by Rev. Jesse Burns

The fifth article of the Formula of Concord states: “The distinction between law and Gospel is an especially brilliant light which serves the purpose that the Word of God may be rightly divided and the writings of the holy prophets and apostles may be explained and understood correctly. We must therefore observe this distinction with particular diligence lest we confuse the two doctrines and change the Gospel into law. This would darken the merit of Christ and rob disturbed consciences of the comfort which they would otherwise have in the holy Gospel when it is preached purely and without admixture, for by it Christians can support themselves in their greatest temptations against the terrors of the law.”[1]

Distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel is one of the highest and most precious arts which every Christian would do well to learn. Rightly dividing the Word of God and applying the Law/Gospel distinction is not only a necessary and vital exercise for those who preach the Word of God but also for all who hear the preaching of God’s Holy Word. By rightly distinguishing the Law and Gospel, the Christian hears each word speaking in its proper office and use. Both are God’s good Word and both have something important to say to the Christian. However, when the Law and Gospel are not properly distinguished, much mischief and error occurs, and ultimately the Christian conscience is robbed of the great comfort of the Gospel.

Read Galatians 3:19-29.

  1. In the previous verses, Paul beautifully lays out the message that salvation comes to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, not by way of works of the Law but by faith in the “promise,” that is, faith in the promised Seed of Abraham, our Lord Jesus, who has “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (3:13) Sinners are justified by Christ, not by works of the law. So then, the question at hand is this: Since the Law doesn’t justify, is it useless? Did God give the Law for no reason? Examine verse 19. How does Paul answer this question?
  2. Paul writes that the Law was given because of transgressions. The Law both curbs outward transgressions for the sake of temporal peace and exposes to man his sin and need for help. Luther writes: “Here one must know that there is a double use of the Law. One is the civic use. God has ordained civic laws, indeed all laws, to restrain transgressions. Therefore every law was given to hinder sins. Does this mean that when the Law restrains sins, it justifies? Not at all.”[2] How does the necessity of this civic use of the law indicate that man cannot justify himself by way of works of the law? Though it does not justify before God, why is the civic use of the Law needed in temporal life?
  3. Again, Luther: “The other use of the Law is the theological or spiritual one, which serves to increase transgressions. This is the primary purpose of the Law of Moses, that through it sin might grow and be multiplied, especially in the conscience. Paul discusses this magnificently in Rom. 7. Therefore the true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate, and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God.”[3] Why might this “theological” use of the Law—revealing man’s sin to his conscience—be considered the “chief and proper use of the Law?”
  4. Consider verses 21-24. Paul is emphatic that the Law (according to its proper office) is “certainly not” contrary to the Gospel. Rather, he says that “the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (3:22, emphasis added) Again, in verse 24 he says that “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” (emphasis added) How does the theological use of the Law ultimately serve the comforting proclamation that sinners are justified by grace through faith in Christ?
  5. Because Christ has come, we are “no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (3:25-26). Christ has set us free from the Law’s captivity. Yet, in this life the sinful flesh still clings to each of us. We are at the same time justified and sinners, until Christ returns. Luther writes, “So long as the flesh remains, there remains the Law, the custodian who continually terrifies and distresses the conscience with his demonstrations of sin and his threats of death. But it is always encouraged by the daily coming of Christ. Just as He once came into the world at a specific time to redeem us from the harsh dominion of our custodian, so He comes to us spiritually every day, causing us to grow in faith and in our knowledge of Him.”[4] Where has Christ promised to come to us daily? In what means does Christ continue to set our consciences free from the Law’s accusations?

Chapter three comes to a conclusion as Paul declares, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (3:27) Where salvation is concerned, there is no distinction of persons. All people are condemned under the law. Yet, all who are baptized into Christ Jesus and have faith in Him belong to Him and are therefore “heirs according to promise.” (3:29) This is the great comfort of the Gospel for you. The discipline of distinguishing the Law and Gospel is so important for every Christian for the sake of this message. May the Lord ever guide His Church—both those who preach and those who hear—in rightly dividing His Word of truth, that we Christians not be robbed of the great comfort of the Gospel.

The Rev. Jesse A. Burns is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ventura, IA.

[1]           The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (T. G. Tappert, Ed.). Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959., page 558.

[2]           Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963., page 308

[3]              Ibid., page 309

[4]              Ibid., page 349-350