When a Protestant Christian meets a Messianic Jew, they often find that they use the most basic terms in very different ways and with very different meanings. At its best, these encounters may lead to a clearer understanding of faith on both sides if we are open to new questions and perspectives we have never encountered before. This article seeks to clarify one question on which many Protestant Christians unconsciously mix two different ways of understanding two crucial words, while many Messianic Jews have only one understanding of them, and both are unaware of the other’s position.
Many Protestants have heard sermons on how, in the Old Covenant, people were saved by the law—that is to say, by their own works—but today we are saved by the grace of God. And in the same sermon, they may hear that it is impossible to be saved through one’s own works or through the law. To add to the confusion, there are several passages in the Bible praising the law of God (one of the most striking of these being Psalm 119, the longest of the 150 psalms, which fully concentrates on the elevation of the law). These passages are probably more numerous than the passages with a neutral or negative stance toward the law. This confusion in the good Protestant’s mind, however, does not concern only the law. The gospel, which was given for our salvation—as we have heard—also seems to carry judgment (Rom. 2:16).
The problem of defining these very central words in the Bible is the result of the Protestant Reformation. The problem doesn’t necessarily originate with Martin Luther, but through him a certain definition of the words law and gospel entered the Protestant world. This definition was (and still is) extremely valuable for its own purpose, but it differs from how the words are used in the Bible. This caused problems already in Luther’s time, when he was misunderstood in the use of these terms. Three decades after Luther’s death, a book was published to address problems and to unify the young movement that came to be known as Lutheran. The book was called the Formula of Concord, and one of the issues it addressed was the mess caused by different definitions of the words law and gospel.
So if you have ever found these two terms confusing, if some of your pastors seem to find it hard to make sense of them, you are not the first one facing the problem—and you won’t be the last one either. Now let us get into these two central terms and see how to use them properly for different purposes.
Most of the Protestant churches are strongly influenced by Luther in their understanding of law and gospel—whether consciously or unconsciously, following Luther or not. Luther himself uses the words to clarify the way to salvation, to answer the great problem of how one becomes righteous before the Almighty God. Law and gospel are used as tools to solve this question that had been crucial for him for a long time. For Luther, the law means everything that God demands from us. All the regulations, works, and restrictions from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the Book of Revelation are law. Gospel is what God gives us for free (i.e. salvation and forgiveness), without any demands or preconditions, and also appears from the first page of the Bible to the very last. This distinction is very useful when you want to define the contents of general classical Protestant preaching. The law reveals your sinfulness and inability to save yourself. This is to drive you to a desperate search for salvation and forgiveness. The salvation—i.e. the gospel—is then declared to you as a free gift of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is completely God’s work to which you cannot add anything to make it more perfect. (As a side note, faith is considered not a human act but a tool through which God pours out his grace and thus as a gift on the “gospel” side of Luther’s definition.) Similarly, when a Christian is troubled after failing in obedience or falling into sin, this kind of distinction helps to assure the continuation of God’s forgiveness and salvation in his/her life. From this one can easily understand why Protestant Christians would have such a negative approach to the law, which often confuses Messianic Jews (especially the Torah observant). Luther’s way of defining God’s demands and gifts has very high value in these particular situations. However, one has to be careful not to confuse it with how the terminology is used in the Bible.
In the Bible, the gospel is simply the message about Jesus the Messiah. It includes all the demands and all the free gifts that can be found in the four Gospels and in the teaching of the apostles. The law in most cases means either the Ten Commandments, the whole covenant of Sinai, the Pentateuch (i.e. the Five Books of Moses), or the whole Tanakh (i.e. the Old Testament). This again makes no distinction between all the demands and all the promises found in these. The emphasis in the biblical use of law and gospel is to make clear both the difference and the continuity between the Covenant of Sinai and the New Covenant.
Besides these two ways of using these terms in the older Protestant churches, there has also risen a modern and more socialized view in which the gospel is understood as unconditional acceptance of formerly despised groups (i.e. homosexuals), and the law as oppression of the same groups. This view again uses the familiar terminology and gives it a distinct meaning, causing even more confusion. So far this view has not offered any clarification of the new and distinct use of the old terms, and many times the pastors sharing this even claim that this use is in line with use of the terms either in Luther or the Bible—or both. However, in order to make this claim, one has to mix the former two uses together and have a rather shallow understanding of them both. This third interpretation is not addressed in this article but it is worth noticing its existence in order to make a proper distinction when needed.
The two understandings of the terms law and gospel are a lasting part of the heritage of the Protestant world. Too often, the terms are not defined clearly enough, mostly because they are not clear enough in the minds of preachers. So in order to avoid age-old confusions, it’s essential to understand the difference between the two definitions of law and gospel and to use them properly. Luther’s use has enormous value when we want to clarify the way of salvation for a non-Christian or to comfort a troubled Christian who has failed in obedience. And it’s naturally essential to understand the use of these terms in the Bible in order to see the continuation and purpose of God’s great plan for our salvation in Jesus Christ.