Misery (Question 3)

If I may start with something I posted a few weeks ago: The English noun, “misery” is probably derived from the Latin verb misereo, “to pity.” The Latin adjective miser means “wretched.” In our translation, the noun “misery” (German, Das Elend; Latin, miseria) refers to the consequences of sin.

So, how does one become aware of one’s misery? Our catechism is unequivocal and completely clear: Out of the law of God.

In the context of the Reformation there was no other answer. The confessional Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed) were united in their conviction that there are two grammatical moods throughout Scripture: “do” and “done” or law and gospel. The Protestant recovery of what has come to be known as the law/gospel hermeneutic was essential to the Reformation.

For a millennium before the Reformation, the church was agreed that there is only one sort of word in Scripture: law. The church distinguished between the “old” (Moses) law and the “new” (Christ) law. The only difference between the old and new laws was said to be the degree of grace available to aid believers in their obedience to the law. According to the medieval church, there’s more grace under the new law than under the old.

The Protestants rejected this entire scheme. They read the Bible to contain two kinds of words throughout: law and gospel. According to the Protestants the law says “do this and live.” The law requires perfect obedience and righteousness. The law is utterly unforgiving. The gospel, on the other hand, is a different kind of word. The gospel promises what shall be done and declares that which has been done for Christ’s people. The gospel says, “the seed of the woman will crush the serpent.” The gospel says, “I will give you rest.” The gospel says, “For God so loved the world….”

This distinction is the only way to understand this answer of the catechism. The catechism does not say that the gospel teaches us our misery because that is neither the function nor the nature of the gospel. The gospel is good news! If someone announces to you that you’ve been given unconditionally a million dollars, you probably wouldn’t go into a funk of self-loathing. You would probably go to dinner at a nice restaurant, make some investments, and give your pastor a raise. That’ the natural reaction to good news.

If, on the other hand, someone comes to your door to remind you of something dreadful you did back in 1957, something you very much wanted to forget, something you tried to bury into your subconsciousness, something shameful, that would not be good news. That would be bad news. That would be a stark reminder that you are still guilty, that the debt remains, that the potential for punishment lingers.

That’s the difference between good news and bad news. It is clearly the latter that teaches us our misery and our need.

Tragically, in reaction to Dispensationalism, many Reformed folk seem to have rejected the law/gospel distinction. This rejection has been in play long enough that a good number of folk don’t even seem to be aware of it. More than a few people have said to me, “I don’t believe that law/gospel stuff. It’s Lutheran.”

Well, the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran AND Reformed. I understand that some folk mistakenly think that only Lutherans confess the law/gospel distinction. The idea that only Lutherans hold the law/gospel distinction would surprise the many Reformed theologians and ministers who have taught it, e.g., the principal commentator on the catechism Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83):

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1534-1605) said:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558).

I could go on, but these two quotations speak for the entire Reformed tradition. Our theologians repeated this distinction again and again. If you want to read more about this, there is a chapter on it in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

When we understand the distinction between law and gospel we may understand more clearly why we confess that it is the law, not the gospel, that teaches us our misery.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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