Saturday, March 2, 2013

Navigating the Bible with Law and Gospel

     In the Lutheran church you will often hear us talking about the importance of distinguishing between Law and Gospel. What do we mean by that?  

     One of the best ways to approach a complicated thing like the Bible is to begin with the simplest facts and work from there.  There are a lot of different teachings in the Bible, and we have to remember that it provides everything we need to know about God. On the one hand it can be easy enough for a child to understand. On the other hand it is so deep that no theologian will ever stop learning from it. But to begin, we start with some important basics.  

     Let's use a map as an example.  A map contains a lot of information. But one of the first things you have to do is to orient the map to the directions of the compass. You have to understand north and south!  If you've used a GPS, you know how frustrating this can be if you're not sure if north is the top or the bottom of the map?  If you don't know, then right could actually be left and left could be right!  

     Law and Gospel are like the north and south of the Bible.  They are the two different ways that the Bible speaks to us and point in two different directions.  By "Law" we are referring to the important passages of the Bible that show us the way God expects us to live.  This teaching is found throughout the Bible from the Ten Commandments to the Sermon on the Mount.  By "Gospel" we are referring to those passages that show us what God does for us to enable us to live according to His will. The Gospel begins with the creation but especially is found in the promises of salvation and the real salvation-work of Jesus: His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return.  

     So as we read the "map" of the Bible we need to "orient" everything we read in terms of Law and Gospel.  Take for example the account of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Goliath, a Philistine, mocks the God of Israel. He challenges anyone to a fight. The soldiers of Israel are afraid. This is all basically Law.  Sin is being illustrated in Goliath's unbelief, pride and willfulness to murder. David rises to the challenge and faces off with the giant. But before he slings the stone that "sank" into Goliath's head, he makes an important declaration. In contrast to Goliath's self-assurance, David says the "the battle belongs to the LORD."  This is the Gospel.  David is teaching us that God is the one who saves us and helps us.  This orients the story to our life. We walk away from it remembering that we need to repent of prideful self-assurance and avoid it. We also look at all our challenges in life and then look to God to help us. There's a lot more Gospel here, but we'll save that for later.  I hope you get the idea. 

     You can see the basic directions of Law and Gospel in the way Jesus preached.  At the beginning of His ministry the basics of His preaching are summed up with the words "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mat 4.17).  "Repent" is the teaching of the Law.  "The kingdom of heaven" is the gift of the Gospel.  At the end of His earthly ministry He commissioned the apostles and all pastors to proclaim "repentance and the remission of sins to all nations..." (Luke 24.47). St. Paul urged Timothy, one of the first pastors, to teach "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2.15). We always keep these two teachings in mind whenever we read the Bible.  They will always guide us properly and keep us from misunderstanding God's word.

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