Lutheran or Reformed? You Make the Call (UPDATED)

The answer: This Q/A was written by the Reformed theologian Caspar Olevianus (1536-87), who cooperated in the production of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), who taught and ministered in Heidelberg and Herborn. The quotation is question 10 from his 1567 popular catechetical work, Vester Grund, translated by Lyle Bierma and published as Firm Foundation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).

As has been demonstrated, this distinction is basic to Reformed theology and hermeneutics. Once more, it is not a purely Lutheran distinction. It was a distinction and a hermeneutic that was common and fundamental to both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

Original Post April 1, 2010

What is the difference between the law and the gospel?

The law is the doctrine that God has implanted in human nature and has repeated and renewed in his commandments. In it he Holds [sic] before, as if in a manuscript, what it is we are and are not to do, namely, obey Him perfectly both inwardly and outwardly. He also promises eternal life on the condition that I keep the law perfectly my whole life long. On the other hand, He threatens eternal damnation if I do not keep every provision of the law my whole life long but violate it in one or more of its parts. As God says in Deuteronomy 27[:26] and Galatians 3[:10], “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” And once that law had been violated, it has no promise that by the help of the law, that is, by works of the law, our sins might be forgiven. Rather the sentence of condemnation is imposed upon us.

The gospel or good news, however, is a doctrine of which even the wisest know nothing by nature but which is revealed from heaven. In it God does not demand but rather offers and gives us the righteousness that the law requires. This righteousness is the perfect obedience of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, through which all sin and damnation, made manifest by the law, is pardoned and washed away (Rom. 5; Gal. 3). Furthermore, God does not give us forgiveness of sins in the gospel on the condition that we keep the law. Rather, even though we never have kept nor will ever be able to keep it perfectly, He still has forgiven our sins and given us eternal life as an unmerited gift through faith in Jesus Christ.John 1[:17] says, “The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.” And Romans 8[:34]: “What for the law was impossible in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and condemned sin in the flesh through sin, that the righteousness required by the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Finally, Galatians 3[:12–14] “The law is not of faith but ‘The man who does it shall live by it.’ Christ, however, redeemed us from the cruse of the law when he became a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), for the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus and we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

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  1. Both? This seems like a pretty basic expression of the gospel, even for the evangelical bible church I attend. It is likely that I am ignorant of the finer minutiae though, and as we all know the gospel is really only understandable to the theologically trained…

    I do have a question, slightly off-topic; you said,

    “In it he Holds [sic] before, as if in a manuscript, what it is we are and are not to do, namely, obey Him perfectly both inwardly and outwardly. He also promises eternal life on the condition that I keep the law perfectly my whole life long. ”

    So how does our sin nature play into this? Such as, let us say someone could, hypothetically, fulfill this by being good from childhood on; they would still be condemned in Adam, imputed sin and all that, correct?

    This being the case, is it better to say that we are condemned for our sin, Adam’s sin, or both?

  2. Heidelberg Catechism: Question 10. Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?

    Answer: By no means; but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in his just judgment temporally and eternally, as he has declared, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”

    • Nice spot! As I understand it, the versification of Scripture came after Luther but during the sixteenth century. So it must be an early Protestant, although not necessarily Luther.

  3. Having been in both Lutheran and Reformed Churches (currently URC), it could be both. That said, there is an inbred understanding of right and wrong in man’s heart/conscience. However, original sin (in Adam) has corrupted it.

  4. Anyone who reads past R.C. Sproul and really digs into primary sources of Reformed theology ought to agree that there is a Law Gospel distinction in Reformed theology. But I am not sure if the Reformed and the Lutherans (or the New Covenanters for that matter) agree on the roll of the moral law in the life of the believer post conversion. We reformed folk tend to be seen as legalists for insisting that the Law is good and just because we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us that doesn’t mean we are not under some obligation in some sense to live a moral life other than just living in the light of our justification.

  5. Scott,
    Do u affirm that faith is a duty? And if yes do you agree that denying faith is a duty is a mark of hyper-calvinism?

  6. It’s Caspar Olevianus. But I cheated really.

    Someone told me the following recently:

    “Luther believed that the Law of God was an outward thing, regulating the course of outward conduct. He recognized its eminent value in this regard. But, when it came to the Christian’s conscience, according to Luther, the Christian conscience can say to the Law of God that the Law of God has no business with it, for the Christian conscience basks in the freedom of the spirit. ”

    Is this true about Luther and would you agree with him if it is? If it is wouldn’t it disagree with Olevianus’ statement that the law tells us to obey him “inwardly”? I suspect that if Luther says something of the sort suggested he is talking about the Christian conscience as it contemplates its standing before God, not as it discerns right from wrong. In other words, Luther taught the 3rd use of the Law, did he not? The above quote suggests that he denies it by saying the Law of God has no business with our conscience.

    • Steven,

      Whoever told you that was Luther’s view was, as Grandpa used to say, “talking through his hat.” Luther certainly taught the third use of the law, union with Christ, and the moral necessity of the Christian life. Anyone who says differently hasn’t read Luther or has utterly misread him.

      • Dr. Clark,

        When I first looked at this quotation, I thought it was Ursinius because I read simular things in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

        If one doesn’t believe that Luther or the Lutherans did not believe in the third use of the Law, you only have to go to the Book of Concord to see that they upheld it. For myself, I actually learned the third use first from the Lutherans. I kind of wonder when all the antagonism started developing over the whole Law/Gospel distinction. Certainly there were some abuses with the distinction, but historically I see the Reformers embracing it.

  7. I picked through the Formula of Concord (solid declaration) and especially the Smalcald Articles last night just out of curiosity. The thing that seemed to leap out at me from both sources was that the Lutheran confessions always seem to bridge their definitions of Law and Gospel with a heavy emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. The passage above does include a statement about forgiveness of sins as an “unmerited gift of through faith” (in the Gospel), but doesn’t really have anything specific to say about repentance.

    Therefore, although I have no Reformed confessions here to examine, I’m thinking it’s from a Reformed source such as a catechism.

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