Kolb, Robert. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Epitome “V Concerning Law and Gospel” pp. 500-501.
Solid Declaration “V. Concerning Law and Gospel” pp. 581-586.
The fifth article of the Formula of Concord deals with Law and Gospel. At issue was whether gospel preaching includes “a preaching of repentance and rebuke, which condemns unbelief” (Kolb 2000, 500). While the words “law” and “gospel” can be used in a rather vague manner, strictly speaking law gives instruction and condemns sin. Gospel tells what we should believe about the atoning work and forgiveness of Christ. In Scripture the word “gospel” can be “used for the entire teaching of Christ,” therefore, it is appropriate to refer to gospel as “a proclamation of both repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (Kolb 2000, 500). But when law and gospel are contrasted, we should use the more strict meaning of each. A preaching of law only, especially when it is referred to as gospel, can make people presumptuous or can drive them to despair, as they may look to their obedience as the means of forgiveness of sins (Kolb 2000, 501). Therefore, we avoid teaching that the gospel is a call to repentance or that the law is a proclamation of mercy.
The Solid Declaration elaborates the danger of confusing law and gospel. It “obscures the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of the comfort that they otherwise have in the holy gospel when it is preached clearly and purely” (Kolb 2000, 581). Among some of the Augsburg theologians, there was the opinion that “the gospel is really not only the proclamation of grace but also at the same time a proclamation of repentance, which reproves the greatest sin, unbelief (Kolb 2000, 581). Therefore it became necessary to reaffirm the strict definition of gospel as only the message of God’s grace. Again, while the term “gospel” is allowed as a broad term in the New Testament, illustrated in detail in the Solid Declaration (Kolb 2000, 582), to maintain clarity in preaching and in theological discourse, the more strict meaning of the term is strongly preferred. This preserves the understanding that the gospel is truly about forgiveness of sins procured through Jesus (Kolb 2000, 583). A failure to make this distinction can create people who are presumptuous or despairing. The language in the Solid Declaration is largely the same as in the Epitome, cited above. It is then elaborated upon with a reference to the “alien work” of the Holy Spirit, based on Isaiah 28:21. This is explained by Dr. Luther, commenting on John 14:26 and 16:7-8. He sees that the genuine preaching of the gospel “points to and bestows nothing else than grace and forgiveness in Christ” (Kolb 2000, 583). Again, the Solid Declaration emphasizes that the strict definitions of law and of gospel make the requirement of repentance and obedience clear, as well as the gracious gift of salvation in Christ (Kolb 2000, 584). The only potential demand of the gospel is that we believe the grace of God. It is therefore a message of comfort, not a call to repentance in any way (Kolb 2000, 585).