The following essay was written for a theology course I took on The Pauline Epistles. I wanted to share it here so that anyone who reads it would hopefully benefit from it as well. The essay is meant to describe the relationship between law and gospel in Paul’s letters, while providing examples of how he uses both. I pray that God would work faith within your heart as you read these truths from His Word.
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. . . For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-6 (ESV)
The epistles of St. Paul offer a wealth of theological exposition on the doctrines of law and gospel. In his letters can be found the clearest explanation on the relationship between these two distinct yet intrinsically intertwined words from God. Before examining Paul’s use of both law and gospel in his epistles, it is necessary to establish the meaning of these terms. Edward Koehler, in his book A Summary of Christian Doctrine, briefly describes the meanings of the law and the gospel:
Both terms are used in the Bible in a wide and narrow sense. In the wide sense, either of the terms denotes the entire revelation of God. In the narrow and proper sense, the Law is the law of the commandments, and the Gospel is the glad tidings of God’s grace. The Law and the Gospel have these things in common: Both are God’s Word. Both apply to all people. Both are to be taught side by side in the church until the end of time. Nevertheless, they are fundamentally different. They are to be carefully distinguished, as the apostle Paul exhorts: “rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) (259)
Thus, because both the law and the gospel are part of God’s revelation to mankind through the Scriptures, they both must be upheld in their fullness. The apostle Paul maintains that both the law and the gospel have imperative applications in the lives of believers, although they each serve their own distinct purpose.
When describing the relationship between law and gospel, the law is typically outlined and explained first. This is because the gospel comes as God’s perfect response to the law, and therefore is reliant upon it. Paul discusses the law extensively in his letter to the Galatians. For instance, Paul talks about the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:19, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (ESV). Although Paul makes it clear in other places that God’s moral law was written on the hearts of men (Rom. 2:15), God also gave the law to the Israelites in physical form through Moses. The law is God’s perfect and holy command concerning what is right and what is wrong. Paul indicates here that the law was given in order to make people conscious of the fact that they are sinners. In fact, the law is so strict in its demands for perfection that no sinful human being is capable of following it anywhere near perfectly. Nobody can become justified and righteous before God by obeying the law, as Paul notes in Galatians 2:16, “… by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
Because of this fact, all men stand condemned before God for not obeying His holy will. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” If no human is capable of justifying himself before God, then how can one be saved? Paul answers this question with clarity in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This message of redemption by grace through faith is the message of the gospel. This passage also makes another important point—having faith in God is not a “work” that Christians perform to be saved. Faith itself is even a gift from God, one that men could not produce on their own. Because men are unable to save themselves through obedience to the law, God sent a savior to fulfill the law in man’s place. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, paid the debt of sin by suffering and dying on the cross. In 2 Corinthians 2:19, Paul says, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….” That is, God sent Jesus to redeem mankind from its fallen and sinful state, in order that God and man would once again be at peace with one another, as before the fall.
Although the gospel makes it clear that the human race has been saved entirely by Jesus’ merits alone, some Christians in Paul’s day still wanted to fit human works of the law into the picture of redemption. Among Christians in Galatia, the Judaizers were propagating the idea that Christians could only be saved if they were circumcised and followed Old Testament Jewish customs. They were attempting to make works of the law some form of supplement to the gospel, something that men must do to become worthy of Christ’s work. As mentioned before, Paul rebuked this notion sharply. This teaching was a severe enough error that Paul resorted to the harsh disciplinary words of Galatians 3:1-2, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Obviously, obedience to the law plays no part in the salvation of a believer. However, the law still does serve a very important purpose. Galatians 3:23-29 gives a picture of how the law and the gospel are related to each other:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith [of the gospel of Christ] would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Essentially, the law was given in order to lead people to faith in the gospel promise of Christ’s redemptive work. The law pointed out mankind’s sin, and showed the desperate need for a savior. Now that the gospel has been revealed to the world, those who believe in it are no longer under the law’s curse of condemnation.
Unfortunately, this notion of “freedom from the law” can lead some Christians to abuse God’s grace, using His forgiveness as license to sin. Paul even addressed a specific instance of this happening within the Corinthian church, where a member was having sexual relations with his father’s wife: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor. 5:1-2). Although Christians are not held captive to the law, it should be the will of the new Man to carry out whatever God desires. In this sense, the law is a guide to Christians in how they are to live a godly life. This use of the law is also beneficial to fellow humans, as following God’s perfect will for creation will certainly benefit all people. Most of Paul’s epistles end with at least a chapter that deals with how Christians are to live their lives in response to God’s grace and gift of faith. In 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul exhorts the believers in Thessalonica to live according to God’s will, which is His law:
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Of course, Christians are still sinful humans beings—what separates them from unbelievers is the fact that they are made righteous by grace through faith in Christ. Although Christians are to flee from sin and build up the new Man made in them through the gospel, they are simultaneously saints and sinners. Paul brings this up in his letter to the Romans: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:18-20). Likewise, St. John says in 1 John 1:8-10, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Because Christians are still sinners, they are to daily struggle against the old Adam within them, resisting temptations and taking every opportunity to do what is pleasing to God and beneficial to their neighbor. Martin Luther says in The Small Catechism, “… the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts. Also [baptism] shows that a new man should daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (340).
Because Christians have faith in Christ and recognize what is sinful, they always repent of the sins they commit, struggling with their flesh that they would cease committing them entirely. The sexually immoral Corinthian church member mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians appeared to be completely impenitent of his sin, and seemingly was even proud of it. In the case of a believer who continually refuses to repent, the most loving thing for their church to do is excommunicate them—to remove them from the Church that they would see the error of their ways and return to Christ. Paul instructs the Corinthians to “… deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). If an excommunicated member then shows true repentance for his sin, he is to be welcomed back into the Church with forgiveness and rejoicing (2 Cor. 2:5-11). It is clear from Paul’s epistles that God’s law is to be used by Christians as a guide for how to live God-pleasing lives.
In the same vein, it is a theme in Paul’s letters for him to remind the Christians to whom he is writing that they were once under the law, and were subjects of God’s wrath, before they heard the gospel and were saved by Christ. This is a message of the law—a reminder that a Christians is nothing in himself due to his sin, but his worth comes from God’s mercy on sinners. Paul uses this kind of message in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:1-3)
However, once this message of the law has been clearly put forth, Paul then immediately follows up with the gospel message of salvation:
But God, bring rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)
By doing this, Paul clearly sets forth a standard for Christians constantly being reminded of both the law and the gospel. In faithful churches across the world, each Sunday pastors will proclaim to their congregation the message that they are sinners who deserve God’s wrath—followed up by the gospel message that Christ has forgiven their sins on account of their faith—which itself is a gift from God.
Paul sets forth in his epistles the gold standard for how any Christian—pastor or layperson—ought to handle and understand both the law and the gospel. Each is crucial to the message of salvation. The law condemns the sinner, pointing out his faults, placing him under the wrath of God. The gospel redeems, pointing out how Christ has made up for those same faults, placing the sinner under God as His child and heir of eternal life. The proper use of these two doctrines is essential to the Christian faith. Koehler, in summarizing the law and gospel, says, “… the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is of utmost importance. The confusion or mixing of the two will make it impossible for anyone to become a Christian or to remain in the faith” (262). For this very reason, the Apostle Paul’s epistles are clear and focused on the details of both law and gospel, because both of them are imperative for the eternal life of believers.
Engelbrecht, Edward, and Paul E. Deterding. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009.
Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine. 3rd ed. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006.
Luther, Martin. Concordia—The Lutheran Confessions. (Luther’s Small Catechism) Ed. Paul T. McCain. 2nd ed. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006.