The Charge of Lutheranism is not about distinction, it is about dichotomy


May 19, 2014
When I was a seminary student (1984-87) I only occasionally heard about a “law/gospel” distinction and then it as never explained to me. I learned about the substance of the distinction 10 years later doing my doctoral work. No one ever explained how it related to preaching until 1998. I had been preaching for a decade by the time I had any clear idea how important it was for preaching. I didn’t want to be a moralist in the pulpit but I was. I knew I was doing something wrong in my preaching but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I don’t think I was alone. When I first started writing about the distinction several years later I was roundly attacked as a “Lutheran.” A decade or more later it still happens. I still regularly read that the law/gospel distinction is “Lutheran.”

The law/gospel distinction is, it is argued, Lutheran.


The author of the above comment either doesn’t fully appreciate what he has been told by some people or he just doesn’t understand the situation still after many have tried to explain it to him.  He keeps addressing this Law / Gospel issue but seems to refuse to deal with certain specifics when they are shown to him.

He is the commander of his ship (blog).  So when he addresses a topic he is in control of the material and terminology he chooses to expose others to.  For some reason, when others have tried to explain to him that it isn’t the distinctions that we are troubled by but the issue of dichotomizing Law and Gospel it seems to fall upon deaf ears.  He seems to keep hearing an incorrect charge.  Some are probably making other charges that he would rather answer. therefore he can deflect away from this one about distinction.  He claims that it is about distinctions but that is too broad of an accusation.  It seems he obfuscates the issue by constantly making reference that others are calling him Lutheran because he makes a Law / Gospel distinction.  Dear Dr. Clark,  It isn’t about the distinctions, it is that you seem to be dichotomizing Law and Gospel as the Lutherans do.  That is what we are having a problem with.  It isn’t about how they are distinct.  We acknowledge that they are distinct subjects.  We don’t believe the Law is set in the Form of a Covenant of Works in many situations where you see it is.  We do not see that Law and Gospel necessarily oppose each other.  The Law and Gospel sweetly comply.

How they are distinct does matter in a narrow sense and in a broader sense.  In the narrow sense the Works of the Law are opposed to the Gospel as all die in Adam.  In the broader sense the distinction of Law is yet different and not necessarily opposed to the Gospel.  This is Reformed Thought as I understand the Confession and hear our heritage speak.  In Lutheranism Law and Gospel are generally opposed because the Law is almost always equated with being in the Form of a Covenant of Works.  And that is where the problem lies.  The Moral Law is usually set in a context of a Covenant of Works in some sense which puts the Law in Opposition to the Gospel in all of those situations.  That is why the charge of Lutheranism is leveled at some men who dichotomize Law and Gospel in both the narrow and broader sense.

We are not necessarily speaking about distinctions when we accuse anyone of Lutheranism.  We are speaking about how men dichotomize Law and Gospel.  It almost seems as if the author of the comment above is hiding some historical facts.  It is as if he hasn’t been shown or confronted with some of the writings of the Divines of the Westminster Assembly.   Here is the great Westminster Divine Anthony Burgess addressing the subject back in the 17th Century.

“We have confuted (proven to be incorrect) the false differences, and now come to lay down the truth, between the law and the Gospel taken in a larger sense.  

And, first, you must know that the difference is not essential, or substantial, but accidental: so that the division of the Testament, or Covenant into the Old, and New, is not a division of the Genus (classification) into its opposite Species; but of the subject, according to its several accidental administrations, both on Gods part, and on mans.It is true, the Lutheran Divines, they do expressly oppose the Calvinists herein, maintaining the Covenant given by Moses, to be a Covenant of Works, and so directly contrary to the Covenant of Grace. Indeed, they acknowledge that the Fathers were justified by Christ, and had the same way of salvation with us; only they make that Covenant of Moses to be a superadded thing to the Promise, holding forth a condition of perfect righteousness unto the Jews, that they might be convinced of their own folly in their self-righteousness.” (Vindication of the Morall Law,  Lecture 26  p.251)

The differences were recognized back then.  Sure there are some added nuances in the way things have been laid out in today’s theological atmosphere but the Lutheran charge is not about distinctions as much as how the Lutheran hermeneutic makes Law and Gospel so opposed to each other in a large part of theological context.

Statements have been made in the past that the Law only commands and the Gospel only says believe.  In a narrow context that is somewhat true.  But when it is applied to the broader context we start having problems.  We also have problems just because we know the Gospel does command and promise is applied to the command.  When statements are made like this, “The Gospel never tells us what to do.” or “The Gospel never Commands, that is what the Law does.” we start to have problems.  This is the dichotomizing I am speaking about.  The hermeneutic that Gospel and Law are opposed to each other in almost all situations is a misnomer and one that is being propagated on a regular basis today by men in the Reformed Camp.  They are equating the Law with the Covenant of Works in all things.  It is troubling and dangerous in my estimation.  When people lay the charge of Lutheranism at the feet of these Seminary Professors and people like them, this is what they are speaking about.  These guys want to equate the Moral Law with the Covenant of Works.  That is a Lutheran Hermeneutic.

Let me expound on why I think that hermeneutic is a bit out of kilter by referring to Robert Shaw in his commentary on the Law of God in Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The law, as thus inscribed on the heart of the first man, is often styled the law of creation, because it was the will of the sovereign Creator, revealed to the reasonable creature, by impressing it upon his mind and heart at his creation. It is also called the moral law, because it was a revelation of the will of God, as his moral governor, and was the standard and rule of man’s moral actions. Adam was originally placed under this law in its natural form, as merely directing and obliging him to perfect obedience. He was brought under it in a covenant form, when an express threatening of death, and a gracious promise of life, was annexed to it; and then a positive precept was added, enjoining him not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as the test of his obedience to the whole law.–Gen. ii. 16, 17.

Adam was created with the Law written upon his heart in its Natural Form before he was placed in the Garden of Eden under it in the form of a Covenant of Works.  He was brought under the Law in Covenant Form when death and life promises were annexed (attached) to it based upon his compliance to the stipulations of that Covenant Form.  He lived in creation and under the law in its natural form first.  After Adam sinned that Law which was given to him also in Covenant Form was anulled according to Robert Shaw because Adam failed in complying with the stipulations of perfect adherence to that Covenant Form.

Upon the fall of man, the law, considered as a covenant of works, was annulled and set aside

Now after the fall the Law that was written upon Adam’s heart in it’s Natural Form still directed and obliged him to obey it perfectly as it first did in its Natural Form.  It was no longer a Covenant of Works that had the promise of life attached to it.  I can only think by the phrase “annulled and set aside” that Shaw was emphasizing that the Covenant of Works was broken and that possibility for fulfillment by Adam’s children was removed.  All died in Adam.  The Law after the Fall was only considered the Moral Law (as in its Natural Form) as Robert Shaw signifies and as our Confession states.

but, considered as moral, it continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness. That fair copy of the law which had been inscribed on the heart of the first man in his creation, was, by the fall, greatly defaced, although not totally obliterated.

Now let me reiterate that the charge of Lutheranism isn’t necessarily about distinctions as much as it is about the dichotomizing of Law and Grace.  Justification and Sanctification are distinct doctrines found in the Gospel.  They are definitely to be considered in our Union with Christ.  They are as Calvin referred to them a two-fold grace.  They are distinct.  But they do not oppose each other nor are they to  be considered issues cut off from one another.  As Calvin stated repeatedly, justification and sanctification are benefits that are to be distinguished but never separated (distinctio sed non separatio) any more than Christ himself can be separated 1 Cor 1:30.  The Law as Christ’s law is never separated from the Gospel.  The Gospel actually restores it in our lives.  The trajectory that the Law is equated with the Covenant of Works and opposes the Gospel in a broad sense is just poor Lutheran Hermeneutics.  In its Natural Form the Law still obliges perfect obedience but it is not annexed to the promises of life and death any longer as a Covenant of Works.  Not even in some sense.  If that were true then we could even make the Lord’s table a Covenant of Works.  It isn’t about distinction.  It is about dichotomy.  So the charge of Lutheranism just might be true.  Aye?

I think Bavinck is a great place to learn from.

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