Reformed Theology

Law & Gospel

One of my favorite books.

Two of the things that have really helped me grow up spiritually in the last few years have been coming to an understanding of covenant theology as a framework for interpreting the Old Testament, and a right understanding of the relationship of Law and Gospel. Before I discuss matters of Social Justice (in an upcoming post), I’m going to talk about Law and Gospel, because I need to emphasize the importance of the gospel before I discuss our appropriate and active response.

The White Horse Inn radio broadcast has a panel of hosts, two of whom are Reformed from Westminster Seminary California, one of whom is a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, and the other is Reformed Baptist. Though differing slightly on some matters, they all have roots in the Reformation and so have much in common, and one of the things I really appreciate that they stress on the program is the importance of distinguishing between Law and Gospel. There’s a Lutheran book by the same name, by C.F.W. Walther. (I like this book so much I would even consider going to a LCMS church if it weren’t for the fact that they take a hardline stance for literal 7-day young-earth creationism.)

Luther himself wrote, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” I believe that when Scripture speaks of “rightly dividing” the word, it’s talking about knowing the difference between Law and Gospel, and how each should be applied.

The Law and the Gospel are different, and they ought not be confused. Zacharias Ursinus wrote,

Q. What is the difference between the Law and the Gospel?
A.The Law contains the Covenant of nature established by God with man in creation; that means, it is known by man from nature, it requires perfect obedience of us to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it but threatens eternal punishment to those who do not. The Gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace; that means, although it exists, it is not known at all from nature; it shows us Christ’s fulfillment of that righteousness which the law requires and its restoration in us through Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely on account of Christ to those who believe in him. (Ursinus’s Larger Catechism, question and answer 36)

And Louis Berkhof wrote,

The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ. And each one of these two parts has its own proper function in the economy of grace. (Systematic Theology, 612)

The letter kills, as Paul told us. But the Spirit gives life through regeneration purchased by Christ, and this is good news!

So many churches get these concepts confused. For example, what Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words…”—it doesn’t work. Human’s are simply incapable of performing the gospel in their lives. The gospel by definition is what Jesus performed on our behalf once for all 2,000 years ago when he died on the cross for the sins of humanity. Other misuses of the term include the “social gospel”, or the “Do-Better Gospel”… there’s no such thing. Gospel is objective, and historical; it’s “good news” (literally) that we need to hear because we’re lost. We can “do justice” and “do mercy” and so as image-bearers reflect the heart of God towards others created in the image of God, as we live out of gratitude for what he’s done for us in the humiliation of the incarnation and crucifixion. But the gospel is 100% something that we could never do, for only Jesus could have done what he did for us when he bore our sins “outside the camp”. If every sermon you hear at church is a list of things to do (i.e. “application”), then you’re not hearing the gospel when you go to church, you’re hearing law. (The gospel is something that needs to be applied to our sinful hearts, but it’s not we who do the application. Most Christians use that word to describe things we need to do.)

C.H. Spurgeon said, “We are not under the law as the method of salvation, but we delight to see the law in the hand of Christ, and desire to obey the Lord in all things.” Unlike antinomians or dispensationalists, we still see the law as relevant. But there is a big difference between the moral law given to Adam and summarized in the 10 commandments that apply to all people, and the peculiar ceremonial laws which set the nation of Israel apart from the Canaanites in order to preserve a bloodline for Christ. These peculiar laws include laws about tattoos, tassels, cheeseburgers, mixing fabrics and how you should shave… even tithing was a temporal ceremonial law established as a temple tax to support the Levitical priestly system. These were all fulfilled in Christ, who established a New Covenant in which his blood atones for the sins of the world.

But the moral law is revealed to all. It’s sometimes called natural law, since it’s obvious and in the consciences of all people, though we are corrupt and resist it, even to the point where Paul didn’t see covetousness as wrong until the law came along and illumined the darkness in his heart.

Calvin and Luther both worked to formulate for us some statements on the right use of the law. They differ very slightly from each other, but they can be generally summarized as follows:

  • The law convicts sinners and points them to their need for Christ. It also points believers to their continuing need for Christ.
  • In establishing rules, the law protects people, as laws like “Do not murder,” and “Do not steal” are enforced by the magistrate.
  • Third, the law reveals God’s will to us, operating as a guide for our continuing sanctification, helping us to discern the will of God and what kind of choices we should make in the world for the sake of righteousness.

Our obedience to the law issues out of thankfulness for what the Lord has done for us in terms of covering our inability to obey. Obedience brings no glory to people, since it’s God who enables us to obey and gives us the will to obey. Obedience is an expression of our love (“If you love me, keep my commands.”, John 14:15, NIV), but it does not equate to it (“If I give all I possess to the poor … but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Cor. 13:3, NIV).

In an essay called “The Church of the Last Stop”, Pastor Greg Cootsona says that for a significant number of Christians who come to Bidwell Pres from other churches, the reason they make the move is because they are burned out by an overemphasis on law (legalism) and aren’t getting enough of the gospel in their sermons and Bible studies (14). Bidwell Pres endeavors to make sermons understandable to anyone who may walk in off the street. As the pastors say, “We’re here for those who aren’t here yet.” And so, every sermon is saturated with the gospel, it’s not just an afterthought tagged on at the end before the “altar call” (Presbyterians don’t do altar calls, by the way).

The common assumption among Evangelicals which leads to law-saturated preaching is that the gospel is only needed to get you into heaven’s door, and after that you just need to hear about how to live the Christian life. But even believers need to hear the gospel preached to them every week. This is what the Reformed mean by the “means of grace.” By saturating worship services with word and sacrament, it’s all in your face, and you come to live and breathe it. This is the “growing deep” part of our mission statement. We want to put down deep roots into what Jesus did for us before we can grow up and out and shine his light into the community and the world.


One thought on “Law & Gospel

  1. Pingback: I Have Issues With… | I must follow, if I can

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