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This blog post is the first of many reviews of the Book, A Necessary Distinction, a discussion on Law and Gospel. I pray that it will be helpful in the continual dialogue on this doctrine that is vital to the proper understanding and application of Holy Scripture. Fun times.
At first glance, a Confessional Lutheran in the LCMS would be hesitant to buy this book and digest its contents. One of the editors is a theologian from the ELCA now in the NALC, and many of the authors are not in church bodies with which we share altar and pulpit fellowship. Why would we ever read this book? We have Walther’s Law and Gospel, Luther’s Works, and a plethora of other documents and writings that suffice. Why would we ever want to read something that could contain the possible hint of heresy and therefore poison our conscience and soul. Is there anything good that can come out of reading this text? This is the first of many reviews. Rather than review the book as a whole, I am going to review every article on its own and take it from there. This review is of the preface which was written by the editors that are mentioned above.
The preface opens up with a quote from Luther’s work on the freedom of the Christian. The quote is meant to show what the purpose of the book is. The Luther quote asserts the reality that without the word of grace, or the Gospel, then everything else is done in vain. The editors go on to say that this book had its genesis in the dialogue between the LCMS, the NALC, and the LCC. The proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is necessary in order to have a proper and faithful understanding of Scripture. The editors add some of the content of their previous dialogue saying, ““God’s Word Forever Shall Abide: A Guiding Statement on the Character and Proper Use of Sacred Scriptures” as an appendix to this volume.” This book is not the confession of any one of the church bodies involved, but rather is the fruit of faithful dialogue between brothers who desire to better understand Scripture together. The dialogue between these church bodies, and this book that is a fruit of that discussion, is very encouraging to see. It is a blessing to see men striving to be mature theologians that can sit down and have discussions around the Word of God with the hope of having true concord in the end. This book will hopefully be a beneficial exhortation to those who do not wish to have this type of maturity and bring them to repentance in order that fruitful dialogue may continue to take place in the Church.
The editors then go on to assert the abuses of a false understanding of the law. On the one hand, there are those that would throw the Law out the window and license any sin to take place without the consequences of the Law’s proclamation. Those who do this are those who license sexual sins, and they abuse the sacred nature of the Law as the eternal will of God. On the other hand, there are those who create a new legalism due to a false understanding of especially the 3rd use of the Law. Those who do this, though not intentionally, set the law against the Gospel and reintroduce into the church a works-righteousness that ends only in despair. The editors make it clear that both abuses are dealt with in the book. They conclude by quoting the Smalcald Articles and speaking of two functions of the law saying, “These are commonly identified as the first two uses or functions of the Law. The Formula of Concord clarified a dispute that had arisen among Lutheran theologians over the place of the Law in the life of the Christian, asserting in Article VI, a “third use,” that is a guide to the good works that the Christian is obligated to do in his or her vocation. Several of the essays in this volume take up this topic.”
The remainder of the preface quotes the Apology to the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord Solid Declaration in order to show that the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel is absolutely necessary for a right reading of Holy Scripture and the application of God’s Word. The quote from the FCSD is especially helpful which says, ““The distinction between Law and Gospel is a particularly glorious light. It serves to divide God’s Word properly [cf. 2 Tim. 2:15] and to explain correctly and make understandable the writings of the holy prophets and apostles. Therefore, we must diligently preserve this distinction, so as not to mix these two teachings together and make the Gospel into a Law. For this obscures the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of the comfort they otherwise have in the holy Gospel when it is preached clearly and purely. With the help of this distinction these consciences can sustain themselves in their greatest spiritual struggles against the terror of the Law” (FCSD V.1) The danger of robbing the troubled conscience of Christ’s comfort is the chief concern of any faithful pastor, especially a Lutheran one. The preface shows a faithfulness to both the preaching of the Law and the Gospel for the sinner’s salvation. The Law is not ignored, but rather put in its proper place as a servant of the preaching of the Gospel.
The editors conclude the preface saying, “The essays by their very nature are exploratory. We particularly hope that they might be the basis for conversation and continued study by pastors in the NALC, LCC, and LCMS. If they draw their readers back into a deep look into the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions so that Christ Jesus is preached with greater clarity and broken sinners given the full consolation of the forgiveness of sins, we will rejoice that this work has not been done in vain.” What better thing can there be than for sinner to dig deeper into Sacred Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions in order to seek comfort in Jesus. The point of this collection of essays is to drive the terrified conscience to where healing can be found, which is only in the wounds of Jesus. Let us read it as such, give a fair reading according to what is contained within the volume, with the hope that in the end it will guide us all to a true and faithful concord according to the truth of Holy Scripture.
Pastor Chris Hull