Law and Gospel and the Imagination

Reading Time: 4 mins

When properly distinguishing law and gospel in the Word of God, it is important to use the God-given gift and abilities of the imagination as your ears.

Reading and hearing God’s Word is certainly an exercise for our ears, but also for our imagination. As we read God’s Word, we hear, see, and also picture in our minds the words God is giving us. When Jesus says, “I am the Vine and you are the branches,” an image of ripe grape vines ready for harvest may pop into our minds. When David writes that the “Lord is our Shepherd,” we can’t help but picture a shepherd with his sheep. When Paul says that we preach Christ crucified, the image of Jesus on the cross plays on the screen of our imagination. This of course, is no accident. God gives us imagery with his Word, so that our ears, hearts, minds, and imaginations are filled with his word of law and gospel everytime we hear and read it. 

In the prophet Jeremiah, God’s law is a hammer that breaks down; his word is like fire. Yet it is also as sweet as honey, as Jeremiah and Psalm 119 remind us. 

In the Psalms, we picture life in the shadow of death (Psalm 23) and yet are led by the Lord’s word that is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119).

In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah sings that the Lord kills and makes alive; he makes poor and he makes rich; be brings down and he exalts.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks in parables using imagery, and invites us to use our imaginations to picture his coming kingdom as a wedding feast, a man who buys a whole field for one precious pearl, or a woman who rejoices over a lost coin. 

And it’s hard to hear Jesus’ words without picturing medicine and the healing arts that we have received at the doctor’s visit or hospital visit: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13). 

Recently, the congregation I serve as pastor finished a study on C.F.W Walther’s book The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel. Beginning in 1884, Walther began giving a series of Friday evening lectures or talks on the distinction of law and gospel for his seminary students at Concordia Seminary. Notes from these evening lectures over the next year and a half or so were collected by his students and became the book we know of as Law and Gospel. In Walther’s evening lecture, he wrote twenty five theses defining and then properly distinguishing Law and Gospel when reading and studying the Scriptures. There are several memorable theses, especially the first, third, and fourth theses: 

1) “The doctrinal content of the Holy Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, consists of two doctrines that differ fundamentally from each other. These two doctrines are law and gospel.”

3)  “To rightly distinguish law and gospel is the most difficult and highest Christian art - and for the theologian in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

4) “Understanding how to distinguish law and gospel provides wonderful insight for understanding all of Holy Scripture correctly. In fact, without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.”

I like to imagine that if I were a student, sitting in Walther’s evening lectures, that I would ask him if he wouldn’t mind adding one more thesis on law and gospel. And if I was feeling rather bold, I would ask him to consider something that might go like this:  

When properly distinguishing law and gospel in the Word of God, it is important to use the God-given gift and abilities of the imagination as your ears. 

Words are an important and essential part of reading and hearing the Holy Scripture. God invites us to use our ears when reading and hearing his Word. And along with our ears, God also invites us to use our imagination, led by his Word that we might read, but also see his love more clearly in the Scriptures he has given to us. 

Listen and behold with the imagination as Isaiah showers the life-giving rains of God’s word upon you:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
  and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
  it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
  and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55)

Listen and see the birds of the air - the robins, chickadees, and sparrows - and know that you are of more value than these in Christ crucified and risen:

 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6)

Or listen and picture yourself with Israel beside Mt. Sinai, crushed and terrified at its thundering and lightning and the presence of a holy God. And then see and hear that you are numbered among those who are welcomed to the marriage supper of the Lamb at Mt. Zion where the blood of Christ speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 13).

And as you are reading or listening to God’s Word, ask yourself a few simple questions. What image or imagery is being used in this section of Scripture? What metaphors or figures of speech is God’s word delivering to my ears and my imagination? What pictures are the words of Law and Gospel forming in my mind as I listen and read? And then ask yourself are these images of the law or the gospel? How do they reveal my sin? How are these words showing Jesus saving me from sin? Finally, and most important of all, what do these words that fill my ears and imagination tell me about Jesus who is the very image of God in human flesh?

Wherever you read the Scriptures you will read God’s word of law and gospel. And wherever you read law and gospel, God also gives you images to fill your imagination with his word that reveals our sin and gives us the good news of forgiveness of sin.