In Martin Luther’s prefatory declaration to his commentary on Galatians, we find some of the best lines in the defense of the gospel outside of the Holy-Spirit-inspired Scriptures themselves. That great German rabble-rouser stirred an untold multitude to faith precisely because he set out to simply, but carefully and stubbornly, articulate God’s law and God’s gospel. I’ve recently begun reading his eponymous Galatians commentary (why it’s taken me so long, I couldn’t tell you), and it has already struck me to the core with its insistence on the surety of the believer’s passive righteousness in Christ. Such, I think, is where the utility of distinguishing between law and gospel really comes to the fore — namely, in delineating the exactness which the law requires over against the completeness which the gospel gives. Luther writes:
For there is no comfort of conscience so firm and sure, as this passive righteousness is . . . Wherefore when I see a man oppressed with the law, terrified with sin, and thirsting for comfort, it is time that I removed out of his sight the law and active righteousness, and that I should set before him, by the gospel, the Christian or passive righteousness, which, excluding Moses and his law, offereth the promise made in Christ, Who came for the afflicted and sinners. Here the man is raised up again, and conceiveth the good hope, neither is he any more under the law, but under grace.
This is our divinity, whereby we teach how to put a difference between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, to the end that manners and faith, works and grace, policy and religion, should not be confounded, or take the one for the other. Both are necessary; but must be kept within their bounds . . . For if the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost.
The law never bringeth the Holy Ghost, but only teacheth what we ought to do: therefore it justifieth not. But the gospel bringeth the Holy Ghost, because it teacheth what we ought to receive. Therefore the law and the gospel are two contrary doctrines. To put righteousness in the law, is nothing else but to fight against the gospel. For Moses with his law is a severe exactor, requiring of us that we should work, and that we should give. Contrariwise the gospel giveth freely and requireth of us nothing else, but to hold out our hands, and to take that which is offered. Now to exact and to give, to take and to offer, are clean contrary, and cannot stand together. For that which is given I take: that which I give, I do not take, but I offer it unto another. Therefore if the gospel be a gift, it requireth nothing. On the other hand, the law giveth nothing, but it requireth and exacteth of us us, yea even impossible things.1
Praise the Father for the unspeakable gift of his Son, which has granted freedom and life to those condemned to death.
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, translated by Erasmus Middleton, edited by John Prince Fallowes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979), xiii–xiv, xvi, 114.