If you’ve wanted to either 1) get “into” C. F. W. Walther’s book, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1929/1986) but don’t have the time, or 2) learn more about the law/gospel distinction in Reformation thought, you’ll certainly want to grab Pless’ Handling the Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today. This is one of the better modern day Lutheran books on this subject. Of course, if you follow this blog, you’ll remember the law/gospel distinction is part and parcel to Reformed dogmatics as well.
Pless discusses each of Walther’s 25 theses on the law/gospel distinction. He talks about the dangers of muddling the law and gospel, making Christ a new Moses, and how to preach the law and gospel rightly. He also talks about the law/gospel distinction as it relates to faith alone, church, sacraments and the Christian life in general. He quotes some great Lutheran hymns, Luther himself, and earlier Lutheran theologians to give the reader a great display of the difference between the gospel and the law. In that way, this book is quite edifying. Here are some of my favorite blurbs.
“The gospel is not a recipe for self-improvement. It is that word of God that declares sins to be forgiven for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ” (p. 16).
“Good medicine improperly administered can be fatal. Even so, pastors who are builders of God’s house and physicians of the souls entrusted to their care are to be skilled in making the distinction between the law and the gospel” (p. 22).
“Broken sinners do not need instructions in ethics but a word from God that rescues them from the misery of their sin and restores them to peace with God through faith in his promises” (p. 28).
“The law is a sharp sword that slices away the flimsy excuses we use to cover our shame and defend ourselves against God. It is a saber that puts to death” (p. 38).
“The distinction between law and gospel unravels when justification is made dependent on sanctification. We do not become holy people by doing holy things. It is the other way around. God justifies us, that is, he declares us to be holy and righteous for the sake of the suffering and death of his Son” (p. 47-8).
“Faith is not a commitment that we can muster. Faith is not doing our part. Faith is not a decision that we make for Christ. Faith is that trust in the mercy of God and in Jesus Christ that is created by the promises of God” (p. 68).
“When the law is preached to the unregenerate in an attempt to make them godly, it actually has the opposite effect” (p. 108).
Anyway, you get the point. This is a great read. It is 128 pages with 13 chapters (including discussion questions at the end of each chapter). There is also an appendix with a law/gospel sermon of Luther’s.
For the record, I do heartily disagree with Pless laying the blame of WWJD, The Prayer of Jabez, and The Purpose Driven Life on Reformed doctrine (p. 7). I am also sorry to see that Pless (with other Lutherans) does not see the gospel in unconditional election (salvation based on God’s free choice not ours) and perseverance of the saints (Christ keeps those whom he saves). If I could just throw one thought out, I’d say the historic Reformed churches have a more robust view of the law/gospel distinction, because we include election and perseverance of the saints in the gospel, along with a great covenantal distinction (works/grace) to boot!
Even despite the differences, this book is certainly worth the read.