Law and Gospel in the Classroom

The Lutheran school system is a strange place, theologically speaking. It stands in the gap between a world of rules and a world of forgiveness. Following the scriptural insights of Martin Luther, we understand that God governs our culture according to what are traditionally referred to as the two kingdoms.

The Two Kingdoms and the Two School Systems

On one hand, God is sovereign over governments, establishing rulers and dominions for the purpose of maintaining justice, establishing the peace, and protecting the innocent. On the other hand, the Lord is also sovereign over the Church, exercising grace and forgiveness through the proclamation of His Word and the faithful administration of His Holy Sacraments.

Although the public school system, as an arm of government, is clearly situated in the “kingdom of the left,” the Lutheran school system is that strange place that functions in many ways like a public school system—forming citizens and preparing them for fruitful vocations in the world. However, the Lutheran school system is an outreach of the Church—operating in the realm of the right, dispensing grace. Perched perilously between exercising the functions of the left-hand kingdom while proclaiming the grace of the right-hand kingdom, Lutheran schools can seem a bit paradoxical at times.

Knowing What to Do as a Teacher

This odd balancing act of knowing when, and how, to apply Law and Gospel in the lives of one’s charges is a difficult task. C. F. W. Walther once remarked that distinguishing when to apply Law and when to apply the Gospel is the most difficult task of the theologian—one that is never fully mastered (Thesis 3, Law & Gospel). I contend the same is true of the Lutheran school teacher.

On one hand, teachers who attempt to rule over the classroom with grace will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by a hoard of sinful charges emboldened in their escapades, as they find consequences negated in the name of sharing Christ. On the other hand, teachers who maintain strict discipline over infractions are rewarded with orderly classrooms but risk missing those moments where “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). It is in those moments that the Gospel becomes more effective in thwarting the sinfulness of the old Adam, covering it with a forgiveness that transforms the heart as the power of the cross is brought to life for that student.

So how does a teacher decipher when and how to apply the Law to a wayward student or the Gospel to a broken one? I’m still haunted by the memory of when, during my first year of teaching, I caught students cheating and dropped the legal hammer. As one student stood before me in tears, I missed the obvious cue that there was need for forgiveness. Sometimes, the cues aren’t so obvious. I’ve come to learn that the key is to distinguish between behavior and relationship.

Behavior vs. Relationship

Where sinful behavior manifests, the Law must be applied respectfully, but consequentially. The Gospel does not mitigate temporal punishment. When a student receives a behavioral “check mark” or a “pink slip,” the check mark remains for the prescribed time. One does not simply erase the consequences of the infraction because the child has better behavior an hour later. This is actually a misapplication of grace—teaching that one can merit release from the consequence of sin through “good behavior.”

Grace, then, is not applied to the behavior of the student, but to the relationship with the student. Grace shows compassion through the consequences and punishment for misbehavior. Compassion literally means “to suffer with” someone; therefore, compassion does not negate the consequences or punishment but restores relationship. Grace treats sinful behavior for what it is—evil. Evil is never excused or ignored; rather, students are reminded that their identity is not bound up in what has occurred but in who they are—loved by Christ, and by proxy, their teacher.

The Lutheran school system is a place that must maintain discipline as it seeks to form citizens, not only for the kingdom of left but also for our everyday world of laws and careers. It is nonetheless also a place where the primary purpose is to proclaim the Gospel, forgiving sinners who encounter Christ and thus are transformed by the grace that graduates into a fallen world where they may pass on the compassion they, too, have received.

Learn more about how to bring Law and Gospel into your classroom by ordering Discipline in Christian Classrooms below. 

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Written by

Joe Cox

Rev. Joe Cox serves as the head of the English department at Lutheran High School South in St. Louis, Missouri. He also coaches the school’s mock trial teams. Joe is married to Barb Cox, and they have two adult children, Caleb and Megan. In his free time, Joe enjoys playing board games and traveling.

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