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Law and Gospel

In sins in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, is critical. It is used as a hermeneutical principle of biblical interpretation and a guiding principle in homiletics (sermon composition) and pastoral care. It is the supersession of the Old Covenant (including traditional Jewish law, or halakha) by the New Covenant and Christian theology.

Other Christian groups have a view on the issue as well, or more generally views of the Old Covenant, though it has not usually been as hotly debated or rigorously defined as in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

Sometimes the issue is discussed under the headings of "Law and Grace," "Sin and Grace," "Spirit and Letter," and "ministry (διακονíα, diakonia) of death/condemnation" and "ministry of the Spirit/righteousness".[1]


  • Lutheran view 1
    • Martin Luther and Lutheran theologians 1.1
    • Book of Concord 1.2
  • Reformed view 2
  • Lutheran and Reformed differences 3
  • Imperative and indicative 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8
    • Lutheran 8.1
    • Reformed (Calvinist) 8.2

Lutheran view

Martin Luther and Lutheran theologians

A specific formulation of the distinction of Law and Gospel was first brought to the attention of the Christian Church by Martin Luther (1483–1546), and laid down as the foundation of evangelical Lutheran biblical exegesis and exposition in Article 4 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531): "All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal.".[2] The Formula of Concord likewise affirmed this distinction in Article V, where it states: "We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence..."[3]

Martin Luther wrote: "Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture."[4] Throughout the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy (1580–1713) this hermeneutical discipline was considered foundational and important by Lutheran theologians.

This distinction was the first article in “Patrick`s Places“ (1528) by Patrick Hamilton.[5]

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (1811–1887), who was the first (and third) president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, renewed interest in and attention to this theological skill in his evening lectures at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis 1884-85.[6]

Book of Concord

The Formula of Concord distinguished three uses, or purposes, in the Law in Article VI. It states: "[T]he Law was given to men for three reasons. . ."

  1. that "thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]"
  2. that "men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins"
  3. that "after they are regenerate. . .they might. . .have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life"[7]

The primary concern was to maintain that the Law should continue to be used by Christians after they had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to counter the doctrine of Johannes Agricola, who taught that the Law was no longer needed by regenerate Christians."[7][8]

Briefly summarized they are:

  1. curb
  2. mirror
  3. guide

Reformed view

The distinction between law and gospel is a standard formulation in Reformed theology, though in recent years some have characterized it as distinctively Lutheran.[9] Zacharias Ursinus sharply contrasted the law and gospel as "the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures" in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.[10] Louis Berkhof called the law and the gospel "the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace." Law and Gospel are found in both testaments.[11]

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Reformer John Calvin distinguished three uses in the Law. Calvin wrote the following: "[T]o make the whole matter clearer, let us survey briefly the function and use of what is called the 'moral law.' Now, so far as I understand it, it consists of three parts."

  1. "[W]hile it shows God's righteousness . . . , it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness" (2.7.6).
  2. It functions "by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law" (2.7.10).
  3. "It admonishes believers and urges them on in well-doing" (2.7.12-13).

This scheme is the same as the Formula of Concord, with the exception that the first and second uses are transposed.

In later Reformed scholasticism the order is the same as for Lutherans. The three uses are called:

  1. The usus politicus sive civilis, the political or civil use, is a restraint on sin and stands apart from the work of salvation. It is part of God's general revelation or common grace for unbelievers as well as believers.
  2. The usus elenchticus sive paedagogicus, the elenctical or pedagogical use which confronts sin and points us to Christ.
  3. The usus didacticus sive normativus, the didactic use, which is solely for believers. It teaches the way of righteousness, but does not have any power to condemn.[12]
Law and Grace, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a Lutheran. The left side of the tree illustrates law, while the right side illustrates grace

Lutheran and Reformed differences

Scholastic Lutheran and Reformed theologians differed primarily on the way in which the third use functions for believers. The Reformed emphasized the third use (tertius usus legis) because the redeemed are expected to bear good works. Some Lutherans saw here the danger of works-righteousness, and argued that the third use should always return believers to the second use and again to Christ rather than being the ultimate norm.[12]

Additionally, some have suggested that the third use of the law is not found at all in Luther but comes from Melanchthon. Although some Lutherans have rejected that view,[13] it has caused others to dispute the validity of the "third use" of the Law entirely. Paul Althaus, for instance, writes in his treatise on Law and Gospel: "This [ethical] guidance by the Holy Spirit implies that God's concrete commanding cannot be read off from a written document, an inherited scheme of law. I must learn afresh every day what God wants of me. For God's commanding has a special character for each individual: it is always contemporary, always new. God commands me (and each person) in a particular way, in a different way than He commands others.... The living and spiritual character of the knowledge of what God requires of men in the present moment must not be destroyed by rules and regulations."[14] Such theologians believe the third use leads to or encourages a form of legalism and is possibly an implicit denial of sola fide. Conversely, Reformed Christians have sometimes seen this two-use scheme of some modern Lutherans as leading to a form of antinomianism.

Some believe that "for Luther the pedagogic use of the Law was primary, while for Calvin this third or didactic use was the principal one; yet [historically] both the Lutheran and the Reformed traditions maintain the threefold conceptualization."[13]
Law and Grace, a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a Lutheran. The left side of the tree illustrates law, while the right side illustrates grace

Imperative and indicative

Certain recurring grammatical patterns in the Old Testament[15] and in the New[16] involving the sequencing of imperative and indicative predicates are taken by theologians as central to the relationship between Law and Gospel. Daniel Defoe discusses three pairs of these predicates in his second and final sequel to Robinson Crusoe, Serious Reflections (1720): "forbear and live", "do and live", "believe and live". According to Defoe, the first was established with Adam in paradise, the second as the Law with the children of Israel, and the third as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[17]

See also


  1. ^ 2 Cor. 3:6-9.
  2. ^ F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, ed. and trans. Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), Apology IV (II).5, p. 135
  3. ^ Triglot Concordia, FC Epitome V, (II).1, p. 503ff
  4. ^ Martin Luther, Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, St. Louis ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), vol. 9, col. 802.
  5. ^ Patrick`s Places (1528)[1]
  6. ^ The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: 39 Evening Lectures, W.H.T. Dau tr., 1897.
  7. ^ a b Triglot Concordia, Formula of Concord, Epitome VI.1
  8. ^ F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, chapter XVII: The Antinomistic Controversy, (St. Louis, MO: CPH, 1921), 161-172, cf. p. 169.
  9. ^ Horton, Michael (2010). "The Distinction between Law and Gospel in Reformed Faith and Practice". Modern Reformation 19 (5): 12–14. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  10. ^ Ursinus, Zacharias (1888). The commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg catechism (4 ed.). Elm Street Printing Co. p. 2. 
  11. ^ Berkhof, Louis (1979). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 612. 
  12. ^ a b Muller, Richard A. (2006). Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (1st ed.). Baker Book House. pp. 320–321.  
  13. ^ a b "The Third Use of Law" by John Warwick Montgomery in Present Truth, vol. 7
  14. ^ Paul Althaus, The Divine Command, pp. 43, 45
  15. ^ The Ten Commandments: the Reciprocity of Faithfulness. William P. Brown. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004 ISBN 0-664-22323-0. pp.133-44.
  16. ^ The Theology of Paul the Apostle. James D. G. Dunn. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006. ISBN 0-8028-4423-5. p.626-31
  17. ^ Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the angelic world. Daniel Defoe. 172x. p.169

Further reading


  • Althaus, Paul. The Divine Command: a New Perspective on Law and Gospel. Trans. Franklin Sherman. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
  • Bente, F. and Dau, W.H.T., eds. and trans. Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.
  • Elert, Werner. Law and Gospel. Trans. Edward H. Schroeder. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.


  • Bahnsen, Greg L. Theonomy in Christian Ethics. S.L.: Covenant Media Press, 2002.
  • Barth, Karl. "Gospel and Law" in Community, State and Church: Three Essays. Will Herberg, ed. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1960.
  • Clark, R. Scott. "Retaining the Law Gospel Distinction" [3]
  • Gundry, Stanley N., ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
  • Horton, Michael S. "Calvin on Law and Gospel," Westminster Seminary California [4]
  • Murray, John. Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957.

External links

  • Law in Luther And Calvin, by Edward A. Dowey
  • The Struggle to Balance Law & Grace, by Bernie L. Gillespie
  • The Christian and the Moral Law - Link list at


  • Hummel, Horace D. "Are Law and Gospel a Valid Hermeneutical Principle?" [online] Concordia Theological Quarterly 46 (1982) no. 2-3:181-207. Available from
  • Klug, Eugene F. "Confessional Emphasis on Law and Gospel for Our Day" [online] Concordia Theological Quarterly 42 (1978) no. 3:241-257. Available from
  • Lueker, Erwin L. Law and Gospel from the Christian Cyclopedia. Concordia Publishing House, 2000.
  • Rosenthal, Shane Law & Gospel.
  • Using the Third Use: Formula of Concord VI and the Preacher's Task
  • Walther, C.F.W. Law and Gospel, (excerpts).
  • Walther, C.F.W. The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, (complete work).
  • Bucholtz, Jon D. '"Justification: Handling the Word of Truth, part 3 of 5." Forward in Christ, April 2006. WELS publication, Accessed April 17, 2006.
  • Scholarly articles on Law and Gospel from the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Library

Reformed (Calvinist)

  • "Law and Grace", sermon by C. H. Spurgeon
  • "God's Law in Man's Heart", sermon by C. H. Spurgeon
  • "Law and Grace" by John Murray
  • "Calvin & The Law-Gospel Hermeneutic" by Michael Horton
  • "What's Really at Stake?", by Michael Horton
  • "Calvin’s Third Use of the Law: An Assessment of Reformed Explications of the Ten Commandments" by John P. Burgess in PDF
  • "Michael Horton, John Calvin, and 'Law & Gospel'", by Bill DeJong
  • "Mixing 'Law' and Gospel in the Abrahamic Promise", by Mark Horne
  • Law and Liberty, Law and Gospel extensive link list at
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