Separating Law and Gospel – a look-in at the ELCA

Biology has the famous Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. That is the way that science has developed to talk about living things. As we understand more about DNA, some surprising things have happened on those tree branches. But the start of it really goes back to the childhood car game – animal, vegetable, mineral. In Biology that first cut is usually pretty easy. It is further down the line that things become tougher to divide.

In theology, the first cut is separating Law and Gospel. Are we talking about something that accuses us before God, or are we talking about God’s promises? And we have a devil of a time separating these things. Our fallen desires are to apply the promises to the law (do this and you will be rewarded, or don’t worry about the law we have grace) and to surround the gospel with the the law (here are the barriers to entry to the Kingdom).

The other major Lutheran grouping in the USA is in the process of breaking up or figuring out a way to stay together. From the outside it is tough telling which. This article from Christianity Today has a good overview of what some of those looking at breaking up are talking about. There are two things that it brings to mind in regards to law and gospel.

When church-y higher-ups start talking antinomian, it is usually time to run, fast. Antinomian is a big theological word for no law. What they are usually asserting is that the person against them has no respect for God’s law. That they are unjustly applying the gospel to the law. What they really mean is that “someone below me has dared to question me and since I am the law, they have sinned. Repent, recant and get back in line you antinomian.” The ELCA case is different. It is the people out of power who are calling those in power the antinomians. That difference means something. Are we a people under the law or under men? Those in power want to say “I am the law”. Those splitting in this case are saying, “no you are not, we’ve already got a perfectly fine law here in scripture, please pay attention to it.”

The second point is the short paragraph under “Speaking Ill of Love”. The professor being cited (Stephen Paulson) is getting right to the crux of the issues. The “crisis of authority” is really a muddled separation of law and gospel. When we are talking about marriage and ordination (like the ELCA is doing) are these part of God’s promises (the Gospel) or are they part of how God has ordered the world (the law)? He doesn’t, but you can expand the thought – are the synod/bishops who voted for the change part of the ordering of things (law) or an essential means of grace (gospel)?

The bad news is that a whole bunch of stuff in this life falls under the law. And the law always convicts us. We’ve always done something wrong. The good news is that God’s is fixing that. It started with Jesus. It continues in baptism, the supper and the gathering of believers. It finds its fulfillment in the resurrection. Until then, we muddle along. We “sin boldly” as Luther said. When we get into problems is when we want to claim that sin as righteousness or say that sin does not matter.