Icon (Close Menu)

500 years after Luther, the law/gospel insight remains almost true

Inaugurating the celebration of the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation, David Zahl recently contributed a striking contemporary homage to Martin Luther’s law/gospel hermeneutic as the cover story for Christianity Today: “500 Years Later, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified.” Anyone who follows Zahl’s first-rate Mockingbird site — a rich Christian commentary on contemporary culture with a decidedly Lutheran accent — will find no surprises here. It is beautifully done.

Zahl asserts that the pressures of self-justification that so afflicted Martin Luther in the early 16th century continue no less to oppress modern persons. Even if the forms of that oppression shape-shift from Luther’s tortured soteriological anxiety to our modern performance anxiety, Zahl sees a thread — nay, a thick rope — of continuity, showing the Reformation’s generative psychological insight to be permanently relevant. What afflicted the Augustinian monk continues to bear down on all of us, even if our awareness is not as keen as his, and even if its sources and guises are rather different. The gospel Luther rediscovered whereby the law’s unyielding requirements are met in grace’s rich store of acceptance, that same liberation can be ours. “[The Lord] has hushed the law’s loud thunder, he has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame.”[1]

Five centuries this side of the Reformation, Zahl and his colleagues understandably find an urgency to repristinate Luther’s vision for the present hour. The law/gospel antithesis has both fallen on hard times in certain circles while, perhaps not accidentally, simultaneously enjoyed a revival in others. A substantial cadre of New Testament scholars doubts that Luther got this distinction quite right, and some think he got it quite wrong. Count me among the former. Reading Zahl’s article illustrates two things for me: the tremendous liberating appeal of this “almost right” understanding of the gospel and the grave hermeneutical consequence of being almost right in this way. I might say that the article demonstrates that the law/gospel antithesis has much greater psychological appeal than it has hermeneutical integrity.

It is not hard to appreciate the appeal of this law/gospel antithesis and even to concede that there is something to it. If we have pastoral experience with weary souls, indeed, if we know ourselves as the perpetual underachievers that we sense ourselves to be, we can only cling to and endlessly rejoice in a gospel whereby God has done for us what we could not have not done for ourselves — not meeting us halfway, just meeting us, wherever that might be. While it might be thought that this gospel would have the greatest appeal to those persons most notoriously sinful, most beset by addictions, most hopeless by their own reckoning to meet God’s approval, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is also a profound appeal among the most objectively successful and moral — modern Rich Young Rulers, inhabiting rarefied air while haunted by the pressure to construct an identity by means of performance.

Invited to rest in Christ, restless souls find an elusive peace in Christ. That’ll preach, and it should be preached. David Zahl preaches it very well in this CT article.

But I am not so sanguine about the means by which he gets there or the foundation that undergirds the larger project. As a scheme for reading and appropriating the Bible, the law/gospel antithesis is highly problematic, and Zahl’s article helps to illustrate just the sort of problems the scheme imposes.


For starters, there is the problem of changing the meaning of words. In the characteristic Lutheran account “law” and “gospel” become abstractions that lose the historical particularity of their original employ. Granting that it is already problematic to render either torah or nomos as “law,” all students of Paul know that, when the Apostle refers to the “law,” it is almost exclusively (save some wordplay) a reference to Israel’s inheritance of moral and legal requirements particular to Sinai or, as the case may be, the steppes of Moab — the torah of the Torah. The prophets might impose moral requirements upon their listeners or readers, the Lord Jesus frequently impresses his peculiar moral vision, and St. Paul’s writings are rife with moral exhortation — but none of this is “law” in this biblically particular sense. It invites mischief and assures misunderstanding to account for this material thusly.

Zahl, of course, knows this. Indeed, there is an attempt to first grant a limited or biblical definition of terms before adopting Luther’s theologically expansive abstraction. But it does not seem to matter:

What most of us think of when we think of “the law” in religious terms is the capital-L Law of God, the Oughts and Ought Nots that we find spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount (emphasis added).

The problems here are several. First, in Paul’s actual use, nomos cannot be reduced to the Ten Commandments, though they make a useful summary of Torah in certain respects. But it is much more problematic to count the Sermon on the Mount as “law,” and one gets there only by a precarious hermeneutical sleight of hand. No, the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of our Lord’s “moral instruction” are but one of many iterations of the “gospel of the kingdom.” It is hard to overstate the unfortunate consequence of calling the gospel law, not least as though St. Paul had authorized the exchange.

As with law, so also with “gospel.” The New Testament content of the gospel cannot be reduced to a message of grace for sinners (understood a certain way), though it is not less than that. It is, inter alia, an announcement of the kingdom, a summons to repent, a rehearsal of the Christ-event, or an endless unpacking of the theological consequence of the same. But it is not reducible to any of these. Likewise, useful though it is as an over-simplification, the suggestion that “gospel” = (the grammatical) indicative and “law” = (the grammatical) imperative just won’t take flight. Thus, in the very genius of the law/gospel antithesis itself — we might say a rather willful act of “theological interpretation” — is sown seeds for the misapprehension of the biblical text.

And, if we read Zahl’s article carefully, we begin to see how this one-size-fits-all construct proves itself exegetically Procrustean. Now, this is not an exegetical article, so it might be thought unfair to carp over his passing references. But it is actually in the passing references to Scripture where we learn just how controlling this paradigm is, and, if I might say so, distorting.

As Zahl reads it, when Jesus confronts the Rich Young Man with the commandments (Mark 10:17-22), the kneeling supplicant becomes the patent example of one who has fallen short. He knew the commandments, but he couldn’t keep them. But this theologically necessary reading won’t survive a close reading of the actual Gospel story. When the young man expresses his relief — “All these I have kept since I was a boy” — nothing in the story contradicts him or suggests he is bearing a kind of false witness, adding to his woes! To the contrary, even if every Lutheran reader of the text already knows that he couldn’t have kept these commandments, Jesus is not aware of that. “You are lacking one thing,” Jesus says, which can hardly be construed as No you haven’t!

There were, after all, reasons that Jesus names the six “commandments” he does.[2] They are the commandments of the Decalogue’s so-called second table, the neighbor-directed, empirical behaviors. Understood in a certain way, they are doable, and there is every indication from the text that the young man did follow the “law” perfectly adequately (that the obedience had to be perfect is a Christian-theological imposition, not at work in this story). It is apparent that there is method in Jesus’ way of asking the question. Because in the exclusive fidelity to God for which Jesus called, idolatry and covetousness are excluded. Yet the ostensibly “good” — albeit idolatrous and covetous — young man can say that he kept these commandments with complete sincerity. The story is not about the failure of the man’s law-keeping but about the inadequacy of law-keeping when the Lord graciously summons us to renounce and follow. That’s gospel also.

A similar, if more egregious, passing casualty of the law/gospel hermeneutic is Zahl’s appeal to Hebrews 8:10, a direct citation of Jeremiah 31:33:

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. After those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, And I will write them upon their hearts. And I will be their God, And they shall be my people.

On which Zahl comments:

[The law’s] underlying logic is embarrassingly familiar: To get approval, you have to achieve. Behavior precedes belovedness. Climb the ladder, or else. No wonder Hebrews tells us that the law is inscribed on the mind (Heb. 8:10) (emphasis added).

So notice what happened here. The new covenant promise (!) of Jeremiah 31, that God “will put my laws into their mind and write them in their hearts” is now treated as a kind of psychological curse. It is an affliction to have the law of God inscribed on our minds, with all of its demands and reminders of our wretchedness. But if Jeremiah 31 is not “gospel,” then there is no gospel. Here the law/gospel hermeneutic turns this liberating promise into an insidious oppression. One suspects that the author of Hebrews, here arguing strenuously and at length for the superiority of the new covenant (cf. 8:8; 10:16-17), would find this reading remarkable. So, of course, would Paul (cf. 2 Cor. 3).

Speaking of Paul, this is, I think, finally the failure of this all-controlling hermeneutic. It is not so much, as often charged, that it imposes a radical Pauline framework on the whole of Scripture; it is that it is not radically Pauline enough. It truncates what Paul means by “grace,” bottling up grace as “unconditional gift” with no remainder. (On which now see John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift; for sneak previews see the reviews of Covenant bloggers, here and here.)

No less significant, the law/gospel hermeneutic is insufficiently Pauline because it highlights a single thread of controversy — justification apart from works [of the law] — and treats it as a center, yea, bulwark. Missing in this picture is Paul’s generous new-covenant/new-creation anthropology that renders redeemed persons able to rejoice in the imperatives of Scripture as gospel, as signs of the fulfilment of our eschatological participation in Christ. Just as conspicuously absent is the Pauline pneumatology, whereby once-captive-failing-and-[possibly-]despairing persons are granted the new covenant promise whereby enmity turns to love, rebellion to holy desires, and disobedience to joyful obedience. The once righteousness-wanting are now those wanting righteousness. We awake in Christ to find not that we must but that we can, and raised with Christ we find that we had always wanted to.


[1] From the first stanza of the hymn, “Let Us Love, and Sing, and Wonder.”

[2] Cf. five commandments in Luke and five in Matthew with the Lev. 19:18 summary of the law appended. And it appears that, in Mark’s version, the hardest of these six has been changed subtly, from “do not covet” to “do not defraud.”


  1. A helpful critique in many ways in terms of some of the exegetical problems with the neo-Lutheran approach to law and gospel. I would add two things though that I think are important.

    The first has to do with the appropriation of Luther. The approach that Zahl takes, which is reflected in much of what Mockingbird does, seems to suggest that the paradigm of law and gospel can be easily grafted onto individual passages of Scripture. We can look at a passage and determine whether or not it is “law” or “gospel” based on whether or not it is imposing a discipline on us or taking something away from us. That strikes me as foreign to Luther’s concept and to the whole hermeneutic as it later developed in Lutheranism (see C.F.W. Walther for example). What they would say is that a given passage of Scripture may be received as law or as gospel depending on the disposition of the individual hearer and the action of the Holy Spirit. So the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, will feel like law to the sinner because it exposes to him his sin in not being able to live up to its call for love. But to someone who is being brought into Christ by the Holy Spirit, those same words may register as gospel because they speak to the love engendered in the heart by the presence of Christ who is the one who gives all works–even half hearted ones–the nature of goodness.

    The other thing missing from the Zahl/Mockingbird understanding of law/gospel, which has been my critique for some time, is the necessity of the sacraments. It is why I bristle a bit to hear it described as Lutheranism. For Luther and for those in the tradition of the Book of Concord, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not just convenient add-ons that we can have reasonable disagreements about and still be brothers in Christ. They are absolute essential means of grace. Simply put, there is no gospel without them.

    But what I think this critique of the law and gospel tradition misses is the wider pastoral dimension of how a law and gospel hermeneutic can be used. For the pastor whose job it is to shepherd souls, being able to see law and gospel is fitting way of understanding where someone is in their faith and what they need in order to grow closer to Jesus and experience the freedom that comes from grace, repentance, and forgiveness. I think this is where law and gospel can be most helpful and where a certain kind of reading of Paul can be highly blessing.

  2. J, thanks for this comment. [Editor’s note: the comment to which Garwood refers here was deleted by the request of the commenter, and dealt with pastoral implications and addictions.]

    It’s helpful. You put your finger on the appeal of this way of construing law and gospel and why it rings true and liberating for so many. I had hoped to acknowledge that and, indeed, affirm that basic insight — that, if we’re honest, we first encounter the “ought” as people who “can’t” and that the gospel is God’s answer for just such people (a.k.a. all of us, but a condition better understood by some than others). But, of course, the critique takes center stage.

    I like your response to my sentence: [“We awake in Christ to find not that we must but that we can.”] “I am an addict, so most days I “cannot”.” Well said. The “must” and “can” contrast was intended less to stress human capacity (a grammarian might point out I should have said “may,” colloquially “get to”?) than the liberating and hopeful message — just as much the gospel — that God transforms the wills of the once-recalcitrant so that what might otherwise be an oppressive demand becomes a genuine, internalized desire by the work of God’s Spirit. And then, yes, “can” means “am able” — not of course with perfection but as a new mode of being. It seems to me that “addicts” who have yielded themselves to redemption prove this more often than most. The “cannot” becomes the very opportunity for God’s “I can.”

    This promise of a redemption that receives me without condition as one who “cannot” with God’s accepting and transforming love and power — that speaks to the heart as well, I believe, the deeply embedded human desire to be what we were made to be.

    Thanks for your comment. Really good.

  3. A couple of thoughts…

    As a Lutheran, I find it interesting that the Law/Gospel dynamic frequently gets forced into the later Hegelian form of dialecticism. Law and Gospel are not “antitheses” at all in Lutheran theology; rather, as Saint Paul might say, “Gospel” flows from the very heart of God because we have all failed to abide by the Law. In fact, “Gospel” without the Law’s just pronouncement of guilt is indeed vacuous and void of meaning, but for Luther the Gospel’s proclamation of forgiveness through God’s Grace alone is priceless. Likewise, the result of Justification [by Grace through Faith] is always a drive towards doing “Good Works” as stated clearly in the Augsburg Confession, Article XX. So Law/Gospel does not fit the Hegelian model of “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis” but rather is more ironically akin to the eastern ideal of “Yin-and-Yang,” flowing one to the other…though admittedly not a “complementarity.”

    Secondly, there is the inter-Lutheran debate over the number of “Uses” of the Law within Luther’s own writings. Luther enumerated two (2) “Uses” or means upon which the Law works within the believer–the First being as a curb for sin, and the Second as a mirror by which we discern our sin and are disabused of any self-righteousness (“Lex Semper Accusat)–but within Luther’s own writings there is implied a “Third” use by which the Law works as a teacher. The later “Formula of Concord” explicitly recognizes this use, though Lutherans will argue amongst themselves as to whether it is just a restatement of the First Use. The didactic use of the Law does not justify, but rather leads the Believer to ponder the depth of God’s will and the scope of God’s righteousness. Beyond simply “Do this…” or “Do not do this…”, the Third Use (which I accept) leads us to see how God intends us to live righteously beyond the “letter” of the Law.

    Finally, you ask whether “The Law” and “The Gospel” are nebulous concepts, but Luther concretely nails them down. “The Law,” for Luther is distilled down to the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. I think Luther, like the Talmudic scholars, would see the rest of God’s Commandments as flowing from the Ten, and so would exhort Lutherans to, above all, have the Commandments emblazoned in their hearts. Indeed, in his “Small(er) Catechism,” Luther takes the Ten Commandments and expands upon them and their meanings. (Again, the Third Use of the Law…) But likewise does Luther concretely name where “The Gospel” might be found in it’s clarity: John 3:16-17… “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” These two verses Luther called “The Gospel in a Nutshell,” for in them we see a clear and pure exposition of God’s saving will and love. So, Law and Gospel are not nebulous at all, but rather can be found concretely within Holy Scripture.

    Again, I respond as a Lutheran with charity intended. Thanks for the interesting article and take on the Law/Gospel dynamic.

    Pax Christi;
    The Rev. Jerry Kliner, STS

  4. What Professor Anderson fails to understand, in his incomplete knowledge of Luther’s theology, is that Luther also has a positive use for the Law. It is true that lex semper accusat–the law always accuses the old Adam and puts him to death, deflating his self-righteous ego so that he seeks salvation not in his works, but in the grace and mercy of God alone; however, the law also serves as a guide for the new Adam who has been forgiven by the Father for his dear Son’s sake and has received the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is the law of love which the Christian fulfills through trust in Christ which enables him to love and serve God by loving and serving his neighbor. The Christian life is daily dying to sin and rising with Christ. The old Adam hates the law and is resentful toward it, but the new Adam loves the law and seeks to follow the commandments of God joyfully out of gratitude for the wondrous free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. The Christian never looks to his own works for the assurance of salvation; he looks to Christ. Yet, trusting in the Gospel that Christ died and rose for him, the Christian keeps the law thankfully and willingly.

    • This is a very significant comment, and I’m most grateful for it. I confess not only that my knowledge of Luther is “incomplete,” but that it is a tendency of NT (my field) scholars to use a Luther caricature as foil. The sanctification-averse Luther is one such caricature (this was a rather constant theme in the only doctoral seminar I did in Luther, and I’m grateful for it). That said, I hope you can also see that the blog post was not a critique Luther but an engagement — brief, in the nature of the case — with one particular contemporary artifact of reception. So I think the question remains, How are Luther’s heirs appropriating him?

      • Luther is always accused of being “weak on sanctification.” This certainly was John Wesley’s critique of Luther. Of course, Wesley didn’t have access to all of Luther’s writings. Many have echoed Wesley’s critique over the centuries, even Lutherans. What is important to keep in mind is that for Luther justification is sanctification. The Christian has no holiness of his own, his holiness is only in Christ. In baptism the Christian is clothed in the righteousness of Christ. God the Father accepts him because Christ died for him and he has put on Christ in Baptism and, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacraments, he puts his whole trust in Christ alone for salvation. As I often tell my congregation, “The Heavenly Father sees us through Christ-colored glasses.” When He looks upon us, He looks upon the ones for whom Christ offered His life as a sacrifice for sin. Because we are in Christ and Christ is in us, and because we have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, we keep the Law, not out of fear of punishment, but with a joyful heart and with a conscience that has been set free for the terror of condemnation. Christ’s righteousness is an alien righteousness (righteousness from outside ourselves) that makes us righteous not in theory, but in fact. I once met an Orthodox seminarian who told me that his problem with the theology of Luther is that the sinner is like “dung covered in gold.” In other words, the gold is Christ’s righteousness on account of which God accepts us, and we are just crap underneath–still sinful and unclean. I explained to him that this was a false understanding of Luther. For in Luther’s theology, a wondrous alchemy occurs: the dung is transformed into gold. The unrighteous really becomes righteous and walks in righteousness doing righteous deeds. Of course, in this life some dung will always remain. When we die God will purify us and perfect us in righteousness. Until then, the old Adam must be daily drowned in the water of baptism by repentance under the hammer of the Law, and a new Adam must come forth recreated in the image of Christ. The way Lutheran pastors appropriate Luther’s theology is by killing the old Adam with the preaching of the Law and raising the new with the preaching of the Gospel (which includes encouragement to do good works as the joyful response to God’s free grace in Christ). The way Lutherans appropriate Luther’s theology in their daily lives is by dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. We have been preaching the Word as Law and Gospel for 500 years–and, believe me, as a Lutheran pastor I can testify that it works! However, the contemporary problem with Law/Gospel is Gospel reductionism; that is, God loves us just the way we are and is content to allow us to stay that way. Luther’s theology, on the other had, says that God loves us just the way we are, but loves us too much to allow us to stay that way. The Gospel is not only about forgiveness and acceptance in Christ, but also about transformation in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, the doesn’t look to the transformation for comfort and assurance of salvation, he looks to the cross of Christ who died for him.

        • Jack, thanks for this. Another reminder to avoid caricatures — whether our own inadvertent caricatures of our own tradition or caricaturing others’.

    • Thanks for weighing in so constructively. A fairly consistent response to this little blog piece — which I consider most helpful and unsurprising — is a variety of clarifications about what Luther and the Lutheran tradition actually intended. Amen to that! That’s at least one of the right conversations to have. As I mention below and elsewhere, it should be pretty clear that the blog piece engaged one, popularized, also brief, and more or less homiletical, recent appropriation. I leave it to Lutherans and Luther scholars to correct each other about Luther. I think, however, it is fair to say that Luther left a hermeneutical legacy that is variously appropriated, including the fashion of David Zahl in this CT article.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

The Hajj: A Muslim Vision for the Interreligious Life

Community is a messy and wild business. As someone who loves her community deeply, sometimes my impulse is...

With the Grain of the Prayer Book

In early February 1685, King Charles II fell ill and clergy across the country, perhaps somewhat strangely, began...

Sent to Coventry, Called to Windsor

Having been “sent to Coventry” in 2008 to be Bishop of the Diocese of Coventry in the West...

The Gospel, Public Policy, and Coercion

The 81st General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be called to order on June 23. As always,...