The Difficulty of Proper Distinctions

By Bob Hiller

There is nothing Lutheran pastors dig more than talking the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. Well, I’m sure there are some things they dig more (insert hilarious and unpredictable joke about Lutherans and beer here). I mean, just the phrase “proper distinction” gets me all giddy! So, like so many others, I’ve been looking forward to working through the new book for Concordia Publishing House, The Necessary Distinction: A Continuing Conversation on Law and Gospel. The book is a collection of essays written for conversations taking place between the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the North American Lutheran Church. I’m not too far into the book yet, but thus far, I’ve greatly enjoyed what I’ve read!

(I’ll spare you a review of the book. I am not far enough in to render any sort of critical review, nor should anyone care what a review I would write might say. I’d recommend you read it and then discuss the essays with your friends at the local pub. There, at least, if you get in a fight over it, you will actually have to face each other rather than taking cheap shots from behind a keyboard, but I digress—from behind my keyboard.).

One of the points I appreciated early in the book was from John T. Pless, who wrote,

Like Luther before him, Walther knew that the ability to rightly distinguish the Law from the Gospel was a hard and difficult art to learn; one that finally could only be taught by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word as the believer lived under the cross of spiritual affliction. Far more than a technique or method acquired by academic study, the ability to know and apply both Law and Gospel comes only through the experience of hearing and trusting God’s Word even as one lives in constant battle with sin and the devil.

In other words, for the Christian, and specifically for us pastors, distinguishing between Law and Gospel is not a matter of being able to know the difference between a command and a free promise on a test. Though that doesn’t hurt, that is the easy part. The proper distinction is a matter of preaching. What makes it so hard is knowing when and how to “do” the right Word at the right time. It is learned under the “cross of spiritual affliction,” or as I like to think, in the parish, wherein pastors both suffer their crosses and help others bear their own.

What you quickly learn is that there are no easy answers to the burdens people bear. We all want a silver bullet answer to every problem we face. But no problem can be killed so easily. The crosses we bear are complex and multi-layered. It’s like the issue of too many home runs in baseball. As George Will reminds us in Men at Work, tons of home runs both cheapen the game and, as every Colorado Rockies fan knows, don’t translate into wins. Nonetheless, this past Tuesday, a new record was set for the most home runs in the history of Major League Baseball as KC Royals outfielder Alex Gordon cracked number 5,694 on the season. All the baseball purists were trying to find something to blame. Is it the new ball? Is it the way they make the bats? Are they using steroids again? Are the new ballparks too small? What needs to happen to stop all these home runs from ruining the purity of the sport? Why all these home runs?

Well, here is the answer: all of the above and more! There are so many reasons that there are more home runs these days that to try and find a simple solution to cut back on the longball is absurd. Re-adjusting the game for the sake of restoring the beauty of small-ball will take a lot of work. Every aspect of the problem must be considered. And of course, MLB won’t take such measures as homers sell tickets.

What in the world does this have to do with Law and Gospel? Stay with me here. What I am trying to get at is how the congregations which pastors serve are dealing with a complexity of sins and struggles that a merely academic understanding of Law and Gospel cannot handle. For example, think of preaching on the issue of homosexuality. Obviously, we know this is a sin and that the Bible teaches as much. There’s no way around it, so that is how we must preach it. But all the ears that hear such condemnation must be taken into consideration. At any one time in the congregation, you will have someone who is vocally pro-gay marriage two aisles back from someone who is militantly anti-gay marriage. You’ll have a grandmother three rows up whose granddaughter just got engaged to her girlfriend and is now afraid that loving her granddaughter is a sin. You’ll have a 12-year-old boy contemplating suicide because he’s prayed to have his attraction to the other boys removed. God just isn’t listening, so God must hate him. He’ll be in front of the college freshman who is being “enlightened” as to how archaic and hateful the Church’s views on sex are. Now, preaching about the culture’s stance on gay marriage just got a lot more complex. Saying the Law here could do great damage to those who need the Gospel. But excluding the Law here will do just as much damage to those who are comfortable in their sin. (What is troubling to me is how comfortable some folks in the Church have become in making blanket Law statements against this or that sin, and yet have grown uncomfortable with a declaration of “you are forgiven.” Such social statements must take the complexity of sin and the proper distinction between Law and Gospel into account. We must remember that such social statements made outside of the parish always impact parishioners.)

Preaching Law and Gospel in the congregation is hard work and will require a lot more “proper distinguishing” after the pastor leaves the pulpit. Simply standing up and condemning the sins of the culture won’t cut it. We must bear in mind that preaching in any congregation of sinners is for (that is, to be aimed at) that particular congregation of sinners. What each congregation needs is both the Law and the Gospel so that not one of them leaves feeling justified in themselves and all of them leave clinging more tightly to Jesus, knowing that blood was shed both because of them and for them. The question of distinguishing Law and Gospel is really to ask, “What is standing in the way of Jesus for this congregation? And how can I as the preacher attack it so that the only hope anyone has at the end is the crucified and risen Lord?” Again, there is a great complexity of issues in the congregation that must be dealt with and simply knowing the difference between a command and a promise won’t be enough. Both must be preached so that in the end, Christ alone is left standing.