The Bilingual Spirit: Law, Gospel, & the Sermon

martinluthermondaysFor the past few weeks we’ve been learning about preaching from one of history’s most influential preachers. We began by presenting a definition of preaching that summarized the Reformer’s views on the subject: Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word in God’s way to bring God’s results. Next, we discussed the first component of that definition—Luther’s firm conviction that God speaks through sermons. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking. Then we considered the role of the man of God as the human messenger of God’s speech. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man. Last week we considered the necessity of the Word of God as the preacher’s message. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word. Today we’ll explore the Spirit’s manner in communicating to God’s people. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word in God’s way.

The Spirit’s Manner

Luther believed that preaching is the Spirit of God speaking through the man of God by the Word of God. However, the true sermon is not mere repetition of the literal meaning of Scripture. The preacher must communicate the text in God’s way. If the Spirit is speaking through the sermon, then the preacher must be careful not only to communicate God’s words accurately, but also to accurately speak the way God speaks. Fundamental to Luther’s thought is his belief that God speaks to humanity in two ways: through the language of law and the language of gospel.

Perhaps no element of Luther’s theology has received wider recognition than his distinction between law and gospel.[1] One of Luther’s pupils claimed, “No other teacher had ever given clearer and more understandable instruction regarding the proper distinction of law and gospel, . . . than had Martin Luther.”[2] Luther himself states, “Whoever knows well how to distinguish the gospel from the law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.”[3]

“Whoever knows well how to distinguish the gospel from the law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.” — Martin Luther

In order to understand what Luther means by law and gospel, it is helpful first to clarify our terms. When Luther refers to the language of law, he isn’t necessarily referring to the Ten Commandments or some Levitical legal code in Scripture. Law is anything in Scripture that exposes the deficiencies of the sinner. When Luther refers to the language of gospel, he isn’t necessarily referring to the Good News of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. He’s referring to anything in Scripture that reveals a promise of God and His grace (which would include the gospel story, but isn’t limited to it). Perhaps another way to understand Luther’s conception of law and gospel is remembering that the law commands and the gospel promises.

According to Luther, the law and gospel represent two different ways God speaks to people. The law is any word of God that kills or demands, and the gospel is any word of God that makes alive or provides. God kills, crushes, and pulverizes the sinner with the law. He exposes his insufficiencies and reveals his incompleteness. With the gospel, God raises the hearer back to life. He provides what He demands and completes what is missing. This is why the Apostle Paul says the purpose of Scripture is to make incomplete men and complete.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” — 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Many preachers mistakenly assume that certain passages are primarily law passages and others are primarily gospel passages. This error often appears in the belief that the Old Testament is concerned primarily with law and the New Testament with gospel. Bernhard Lohse writes, “Most texts assigned to the law have also a gospel side, just as most texts assigned to the gospel have also a law side.”[4] Luther’s preaching demonstrates this truth. When he preached the law of the Ten Commandments, Luther found gospel in the phrase “I am the Lord, thy God.” When he preached the gospel of the cross, Luther found law in the severity of God’s wrath against sin. Every text contains both law and gospel because every text testifies to the incompleteness of man and God’s provision to make him complete.

Therefore, the goal of the sermon, for Luther, is not merely to speak accurate words for God but to speak in an accurate manner. If the Spirit speaks through the languages of law and gospel, the preacher must rightly employ those languages in the pulpit. Gerhard Forde opines, “The difference between ‘old law’ and ‘new law (gospel)’ is a difference in speaking.[5] He continues, “Law and gospel, as Luther understood them, are more a matter of modes of speech and ways of preaching than of difference in content between Old and New Testaments.”[6] The point of Luther’s sermons was to communicate law and gospel accurately to his people.

The importance of this truth for preaching cannot be overstated. Many preachers have unwittingly clamped one side of God’s mouth shut while holding up a megaphone to the other. Jeffrey Mann articulates this exceptionally well: “Among certain believers, there has been such a fear of teaching works-righteousness that any meaningful statement of law is quickly followed with the promises of the gospel, as if to say that everything will be all right for those not living righteously anyway. The law is not given opportunity to do its work. Alternatively, those who do seek to balance law and gospel in their sermons often end up preaching about the law rather than preaching the law. Law, like gospel, must be pro me. The law must be preached so that I feel its accusing finger pointing at me, not as a lesson on human nature. Who will run to a physician who does not first perceive illness?”[7] If the Spirit speaks through the sermon, and He speaks in the two languages of law and gospel, preachers must painstakingly strive for fluency in both languages.

Later in life, the Reformer was asked whether law or gospel should receive greater prominence in the sermon. He replied:

“This shouldn’t and can’t be comprehended in a fixed rule. Christ himself preached [the law and the gospel] according to his circumstances. As a passage or text indicates, therefore, one should take up the law and the gospel, for one must have both. It isn’t right to draw everything into the gospel alone; nor is it good always to preach the law alone. The Scriptures themselves, if properly adhered to, will give the answer.”[8]

Given what has already been established concerning the Spirit’s role in interpretation, Luther could have just as easily said, “the Spirit will give the answer.” The Spirit-dominated sermon not only strives to preach the languages of law and gospel accurately, but also labors to emphasize one language or the other according to the Spirit’s leading.

Why it Matters

Rightly distinguishing between law and gospel is essential for a proper understanding of Scripture. Preachers must labor to maintain a careful balance between law and gospel in order to properly shepherd their people. A truncated focus on the law can lead to a downtrodden people overwhelmed by the weight of the law, hungry for grace. A truncated focus on the gospel can lead to an apathetic people, lazily coasting through the Christian life with little appetite for holiness.

The unfortunate reality is, most preachers and teachers tend to gravitate towards law or gospel at the expense of the other. Due to our personality, past experiences, theology, and other factors, we either tend to stress Scripture’s promises at the expense of its commands, or the other way around. But if the Spirit is bilingual, than the preacher must strive to be as well. So how do I know if my people need law or gospel? We’ll explore this and other issues related to Luther’s doctrine of law and gospel in a later post, so stay tuned.


© M. Hopson Boutot, 2016



[1] For example, see Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament, ed. Victor I. Gruhn, trans. Eric W. Gritsch and Ruth C. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 120–179; Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology : Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 267–276; Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 251–273; Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, trans. R.A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 110–124.

[2] As quoted in Robert Kolb, “‘The Noblest Skill in the Christian Church’: Luther’s Sermons on the Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71 (2007): 301.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians Chapters 1-4 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 115.

[4] Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 269.

[5] Gerhard O. Forde, “Law and Gospel in Luther’s Hermeneutic,” Interpretation 37 (1983): 240. Emphasis original.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jeffrey K. Mann, “Luther and the Holy Spirit: Why Pneumatology Still Matters,” Currents in Theology and Mission 34, no. 2 (April 2007): 116.

[8] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 54: Table Talk, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 404.

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