Sin, between Law and Gospel

ImageBy Piotr J. Małysz

A fundamental question motivates these historically grounded reflections on sin: How can we talk about sin today? With a view to illuminating the answer, the following will reflect on certain conceptual dilemmas that came to define sixteenth-century Lutheran reflection on sin, and have punctuated it ever since. Our point of departure will be the Reformation’s radicalization of sin and its conceptual implications. In this light, we shall then consider how sin is disclosed. This will show the overarching dilemma in the relationship between law and gospel. When seen through the lens of sin, this relationship, I shall argue, appears to be more complex than the customary linear sequence in which the comfort of the gospel follows the accusation of the law and the conviction of sin. In fact, precisely this view leads to the loss of sin’s radical character, so crucial to Luther’s protest. The argument advanced here will be that, unless the gospel is related to the disclosure of sin, the Reformation’s insight about sin’s radicalness will be compromised, in the end minimizing not only sin but also grace. In the final section the essay addresses this very process by considering the impact which post-Reformation tensions, related to the nature of sin, exerted on the rise of autonomous human agency and being.

In Search of a Category

Philip Melanchthon’s charge in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) is that “the scholastic teachers . . . trivialize original sin.”[i] This should give us pause. For it is hard to overlook the proliferation, in the late Middle Ages, of confessional manuals notorious for giving detailed instructions to priests on how to tease out admission of guilt from unwilling penitents.[ii] Nevertheless, as early as Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), there is a clear sense that there is more to sin. Sin is not just a transgression of the law, or a failure to keep it. Nobody in his right mind, including both Luther and his opponents, was interested in debating whether a crime was sinful. But Luther was vitally interested in debating whether, in addition to crimes, also those “works of man [which] always seem attractive and good . . . are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”[iii] Luther readily admitted that the works he had in mind were “not mortal sins . . . as though they were crimes [crimina].” But he still concluded that the good, attractive, even law-abiding works that humans perform could, in fact, be sins meriting eternal damnation.

Seen from this angle, the Reformation began as a controversy over sin and good works, provoked by Luther’s indictment of good works, regardless of whether they were self-devised or perfectly consonant with the law. This is how Luther’s first opponents saw it, forcing him to clarify that he was not, in fact, against doing good works but against the self-righteousness and self-congratulation—in short, against sinful pride—that naturally attend good works.[iv] Already in the Ninety-five Theses (1517) Luther drew attention to the necessity and importance of doing good works, such as providing for one’s family.[v] This did not prevent Luther’s colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf, from later making the notorious claim that good works were detrimental to salvation. Von Amsdorf’s view is certainly extreme, though not without precedent in Luther’s writings.[vi]

By contrast, today one rarely, if ever, hears Lutheran pastors speak to the good works of their congregants as likewise not immune to the danger of condemnation, perhaps even more in danger of it. After all, nobody wants to own their failures, but everyone wants to claim their successes. Today preaching sin seems to be confined largely to the law’s transgression. This brings us to the Reformation’s fundamental conceptual insight which, I think, ought to inform our consideration of sin today. It will not do simply to equate sins and crimes, sin and lawlessness, hamartiology and morality. But if we are not simply to equate them, how are we to relate them? Here two alternatives present themselves. The first option would be to regard crimes (crimina), as Luther understands them, merely as a subset of sin. Sin is simply a broader category: all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes. The larger set would then include also good works—those good works that are somehow deficient. With recourse to Kant, for example, we might blame this deficiency on the works being done only in accordance with duty, but not really out of duty.[vii] In that case, the opposite of sin would be virtue, wholehearted obedience to the law, which results not only in apparently or externally good works but in intentionally good works.

The alternative is sharply to distinguish sin and all works, including crimes, as belonging to entirely different categories. Distinction does not, of course, mean separation. To quote Eberhard Jüngel, “the necessity of distinguishing as sharply as possible emerges at the very point at which the things to be distinguished are bound together as tightly as possible.”[viii] But the relation is more complicated than that of larger sets to their subsets. The categorical distinction is, actually, the path taken by Luther and, albeit inconsistently, as we shall see, in the Lutheran Confessions. When one speaks of sin, it is certainly not enough to juxtapose evil deeds and good works—the goodness of good works is not determined ex opere operato, it is not automatic. But neither is it sufficient to place, on one side, evil deeds and only externally good works, and then juxtapose them with works that are truly intentionally law-abiding.[ix] Luther insists we must get at the root of the problem, “the inherited sin (Erbsünde), or the chief sin.”[x] This, for Luther, is unbelief. Although never quite transcending the category of human action and responsibility, unbelief belongs to a different category. Unbelief, the Reformer writes in his Preface to Romans (1522/1546), is “the root and source of all sin . . . unbelief alone commits sin . . . unbelief [is, in fact,] the only sin!”[xi] As early as The Babylonian Captivity (1520), we find Luther insisting that “no sin can condemn . . . save unbelief alone.”[xii]

One profound implication of this categorical shift, as Kierkegaard perceptively noted against the pious moralism of his own day, is that “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue.” “In part,” writes Kierkegaard, “this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, [namely,] that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: ‘whatever does not proceed form faith is sin.’ And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all of Christianity.”[xiii] In this respect, Kierkegaard may be seen as a good student of Luther, who likewise draws attention to the same juxtaposition. In his Sermons on the Gospel of John (1537), Luther contrasts sin and faith by noting that

unbelief retains all sin and cannot obtain forgiveness, just as faith delivers from all sin. Hence without this faith everything, including even the best works and life of which man is capable, is and remains sinful and damnable. Good works may be praiseworthy in themselves and commanded by God; but they are vitiated by unbelief and for this reason cannot please God just as all the works and life which spring from the faith of a Christian are pleasing to God. In brief, without Christ all is damned and lost; in Christ all is good and blessed.[xiv]


Revealing Sin

Locating sin beyond ethical categories raises some dilemmas, two of which I discuss in what follows. In this section we ask whether a rational case can be made for sin. In the ensuing sections we consider sin’s relation to our humanity. To consider whether a rational case can be made for sin, we must begin with the question of how sin is disclosed. The Lutheran commitment to preaching the law rests on the assumption that sin can be rationally brought to light—even if the Formula of Concord adds the caveat that without the Holy Spirit’s alien, convicting work the chances are rather slim![xv] However, in light of what has been said, it is not unreasonable to ask whether preaching the law can get at sin at all, with or without the Holy Spirit. But then why specifically preach the law? Can a jump be made from the knowledge of oneself as an occasional, or even habitual, law-breaker and impurely-motivated doer of the good to the knowledge of sin? Can a jump be made from an empirically established “tendency of man’s heart and nature,” as Jonathan Edwards would have it, to the knowledge of oneself as a sinner?[xvi] It seems the only way this can be done is by invoking some Anselmian assumption of debt that becomes infinite on account of the offended party: then a single offense, however slight in itself, makes one inescapably into a sinner. But even if we were to follow this route, is it at all commensurate with the insight that sin is, fundamentally, unbelief? In short then, what is it that we do when we preach the law? And in what sense does the illumination of legal failure prepare one for the gospel? Does the gospel play any role beyond being that for which the law prepares the way? These are some questions that, I believe, deserve more reflection than they customarily receive (Article V of the Formula of Concord notwithstanding). The “Lutheran” answers, it seems to me, cannot simply be taken for granted.


The entire article appeared in Lutheran Quarterly 28:2 (Summer 2014), 149-178.  DOWNLOAD


[i] Ap II.7: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 113 (hereafter, BC); Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11th ed., Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 148 (hereafter, BSLK).

[ii] To this end, some of the manuals contained elaborate hierarchies, for example, of sexual sins; see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 91, 141-2. For Luther’s reaction against excessive sexualization of sin, which obscures its true character, see his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45); in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 82 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955ff), 1:114 (hereafter, LW); D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. F. K. Knaake et al., 57 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883ff), 42:86 (hereafter, WA).

[iii] LW 31:39; WA 1:353.

[iv] Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works” (LW 31:372-3; WA 7:70).

[v] Theses 41-46 (LW 31:12; WA 1:235).

[vi] See the editorial footnote appended by the Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord to Art. IV of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: BC 574, n. 139.

[vii] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor et al., rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 13.

[viii] Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 218.

[ix] Rejected are also other views which tend to minimize the seriousness of sin, such as Peter Lombard’s teaching that “original sin is merely a reatus (obligation resulting from a debt incurred by someone else) without any corruption of our nature” (FC, Solid Declaration, I.17; BC 534-5; BSLK 850).

[x] Smalc. Art., III.1.1 (BC 310; BSLK 433).

[xi] LW 35:369; WA DB 7:7-8.

[xii] LW 36:60; WA 6:529.

[xiii] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 82 (emphasis added).

[xiv]LW 24:344; WA 46:42.

[xv] FC, Solid Declaration, V.11 (BC 583; BSLK 955).

[xvi]The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758; London: Johnson and Keith, 1766), 32 [Part I, Chapt. I, Sect. III].

A Brief Introduction to Law & Gospel

By Dr Hans Wiersma

There are some interesting words at the beginning of John’s Gospel—words that appear to drive a wedge between Moses and Jesus.  The words go like this:  “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 NIV).  These words are noteworthy because of the implied converse:  Grace and truth do not come through Moses; the law was not given through Jesus Christ.  Distinctions like this one—telling the difference between Law and Grace—are the hallmark of the Lutheran understanding of, well, just about everything.

In 1525, Martin Luther preached a sermon about two different and distinct sermons.  At the beginning of his sermon, Luther explained how, in the Bible, God preaches only two public sermons—two sermons that all of the people can hear.  According to Luther, God’s first public sermon was on Mt. Sinai, when the people heard God give Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:9).  God’s second public sermon was on the Day of Pentecost, when the people heard the disciples proclaim the Good News of Christ in their native languages.  Although the two sermons have the same divine source, Luther discerned a stark difference in content.  Here’s Luther in his own words on the subject:

Now the first sermon, and doctrine, is the law of God. The second is the gospel. These two sermons are not the same. Therefore we must have a good grasp of the matter in order to know how to differentiate between them. We must know what the law is, and what the gospel is. The law commands and requires us to do certain things. The law is thus directed solely to our behavior and consists in making requirements. For God speaks through the law, saying, “Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.” The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, “This is what God has done for you; he has let his Son be made flesh for you, has let him be put to death for your sake.” So, then, there are two kinds of doctrine and two kinds of works, those of God and those of men. Just as we and God are separated from one another, so also these two doctrines are widely separated from one another. For the gospel teaches exclusively what has been given us by God, and not—as in the case of the law—what we are to do and give to God.[1]

Since the two sermons, the two doctrines, Law and Gospel, do two different, opposite things, being able to tell the difference between Law and Gospel is essential to the theological task.  At least that’s how Luther saw it:  “Whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.”[2]

So how is it done?  How are Law and Gospel distinguished?  How does one tell the difference between divine gift and divine requirement?  Here are some guidelines:

Keep in mind that the Word of God is (a) very sharp and (b) stickin’ it to you.  Yeah, that’s in the Bible:  “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NRSV).  You may think that you are reading the word of God in scripture or hearing the Word of God in a sermon.  In reality, as you are reading or hearing, the Word of God is acting upon you, doing a number on you.  Understood in terms of Law and Gospel, the Word of God is (a) putting sinners to death with the unremitting pronouncement of commandments and punishments—including the punishment of death—and (b) raising up saints with the unrelenting pronouncement of the unmerited grace, forgiveness, and new and eternal life given in Jesus Christ.

Remember that Law and Gospel are necessarily related and therefore cannot be separated.  This is why Lutheran Christians prefer to talk about “distinguishing” or “discerning” Law and Gospel, rather than separating Law from Gospel.  Just as the words of the Bible are bound up into a single authoritative and holy scripture, so, too, are the words of law and gospel bound up into a single divine Word that does what God wants it to do (see Isaiah 55:11-12).  Biblically speaking, faithfully confessing, you can neither have law without gospel, nor gospel without law.  If you read and apply the word of God as law only, you get legalism.  If you read and apply the word of God as gospel only, you get antinomianism (the belief that the law has no use).

Do not confuse Law and Gospel.  The previous sentence is intentionally stated as a law (rather than a guideline).  Perhaps even more dangerous than separating Law from Gospel is confusing the Law with the Gospel, or vice versa.  Confusing Law and Gospel has the result of replacing faith in Christ’s work with faith in one’s own work—which amounts to no faith at all.  One common way in which law and gospel are confused is when we imagine that we make ourselves eternally right with God by deciding to do what God wants us to do.  For example, in a popular religious tract called the “Four Spiritual Laws” it is insisted that one must “receive Jesus Christ by faith, as an act of the will.”[3]  Such a “law” appears to make faith ultimately a matter of our own doing.  Lutherans instead insist (with the Apostle Paul) that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV).

Look for how Law and Gospel function literally.  Law and Gospel can be discerned in the message of the bible or in the message of the preacher or, really, in any kind of message.  Wherever and however you encounter a message, ask: what is the literal sense?  Is that message worded as a command?  Is it telling me to do something?  Does it contain a quid pro quo (“If you do X, then you’ll get Y”)?  Is there an implied consequence for not heeding the message?  If so, you are likely dealing with the law.  On the other hand, if the message declares that something good is going to happen, something to your benefit, and that the promised blessing does not depend on your attitude or activity, then you are almost certainly dealing with a word of grace, that is, unearned favor, that is, Gospel.

Look for how Law and Gospel function functionally.  Beyond the literal (or literary) meaning of a message lies a functional meaning.  The ways in which words function often depend upon context.  “I love you” can mean one thing when said over a candlelit dinner; “I love you” can mean something else when said just after the words, “Honey, I totaled the car.”  Take, for example, the so-called “Gospel in a Nutshell”: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV).  Literally, the words sound like pure Gospel to those who believe:  God gave his son so that they will not perish.  But to those who do not believe, the words can function as law:  “I guess I should believe…or else.”

Tell the difference between Law and Gospel.  You’ll note that throughout this little essay, the phrase “tell the difference between Law and Gospel” has been used.  Usually, when you are asked if you can tell the difference between two things you are really just being asked whether you know or understand the difference between two things.  But when you are being asked to tell the difference between Law and Gospel, you are being asked to do more than merely know or understand the difference.  In addition, you are being asked literally to tell it—to speak it, talk about it, declare it, proclaim it!  For Lutheran Christians, telling the difference between Law and Gospel especially means preaching the difference between Law and Gospel.  For when you preach it, faith will come (Romans 10:14-17).

[1] LW 35:162.

[2] LW 26:115.

[3] “Four Spiritual Laws English,”, last accessed April 3, 2011.

Theological Fragments: Eberhard Jüngel on law, gospel, and human identity

“The gospel restricts the function of the law to that of making demands upon people and to measuring their actions (but only their actions, and not their being) against the demands of the law.  But the law is not entitled to pass judgment upon the person, which means upon the being of the human agent.  For our acts, whether good or evil, cannot determine our being.  Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.  The gospel therefore contradicts the idea that, for example, on the basis of inhuman acts one can conclude that the subject of such acts is an inhuman person.  The category of ‘inhuman’ is itself an inhuman category, at least if our discernment operates within the horizon guided by the gospel.  For as forgiveness of sin, the gospel is the power which so addresses a human being that his or her person becomes distinguishable from his or her acts.  Preceding all human attempts at self-realization, the gospel is the promise that the human person is already a definitively approved person, namely by God.  All attempts to find out who or what we really are by identifying person with achievements or failures lead to an abuse of the law, to an – as it were – legalistic use of the law, to which the Christian faith opposes an evangelical use of the law.  For the legalistic use of the law makes the demands of the law into an excessive demand.  It makes an excessive demand on individuals if they are definitively to determine themselves through their acts.  The gospel does not contradict the law’s demand, but it certainly contradicts the excessive demand of the law by proclaiming the justification of sinners and thereby the distinction between person and work.”

“On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction between Person and Works for the Self-understanding of Modern Humanity,” Theological Essays, vol. II (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 236.

Faith and Works: Defining a Relationship


By Bryce P Wandrey

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law. …Love does no wrong to a neighbour” (Romans 13:8, 10).

In his commentary on 1 Peter 1:17, Martin Luther wrote: “Now when I have given God […] honor, then whatever life I live, I live for my neighbor, to serve and help him. The greatest work that comes from faith is this, that I confess Christ with my mouth and, if it has to be, bear testimony with my blood and risk my life. Yet God does not need the work; but I should do it to prove and confess my faith, in order that others, too, may be brought to faith. Then other works will follow. They must all tend to serve my neighbor. All this God must bring about in us” (LW 30).

The relationship between faith and works – or between faith and love – is one that Christian theology has contended with from its inception. Various answers have been proposed, some contrary to another. The questions are essentially: Which comes first, faith or works? Must I do something to prepare myself in order to have faith? Must I do something after believing in order to be saved? Is it faith alone or faith and works? And if it is faith and works, how do those two things work together in the Christian life? What is more important: God’s love for us or our love of God and neighbor? Is it proper to oppose these propositions? Continue reading “Faith and Works: Defining a Relationship”

Luther on Letter & Spirit

“Many are persuaded that Paul deals in the above text [II Cor. 3:10] with the ceremonial righteousness which is now repealed; yet he is speaking of the whole law, and comparing law with grace, not law with law. … In brief then, let us point out that there are two ministries of preaching; one of the letter, the other of the spirit. The letter is the law, the spirit is grace. The first belongs to the Old Covenant, the second to the New. The glory of the law is the knowledge of sin; the glory of the Spirit is that revelation, or knowledge, of grace which is faith. Therefore the law did not justify: indeed, since human frailty found it unbearable, grace is veiled by it on Mount Tabor even to the present time.

“… I say, therefore, that just as the law of the Decalogue is good if it is observed-that is, if you have faith, which is the fulness of the law and of righteousness-so also it is death, and wrath, and no good to you if you do not observe it-that is, if you do not have faith. This is so, no matter how many good works you do-for the righteousness of the law, that is, of the Ten Commandments, is unclean and abolished by Christ even more than is [the righteousness] of ceremonies. It is precisely the righteousness of the law which is the veil over the face of Moses, and which the glory of faith removes” (“Against Latomus,” LW 32, 177, 178).