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People often ask us what we mean when we talk about “the distinction between the Law and the Gospel” – and we talk about it a lot! It sounds fancy, I know, but does it actually have any grounding in the Bible? Or is it simply something we/otherpeople have latched onto for the sake of convenience? Or worse, some leftover relic of the Protestant Reformation that’s long since become irrelevant and/or outdated?

A lot has been written on the subject, but for the sake of, um, convenience, I thought I’d provide three particularly pithy summaries of what constitutes this distinction (and why it’s important). First, a short excerpt from The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1766) by Edward Fisher. Though it’s a bit old-fashioned, I think it articulates the distinction well and demonstrates that yes… it is biblical, ht BP:

“Briefly, then, if we would know when the law speaks, and when the gospel speaks, either in reading the word, or in hearing it preached; and if we would skillfully distinguish the voice of the one from the voice of the other, we must consider:—

The law says, ‘Thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shalt be damned,’ (Rom 7:2, 2 Thess 2:12). But the gospel says, No; ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners'; and therefore, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved’ (1 Tim 1:15, Acts 16:31).

Again the law says, ‘Knowest thou not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God; be not deceived,’ &c. (1 Cor 6:9). And therefore thou being a sinner, and not righteous, shalt not inherit the kingdom of God. But the gospel says, ‘God has made Christ to be sin for thee who knew no sin; that thou mightest be made the righteousness of God in him, who is the Lord thy righteousness,’ (Jer 23:6).

Again the law says, ‘Pay me what thou owest me, or else I will cast thee into prison,’ (Matt 18:28,30). But the gospel says, ‘Christ gave himself a ransom for thee,’ (1 Tim 2:6); ‘and so is made redemption unto thee,’ (1 Cor 1:30).

Again the law says, ‘Thou hast not continued in all that I require of thee, and therefore thou art accursed,’ (Deut 27:6). But the gospel says, ‘Christ hath redeemed thee from the curse of the law, being made a curse for thee,’ (Gal 3:13).

Again the law says, ‘Thou are become guilty before God, and therefore shalt not escape the judgment of God,’ (Rom 3:19, 2:3). But the gospel says, ‘The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son,’ (John 5:12).”

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Next, Dr. Mark Mattes, our 2008 Conference speaker, gave us a truly helpful worksheet that puts the distinction in slightly more 21st century language. In terms of pinpointing the Law, he tell us:

1. Watch for the “should.” God uses the Law to tell us creatures what we ought to do so that we can all live in an orderly, peaceful and secure world. So the Law always sounds like a demand. Words like should, ought to, have to, must and shall are a dead give-away that the Law is around somewhere.

2. Keep an eye open for the First Commandment. When God says, “You shall have no other gods,” it’s what all other law rises from. The Law’s goal is to force us sinners to act like God’s will is more important than our own.

3. Ask who’s in charge of making it happen. Demands always require you to do something to fulfill them. Because the Law is about demands, if you’re being urged to act a certain way to make something happen it’s the Law.

4. Look for death lurking in the shadows. Because sinners keep thinking they’re in charge and can use their will to create a good future for themselves, God lets the demands of life bear down on us. When you feel like life is just about killing you, you can be pretty sure it’s God’s Law nipping at your heels.

His tips for “getting hit with the Gospel” are equally helpful:

1. Listen for the promise.

When a promise is made, it’s the person promising who’s responsible for fulfilling it. If what you’re hearing tells you what Christ promises to do for you without any action on your part, then the Gospel is showing up on the scene.

2. Expect a radical surprise from Jesus.

We sinners should never expect the good news of Jesus. We should only expect judgment from God. But instead the Gospel brings mercy from Jesus to sinners.

3. Look for the “you.”

The Gospel is always spoken directly to sinners. If what you hear doesn’t use the word “you,” it could be a good description about God or Jesus. But it’s not quite the Gospel, for the Gospel says it straight out: “You are forgiven.” “Jesus died for you.”

4. Use your hindsight.

If you’ve been changed by God’s Word, you’ll begin to see God’s faithfulness in spite of what you see around you in the world. If it’s caused you to trust God even though the world says you’re a loser, then you can be sure you’ve been hit by the Gospel.

Finally, he instructs us to be aware of the following things:

Law and gospel aren’t things to be defined. They’re the ways we experience these two things God is doing:

  1. God is working to eliminate the you who turns away and puts your trust in other things. When the law does its work, that’s what God is doing.
  2. God is also using his Word to create a new faithful person out of you. When the gospel does its work, that’s what God is doing.

God sometimes does only the first thing. But God never brings the Gospel without the Law being present first. It’s only when the Law stops us from thinking we can make life work out on our own that we’re ever open to hear what God promises.

As far as more poetic expressions go, there’s none more powerful than Chris Knight’s “Love and a .45″:

Of course, if backwoods country ain’t your thing, consider the verse from one of Fisher’s contemporaries, the Anglican revivalist and hymnist John Berridge:

To run and work the Law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
A sweeter thing the Gospel brings–
It bids me fly and gives me wings!

For further reading, be sure to check out C.F.W. Walther’s God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.