Law and Gospel in Lent

From the beginning of the world these two proclamations [Law and Gospel] have always been taught alongside each other in God’s Church, with a proper distinction. The descendants of the well-respected patriarchs, and the patriarchs themselves, called to mind constantly how in the beginning a person had been created righteous and holy by God. They know that through the fraud of the Serpent, Adam transgressed God’s command, became a sinner, and corrupted and cast himself with all his descendants into death and eternal condemnation. They encouraged and comforted themselves again by the preaching about the woman’s seed, who would bruise the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15); Abraham’s seed, in whom “all the nations of the earth [will] be blessed” (Genesis 22:18); David’s Son, who should “bring back the preserved of Israel” and be “a light for the nations” (Isaiah 49:6; see also Psalm 110:1; Luke 2:32), and who “was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities … and with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

These two doctrines, we believe and confess, should always be diligently taught in God’s Church forever, even to the end of the world. They must be taught with the proper distinction of which we have heard: (a) through the preaching of the Law and its threats in the ministry of the New Testament the hearts of impenitent people may be terrified, and (b) they may be brought to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance. This must not be done in such a way that they lose heart and despair in this process. “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24); so the Law points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who “is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4). (Formula of Concord, SD V 23-24)

Lent, perhaps, presents the Church with one of the clearest proclamations of Law and Gospel. Practically everything that is said and done during this penitential season reflects this “particularly brilliant light” that the Lutheran church has always used to enlighten the hearing and reading of God’s Word. There is a great need to always make a sharp distinction between these two ways that God’s Word speaks to us. Lent provides that pointed contrast.

Consider the congregation’s liturgical responses during Lent. We stop singing the Gloria in Excelsis, and we also cease the singing and speaking of “Alleluia” during this season. Alleluia means “Praise the Lord!,” and Lent is a notable time to halt this proclamation. We stop saying “Alleluia” in humble acknowledgement of the fact that Lent is a time for us to reflect on our sin, our need for a savior, and what that savior had to go through in order to win salvation for us. Here we have a deliberate action on the part of the congregation in part because of what the Law does to us. It humbles us and brings us to our knees in anticipation of the fulfillment of that Law in Jesus, our Savior.

The Gospel readings especially bring out this Law and Gospel distinction of Lent. We’ll begin with the Temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4), which is the traditional reading for the Lent 1, and then go weekly through the need for man to be born “from above” in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3), the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4), the healing of the man born blind (John 9), and the death and resurrection of Lazarus (John 11). Notice the overarching theme: Man is sick, weak, dead in his sin, and only through an action outside of himself (God’s action, specifically in Jesus) can he be saved. What a marvelous repetition of Law and Gospel we will be blessed to hear!

My prayer for you this Lententide is that God’s Word, both Law and Gospel, will work in you; convicting you, strengthening you, and ultimately comforting you with the assurance that your Redeemer has come, paid the price for your sins, and on the last day will say to you “come out” to the resurrection into eternal life.