What is the Gospel?
Humanity has a broken relationship with God, leaving us often feeling like God is either angry with us, doesn’t care, or doesn’t even exist. The Gospel is the good news that God has repaired this broken relationship in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the comforting and joyous news that we have a caring God who favors us, forgives us freely on account of Christ, responds to our prayers, and gives us the assurance of eternal life.
Law and Gospel
The Lutheran church uses the term “Gospel” in a more narrow sense than the way it is used by most Christians. Typically, people use the word “Gospel” to refer more broadly to the life and teachings of Jesus. In this sense, “Gospel” usually means the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Lutheran church sometimes also uses the term this way. However, the Lutheran church also uses the term “Gospel” in a way that is to be contrasted with the “Law.”
Typically, when people use the term “Law,” they either think of secular laws, or they think of the Old Testament. Although “Law” can include those things, the Lutheran church speaks of two uses of the Law. Firstly, the Law guides our lives and teaches us how to live. The Law is summarized by Christ in this way: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:30-31). The Law includes the Ten Commandments, but also anything in scripture or in secular morality that aligns with the greatest commandment.
Secondly, “Law” is also used in a spiritual sense. In this sense, the “Law” refers to the proclamation of God’s judgment on human sin. In this sense, the Law has a terrifying effect and shows us our need of Christ. We don’t love as we ought; when we hear that truth in the light of God’s Law, it stings.
Sometimes scripture refers to God’s teaching and Word in ways that include both Law and Gospel, such as when the Psalms give thanks and praise for the whole Torah, or the first five books of the Bible. However, scripture also contrasts the Law and the Gospel. For example, Paul declares that people are now justified by faith in Jesus Christ “apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21-22), and John writes that “God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17).
When contrasted with the Law, the “Gospel” has a more narrow meaning. Whereas the Law teaches us how we ought to love others but don’t, the Gospel proclaims the love God has shown for us in Jesus Christ, Who has already accomplished everything needed. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). Strictly speaking, “Gospel” means “nothing else than a proclamation of comfort and a joyous message which does not rebuke nor terrify but comforts consciences against the terror of the law, directs them solely to Christ’s merit, and lifts them up again through the delightful proclamation of the grace and favor of God, won through Christ’s merit.”
A distinction in scripture between the law and the promises has been observed in the church at least since the rules of Tyconius as reported by St Augustine in the 4th century. Yet the theologians of Wittenberg considered this distinction between Law and Gospel to be “an especially glorious light, through which the Word of God, in accord with Paul’s admonition, is properly divided.” Apart from this distinction, people interpret the Bible in harmful ways that drive others into hypocrisy and despair. We need the Law, and yet nobody can fulfill it. “The very law that promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom 7:10). We can lie to ourselves and others by pretending that we’re doing great after all, or we can face the truth and admit that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. The Good News is that Christ has restored our relationship to God, taking our sin as his own and giving us his righteousness by faith alone.
Justification by Faith Alone
Another way of saying this is that the “Gospel,” strictly speaking, announces the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ. Luther and his colleagues considered this teaching so important that they referred to it as the teaching by which the church stands or falls. This is also known as “justification.”
The Lutheran teaching on justification states that a person is justified or made righteous before God by faith alone, apart from any work or striving on their part.
St Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22). As the Psalmist declares, “I will come praising the mighty deeds of the Lord God | I will praise your righteousness, yours alone” (Ps. 71:16). A person set free by such a wonderful message is filled with joy and does more good than morality or the Law could ever demand.
Where do we get this wonderful Gospel and its benefits? We get them in the church community, where the Word of the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered.
Word and Sacrament: God’s Means of Grace
People are “justified” when God simply declares them forgiven and righteous on account of Jesus Christ. This happens in church through the proclaimed Word of God and the administration of the Sacraments. Faith is not our choice; it isn’t something we work up in ourselves in an emotional or irrational leap. Rather, faith comes from hearing the Word of the gospel by the Holy Spirit (Jn 15:16; Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:1-3).
The simplest example of God’s justifying Gospel is absolution, where a minister or fellow Christian exercises Christ’s own authority to simply declare the forgiveness of sins to someone with a despairing conscience. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23 & Matt. 18:18; see also John 15:3). For Lutheran theology, to be absolved and to be justified mean the same thing (Formula of Concord, Ep., Art. 3). Justification also happens to us in baptism, in the preached Word of the sermon, and in the sacrament of holy communion. These teachings can be found in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (Art. 4 & 5), and throughout the rest of the Book of Concord, which contains the central teachings of the Lutheran church.
A person is considered completely just and righteous in God’s eyes by faith in Christ alone. While this teaching is very simple and profoundly liberating, it is also counter intuitive, and became clear for Luther and his colleagues in an historical and religious context that is difficult for us to understand today. While it was common since the time of the Reformation for Catholics and Lutherans to attack and condemn one another, our two churches have come to agree about most of the major issues at stake in Luther’s reforms. In fact, Lutherans and Catholics held a shared commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year. The fruits of decades of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue have been published in a document titled “From Conflict to Communion,” which can also be found on the Vatican’s website. The following description presumes this consensus and recognizes that medieval Catholicism is not fully represented by the things that Luther rejected. On the contrary, Luther understood himself as a catholic preacher and doctor of Bible who was simply exercising his duties to teach the Gospel faithfully and comfort despairing consciences.
In Luther’s day, one way of thinking about justification that was widespread at the time was that of Gabriel Biel. Luther describes this view and its effects at length in the Smalcald Articles of 1537. According to Gabriel Biel, a person’s original sin was wiped away at baptism, but after that baptism was of no use to a Christian. If a person committed a sin intentionally, such a sin was considered a mortal sin that took a person out of their baptismal grace. One then needed to use the system of penance to return to a state of grace. Gabriel Biel taught that a person began this process of returning to God’s grace by doing the little bit of good that was in them, with the belief that God would not deny grace to such a person who’s given a good effort.
Then the person needed to see the priest for the next step, to get the help of God’s grace to improve their own initial effort. They would confess their sins in order to have the eternal punishment for those sins removed by absolution, but a temporal punishment remained. So absolution did not really free a person in this complicated system. Such disciplines or penances could involve a certain number of Hail Mary’s, giving alms, good works for the poor, pilgrimages, and so forth, each for a certain amount of time. Such disciplines were seen as being needed to prove the validity and sincerity of a person’s original confession.
Yet these temporal punishments would accumulate and build up over time, to the point that no person could satisfy them all in one lifetime. This is why purgatory was needed, so a person could go to an intermediary realm to work off the rest of their temporal punishments in order to be purified. The other problem was that a person could never remember or know for sure all of their sins. In these ways, baptism was of no use, and confession and absolution were never certain and offered no comfort. Since people were taught that communion was holy and they needed to go through the penitential system before receiving it, most people did not commune. Finally, preaching increasingly came to focus on indulgences as a way to be set free from temporal punishments, rather than proclaiming the benefits of Christ crucified and risen. As a result, this system produced pride among many monastics, and widespread spiritual despair among the common people.
Is This Still Relevant For Us Today?
Yes! Granted, the problems of medieval Christianity are very far away from us. Luther was searching for a gracious God and felt overwhelmed by God’s wrath as people in his day always strove to be better but never reached the goal. Although today we tend to live our lives as if there were no God in the world, we can still relate right away to the feeling that what we do is never enough. The images of advertising in late consumer capitalism place before us an ideal self that always makes us feel inadequate or unworthy. Yet God’s justification of us by faith alone can cut through this system as well, so that we can know and feel ourselves valued and worthy on account Christ against a world that constantly tries to tell us otherwise.
I will conclude here with a presentation offered by Nadia Bolz-Weber at the ELCA National Youth Gathering in Houston (2018) that addresses this issue directly. She also gave an excellent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which can also be found below. Her message can help us to understand why justification by faith alone remains so relevant for us today.
 Formula of Concord, Ep., Art. 6, in Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 501.
 Ibid, 500.