The rush to judgment

…or the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel.

It has been more than a month since the Casey Anthony story occupied center stage. Immediately after the verdict, I posted the following on my personal blog. It deals with the emotional response of many, including Christians. But, more importantly, let’s use it as a starting point for the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel.

Let’s consider the sweep of emotions regarding the trial of Case Anthony. Notice that the trial was not for the purpose of determining who killed Caylee; rather the trial was to determine whether there was evidence that Casey killed her. I am rather surprised, almost shocked, at the responses to the Casey Anthony trail. More narrowly, my shock relates to Christians, some who have posted that they hope “Casey Anthony rots in hell” (and other assorted sentiments).

This is an appropriate time to step back a moment and consider how we as Christians can respond. When I teach the seminary class on Law and Gospel and when I teach this in congregations, I set before them a hypothetical situation to see what their responses as Christians will be. To do this here, I will set up the scenario and then see how this might suggest a response to what has happened in the Anthony case. Note: this is not a commentary on the verdict nor on any legal issue, but only a Christian perspective of the current status.


Law: tells us what to do and not do; threatens punishment when we fail to live up to the Law’s demands

Gospel: tells us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ

This seems rather straight forward and is relatively easy to take a Scriptural text and determine whether it is Law or Gospel. It only seems that way because it is not as straight forward as we would like. But for the purposes here, we will leave it as it is.

Law always:

Threatens punishment

Gospel always:

NEVER accuses, condemns, or threatens

Here is a simple diagram that I use to help understand each.

Law-Gospel Diagram


So how does this work in practice of properly applying each? Let’s look at two Biblical examples

Mark 10:17-21 NAS

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”

Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have atreasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

Some might be confused by the question, thinking that since it speaks about “eternal life” it must be a Gospel question. However, the question is a Law question: “what shall I do…” As such, Jesus answers with a Law answer: “Do these things…”

Acts 16:25–31 NAS

But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.

But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”

And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Sounds like almost the same situation. The question has an appearance of Gospel because it mentions “Saved”, but the question asked is “what must I do…” hence it is a Law question. We would expect Paul and Silas to reiterate the Law’s demands just as Jesus had done in Mark 10. Instead, it is the Gospel “believe in the Lord Jesus” (note that “believe” is an invitation that extends what it offers, much like a starving person is invited to eat).

So, why the difference? Looking back at the diagram, the man in Mark 10 is trying to achieve eternal life/salvation by what he can do, climbing the Law ladder. On the other hand, the Philippian jailer is at the bottom of the Law ladder with no hope (“about to kill himself”). Thus, the one climbing the Law ladder in Mark 10 expects the Gospel, but needs to hear the Law. The Philippian jailer expects the Law, but needs the Gospel.

Just from these two examples, it should become clear that we often are the least capable of determining what we need to hear. But it is also true that we often cannot determine what the other person needs. Let’s consider an example, keeping in mind Matthew 6:15 [Jesus said:] “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” What about a parent whose daughter was raped and murdered and the parent screams, “I will never forgive that man!!!!”

So, now the question is: does this parent need Law or Gospel? It’s amazing how the discussion will evolve, some very strongly advocating “Law!” And others equally vocal, “Gospel.” So what’s the correct answer? The answer is: We don’t know enough to determine whether the person needs Law or Gospel.

Now back to Casey Anthony. Regardless of the legal decision and questions about that, many are wanting to immediately proclaim Law to her, and not just Law, but God’s eternal judgment on her. My concern is the same as above: we don’t know enough to determine what she needs. We don’t even know if she committed those crimes.

So, as Christians, what can we do? Let’s pray that God raises up the right person to lovingly speak both Law and Gospel to her in a loving way, so that she might have a right relationship with God. Let’s pray that there are those who are not afraid to love her even when it seems impossible or when the general public opinion wants to cast her aside.


About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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One Response to The rush to judgment

  1. Good thoughts and insight Rich!

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