In the past few posts we have looked at Law and Gospel, as a lens by which we can see God’s Word. Properly distinguishing between the two is critical. But it doesn’t take too long for a student of the Bible to go through a passage of Scripture and determine whether it is a statement of Law (what we are to do or not do, and God’s punishment for that) or a statement of Gospel (what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what he is still doing). It might be tempting to say that we have learned to “properly distinguish Law and Gospel.” But have we?
The real challenge
Not really, because the real challenge is to determine whether Law or Gospel should be applied in a specific, real-life situation. Let’s look at two cases from the Bible: Mark 10:17-22 and Acts 16:25-31
Mark 10:17–22 NIV
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. 18 “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
So, is the question in v. 17 a Law question or a Gospel question? While it includes “eternal life” and some think it is Gospel, notice that the heart of the question is: “What must I do?” That is a Law question.
What is the answer to the question? In v. 19 Jesus provides the answer(s)—”Here is the Law, follow all of them (second table of the 10 Commandments).” So a Law question is answered by a Law statement. Makes sense, doesn’t it? By the way, the rich man claims to have followed those laws since he was a boy. Our first reaction might be: “Let’s get him on the Board!” But when Jesus confronts him with the the 1st commandment: “No other gods” then the man goes away sad. That Law statement was too much.
Acts 16:25-31 NIV
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
So in v. 30 is that a Law question or a Gospel question? Again, it is tempting to see the word “saved” and assume it is a Gospel question. But he asks the same question as the rich man in Mark 10: “What must I do?” It is a Law question. Now based on the consistency of the Bible, we would expect, just like Jesus did in Mark 10, that they would answer with the Law (“Do this, do that, don’t do this, etc.). Instead Paul and Silas answer with the Gospel (“believe in the Lord Jesus”). Notice that the word “believe” is the word which extends the Gospel to the jailer (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9).
So what is the difference between the two situations? The rich man was still trying to climb up the Law ladder (left side of the Law-Gospel diagram). What he needed to hear was the Law to show him that the only acceptable performance under the Law is perfection (Matthew 5:48). Whereas the jailer knew he faced death and there seemed no escape. He was at the bottom of the Law, crushed and waiting for death. Law would not help him at that point, only discourage him more. For him the answer is the Gospel, what Jesus has done. And that is what saved him.
The Next Step
With this new insight, we begin to look at our own lives and those around us. We discover that perhaps we have not always understood what was going on. A person can ask a Law question, and need the Law; at other times the same person will ask a Law question but need the Gospel. Maybe we didn’t understand what was going on behind the questions. Maybe we needed to listen more carefully before prescribing a “solution.”
Stayed tuned for the next post in which we look at a couple real-world examples.