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The Right Tool For The Job

Thesis XXIII–In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promise of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.”

A barstool is not a ladder even though it is sometimes used as one. A key is not a prying tool, nor is a screwdriver a punch. They get used that way, but that’s not really their purpose.

Law and Gospel are tools that the Lord has given to His Church. Each has its own purpose. Using Law when Gospel is needed, or vice versa, can yield disastrous results, not just in soul care, but in an incorrect understanding of Scripture.

The Law threatens, condemns, and coerces, but doesn’t produce faith. It can be used to browbeat people into submission. They may look more like Christians when it’s done with them, but their hearts remain unchanged (Luke 18:9-14). Only the Gospel can produce faith and new life, because only the Gospel can take away our fear of being condemned. John writes, There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Do you have perfect love for God (Law)? Or does God have perfect love for you (Gospel)? The message of His love, the Gospel, is the difference maker. It frees me from my sins through the work of my Savior. It takes away my fear of being condemned.

When asked by the jailer at Philippi, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul did not hand him a punch list of things to do before God would save him. He didn’t ask the jailer how sincere he was or what he promised to do in return. Paul pointed him away from self to Christ, away from Law to Gospel. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)

What about the Sacraments? Are they Law or Gospel? Are they ordinances to fulfill or simply grace to receive? Is Baptism the sign of my commitment to God? Or is it God’s commitment to me? The Scriptures are clear: Baptism is a gift from God that brings the forgiveness of our sins and creates the new life of faith in our hearts. “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38)

The doctrine of infant Baptism also stands or falls depending on whether it is Law or Gospel. If Baptism is something I do for God, then how can infants possibly do what they don’t yet understand? But if it is Christ coming to me to clothe me with His righteousness, then it is Gospel that creates faith in the youngest of babies. If Baptism is Law, a child must first become adultlike in his ability to reason and confess. But Jesus does not commend an adultlike faith. He commends a childlike one (Mark 10:15).

As for fruits of faith, there are none apart from the Gospel. The Law can be used to shake people down and pressure them to change. It gets used as a bartering tool with which sinners try to cut deals with God, as in, “Lord, if You solve my problem, I will never touch the bottle again.” But the sanctified life is the result of the Gospel, not the Law. It is not what we do to BE saved, but what happens naturally when we ARE saved. The danger of confusing the two is worse than falling off the barstool you’re standing on. Walther: “Not only do they mingle Law and Gospel, they substitute Law for Gospel.”

[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free online, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]

James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.