A Law and Gospel Primer

We Lutherans are not often looked to by other traditions for our contribution to youth ministry. Sure, our National Youth Gatherings are second to none, but when looking for ministry resources, we are not in many conversations. This is unfortunate because through our understanding of Law and Gospel, our theological tradition is a rich heritage that provides key tools, which not only distinguish a particularly Lutheran approach to the catechesis, discipleship, and spiritual formation for our young people, but also can offer the larger world of youth ministry essential tools to understanding how to approach the spiritual care of the youth in their churches.

Stop for a moment and think: when was the last time someone recommended that you read C. F. W. Walther (founding president of the LCMS) to gain a practical understanding of youth ministry? Has that even happened to you? If so, you have been truly and richly blessed. Though we don’t often think of Walther as a resource for youth ministry, his work is essential to a Lutheran approach to our work. Walther had a keen mind, especially for rightly dividing and understanding Scripture. While Luther was clear in his teaching on the work of the Law and the Gospel in our lives, it was Walther who expounded upon this distinction and provided a keenly perceptive road map for the pastoral care of young and old alike.

What is Law and Gospel?

Put simply, all of Scripture can be divided into two categories. There is either Law or Gospel to be found, or some combination of the two working in tandem with one another within each passage of the Bible. There is plenty of Law in both the Old and New Testaments and likewise plenty of Gospel in both as well. There is also a rather simple way to identify which are to be found in any given passage. If what you are reading is telling you something that you need to do, then this is a statement of Law. The Law is a demand upon us. It is an imperative demanding our action. The Gospel on the other hand can be seen in statements that tell us about what God in Christ Jesus has done on our behalf. The Gospel is that which is done for us.

Law and Gospel work together, doing very different things our lives. They are always to be distinguished, yet never to be separated. What this means is that we are to seek to apply both Law and Gospel in our teaching and in the manner in which we care for the youth in our ministries, making sure to know when to apply the Law and when to apply the Gospel. So, how do we know which to apply when?

Applying Law and Gospel

The work of the Law is to reveal to us the impact that sin has upon us. In Romans 7, Paul discusses how it was the Law that showed him his sin. When God presented the Israelites with the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai and the subsequent times in which God’s people rediscovered the demands that the Law placed upon them, their natural reaction was to despair. The Law convicts. The Law should move us to an understanding of our failing and our dangerous standing before a holy and righteous God.

The work of the Gospel, then, is to restore and to build us up. When we hear the Gospel in classic passages like John 3:16 and Romans 3:24, our natural response is to rejoice. In our sin, we can do nothing to please God and restore our relationship with Him. In Christ, that restoration has already been achieved. As a free gift, we have been made into a new creation. The old is gone. Our sin no longer burdens us. We are no longer its slave. We are now free to live lives pleasing to God.

How are we to rightly use Law and Gospel in youth ministry?

How, then, do we get the two confused in the practice of our ministry to youth? Walther’s 8th thesis reminds us that we are not rightly dividing the Word of God, when we bring the Law to bear on someone already broken and in terror over their sins. They need to hear the joyous, sweet words of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not more condemnation.

As a practical example, some years ago a 16-year-old girl came to the church I was serving as DCE for a Wednesday, evening Lent service. With her was her 3-year-old son. Our great youth ministry volunteers noticed her and made sure to introduce themselves and get to know her. She was nervous. She had been a part of a church before having her son and had been driven out when she became pregnant. Having this as her last experience with the church, she had taken a risk just coming to church that night. The suggestion that she talk to me was almost too much. She was afraid that from me she would hear more judgement, more condemnation.

The volunteer introduced her to me and told me a bit of her story. As I got to know her that evening, I was struck by her need to hear, not more Law to ensure that she understood her sin, but rather her need to hear the Gospel. More specifically, that she hear that the Gospel is a message for her. In the coming months, she attended the youth group and we were blessed to be able to embody the message of the Gospel for her.

As youth workers, when we are confronted with youth who have been struggling with sin, it is our role to attempt to determine whether comfort or rebuke is necessary. Both play a part in the life of a follower of Christ. Both are essential tools to have in a youth worker’s tool kit. However just like with any tool, one must know which to employ when.

Had I focused on the sin of having a child out of wedlock, I would have missed giving the freeing and forgiving words of Christ to this young woman. The Law had already worked to crush her. I was not called to crush her further just because I had not personally delivered that message of condemnation to her. This is however what she expected to have happen. She was afraid to be at church that night because she had been condemned for her sin at her former church.

To someone crushed by the Law, the Gospel is a truly sweet respite from the burden of sin. Walther encourages pastors, and by extension youth workers, to err on the side of bringing the restoring Word of the Gospel. When in doubt, we are to rely upon and present the liberating Words of forgiveness in Christ.

We must always keep in mind that the Law is not what restores any of us to a right relationship with God. That is the work of the Gospel. Thus, that is where we want to get. We want to bring the Law to bear, and in so doing to prepare those youth we are called to shepherd to drink in the sweetness of the Gospel. Likewise, the Law is not to be used to encourage or scare youth into being more moral.

This is a regular temptation in youth ministry. Sadly, many parents desire that youth ministry in the local church focus on moral formation more that faith formation. More times than I would like to recall, I have had conversations with parents more concerned with avoiding negative moral influences, than with their children being empowered to share the Gospel in a youth ministry attracting those in desperate need to hear from their Savior.

As a parent myself, I get the concern. I can recall my parents struggling with my being close with one particular friend in middle and high school. From their perspective he was a possible negative influence. He was part of the youth group and his parents were active in church, but he was a wild character. His parents were thrilled to have me around, as I provided the positive influence they desired for their son.

Looking ahead to my own sons getting older, I know I will have to balance my desire to protect them, with my understanding as a long-time youth worker, that they can be a great influence and bear witness to Christ to those who need to see the Christian life lived in full enjoyment in their midst. We should want to have ministries that attract those who have yet to hear the Gospel. Yet when we apply the Law to those in our ministries, we must take care to avoid using the Law as a motivation for obedience.

Our Vocational Life in Christ’s Freeing Gospel

Neither the unregenerate, nor the faith-filled youth in our ministries will be properly cared for if we employ the Law in order to compel obedience. The Law may point out where we have sinned, but it cannot empower us to keep God’s commands. Rather, the Gospel frees us in Christ to respond in service to our fellow sinners out of gratitude, not obligation. As youth workers, we must take great care to avoid confusing what the Law is able to do with what the Gospel has been given to us to accomplish. If we confuse these two, we simply return the youth we just helped experience the freedom of the Gospel to a life of servitude of the Law. That is not the freedom in Christ that the Bible promises.

We cannot compel the unregenerate to behave more like Christ through the Law. Likewise, we cannot compel the follower of Christ to obey through the Law either. Rather we preach the Law to motivate both to realize that they are in need of forgiveness, because of what they cannot do, not to compel them to do anything themselves. It is rather the freedom of the Gospel’s announcement of what Christ has already done, that allows the youth in our care to take up various areas of service in the church and community to serve other children of God just as they have been served. Through the various vocations or callings that each of us are given, we, young and old, serve one another. As youth workers we serve not out of some obligation, but out of a love for teenagers as image bearers of God. Likewise, we bring the Gospel to bear in Christ to free the youth we care for to join us in service of Christ through service of those in His kingdom. What a fantastic tool to have in our tool kit! Thank you C. F. W.!

About the author

Dr. Dave Rueter has been in DCE Ministry for more than 20 years. He currently serves on staff at Our Savior, Livermore, CA. He is husband to Andrea and father to James and Wesley. Dave is the author of Teaching the Faith at Home and Called to Serve both from CPH.
View more from Dave

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