Looking at (and along) law and gospel

One reason I was interested to read of Samuel Alexander’s distinction between Enjoyment and Contemplation (as employed by C.S. Lewis) was that it has a useful contribution to make to the discussion in previous posts on the respective roles of law and gospel in the Christian life, and in particular the issue of how we are to understand and apply the “third use” of the law.

I suspect that many of the difficulties we can have on these issues arise from an attempt to Contemplate the distinction between law and gospel rather than Enjoying it. That is, we seek an “abstract, eternal, impersonal” knowledge of law and gospel (Contemplation), rather than “participant, inhabited, personal, committed” knowledge (Enjoyment). Or in Lewis’ terms, we try to look at the relationship between law and gospel, rather than looking along it.

When we Contemplate the relationship between law and gospel, we tie ourselves up in all sorts of knots. How do we establish a properly rigorous and objective differentiation between the law in its “second use” (revealing our sin) and the law in its “third use” (guiding us in the redeemed life), avoiding legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other? It’s far from easy, and most of us have a tendency to err to one side or the other.

The problem is that the attempt to Contemplate law and gospel is really an attempt to Contemplate the nature of the Christian life and of the work of the Holy Spirit. And, as Michael Ward points out, this is an impossible task.

Ward writes that Lewis was “extremely wary of anyone who claimed to be able to make the Holy Spirit an object of conscious Contemplation”, and quotes Lewis as follows:

[S]ave by God’s direct miracle, spiritual experience can never abide introspection. If even our emotions will not do so … much less will the operations of the Holy Ghost. The attempt to discover by introspective analysis our own spiritual condition is to me a horrible thing which reveals, at best, not the secrets of God’s spirit and ours, but their transpositions in intellect, emotion and imagination, and which at worst may be the quickest road to presumption or despair.

That final reference to “presumption or despair” is revealing, because those are the outcomes to which we tend to be driven whenever we get the relationship between law and gospel wrong.

As Ward continues:

The impossibility of inspecting one’s spiritual life […] arises from the simple fact that one cannot step outside it. […] There is an inescapable participatory element to the Christian’s relationship with God, and “looking along the beam” of that participation means inevitably that the beam is invisible.

Hence the relationship between law and gospel is something that can never be satisfactorily Contemplated. It can only be Enjoyed. This is why it is so important to see the Small Catechism (and indeed the Large Catechism) as not only setting out doctrinal teachings, but presenting us with a framework for the Christian life: the life that is shaped by obedience to the Commandments (imperfect, but still attempted) and by faith in the gospel (as summarised in the Creed), and expressed in prayer (especially the Lord’s Prayer); that begins in baptism, is renewed daily by the repentance and absolution by which we return to that baptism, and is sustained by the Lord’s body and blood in the Supper.

It is as we live that life that we experience, as a matter of Enjoyment, the proper distinction of law and gospel, and a right relationship between the law in its second use and the law in its third use – the law from whose claims and condemnation we have been freed, but to whose revelation of God’s will for our lives we return in that freedom.

As long as we look along this life, things remain clear. We only get confused once we try to look at it.

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25 Responses to Looking at (and along) law and gospel

  1. steve martin says:

    The essence of God is not His Law. The essence of God is His mercy and grace.

    “Christ is the end of the law for all who have faith.”
    (Romans 10:4)

    I don’t contemplate Law and Gospel…they are DONE TO ME…by God..in His Word.

    Grace trumps Law…every time.

    As a Christian I do not live under the Law. I only live under the Law as a creature.

    I can say this much. I am enjoying my Christian freedom!

    It’s my hope that every Christian would realize how free they really are, and to “…not again subject themselves to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
    That yoke of slavery is…the law.

  2. Josh S says:

    Really? The commandments don’t reflect who God is? God is not essentially loving? Essentially truthful? Essentially just? The proof-texts are nice, but they don’t really do justice to the entirety of Paul’s thought, especially not in the context of your personal, idiosyncratic beliefs.

  3. steve martin says:


    My personal beliefs?

    That’s a good one!

    Well, all I have to say is that if you guys want to place the same weight on all your bible passages , I wish you a lot of luck climbing your ladders of righteousness.

    St. Paul clearly tells the Galatians that if you want to play that keeping the law game, then you sever yourself fron Christ.

    What do you think Christ picked Paul after all the rest for anyway…for kicks?

    Let me know how the view is from way up where you are.

    Here’s a little advice… do theology!

    Some people wouldn’t know the gospel if it hit them in the face.

  4. Phil Walker says:

    Oh dear Steve, and there was I thinking that God’s invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. You see, we who are Gentiles are a law unto ourselves when we do by nature what the law requires. This is because the law is itself natural, written on the conscience of man. But this same law that tells us God expects of us truthfulness, justice, kindness, peacefulness and so on also tells us that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And so the law truly reveals God to us—not as the Redeemer, but as Judge, for it reveals the God whose “endless wisdom, boundless power and aweful purity” are death to sinners. That is a true, if fearsome, revelation of God, and makes the Gospel all the sweeter.

  5. John H says:

    Steve: you seem to be missing the point repeatedly here. No-one is saying that we are to climb “ladders of righteousness” by obedience to the law. We’re all agreed that (as regards our meeting the law’s demands by our own works) our position is hopeless.

    However, the law does not simply come out of nowhere. It is not a set of random requirements which God established just to show us we need Christ. The law reflects God’s character and his will for us. In Christ we cease striving to achieve our own righteousness and are no longer “under the law”. However, the new person within us wants to exercise its freedom in Christ in accordance with God’s character and will, and so the new person delights in God’s law (Romans 7:22).

    You seem to think that our problem is the law. It isn’t. Our problem is sin. It is only our sin that makes God’s character and will, as disclosed by the law, a terror for us. In Christ our sin is washed away and so the law no longer threatens us, is no longer a problem, no longer something to terrify us, even if in this life we will continue to find that when we “want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand”, and thus continue to need to hear the promises of the gospel over and over again.

  6. steve martin says:


    I do believe it is you that is missing the point here.

    Here it is again:

    In Christ we want to keep the law..right? Right. So if we want to keep it, we need no law telling us to do so.(third use out)

    You can say it all you want that you know we are saved by grace and no longer under the law, but when you start talking about adherence to any form of the law you have just unwittingly thrown it all out the window.

    Either Christ has done it all for you, or He has done nothing for you.

    I’ll say it again. The law is of secondary importance with God’s nature.

    When God gave the 10 commandments to Moses did He do it Himself? No. He said, “hey you, messesger boy…take these down to Moses.” When God gave the promise to Abraham, He did it Himself.

    St. Paul tells us that the law was a ‘ custodian’ or ‘tutor’ , before Christ came.

    It seems to me that the desire to hand onto even a little bit of the law is the desire to hang onto just a wee little bit of your righteousness. To say, ” look at me God(and others), I am doing what you want me to do.” Ha! What a joke.

    Christ is all…or He is nothing.

    To all of those that would desire to keep even one link of the chain, that is the law, I say…”you’d better get busy!”

  7. Phil Walker says:

    Okay Steve, I’ll bite. Murdered anyone recently?

    If not, why not?

  8. steve martin says:


    Only in my heart. Jesus tells us that when we are angry with another, it is as if we have murdered them. For God that is enough to send me to hell.

    I haven’t physically murdered anyone. Neither have 99.92%(just a guess of course) of the people living on this planet.

    Why not? It’s not something that we do, unless we lose control of ourselves.

    Atheists don’t murder people either.

    Why do you ask?

  9. John H says:

    Steve: I think the question is, “Do you consider your freedom in Christ allows you to murder people? And if(!) not, why not?”

    If it is legalistic to expect Christians to at least try to live up to Jesus’ commandments about not being angry with people, then why is it not legalistic to expect them to live up to the commandment not to (literally) kill them? Aren’t you just setting up another ladder for Christians to climb, albeit a somewhat shorter one?

    Similarly, if I consciously attempt (with a singular lack of success it has to be said) to comply with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 5:28, by your lights I am a legalist erecting ladders to heaven. What about consciously attempting to comply with the literal, face-value meaning of Exodus 20:14?

  10. steve martin says:


    “All things are lawful in Christ.”

    I can murder if I want to.

    Can you?

    Exodus, Schemsodus…I can commit audultery, also if I want.

    It’s amazing how people that are stuck in the law always go back to the old testament. ( not really, that’s where the Jews hang out also)

    “Comply with Jesus’ commandments.” I would bet that you don’t comply with hardly any of them,(Remembering that your weak efforts account for nothing-unless you can actually comply).
    And as St. Paul says, if you broken one of them, you’ve broken all of them, and the jig is up.

    Why don’t you just admit it? You can’t handle the freedom, and it kills you that some others can handle it and actually take joy in it.

  11. Mark Shane says:


    Dennis Rader, former Congregation Council President of Christ Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas, has likewise suffered for exercising his freedom as a Christian, and was made a true Confessor for the faith. A shame he was unable to receive the Martyr’s robe at the hand of the State.

    “You can’t handle the freedom, and it kills you that some others can handle it and actually take joy in it.”

    I certainly agree that a killing has been made.

  12. steve martin says:

    Yep. He ought to fry. It is our duty to punish murderers.

    But whether or not he frys for eternity is up to God.

    We must remember that Christ died for him as well.

    The two kingdoms doctrine.

    We’ve had some church council members that weren’t quite that bad…but almost!!

  13. John H says:

    I think Dennis Rader is taking us some distance off-topic, so can we halt that particular sub-thread there.

    Steve: thank you for your comments, but I think this discussion has probably run its course for now. The difference between our respective positions is now pretty clear and has been well hammered-out.

  14. Josh S says:

    Isn’t James the one who says that failing in one commandment makes you guilty of all of them?

  15. steve martin says:


    They all should have said it…for it’s true.


    You are right. That’s about all we can do for now. Thanks for being a gracious host and a good sport.

    With you in Christ,

    – Steve

  16. Josh S says:

    And how is it our duty to punish murderers? That sounds like crass legalism. We are free to punish murderers…or not!

  17. steve martin says:


    The two kingdoms doctrine.

    We are free to punish murderers or not…and we choose to!

  18. Ibanez Eric says:

    can faith exist with mortal sin?

  19. iMonk says:

    “Why don’t you just admit it? You can’t handle the freedom, and it kills you that some others can handle it and actually take joy in it. ”

    You’ve spent a lot of time warning others my young friend. Let me warn you as an elder brother in Christ: The attitude behind the quote above is a very, very long way from the New Testament. Consider what you are saying and the position you’ve been yourself in in relation to other believers.

    Right or wrong, you need to step back and find some humility. Galatians speaks of those who abuse freedom. Be sure you aren’t defending your own pride.


  20. steve martin says:


    You call yourself a post-Evangelical. I wonder why. What have you left? It seems to me that you still would rather be inviolved with the project that is religion, than to abandon it for the freedom that Christ has won for you. I’m judging you for it. I’m just making an observation.

    The law kills. It is poision for the believer when it comes to his or her relationship with Christ. Your warnings are just that …your warnings. I appreciate your concern here, but you are wrong on this one. I have been wrong about many things in the past concerning Christian faith, and I know you have as well(from all of your writings).
    So I am telling you that here is just one more thing you are wring about, and that is Christians, the law, and freedom.

    I’ll leave you with this qoute from Gerhard Forde:

    “There is little chance, too, then, of really arriving at a positive attitude to law. For it is the supernatural pretension of law, its unbreakable absoluteness that makes it unbearable and drives man in his endless quest to be rid of it.
    When it has an end, however, a real end, one can see its positive use. In view of the end in Christ we can see that the law is intended for this world and that a
    new kind of goodness is possible, a goodness in and for this world, a “civil righteousness.” Faith in the end of the law establishes the law in its proper use.”

    The Law can only demand and accuse. Period. When Christ enters in, the demands and accusations are brought to an end. Now, we are free to take up creaturely existence for the sake of the world and the neighbor. The law demands good conduct. The grace of Christ inspires good conduct.

    Take care, IMonk,

    Steve M.

  21. steve martin says:

    I meant to write ‘I’m NOT JUDGING YOU for it’

    Sorry about that, Chief!

  22. Josh S says:

    “Duty” and “freedom” are antitheses. If we are free to not punish murderers, then we don’t have a duty to actually do it.

    What I find ironic is how adamantly you insist your beliefs come straight from the Bible, not some extra-biblical confession of faith, but so far your main references are Forde and Luther, and none of your theological language reflects what is found in the New Testament. You don’t even seem to know what Scripture actually says all that well; you’ve just read enough theology to be dangerously confident of your own consistency with the Bible. Arrogance is not a virtue, though you may consider yourself free to be arrogant, and treating people who disagree with you as though they have never read the Bible when thus far they appear to be a good bit more familiar with it than you simply makes you look foolish.

  23. steve martin says:

    Josh S.

    Romans 10:4
    Galatians 5:1
    Ephesians 2: 8,9
    2nd Corinthians 3:6,7
    Isaish 64
    Romans 6
    Romans 1:16
    Romans 3:10,11

    And Josh, start with this one Romans 2:1-3

    I read (yes I do actually read it – shocked aren’t you?) the scriptures throught the lens of God’s grace. You seem to me to read it (assuming that you do) through the lens of God’s Law.

    This is where doing a bit of theology can come in very handy, lest you end up with a schizophrenic view of the Christian Life.

    “I know I’m saved by God’s grace, alone…but I also still have to do this , this, and that. Do you see what I mean?

    If not, don’t worry about it, for you are not alone. There are miollions of Christians running around out there that have turned the scriptures into a lawnmower manual for living.

    ” Put part A, on flange B, connect lever T to bolt C…”

    Ridiculous…just ridiculous. And it oes on seven days a week in churches all over this country.

    Thanks Josh!

    – Steve M.

  24. Steven G. says:

    Steve M. said
    Only in my heart. Jesus tells us that when we are angry with another, it is as if we have murdered them. For God that is enough to send me to hell.


    “All things are lawful in Christ.”

    I can murder if I want to.

    These two statements are a contradiction. Care to splain?

  25. steve martin says:

    Steven G.,


    The smallest sin is enough to send us to hell (if we are living under the law)

    No sin is big enough to send us to hell if we are living in Christ (who was the end of the law for us -Romans 10:4)

    For the sin of killing all those people that I’ve killed in my heart, and those I’ve yet to kill in my heart, there is now no condemnation because of the cross of Christ.

    That’s my story (God’s story actually…it’s called ‘the gospel’) and I’m stickin’ to it.

    Thanks Steven G.!

    – Steve M.

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