In classical Lutheran theology and homiletics, a two part approach is often taken referred to as Law and Gospel. For it is through this dynamic duo that the individual is made to realize that he is a sinner in need of salvation and what the solution is for this vexing dilemma.
In old detective movies and police shows, when a suspect was interrogated often a tactic was used referred to as “good cop/bad cop”. In this approach, the suspect is at first confronted by a seemingly harsh officer whose task is to bluntly tell the suspect what the suspect is alleged to have done, that the evidence as to such is overwhelming, and that the best thing the suspect can do for their own sake is to confess to what they have done. Once the suspect has been worked over psychologically, the good officer arrives on the scene to offer the best deal possible in terms of the suspect’s interests in exchange for cooperation.
Though the analogy is not perfect, one can roughly think of the Law as the bad cop and Gospel as the good cop.
Used of the Holy Spirit, the purpose of the Law according to John 16:8 is to reprove of sin, righteousness, and judgment. As the codified precepts of a just and holy God, the Law represents the standards we are expected to adhere to but they also serve as a reminder of just how pitifully short we fall as a result of our own sin natures. Romans 7:7 says, “Indeed, I would not have known what sin was except through the law.”
Despite reflecting the goodness of God and the embodiment of the ideal by which man was intended to live, since man is in such a wretched state before he is regenerated, the Law actually points out to us the extent of our sin. Romans 7:10 says, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” Of this predicament, Paul writes in Romans 7:22-24, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Fortunately, God does not leave us in despair and the consequences of failing to keep His law in its entirety. And that is why this hope is called the good news or the Gospel.
The Gospel is succinctly summarized by I Corinthians 15:3-4, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” And whereas the Law requires that the individual must fulfill its every requirement if that is the contract through which one wants to seek entrance into the Kingdom of God (something no mortal human being could possibly hope to accomplish since to break one aspect of the Law is to break all of the Law according to James 2:10), under the terms of the Gospel, all that is required in terms of salvation is for one to believe on Jesus and be saved.
It is tempting to draw sharp distinctions between these concepts as diametrically opposed approaches. It must be remembered they are more like a team working together to cause the individual to realize that he is in need of a Savior, and once saved the principles behind the Law can prevent liberty from degenerating into license. Christ says in Matthew 5 “Think not that I come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.