room. It shows every floating dust particle. It is just as impossible for the law to increase the understanding gained by grace than it is for the moon to increase the brightness of the sun. A believer does not need the light or instruction of the law alongside the light of the gospel.
The gospel is the power of God, and it brings salvation to everyone who believes. In the gospel the righteousness which is acceptable before God is revealed from faith to faith. The righteous shall live by faith (Rom. 1:16–17).
Book of Concord
Commentary on Galatians. Original work “In epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas commentarius ex praelectione D. Martini Lutheri collectus” 1535.
Lectures on Romans. Original work “Epistola ad Romanos. Die scholien” 1516.
Elämän ihme. SRK 1974.
Ole vapaa, vapaaksi ostettu lauma. Juhani Raattamaa – opettaja ja sielunhoitaja. SRK 1985.