Basics of the Law/Gospel Distinction
Considering I was just asked to explain this to a good Christian friend, I thought I would jot down a few notes for myself and anyone else who reads. What does the Law/Gospel distinction mean and why is it important? Here are just a few things to ponder.
The Law/Gospel distinction is about giving each, Law and Gospel, its own proper office. They musn't be confused. We don't preach the Law as if it was Gospel -so that if we obey the Law to a certain extent God will be favorable toward us. And we don't preach the Gospel as if it is Law -so that God is favorable to us in response to us fulfilling certain requirements that He reveals to us in the Gospel. This distinction necessarily holds true for the unbeliever and the believer alike. The distinction is one in the Word of God, not in the individual. The Law shows us what righteousness is, shows what God expects, commands and prohibits things, and condemns those who violate them. The Gospel reveals to us a righteousness that God gives freely to sinners: the righteousness of Christ, external to us. It comes to give us something. It is ours as a gift from God by grace alone, grasped by a bankrupt and empty hand. The Law crushes our pride in self and drives away from ourselves to seek life from above. The Gospel reveals this life which is freely given from above in Jesus Christ. The Law is concerned with what is in us, but the Gospel is concerned with Christ Jesus and His doings, which are wholly outside of us yet for us. The Law requires and threatens: "cursed is everyone who does not obey all the things written in the book of the Law" (Gal 3). The Gospel gives and consoles: "I am the Bread of Life... everyone who feeds upon this Bread will live forever" (John 6).
The Law/Gospel distinction, despite what some have wrongly inferred, does not mean that Christians have nothing to do with God's Law . There is a very real sense in which it is true that we have nothing to do with the Law as Christians. We are described as being dead to the Law so that its dominion no longer is over us (Rom 7:1-6). There is no condemnation for those who are truly in Christ (Rom 8:1). The Law, as a rule of weighing and condemning us before God's justice, is dead to us. Yet, it is also true that the we, as Christians, are new creatures in Christ created unto good works which God prepared for us beforehand (Eph 2). The Law is profitable for instruction in righteousness -to show us, who as believers have the Law written upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 31:33), what righteousness truly is as the Spirit leads us into holiness and putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom 8, Gal 5).
Thus, if each object, Law and Gospel, are held in their proper offices then the Gospel is preserved and there is no boasting save in Christ alone. The heart that is humbled by the Law is freed by Christ to belong to Him in love, service, and gratitude rather than fear of punishment, self-righteously exalting oneself over a brother, or perversely making God out to be our Debtor.
A practical application of this can be seen in living the Christian life. What are we do to with a Christian once they come to grips with the fact that they still cannot obey the Law and therefore are still unrighteous in themselves? Well, a confusion over the proper office of Law and Gospel might lead to the conclusion that we must tell these Christians to try harder. We must impress upon them the weight of their responsibility as Christians to live a holy life. However, properly distinguishing Law and Gospel leads us to the very Biblical conclusion that the miserable Christian sinner, in a manner not much different from an unbelieving sinner, should abandon their own righteousness and flee to Christ. See Paul's answer to his own inabilities as a Christian in Romans 7 for an example of this. His answer is Christ and Christ alone. We can say that in this case the Law has done its work. It has shown the Christian what righteousness is and what a holy life looks like, and in the process it has crushed him because it exposed how badly he still falls short. So then, the Law revealed sin and in so doing has sent him looking for a righteousness upon which to stand, having shattered his confidence in his own. The only righteousness upon which any man can stand is found outside of us in Christ as presented in the Gospel. To Christ he flees and, in now quieted conscience, is enlivened and freed to live boldly in service and love for Christ
Preserving the proper distinction between Law and Gospel destroys legalism. It also leads to men and women in Christ who are led by love in service to Christ and others rather than guilt and fear. It leads to humility because it rightly preserves God's place in saving sinners while at the same time Biblically portraying our inability (rather than underplaying it). Why does it do these things? Because it is the Biblical teaching on the matter. It is the backbone of the Christian faith, in many regards. And where this distinction is absent -even if it is present in name- there is a fog that obscures the grace of God in Christ.