Most of those reading this magazine have, in all probability, known the blessed comfort of the Gospel from their earliest childhood. Brought up in Christian homes by godly parents, they have from their youth known the holy Scriptures, which have made them wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (II Timothy 3:15).
But what if that were not so?
What if your exposure to the Scriptures had been limited only to the Law (in the narrow sense), and you had not known the Gospel? In the second evening lecture of The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Dr. C.F.W. Walther notes that “[T]he Law uncovers to man his sins, but offers him no help to get out of them and thus hurls man into despair . . . . It conjures up the terrors of hell, of death, of the wrath of God. But it has not a drop of comfort to offer the sinner. If no additional teaching, besides the Law, is applied to man, he must despair, die, and perish in his sins.”
This effect of Law without Gospel may be foreign to our personal experience, but it was exactly that which tormented the young Martin Luther. Living in such abject terror and despair of salvation for years, it is no wonder that his joy was so great when he discovered the central truth of the Bible: salvation is by grace through faith, and not through our own good works.
Hymn 387 in The Lutheran Hymnal reflects the joy that Luther felt when he at last learned the truth of the Gospel. Written in 1523, this was Luther’s first congregational hymn. It joyfully comforts Christians with the blessed promises of the Gospel. In just the first half of the first verse, for example, we are encouraged to “Rejoice,” to do so with “exultation,” and to “Proclaim the wonders God hath done” with “holy rapture.” These are the emotions of someone heavily burdened by the Law apart from the Gospel, when he first realizes the central truth of the Bible. It is like the first deep breath of air of a man about to drown who at last breaks the surface of the water.
We take breathing for granted and don’t rejoice in our ability to do so—until something prevents it. So also, those raised with the blessed knowledge of the Gospel may fail to fully appreciate the joy that Luther expresses in this hymn. Luther’s congregation at the beginning of the Reformation, however, understood. Like Luther, they had been brought up in the legalistic doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and the pure Gospel proclaimed in Scripture and preached by Luther was their first breath of sweet and life-giving air. They understood the experiences expressed in verses 2 and 3 of this hymn, for they also had been “Fast bound in Satan’s chains.” Their sins had been their “torment night and day.” Their lives under Roman Catholicism “had become a living hell” due to the preaching of Law without Gospel.
Perhaps because in 1523 many in his congregation were still struggling with the yoke the papacy had imposed on them for most of their lives, Luther used verses 4-8 of this hymn as a teaching tool to point them to the objective facts of the Gospel. They were encouraged by the facts that God “planned my soul’s salvation” (v.4), that the purpose of Christ’s earthly ministry was to “bring to man salvation,” and that Christ’s sacrifice would “From sin and sorrow set him [man] free” (v. 5).
Roman Catholics of Luther’s day heard much about the suffering, death, and shed blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit used Luther to teach them why Jesus endured these things: “The Foe shall shed My precious blood,/ Me of My life bereaving./ All this I suffer for thy good;/ Be steadfast and believing./ Life shall from death the victory win,/ My innocence shall bear thy sin;/ So art thou blest forever” (v. 8).
May God grant that we who have known the blessed Gospel from our childhood on may also exult in this truth.
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.