“We must know what the law is, and what the gospel is. The law commands and requires us to do certain things…. The gospel sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law…and says, ‘This is what God has done for you.’” –Martin Luther (LW, AE, vo. 35, p. 162)
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted “Law and Grace” in 1529, supposedly under the direction of Martin Luther himself. It has been hailed as one of the most influential images of the Reformation because of its clear proclamation of Justification by Faith. It serves as a powerful sermon of the Reformation preached in paint form.
On the left half, one sees images of pain and despair, which result from the breaking of God’s Law. At the top, Christ is seated upon the globe as the righteous judge of the world. He observes as Adam and Eve fall into sin. He oversees the discipline of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness. Moses and the prophets are standing at the trunk of the tree pointing the sinful man to the commandments. The man knows that God’s Law condemns him and throws his hands up in despair as Death and the Devil drive him toward the fires of hell. It is a bleak and frightening scene. There is no hope or life in the Law—emphasized by the dead tree branches overhanging the scene.
But great comfort is found for the viewer as he beholds the scene on the right! The branches of the tree are filled with leaves and life. In the background, the angels are bringing the Christmas Gospel to the shepherds in the fields. John the Baptist is pointing the man to Christ, whose blood is streaming forth with a dove, symbolizing the power of the Holy Spirit, to cover the man with Christ’s righteousness. Above the open and empty tomb, the risen Christ holds a victory banner and points the viewers to the victory that they now have waiting for them in Heaven. Below the Cross, a meek lamb, also holding the banner of victory, tramples upon a defeated Death and the Devil.
The boxes at the bottom of the painting include descriptions of the image and Scripture references that help to explain and distinguish between the Law and the Gospel. It is a painting that was not meant to be interpreted in different ways, but in one clear way: That salvation does not come through the Law, but from the Good News of God’s grace for us found in Christ.
Reverend Luke Ulrich
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church & School