What is the Law and the Gospel?

The gospel is not the entry point for Christianity but a way of life, a way of life radically different than the world offers. The Christian faith can only be fully understood when one distinguishes between the law and the gospel. As Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the 1500’s, whose thoughts launched the Protestant church, said, Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology–the entire Christian life, even–depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel.”

Law in the Bible is any word of demand, all of which shows what people should be and do, thus revealing humanity’s shortcomings. The law reveals the differential between who we should be and who we are. This differential (our depravity or sinfulness) doesn’t need helpful tips for living, or any other demand that puts us to work. As Paul wrote in Galatians, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe (Galatians 3:21-22).”

The law simply doesn’t have power. We need to hear and know the law, but we must understand its role in our lives. French theologian Theordore Beza, who played a major role in the Protestant Reformation, said,Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupts Christianity.” The law reveals our sin and points us to righteousness but cannot create righteousness in us. The only force strong enough to cover our shortcomings and give power to our weakness is grace experienced through unconditional love – this is known as the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The word gospel means “good news,” not “good advice.” Advice tells us what we should do, but news is entirely different. News is something that’s already been done that affects us. Let’s be clear: the gospel of grace is the good news that we can be made right with God through the imputation of our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us, so God’s justice is satisfied and we are beloved in his sight. As a Christian you no longer have to justify your existence by your achievements or approval or any other never-ending pursuit. They are the world’s laws – another demand that promises something it can’t deliver. The gospel rescues us from wearily trying to justify ourselves in such ways. Our justification to exist and our standing before God is secured solely by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It means we don’t have to do anything today to maintain our standing with God and to be loved by him. But this sort of freedom is often not the reality of the Christian.

While the true Christian message is summarized in the Reformation phraseology law-gospel, a preoccupation toward rules, behaviors, and application is law-gospel-law or moralism. This is not a vendetta against morality. We highly respect morality as it protects society and families from destruction, but this is a vendetta against moralism. Moralism is the practice of using your behaviors as to feel like your standing before God is secure. This results in a lack of security on a daily basis, self-dependency, self-righteousness, lack of compassion toward others, and a general anxiety over our level of intimacy with God. This is horribly anti-Christian and toilsome.

We love to prove ourselves and become exhausted in the process. The idea that the gospel of grace was not only meant to forgive us but also free us, and not just from sin but also from religious striving and self-justifying behavior, is often a foreign thought to people. Strive, earn, pray, give, attend: this is the message of law-gospel-law, but the gospel is actually radically different.


1 Corinthians 1:30-31

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”


Jesus actually is our righteousness. None of us meet the standard of holiness – “be anxious over nothing” – “do not lust” – “do not covet” – “consider others better than yourselves.” Grace covers our shortcomings, and you no longer need to keep score on yourself, counting your godly behaviors and ungodly ones, as to justify yourself. Your justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. God isn’t keeping score on you, and he is waiting for you to quit keeping score on yourself.


Romans 10:1-4

1 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.


Law-gospel is the teaching Martin Luther recovered from a grossly moralistic church in the 1500’s. This teaching started the Reformation and the beginning of the Protestant church. This teaching begs us, as Paul does in the New Testament, to refuse to add more law back to the gospel of grace. The Christian life is about deepening the return to God’s actions to pursue and rescue us, not setting our hearts and minds on what we should be doing. Simply, there is nothing for us to add. We are unimaginably weak yet unconditionally loved.

Moral principles and to do lists don’t make you a better Christian and don’t free you. Actually, they will in time act as law, as they will accuse and condemn you when you don’t live up to them. Or the pendulum may swing and you’ll suddenly feel good about your spiritual progress. You’ll become prideful and judgmental, either way the focus becomes self-bent and narcissistic, which is exactly the opposite of what the Bible calls maturity. The gospel of grace frees us from all of this insecurity, relieved from using our experiences and behaviors as the legitimacy of our faith and identity.

So, this brings up an important issue, how are Christians to respond to “demand” (or law) in the Bible, as we know we are constantly falling short of it? Martin Luther said to use the law to return us to the gospel, but never rest in the law. John Calvin came along a little later and said you can also use the law as a guide to Christian behavior. There is much debate between those two statements. The important thing, whether you agree with Luther or Calvin, is that we know what it means to be godly, and we should hope and make decisions as to be godly, yet we are humbled by the reality in our hearts. We turn to the grace of God known in Jesus for our acceptance and validation. Here we find rest and freedom and the power to live in godliness. This is the journey of turning one’s focus from one’s own life (merits, etc.) to Christ’s life and God’s one-way unconditional love.

In summary, we find there are three ways to live life: first, a journey of self-actualization by justifying oneself through self-absorbed pursuits (money, achievement, appearance, sex). Secondly, self-righteous living created by law-gospel-law (moralism), or, thirdly, the gospel, which rescues us from the toil and exhaustion of the first two. This is the story and message of the Bible. This is what it means, as the author of Hebrews writes, “to enter his rest.” This is the gospel of grace.

By Russ Masterson / Christ the Redeemer Church of Marietta

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