“Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know”

“Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know” May 1, 2013

In the appreciation-for-Lutheranism-by-non-Lutherans department, here is a post by Cap Stewart at Happier Far.  It tells about how he has been helped by the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel and, in particular, by the The Lutheran Study Bible:

Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know

A Charismatic, a Presbyterian, and a Lutheran walk into a bar. Okay, that probably would never happen, but if those three people were to somehow enter a bar, coalesce, and emerge from the establishment as one man (who realized he wasn’t too fond of beer to begin with), that one man could possibly be me.

Yes, many denominations have made an impact on my spiritual development. And while I could possibly be labeled as something of a Reformed Charismatic (which, I assure you, is not a contradiction in terms), I have also been heavily influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther. One Lutheran doctrine in particular has been especially helpful—the paradigm-shattering distinction between law and gospel.

As any Lutheran worth his salt will tell you, this distinction is critical for properly understanding the Bible. The law is defined as any imperative statement—i.e, a command to do (or not do) something. The gospel, on the other hand, is an indicative statement—a promise that God has accomplished (or will accomplish). Throughout Scripture, God speaks with the voice of either the law or the gospel, and we need to discern which voice is speaking whenever reading a verse or passage. Pretty simple, right?

While the concept itself is simple, understanding and believing and applying it is not so simple. We must understand that the law shows us what we ought to do, not what we can do. God designed the law to act as our tutor—to show us just how wide a gap exists between what we must accomplish and what we cannot accomplish. Then, when we see our plight for what it truly is, the gospel steps in and promises that God has done what we could not. If we interpret the law of God as being attainable through human effort, we will misinterpret countless Scriptural passages.

Or think about the gospel—a word that, in the Greek, literally means “good news.” As has been explained by men much wiser than I, there is a big difference between good news and good advice. The gospel is the former, not the latter. It is the story of the finished work that God has accomplished on our behalf, apart from our help or assistance or merit. The gospel is not a command, but we often interpret it as such. Just the other day, I heard a lady describe the gospel as being about what we should and shouldn’t do. That’s good advice, not good news—and good advice has no power to save a sinner trapped by the condemnation of the law.

One particular aid I have found for discerning law/gospel distinctions is the Lutheran Study Bible. Released in 2009, it has significantly affected my communion with God during Scripture reading. Throughout the entire study Bible, each section—or, at the very least, each chapter—is accompanied by a “Law and Gospel Application.” As the study Bible explains, “These notes summarize sections of Scripture, applying both Law and Gospel for the reader and providing a petition or praise to guide the reader into prayer, since studying the Bible is always a devotional act for Lutherans.” If you’re looking for a new study Bible, this is the one I would recommend most highly.

Regardless of our denominational upbringings, we have all interpreted commands as promises and promises as commands. We need humility, wisdom, and grace in order to rightly divide the word of truth. The Lutherans have been a means of such humility, wisdom, and grace in my life.

And now, since I’ve opened a can of, among other things, a Diet of Worms, I think we’ll need to take a closer look at the distinctions between law and gospel. We’ll check out some specific examples next week.

This post introduces a series of other posts on Law & Gospel that he plans to write (he posts every Tuesday) that you may want to follow.  The next one is here.



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  • Pete

    The Charismatic raised a ruckus. The Presbyterian assumed an attitude of resignation, knowing he was predestined to appear in this particular bar and this particular joke. The Lutheran ordered a beer.

  • The Law and Gospel distinction is indeed “paradigm-shattering”.

  • Jon

    Another break-through! Given a little more time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks out of the bar a Lutheran.

  • I think the other significant revelatory moment for many who come to Lutheranism new is the powerful concept that the Gospel/The Word, etc. are not static bits of data or information that we absorb through intellectual grasp of a set of historic reports [of course it is all that], but much more, and most importantly, it is actually the very presence and active work of God in our lives as we hear, read, study, meditate on, the Word and as we receive the Sacraments. These are powerful acts of God, who is at work in and through these means…in other words, they are not merely dispensers of information, they are the living and powerful presence of God at work for us, and in us, by grace, through faith, on account of Christ alone.

  • Dr. Veith, I am humbled that you would promote the article. Thank you!
    Pete @1, that is hilarious!
    Jon @4, my wife is constantly worried that I will one day officially become a Lutheran. Such a thing is, at the very least, possible.

  • Matt Jamison

    “We need humility, wisdom, and grace in order to rightly divide the word of truth.”
    Boy, do we all need to hear that right now!

  • Dennis E. McFadden

    As an evangelical of nearly 60 years standing (and an ordained Baptist at that!), my hiking the Wittenberg Trail two years ago was the most amazing and refreshingly grace-filled treks I have ever made. Blessedly, my wife (herself a seminary grad) made the hike with me.
    Just wait until you both get to that utterly refreshing, mountain lake called Lutheranism. Tell your wife not to be afriad and to come on in, the water’s fine.

  • reg

    As a reformed/baptist believer I greatly appreciate the law/gospel distinction, the doctrine of vocation, theology of the cross vs. theology of glory and 2K and other very insightful Lutheran doctrines, (which to be fair are also emphasized by Michael Horton and company on the reformed side). Where I hit a stumbling block (even a road block) is on the Lutheran view of the sacraments. As much as I look at this, while I understand its reasoning, I just cannot buy it.

  • Pamela Clark

    @reg says- You do not ‘buy’ or reason the Sacements. The Sacrements are a gift from God and are received by believers in faith. Faith, also, is a gift of God’s grace to all believers. It in not something that can be reasoned into existance. Prov 3:5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.

  • Pete


    Nicodemus found it to be a head-scratcher, as well. You’re not alone.

  • reg

    Pamela and Pete,
    Faith is from God and God alone. Nicodemus found that a head scratcher. I do not recall Jesus talking to him about communion, however. I think I was trying to politely say in my message that I think Lutherans are wrong in their view of the sacraments 9but not on the other doctrines I mentioned) and that their position lacks scriptural support and is an unhappy hangover from RC error. Not trying to start a war of words, just telling you my opinion.

  • Marc

    “This is my body, this is my blood.” He could have said, “This represents my body and blood.” He didn’t. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a Lutheran position (although it is). It’s a Biblical position.

  • reg

    He also said “do this in remembrance of me” not “so that you may be saved.”

  • sg

    Where I hit a stumbling block (even a road block) is on the Lutheran view of the sacraments. As much as I look at this, while I understand its reasoning, I just cannot buy it.

    I totally sympathize with this view because I went to baptist church as a teen and the SBC view sounded plausible. However, I think the clearest I heard it explained is that by a plain reading of the text, Jesus clearly states that it is His body and blood. There is nothing in the passage that would allow a symbolic or metaphoric interpretation, Jesus is flatly stating it just as He made other statements that He fully expected the non believing not to believe. Jesus tells people He is God incarnate. I mean, that had to gall the rational mind of even the most pious believer of his time. Faith in the words of Jesus simply cannot be a rational human action. Jesus says the unbelievable and dares man to believe it. But faith doesn’t come from the power of our human flesh dead in trespasses. It comes from Jesus words especially those words that are foolishness to us as we are perishing. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17.

    As for the Law and Gospel distinction, that point was driven home on many many occasions at the SBC church I attended as a teen. In fact, I would say that was the single clearest teaching beyond the central Gospel message of repentance and forgiveness that I learned from that SBC church. I certainly don’t recall hearing it clearly explained at the ELCA church. I often wondered why they never emphasized it. I found out later of course, the ELCA doesn’t believe in either, so the distinction is moot.

  • Stephen

    To Reg, the honorary Lutheran,

    I think maybe you are getting baptism and communion mixed up a little. I think Pete is referring to baptism when he mentions Nicodemus – that whole things about water and Spirit. If you read on a little in John 3, you will find that Jesus’ disciples were already baptizing. There’s plenty more where that came from, such as Acts 2:38 – “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” What else could such things point to but salvation? And there’s always 1 Peter 3:21

    And as for Communion, Christ did say “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” as recorded in Matthew 26. What is the forgiveness of sins but salvation itself – justification which accomplishes what we cannot by our own doing? Or is salvation something else? It seems you would say that “do this in remembrance of me” wipes all that away. But then remembrance is not purely an intellectual, mental exercise undertaken by individuals. That is a very modern conception of memory and what it is and how it functions in our understanding and awareness, dealing only with facts that exist in the past. Not so for Jews who believe that their religious behaviors actually are efficacious and concrete realities that are indeed about living relationships with a living God. This is, as Jesus says, a new covenant in His blood given for you. To re-member Him is to be with Him, truly, when we “do this.”

    Anyway, these things are gifts given for you straight from the Lord Jesus himself – signed, sealed and delivered by his own flesh. And He cannot lie. These sacraments are Gospel. You’ll never get your head around it. Only faith can receive it and cling to it. So, believe.

    By the way, that’s a great summation of Law and Gospel in scripture. I feel like sending the article to my non-Lutheran family members. Really accessible and excellent – just plain good writing if you asked me.

  • sg

    “He also said “do this in remembrance of me” not “so that you may be saved.”

    Okay, but we can’t save ourselves, and God won’t accept our sacrifice, so we need the one all sufficient sacrifice in Christ’s body and blood.

    Okay, but what does remembrance mean in the biblical context?

    Also, I think someone explained that the prepositions in that sentence are tricky. Check the Greek for some insight there.

  • Pete

    Exactly what Stephen said @16.

  • The difference? Lutherans actually practice what many in the evangelical world only pay lip service to regarding grace.

  • Sharon

    I find it very interesting and somehow comforting to hear the same (or very close to the same) discussion going on today over communion as Luther had with his contemporaries 500years ago. Makes me think that maybe the things we chose to use to distinguish ourselves from each other are not nearly as important as the things we share in common. May we always raise the cup of fellowship to one another, however we chose to fill it.

  • “The Evangelical Catholic is a glorious Church; it holds and conforms itself chiefly to the Sacraments. The Evangelical Reformed is a glorious Church; it holds and conforms itself chiefly to the Word of God. More glorious than both is the Evangelical Lutheran Church; it holds and conforms itself both to the Sacraments and the Word of God. Into this Lutheran Church both the others are developing, even without the intentional aid of men. But the way of the ungodly shall perish, says David (Ps. 1:6).” (Claus Harms, Theses 92-95, 1817)

  • DonS

    I’m with Reg @ 9, 12, and 14. Well said.

    And, of course, the Lutherans among us went directly into debate mode, by going back to the Lutheran interpretations of passages that are not so clear as you would insist. sg says @ 15 However, I think the clearest I heard it explained is that by a plain reading of the text, Jesus clearly states that it is His body and blood. There is nothing in the passage that would allow a symbolic or metaphoric interpretation Well, nothing except the fact that He was still alive when he administered the bread and wine. And that He says we should continue to do it “in remembrance of Me”. And the fact that it is common to say “this is…” when you mean “this is symbolic of…”, when it is clear to everyone in the room that is what you mean. Remember that the context was moving the disciples from an O.T. view of the Passover, where the bread represents the lamb and the wine represents the blood of that lamb on the door post, to a N.T. understanding of who the Lamb is. Of course, I am not going to convince those of you who are Lutheran of this alternative interpretation, and that is not my intention, but at least open your eyes to the idea that not everyone thinks you have the corner on the interpretation of this passage.

    As to Stephen’s interpretation of John 3, @ 16, it is pretty clear that Jesus is speaking of a) birth in the flesh and b) birth in the Spirit. The water referenced in John 3:5 is the water in the womb, which is delivered with the baby in the person’s first birth. Verse 6 confirms that this is what He is referencing, rather than baptism. You are “born again”, when you are also born in the Spirit.

    Not here to debate, just to enlighten as to where evangelicals like Reg and myself part ways with Lutheran doctrine, even though we appreciate and agree with much of the rest of it.

  • trotk

    Whoa, DonS!

    So when you read “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” you hear, “unless one is born from a physical womb and then by the Spirit…”?

    The alternative explanation (that water refers to baptism) is in accord with the rest of the New Testament (save the thief on the cross, but an exception should be treated as such) and avoids the obviously weird redundancy of Jesus saying that you have to be born from a physical womb (who isn’t?) to be eligible for the work of the Spirit.

  • DonS

    trotk @ 23: Not to debate, but it’s not the first birth that is at issue, obviously. It’s the second — you must be born AGAIN. Of the Spirit. The first birth, of the flesh, leads to death. That’s the point — that you cannot earn salvation in the flesh.

  • reg

    Right on the money. I was going to say what you said about John 3, but with work I had no chance to do so before now and you stated it very clearly so I don’t need to.

  • Stephen


    My intention was not to challenge you other than to try to fill in the blanks on the parts of Lutheranism you don’t get. The reason being that you can’t really “get it” without also getting the sacraments. Otherwise what you have are some handy bits of practical wisdom perhaps, but not the nugget which is the Gospel that is “for you.” It is either for you or it isn’t, and the sacraments are assurance that it most certainly is. Jesus says so right there. Take him at his word or push him away (or maybe bob and weave like the “interpretation” above which was nothing more than to say that Jesus speaks in tautologies. Silly).

    I think that taking Jesus’ “do this” statement to then reverse everything else that came before it suffers from a not nearly a robust enough understanding of the function memory, and especially not in the Jewish/biblical context. To remember is to find ones identity. The biblical understanding of what is in store for the faithful is to look back and to find there redemption already accomplished. The significance of the past is real only as it relates to the present and what is to come. It does not exist as a disembodied fact. Remembering is activity.

    God remembered Noah. Did he forget him? No. Well, then what? Remembering is doing.

    “He will remember their sin no more.” Did he really forget it? No. He forgave it.

    Oh well.