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This series offers an overview of the chief teachings of the Christian church.

Law and Gospel. Or might we say, “Bad news; good news.” Sinners. Saved. “SOS (Shows our sin); SOS (Shows our Savior).” Brief and to the point, these expressions help to show that Law and Gospel are more than categories for the Bible’s two main doctrines. Law and Gospel are Scripture’s communication from God to all according to His attributes of holiness and grace, designed to express the bad news of our sin and condemnation and the good news of God’s gift of salvation and eternal life in Christ. Put together in the right order and without mixing the two, Law and Gospel comprise God’s SOS rescue plan for us and for all.

Confusing Law and Gospel is an age-old problem that has led to moralism, legalism, and other false teachings that undermine saving faith in Christ. Only the Spirit of God can lead us to use Law and Gospel properly, with a few basic points kept in mind.

Law and Gospel are both taught in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In tracing God’s Law from Genesis to Revelation, His moral law stands out, which has always applied to all people. The Ten Commandments, given first to Israel, serve well as God’s summary of what He continues to require of all people. His moral law in the Old Testament is repeated in the New Testament to inform everyone as to what they are to think, say, and do in keeping with God’s mandate that we are to “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

In using God’s commands to examine their own thoughts, words, and deeds rightly, people experience the mirror effect of God’s Law. While His Law continues to be a curb against our sinful nature and a guide for the Christian on how to live a God-pleasing life, the mirror effect remains essential, also for believers, in God’s rescue plan of salvation. Before He brings the SOS good news that shows us our Savior, He has to bring the SOS bad news that shows us our sin. The bad news includes the warning of Galatians 3:10: Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” Romans 3 teaches “that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. . . . for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (verses 19-20)

The Spirit uses the Law’s divine judgment to alarm the sinner’s heart with the realization that he is lost, without excuse, deserving of hell, and desperately stuck, unable to escape. At that point God comes to the rescue with the SOS good news that His Son fulfilled all the Law’s demands in our place and fully paid for all sins, with the result that they are removed from God’s sight. This good news is more than Bible history truth. The Gospel actually delivers the forgiveness of sins that all people need, along with life and salvation as God’s free gift. The Gospel, exclusively, “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and such power includes the Spirit at work to create and preserve faith.

In the proper proclamation of Law and Gospel, the bad news is followed by the good news with the result that we still see ourselves as sinners deserving condemnation, yet saved entirely by the doing, dying, and rising of Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God for His SOS rescue plan at work for us and for all.

Confusing Law and Gospel is an age-old problem that has led to moralism, legalism, and other false teachings.

Steven Sippert is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.