The real world makes it a little harder to properly distinguish and apply Law and Gospel. How would you respond in this scenario? First, let’s look at a passage about forgiveness.
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NAS)
Clearly this is a statement of Law… “If you forgive… then…” and “if you do not forgive …then …” With that as background, let’s take one example about whether we should apply Law or Gospel.
“I will NEVER forgive him!”
Parents come to talk, but they are not sure how to start. Fear, anger, despair. They are disturbed to the extreme. Their teen daughter had been raped and murdered. And both expressed their anger to the one who did it, in this way: “I will never forgive him!”
So the question is: do they need to hear Law (Matthew 6:15) or Gospel?
When I raise this in Bible classes, the responses are usually split 50% on Law, 50% on Gospel. We usually have a lively exchange, discussing the advantages, etc.
So what is the answer? We don’t know enough yet about the people to determine whether they need to hear Law or Gospel.
If they speak these words from the stand point of hardened hearts, then that puts them on the Law side of the diagram, trying to justify themselves. And they need Law, for instance, Matthew 6:15.
However, if they speak these identical words from anger, confusion, despair, anguish, because they are now at the very bottom of the Law scale, and have nothing more to offer, give, even the capacity to forgive. Then it may be that the same desperate words require the Gospel. But not just that Jesus died for them.
The Gospel needs to be more specific: Jesus forgives your inability to forgive; but even more Jesus forgives that murderer in your place, even when you are not able to forgive. For you see, the Gospel is more than just Jesus taking our sins on himself, which is the negative side of our failure to meet the demands of the Law. The Gospel also includes Jesus’ positive fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). That means in every instance he fulfilled all requirements, including forgiving when we cannot. And because he did it perfectly, his righteousness is credited to us. That righteousness includes forgiving in our place.
But the key here is that we do an injustice to the person if we rush to judgment. We often assume we know what the underlying problem is. We assume that we can diagnose it correctly with only a fleeting glimpse into the person’s pain. Sadly, if we start giving our diagnosis to the person, we see three things happen: 1) the person clams up, and may not hear anything we say; 2) we move forward thinking that the person is so messed up “they couldn’t even listen to my Christian advice,” 3) and we miss an opportunity to bring Jesus to the person and the person to Jesus.
As I look back on my life and ministry I can see times when I rushed to judgment, where I thought I had it all figured out. And missed it completely. We fail in this task. Thank God, that he forgives even my inabilities in this area. I do not give up, though. For the reward of applying Law and Gospel appropriately is so great. To see a person in bondage to despair over not being able to fulfill a demand of the Law and who finally hears the extent of the Gospel and specifically applied to her or him is to see one move from death to life, from the crush of the Law to the sweetness of the Gospel, from despair with no hope to confident hope in Jesus Christ.
My desire is that we all see how critical the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel is for the Christian life, for the Church, for our mission. This is not about church politics, not about worship wars, not about a church with factions. This is about life, life on the raw edge, life filled with sin, and all its ugliness. This is about life redeemed, saved, renewed, refreshed.
No wonder Martin Luther noted that if someone can rightly distinguish Law and Gospel and apply them appropriately, then the person should be given a doctor of theology degree.
We may not get a doctor’s degree in theology, but we can speak God’s appropriate Word into peoples’ lives. And that is what God has called us to do.