The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel

Update, 5/19/2016: I submitted this post to a confessional Lutheran pastor whom I am in contact with and whom I respect, asking him to please correct any egregious errors made by this Catholic layman, and he graciously responded to me with some crucial corrections. Therefore you must please read this post as an example of a Catholic layman’s imperfect perceptions about Lutheran theology and methodology. I will integrate the pastor’s responses in a future post. Meanwhile, you may refer to the Notes section at the end of this post for from-the-horse’s-mouth information regarding this topic.

We Roman Catholics don’t do “proper distinction between law and gospel.” We’ve never even heard the phrase. Yet it is the cornerstone of orthodox Protestant apologetics and pastoral preaching. Attend any orthodox Lutheran Sunday sermon and you can’t swing a smuggled censer without hitting a reference to the concept.

What It Is

The proper distinction between law and Gospel is the one-two punch proposition that

  1. you are born dead in trespasses and sin against God’s law and cannot, by your very nature, through any volitional act of word or deed escape your divine desserts, which is death (sad trombone), and
  2. that by grace through faith nurtured by proper Gospel preaching, you are the recipient of God’s mercy and eternal life won by Jesus Christ’s death on the cross in your stead (triumphant trumpets.)

That’s my paraphrasing.

Where It Came From

The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel is the title of an 1895 transcription¹ of a lecture series delivered to an 1884-85 class of seminary students by Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod² founder Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (or C.F.W. Walther as he is known to anybody who ain’t got time for that.) In that lecture, Walther extemporized over the course of 39 evenings on the topic to the future pastors in his audience, the goal of which was to show them how to preach such that congregations might be saved from death by grace through faith. It was a seminal event in the modern history of the Lutheran church in America.

However, any orthodox Lutheran pastor will tell you the rubric really began with the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, and continued to be expounded upon and reiterated throughout the New Testament.

What It Accomplishes

Apart from salvation? Preaching using the proper distinction between law and Gospel effects two main groups of responses in the congregation:

  1. Horror, desperation, a pierced heart, sorrow.
  2. Rejoicing, gratitude, awe towards God’s mercy.

Horror and so on, because in learning the full extent of God’s law you eventually realize you’re just not up to the task of saving yourself.; rejoicing and such because in learning about Christ’s penal substitution for your sins you are filled with hope.

What It’s Based On

Biblical exegesis. Sola scriptura.

What’s at the Heart of It

Hope. Not hope in the weak, diffuse, and nerve-wracking sense that maybe you’ll pass that school test you didn’t study for, get that dream job you applied for, or eventually be able to chew through iron bars to escape that Isis death camp. No, the sort of hope this rubric delivers is something meatier, something solid. It is something akin to certainty, to a sense of inevitability. It strikes the listener with the finality of the last words the Gospel of John records Jesus Christ to have uttered before he died: “It is finished.” (John 19:30.)³

What We Roman Catholics Think About That

We don’t have any express position statement for or against the Protestant formulation of the proper distinction between law and Gospel. The topic is purely a Protestant obsession. However, we do have going a two-thousand-year-old water cooler debate⁴ around the doctrine of atonement, which is aimed at resolving questions similar to those the Protestants were asking when they were formalizing the distinction process.

What Should Roman Catholics Think?

I think we should think about it. I think we should listen to orthodox Lutheran pastors preaching using the distinction between law and Gospel.⁵ I admire the way these divisive heretics have heartily striven towards attaining a coherent system of understanding just what the entirety of the Bible is trying to tell us about our salvation.

We modern Catholics love our mystery, and our ineffability, our ancient sacraments and our incense. We’re not about Head Theology, we’re about Heart Theology and…wherever Mystical Theology and Kingdom Theology sit in our biological anatomy. We aren’t into sola scriptura, we’re also about apostolic tradition. (I think an argument can be made that Protestants are implicitly also about balancing sound Biblical exegesis with an unavoidable and necessary apostolic tradition that has become so ingrained in our dearly departed brothers and sisters that they don’t even notice its ubiquity, but I digress.)

However, none of this has any bearing on whether the proper distinction between law and Gospel is a heretical or apostate concept. Nothing in it directly contradicts the Magisterium’s murky teachings on atonement (none that I have seen, at any rate.) The fact that we don’t have a doctrine that even begins to confront orthodox Lutherans on this topic should appear to the reader, not as a threat to the Church, but as an opportunity to explore what their 500-years-running efforts have to offer us as Catholics. We could even end up expanding our understanding of the Almighty such that, far from becoming less Catholic, we could become more Catholic.

Besides, isn’t ecumenism⁶ what everyone is supposed to want these days, anyway?

Notes:

  1. You can read the Walther transcript in its entirety at lutherantheology.com.
  2. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is that “super conservative” branch of Lutheranism your friends in the esteemed liberation theology movement lamented at you about. The LCMS’s About page.
  3. The Gospel of John, chapter 19.
  4. An excellent historical survey of Roman Catholic doctrines of atonement can be read many times over without resolving anything at the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.
  5. Chris Rosebrough of the Fighting for the Faith podcast is one such pastor I would commend you to. He is hard-hitting, eminently knowledgeable, unrelenting, and very funny.
  6. On account of His Hippie-ness, that is?
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