Law and Gospel Reflections
A Reflection Paper
This is difficult. Reflecting on the course, Preaching Law and Gospel with Dr. Dirk Lange, is a little like reflecting on a journey one has just begun. The law and gospel dialectic is fundamental theology; it’s the language of faith, the threat to existence and the promise of salvation. It’s dying and rising. It’s being buried with Christ in baptism and rising with Christ. It’s the theology of the cross, looking at things as they really are, seeing God through suffering and the cross (Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation). It’s a cruciform existence, a life of suffering love for the other. It’s discipleship, following the One who is our Savior into the life of the world. It’s Bonhoeffer’s notions of “religionless Christianity” and the Christian life as two things: “prayer and righteous action.” It’s divine wrath and divine mercy, God’s alien and God’s proper work, judgment and grace, sinner and saint.
The dialectic of Law and Gospel appears in the “theological substructure of the sermon,” according to Herman Stuempfle, Jr.’s reading of Heinrich Ott, consisting of three elements which correspond to “the ‘structural phases’ of the life of faith”:
In the first phase we are brought to the realization that our situation before God is one of “lostness.” Then through the Word of Jesus’ redemptive work we experience, in the midst of our lost situation, an emancipating encounter with God. Finally, out of this encounter there issues a radical reorientation of our life towards new ends.
It’s essential to remember, however, that this theological substructure is not the outline of every sermon, nor is this substructure a framework that one woodenly overlays on the biblical text – as if one were to read every text through the lens of a narrow understanding of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the context of preaching, there is no single definition of either Law or Gospel, and there is no single interpretation for any particular text discerning what is Law and what is Gospel in the text. In the word of Scripture, God encounters us, where we are, with both Law and Gospel: what I discern and preach as Law and Gospel for my congregational context will not be the same as another sermon for another time, place, and people; one cannot fully predict or control how God will speak Law and Gospel to someone through the sermon. Gospel can function as Law, Law can function as Gospel; both can be intermixed in any text or any sermon, and what one person hears as Law another will hear as Gospel.
Stuempfle discerns two different forms of the Law: Law as Hammer of Judgment, and Law as Mirror of Existence. The Hammer of Judgment targets the conscience with accusations of guilt, to hold the listeners accountable for our sin; the Mirror of Existence targets consciousness with descriptions of our “anxiety, finitude, alienation, doubt, despair,” etc., to bring our broken existence to awareness. Thinking of the two uses of the Law – as Torah teaching to enable human flourishing and as Hammer or Mirror to reveal our need for a Savior – the Law has both positive and (from a human perspective) negative functions. This side of the Kingdom of God in its fullness, we will continue to need both uses of the Law.
One does not end with the Law, however. The Law alone is bad news. The specific Law or “No!” preached will be correlated with a specific form of Gospel or God’s “Yes!” The Hammer of Judgment will be answered by “the Gift of Forgiveness;” the Mirror of Existence will be answered by the Gospel as “Antiphon to Existence,” for example, alienation answered by reconciliation, anxiety by certitude, despair by hope, transiency by homecoming. While one can, in a general sense, describe the Good News of God’s promise of salvation through Christ in Scripture, how that Good News is specifically given voice in the sermon cannot be predicted before the process of sermon preparation, because the specific Gospel word will be given flesh by the text of Scripture, the congregational context, and the preacher’s own life with both the text and the context – swinging between the Bible and the community of faith, between the Gospel and the Law, between life and death.A tension, which arose even in Paul’s day, is how the call to obedience fits into this Law/Gospel dialectic. Should we fall into the ditch of antinomianism? “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). If God freely forgives sin, why not sin more, so God can forgive more? On the other side, should we fall into the ditch of legalism, and place the burden of the Law on the backs of the people as a prerequisite for grace? The answer is that we struggle to walk the narrow path. In answer to antinomianism, we recognize the two legitimate uses of the Law: to guide our path and to reveal our fallenness, and thus our need for Christ. In answer to legalism, we recognize that salvation is God’s work, already accomplished for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The Gospel, is not earned, but is a gift from God; it’s all grace. Our life of faith is a life of gratitude, thanksgiving in response to what God has done for us. For example, as Christians we follow the Ten Commandments, neither in the fear that, when we fail to keep them, we will be damned; nor in a false pride that deceives ourselves into thinking that we are, in fact, following them fully and paying our own way to salvation. Rather, we follow the Ten Commandments freely, in a spirit of gratitude for God’s gift of grace, knowing that we will fall down along the way, go astray, and repent, and that God has promised to forgive us, as the loving parent forgave the prodigal child (Luke 15).