How does a pastor or fellow Christian help and comfort the Christian who is brokenhearted, downcast, or disoriented? How do you help a person who is struggling in the faith, wondering about salvation, questioning grace?
By teaching them the difference between the law and the gospel.
Yes, I’m serious: as serious as a 16th century Dutch Reformed Pastor, Peter Dathenus, who did just that. He wrote a little booklet to a friend who was troubled in conscience, wondering about forgiveness, mercy, grace, and gospel. In the opening words, Dathenus said, “It seems to me that your sorrow is such a sorrow, and arises out of a great misunderstanding, which is that you do not distinguish between the law and the gospel because you do not rightly know the Lord Jesus.”
Yes, he sounds like Luther: “Please, dear Elizabeth, learn to understand God’s Word better, so that you do not regard Jesus as another Moses. By this I mean, that you will not treat our Advocate and Savior as an accuser and condemner, which is the greatest dishonor with which people can dishonor Jesus.” [In the context of the Reformation/post-reformation, remember that Rome displayed a picture of Christ with the sword coming out of his mouth, waiting to damn anyone who didn’t do things just right (hence Luther’s 1510-1519 struggles).]
Dathenus’ literary dialogue partner (Elizabeth) responds by saying that the Word is divided into the OT and NT – is that what you mean by a proper division, Dathenus?
Dathenus: No. “We say that God’s ministry is divided into the distinct parts of law and gospel.”
Elizabeth: How must I understand this matter of the law and gospel, in order to come to a proper understanding of the Word?
Dathenus: “The law is a declaration of the unchangeable will of God. By the threat of eternal damnation it binds everyone to complete and perpetual obedience…Wherever either the OT or NT teaches that this perfect obedience is required of us, there the law is emphasized and taught.”
Elizabeth: You are quite right…but what about the other part of God’s Word?
Dathenus: The gospel is the good news, the glad tidings that proclaims to us and “tells us that God will be gracious to a poor sinner, and will forgive and forget our sins. Yes, for Christ’s sake God will regard us as holy and righteous, out of pure grace, by faith alone, without adding any works.”
Elizabeth: this is quite comforting, and quite freeing. I think I understand: “Yes, it is true, if we honestly examine ourselves in the light of the law of God, we find nothing in us except death and condemnation. Therefore, we must seek the peace and serenity of our consciences outside of ourselves only in Jesus Christ, for he is our peace.”
Though the little book seems repetitive at times, it is a good display of the wrestlings of a Christian soul, and the way solid biblical theology is necessary for the soothing of troubled consciences.