If we are going to understand the Bible rightly, we have to be able to distinguish properly between God's two words: law and gospel. All of God's Word in the Bible comes to us in two forms of speech: God's word of demand (law) and God's word of deliverance (gospel). The law tells us what to do and the gospel tells us what God has done. As I mentioned in my previous post, both God's law and God's gospel are good and necessary, but both do very different things. Serious life confusion happens when we fail to understand their distinct "job descriptions." We'll wrongly depend on the law to do what only the gospel can do, and vice versa.
For example, Kim and I have three children: Gabe (17), Nate (15), and Genna (10). In order to function as a community of five in our home, rules need to be established–laws need to be put in place. Our kids know that they can't steal from each other. They have to share the computer. Since harmonious relationships depend on trust, they can't lie. Because we have two cars and three drivers, Gabe can't simply announce that he's taking one of the cars. He has to ask ahead of time. And so on and so forth. Rules are necessary. But telling them what they can and cannot do over and over won't change their heart.
When one of our kids (typically Genna) throws a temper tantrum, thereby breaking one of the rules, we can send her to her room and take away some of her privileges. But neither the rule nor the enforcement of punishment has the power to make her sorry for what she's done. At best, it can only produce "legal repentance"–an external sorrow motivated by a self-preservational fear of getting punished again. For Kim and I to depend on the law to accomplish for Genna what only the gospel can accomplish, would be a huge mistake–as if imposing rules and enforcing consequences carries the power to effect heart change. The law reveals sin but is powerless to remove sin. That's not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can't produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. As Martin Luther said, "Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God."
While there are a host of great resources available to help you better understand the important distinction between the law and the gospel, I found the most helpful resource to be John Pless' easy-to-read Handling the Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today. In the first chapter he summarizes C.F.W. Walther's six ways in which the law and the gospel are different. I will highlight the first three today and the second three later this week.