Formula of Concord - Article 5 - Law and Gospel - Part 2 PDF Print E-mail

The Formula of Concord

Article V         Law and Gospel


Part 2: “Wide Sense” & “Narrow Sense”

The Historical Context

“In 1527, John Agricola argued with Martin Luther about repentance (contrition), saying that it is not worked in us by the Law, but by the Gospel.  This was a view that, in a modified form, was later defended by Wittenberg Philippists. …


The Gospel is the good news that God has provided salvation for all humanity because of, for the sake of, and through Christ and Christ alone.  This is the central and most important teaching of the Bible and, consequently, the very heart of what Lutheranism is all about.  Taking that central truth, some Lutherans went too far and said that God’s Law simply no longer applies to Christians.  They said that the Gospel is the only valid Word of God for Christians.  The rejected any place for God’s Law in the life of the Christian, denying that it provided a guide for Christian behavior.  Those who held anti-Law views were called “Antinomians,” nomos being the Greek word for law.


Article V of the Formula describes the key distinction in Christian theology, without which there can be no proper understanding of the Bible and no pure and clear teaching and preaching of God’s Word.  The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is essential.


The Formula of Concord carefully explains how the word Gospel is used in different ways.  It explains that the Bible itself is has a variety of uses for that word.  The Formula of Concord discusses Law and Gospel in terms of their content and their functions.  When Gospel is used in the phrase “Law and Gospel” it is used very specifically and narrowly to refer to salvation in Christ.  The functions of God’s Law cannot be transferred to the Gospel.  Both Law and Gospel must be proclaimed.  The Holy Spirit works through both Law and Gospel.  The chief function of the Law is to accuse us of sin.  The Law is always accusing us of sin, precisely so that we will be led by the Gospel to cling to Christ, the Savior.  The Law, therefore, is used by the Holy Spirit to lead us to repent.  The Gospel is how the Holy Spirit gives us faith and keeps us in faith, that is, to trust in Christ, and Christ alone, for our salvation.  Without the Law, the Gospel cannot be comprehended.  Without the Gospel, the Law either drives people to despair or makes them self-righteous hypocrites.


The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the best example of how one historical event can be used to preach both Law and Gospel.  His death shows the severity of the penalty for our sins.  This is the preaching of the Law.  Through it we become aware of the seriousness of our sin and sinful condition.  But when the crucifixion is preached to show that sins are no longer counted against us, then the Gospel is being preached.  Historical events are in themselves neither Law nor Gospel, but they can be preached for the sake of Law or Gospel.  The categories of Law and Gospel are categories through which the entire biblical account is to be interpreted so that people may first acknowledge and repent of sin and then turn in God-given faith to Christ, believing that for His sake God regards them as righteous and innocent. … (Reader’s Edition, 466-467.)

Formula, Epitome: Article V: Affirmative Statements (Reader’s Edition)


1.  We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be kept in the Church with great diligence as a particularly brilliant light.  By this distinction, according to the admonition of St. Paul, God’s word is rightly divided [2 Timothy 2:15 ].


2.  We believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a divine doctrine [Romans 7:12 ].  It teaches what is right and pleasing to God, and it rebukes everything that is sin and contrary to God’s will.


3.  For this reason, then, everything that rebukes sin is, and belongs to, the preaching of the Law.


4.  But the Gospel is properly the kind of teaching that shows what a person who has not kept the Law (and therefore is condemned by it) is to believe.  It teaches that Christ has paid for and made satisfaction for all sins [Romans 5:9 ].  Christ has gained and acquired for an individual – without any of his own merit – forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life [Romans 5:10 ].


5.  The term Gospel is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures.  That’s why this disagreement originally arose.  Therefore we believe, teach, and confess that if the term Gospel is understood to mean Christ’s entire teaching that He proposed in His ministry, as the disciples did also (this is also how it is used in Mark 1:15 ; Acts 20:21 ), then it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins.  [[This is the “wide sense” of the term Gospel.]]


6.  The Law and the Gospel are also contrasted with each other.  Likewise also, Moses himself as a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with each other [John 1:17 ].  In these cases we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or rebuke.  But it is properly nothing other than a preaching of consolation and a joyful message that does not rebuke or terrify.  The Gospel comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points only to Christ’s merit, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of God’s grace and favor, gained through Christ’s merit.  [[This is the “narrow sense” of the term Gospel.]]

7.  Concerning the revelation of sin, Moses’ veil hangs [2 Corinthians 3:12-16 ] before the eyes of all people as long as they hear the bare preaching of the Law, and nothing about Christ.  Therefore, they do not learn from the Law to see their sins correctly.  They either become bold hypocrites who swell with the opinion of their own righteousness like the Pharisees [Matthew 23 ], or they despair like Judas [Matthew 27:3-5 ].  Therefore, Christ takes the Law into His hands and explains it spiritually [Matthew 5:21-48 ; Romans 7:14 ].  In this way God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all sinners [Romans 1:18 ], so that they see how great it is.  In this way they are directed back to the Law, and then they first learn from it to know their sins correctly – a knowledge that Moses could not have forced out of them.


According to this, the preaching of the suffering and death of Christ, the Son of God, is a serious and terrifying proclamation and declaration of God’s wrath.  By such preaching people are first led into the Law correctly – after Moses’ veil has been removed from them.  Then they understand correctly for the first time what great things God requires from us in His Law, none of which we can keep.  Therefore, they know we are to seek all our righteousness in Christ.


8.  Yet as long as all this (namely, Christ’s suffering and death) proclaims God’s wrath and terrifies a person, it is still not properly a preaching of the Gospel.  It remains the preaching of Moses and the Law, and it is therefore, an alien work of Christ.  Passing through this teaching, Christ arrives at His proper office, that is, to preach grace, console, and give life, which is properly the preaching of the Gospel.


Formula, Epitome: Article V: Negative Statements (Reader’s Edition)


We reject and regard as incorrect and harmful the teaching that the Gospel, strictly speaking, is a preaching of repentance or rebuke and not just a preaching of grace.  For by this misuse the Gospel is converted into a teaching of the Law.  Christ’s merit and Holy Scripture are hidden, Christians are robbed of true consolation, and the door is opened again to the errors and superstitions of the papacy.


(Reader’s Edition, 484-485.  For the most thorough treatment, see the Solid Declaration of the Formula, Reader’s Edition, 552-557.)



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