Law and Gospel: The Power of God's Word In Two Words

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Christians often wish that God would speak the way that he used to speak to his people--audibly, through burning bushes, dreams, and doves descending from the sky. That way, it would seem so much easier to discern what he is saying. Today, most Christians agree, the main way God speaks to his people is through the Bible. For too many, though, what he says there is a complete mystery, impossible to understand.

It doesn't have to be.

Many people read the Bible as if it were fundamentally about us: our improvement, our life, our victory, our faith, our holiness, our godliness. We treat it like a disconnected series of timeless principles that will give us our best life now, if we simply apply them. We read it, in other words, as if it were a heaven-sent self-help manual, a divinely delivered to-do list. But by reading the Bible this way, we--like the two companions on the road to Emmaus--totally miss the point. As Luke 24 shows, it's possible to read the Bible, study the Bible--even memorize large portions of the Bible--and miss the main point of the Bible. In fact, unless we go to the Bible to see Jesus and his work for us, even devout Bible reading can become fuel for our own self-improvement plans, a source for the help we need to conquer today's challenges and take control of our lives.

God's goal in speaking to us in the Bible is profound, but not complicated. In fact, we can say that all of God's Word comes to us in two words. And if we are going to understand the Bible rightly, we have to be able to distinguish properly between these two words.

Different Job Descriptions
The Protestant Reformers were all in agreement that all of God's Word comes to us in two forms of speech: law and gospel. The law is God's word of demand, and the gospel is God's word of deliverance. The law tells us what to do, while the gospel tells us what God has done. If you pick up your Bible and turn to any page, you're going to find one of two things: either a passage that demands something from you (law), like "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12), or a passage that delivers something to you (gospel), like "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16, ESV). Everything in both the Old and New Testaments comes in one of these two forms. "Hence," wrote Martin Luther, "whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture."

Obviously, both God's law and God's gospel come from God, which means both are good and necessary for us to hear. But they do very different things. This distinction may seem irrelevantly abstract--something that would fascinate only the theologian or linguist--but serious life confusion happens when we confuse law and gospel, when we fail to understand their unique job descriptions. John Calvin's protégé, Theodore Beza, went so far as to say, "Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity."

So what are the "job descriptions" of God's two words? Let me answer by way of illustration.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Tullian Tchividjian
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