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A practical question on law/gospel

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

—Collect for Proper 19, 1979 BCP

I am only a very distant admirer of Mockingbird, so I poked my head into recent discussions (especially Garwood Anderson’s post here, and a response here) with pronounced diffidence. I am neither a New Testament scholar nor a theologian with strong interest in Lutheranism and the apparently all-encompassing law/gospel distinction.

These discussions resurfaced in my mind in the last couple of weeks as, day after day, I prayed our School Collect from BCP Proper 19. What does it mean for a chapel full of teenagers and faculty, many of whom are not Christians (or “religious” at all), to kneel and say this prayer together, especially when they will embark, momentarily, on a day full of classes, sports, and other obligations, in which they will be expected to do hard work?

Does radical dependence on God’s grace — “without you we are not able to please you” — invalidate the work of school? I hope not. If so, we should choose a new school prayer, and a new school motto, to replace this from James 1:17:

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.

In the end, grace underlines all of what we do in school, but it is always a grace that assumes action and discipline, a grace that stands not as a stark alternative to law but as the sound basis for law’s function in common life.

If law/gospel goes all the way down, what should it look like at a school? Can we run a disciplinary council or an honor council with gospel/law? Can we manage social-media usage in the dorms with gospel/law? I don’t want to deny, in principle, that we can, but I don’t know what it looks like, because for me the law gives life, and I don’t really want to live with a bunch of teenagers without it.


  1. The next step is to consider our vocational call as humans: we are called to be “agents” in Creation. That is, we “make stuff happen.”

    The Law/Gospel distinction can undercut this basic part of our humanity.


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