Law and Gospel
It has become increasingly common in Reformed circles, as it has long been in Lutheran circles, to say that the distinction between law and gospel is the key to sound theology, even to say that to differ with certain traditional formulations of this distinction is to deny the gospel itself.
Sometimes this argument employs Scripture passages like Rom. 3:21-31, emphasizing that we are saved by God's grace, through faith alone, apart from the works of the law. In my judgment, however, none of the parties to the debate questions that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. But it is one thing to distinguish between faith and works, a different thing to distinguish law and gospel.
1. The Traditional Distinction
The distinction between law and gospel is not a distinction between a false and a true way of salvation. Rather, it is a distinction between two messages, one that supposedly consists exclusively of commands, threats, and therefore terrors, the other that consists exclusively of promises and comforts. Although I believe that we are saved entirely by God's grace and not by works, I do not believe that there are two entirely different messages of God in Scripture, one exclusively of command (“law”) and the other exclusively of promise (“gospel”). In Scripture itself, commands and promises are typically found together. With God's promises come commands to repent of sin and believe the promise. The commands, typically, are not merely announcements of judgment, but God's gracious opportunities to repent of sin and believe in him. As the Psalmist says, “be gracious to me through your law,” Psm. 119:29.
The view that I oppose, which sharply separates the two messages, comes mainly out of Lutheran theology, though similar statements can be found in Calvin and in other Reformed writers.1 The Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord, at V, 5, recognizes that gospel is used in different senses in Scripture, and it cites Mark 1:15 and Acts 20:21 as passages in which gospel preaching “correctly” includes a command to repent of sin. But in section 6, it does something really strange. It says,
But when the Law and the Gospel are compared together, as well as Moses himself, the teacher of the Law, and Christ the teacher of the Gospel, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance, convicting of sins, but that it is properly nothing else than a certain most joyful message and preaching full of consolation, not convicting or terrifying, inasmuch as it comforts the conscience against the terrors of the Law, and bids it look at the merit of Christ alone...
I say this is strange, because the Formula gives no biblical support at all for this distinction, and what it says here about the "gospel" flatly contradicts what it conceded earlier in section 5. What it describes as “correct” in section five contradicts what it calls “proper” in section 6. What section 6 does is to suggest something “improper” about what it admits to be the biblical description of the content of gospel, as in Mark 1:15 and Acts 14:15.2 Mark 1:15 is correct, but not proper.
2. Law and Gospel in Scripture
I have been told that proper at this point in the Formula means, not “incorrect” or “wrong,” but simply “more common or usual.” I have, however, looked through the uses of the euaggel- terms in the NT, and I cannot find one instance in which the context excludes a demand for repentance (that is, a command of God, a law) as part of the gospel content. That is to say, I cannot find one instance of what the Formula calls the “proper” meaning of gospel, a message of pure comfort, without any suggestion of obligation. And there are important theological reasons why that use does not occur.
Essentially, the "gospel" in the NT is the good news that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus (Matt. 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:14, Luke 4:43, Acts 20:24f).3 "Kingdom" is (1) God's sovereign power, (2) his sovereign authority, and (3) his coming into history to defeat Satan and bring about salvation with all its consequences.4 God's kingdom power includes all his mighty acts in history, especially including the Resurrection of Christ.
God's kingdom authority is the reiteration of his commandments. When the kingdom appears in power, it is time for people to repent. They must obey (hupakouo) the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8, compare apeitheo in 1 Pet. 4:17). The gospel itself requires a certain kind of conduct (Acts 14:15, Gal. 2:14, Phil. 1:27; cf. Rom 2:16).
When God comes into history, he brings his power and authority to bear on his creatures. In kingdom power, he establishes peace. So NT writers frequently refer to the “gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15; cf. Acts 10:36, Rom. 10:15), sometimes referring to the “mystery” of God bringing Gentiles and Jews together in one body (Rom. 16:25, Eph. 6:19).
It is this whole complex: God's power to save, the reiteration of God's commands, and his coming into history to execute his plan, that is the gospel. It is good news to know that God is bringing his good plans to fruition.
Consider Isa. 52:7, one of the most important background passages for the New Testament concept of gospel:
How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
Who publishes salvation,
Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (ESV)
It is the reign of God that is good news, news that ensures peace and salvation. Even the demand for repentance is good news, because in context it implies that God, though coming in power to claim his rights, is willing to forgive for Christ's sake.
So gospel includes law in an important sense: God's kingdom authority, his demand to repent. Even on the view of those most committed to the law/gospel distinction, the gospel includes a command to believe. We tend to think of that command as in a different class from the commands of the decalogue. But that too is a command, after all. Generically it is law. And, like the decalogue, that law can be terrifying to someone who wants to trust only on his own resources, rather than resting on the mercy of another. And the demand of faith includes other requirements: the conduct becoming the gospel that I mentioned earlier. Faith itself works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without good works (James 2:17).
Having faith does not merit salvation for anyone, any more than any other human act merits salvation. Thus we speak of faith, not as the ground of salvation, but as the instrument. Faith saves, not because it merits salvation, but because it reaches out to receive God's grace in Christ. Nevertheless, faith is an obligation, and in that respect the command to believe is like other divine commands. So it is impossible to say that command, or law, is excluded from the message of the gospel.
It is also true that law includes gospel. God gives his law as part of a covenant, and that covenant is a gift of God's grace. The decalogue begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Only after proclaiming his saving grace does God then issue his commands to Israel. So the decalogue as a whole has the function of offering Israel a new way of life, conferred by grace (cf. Deut. 7:7-8, 9:4-6). Is the decalogue “law” or “gospel?” Surely it is both. Israel was terrified upon hearing it, to be sure (Ex. 20:18-21). But in fact it offers blessing (note verse 6) and promise (verse 12). Moses and the Prophets are sufficient to keep sinners from perishing in Hell (Matt. 16:31).
So the definitions that sharply separate law and gospel break down on careful analysis. In both law and gospel, then, God proclaims his saving work, and he demands that his people respond by obeying his commands. The terms “law” and “gospel” differ in emphasis, but they overlap and intersect. They present the whole Word of God from different perspectives. Indeed, we can say that our Bible as a whole is both law (because as a whole it speaks with divine authority and requires belief) and gospel (because as a whole it is good news to fallen creatures). Each concept is meaningless apart from the other. Each implies the other.
The law often brings terror, to be sure. Israel was frightened by the Sinai display of God's wrath against sin (Ex. 20:18-21). But it also brings delight to the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2; compare 119:34-36, 47, 92, 93, 97, 130, 131, Rom. 7:22). Similarly, the gospel brings comfort and joy; but (as less often noted in the theological literature) it also brings condemnation. Paul says that his gospel preaching is, to those who perish, “a fragrance from death to death” and, to those who believe, “a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16; compare 1 Cor. 1:18, 23, 27-29, 2 Cor. 4:3-4, Rom. 9:32). The gospel is good news to those who believe. But to those who are intent on saving themselves by their own righteousness, it is bad news. It is God's condemnation upon them, a rock of offense.
3. Which Comes First?
In discussions of law and gospel, one commonly hears that it is important, not only to preach both law and gospel, but also to preach the law first and the gospel second. We are told that people must be frightened by the law before they can be driven to seek salvation in Christ. Certainly there is a great need to preach God's standards, man's disobedience, and God's wrath against sin, especially in an age such as ours where people think God will let them behave as they like. And very often people have been driven to their knees in repentance when the Spirit has convicted them of their transgressions of law.
But as we have seen, it is really impossible truly to present law without gospel or gospel without law, though various relative emphases are possible. And among those relative emphases, the biblical pattern tends to put the gospel first. That is the pattern of the decalogue, as we have seen: God proclaims that he has redeemed his people (gospel), then asks them to behave as his covenant people (law). Since both gospel and law are aspects of God's covenants, that pattern pervades Scripture.
Jesus reflects that pattern in his own evangelism. In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water, that will take away all thirst. Only after offering that gift does he proclaim the law to her, exposing her adultery. Some have cited Luke 18:18�30 as an example of the contrary order: Jesus expounds the commandments, and only afterward tells the rich ruler to follow him. But in this passage Jesus does not use the law alone to terrorize the man or to plunge him into despair. The man does go sadly away only after Jesus has called him to discipleship, which, though itself a command, is the gospel of this passage.
4. The “New Perspective” and Paul's Gospel
Since the apostle Paul is most often in the forefront in discussions of the meaning of gospel, something should perhaps be said here about the “new perspective on Paul” in recent scholarship, based on writings of Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and others. In that perspective, the problem with Judaism, according to Paul, was not works righteousness, but its failure to accept God's new covenant in Christ which embraced Gentiles as well as Jews. On this perspective, Paul's gospel is not an answer to the troubled conscience of someone who can't meet God's demands. Rather, it is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham to bless all nations. The “works of the law” against which Paul contends are not man's attempts to satisfy God's moral law, but the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles such as circumcision, food laws, and cleansings.
Discussions of this new perspective are very complex, entering into details about the nature of Palestinian Judaism at the time of Paul, Paul's own history, and the exegesis of crucial texts. I cannot enter this controversy in a short paper. I do agree with those who believe that Sanders and others have been too selective in their references to Palestinian Judaism, and I believe that the new perspective fails to deal adequately with a number of Pauline passages, such as Rom. 4:4-5, 11:6, Eph. 2:8-10, Phil. 3:9, which make plain that Paul is rejects, not only legal barriers between Jew and Gentile, but also all attempts of people to save themselves by their works. Luther's doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide are fully scriptural and fully Pauline.5
But the new perspective legitimately warns us against reducing Paul's gospel to soteric justification by faith. Paul's confrontation with the Jews was on several fronts. And his gospel deals with a number of different issues, as my earlier discussion also implies.
5. Legitimate Use of the Traditional Distinction
Now if people want to define gospel more narrowly for a specific theological purpose, I won't object too strongly. Scripture does not give us a glossary of English usage. A number of technical theological terms don't mean exactly what similar terms sometimes mean in the Bible. Regeneration and election are examples, as is covenant.6 We can define our English terms pretty much as we like, as long as those definitions don't create confusion in our readers.
Over the years, we have come to think of gospel as correlative with faith and law as correlative with works. In this usage, law is what condemns and gospel is what saves. Although this distinction differs from the biblical uses of the terms, it does become useful in some contexts. For example, we all know a type of preaching that merely expounds moral obligations (as we usually think of them: don't kill, don't steal) and does not give its hearers the knowledge of Christ they need to have in order to be saved. That kind of preaching (especially when it is not balanced by other preaching emphases) we often describe as a preaching of mere law, legalism, or moralism. There is no good news in it. So, we are inclined to say, it is not preaching of the gospel. So in this general way we come to distinguish the preaching of law from the preaching of gospel. That is, I think, the main concern of the Formula: to remind us that we need to do both things.
We should be reminded of course that there is also an opposite extreme: preaching “gospel” in such a way as to suggest that Christ makes no demands on one's life. We call that “cheap grace” or “easy believism.” We might also call it preaching “gospel without law.” Taken to an extreme, it is antinomianism, the rejection of God's law. The traditional law/gospel distinction is not itself antinomian, but those who hold it tend to be more sensitive to the dangers of legalism than to the dangers of antinomianism.
Such considerations may lead us to distinguish in a rough-and-ready way between preaching of the law and preaching of the gospel. Of course, even in making that distinction, our intention ought to be to bring these together. None of these considerations requires us to posit a sharp distinction. And certainly, this rough-and-ready distinction should never be used to cast doubt on the integration of command and promise that pervades the Scriptures themselves.
It should be evident that “legalist” preaching as described above is not true preaching of law, any more than it is true preaching of the gospel. For as I indicated earlier, law itself in Scripture comes to us wrapped in grace.
6. Law/Gospel and the Christian Life
The Formula's distinction between law and gospel has unfortunate consequences for the Christian life. The document does warrant preaching of the law to the regenerate,7 but only as threat and terror, to drive them to Christ Epitome, VI, 4. There is nothing here about the law as the delight of the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2; compare 119:34-36, 47, 92, 93, 97, 130, 131, Rom. 7:22).
The Formula then goes on to say that believers do conform to the law under the influence of the Spirit, but only as follows:
Fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works which the Spirit of God who dwells in believers works through the regenerate, and which are done by believers so far as they are regenerate [spontaneously and freely], as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward; for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7, 25; 8, 7; Rom. 8, 2; Gal. 6, 2. (Epitome, VI, 5).
So the law may threaten us to drive us to Christ. But truly good works are never motivated by any command, threat or reward.
In my view, this teaching is simply unbiblical. It suggests that when you do something in obedience to a divine command, threat, or promise of reward, it is to that extent tainted, unrighteous, something less than a truly good work. I agree that our best works are tainted by sin, but certainly not for this reason. When Scripture presents us with a command, obedience to that command is a righteous action. Indeed, our righteousness is measured by our obedience to God's commands. When God threatens punishment, and we turn from wickedness to do what he asks, that is not a sin, but a righteous response. When God promises reward, it is a good thing for us to embrace that reward.
The notion that we should conduct our lives completely apart from the admonitions of God's word is a terrible notion. To ignore God's revelation of his righteousness is, indeed, essentially sinful. To read Scripture, but refuse to allow its commands to influence one's conduct, is the essence of sin.
And what, then, does motivate good works, if not the commands, threats, and promises of reward in Scripture? The Formula doesn't say. What it suggests is that the Spirit simply brings about obedience from within us. I believe the Spirit does exactly that. But the Formula seems to assume that the Spirit works that way without any decision on our part to act according to the commands of God. That I think is wrong. “Quietism” is the view that Christians should be entirely passive, waiting for the Spirit of God to act in them. This view of the Christian life is unbiblical. The Christian life is a battle, a race. It requires decision and effort. I am not saying that the Formula is quietist (Lutheranism rejected quietism after some controversy in its ranks), but as we read the position of the Formula, it does seem that quietism lies around the corner from it.
7. The Objective and the Subjective
Part of the motivation for this view of the Christian life, I believe, is the thought that one's life should be based on something objective, rather than something subjective. On this view, our life is built on what Christ has done for us, objectively in history, not on anything arising from our own subjectivity or inwardness. So in this view, gospel is a recitation of what God has done for us, not a command to provoke our subjective response.
This understanding focuses on justification: God regards us as objectively righteous for Christ's sake, apart from anything in us. But it tends to neglect regeneration and sanctification: that God does work real subjective changes in the justified.
I have no quarrel with this understanding of justification. But in Scripture, though justification is based on the work of Christ external to us, it is embraced by faith, which is subjective. And faith, in turn, is the result of the Spirit's subjective work of regeneration (John 3:3).8 So nobody is objectively justified who has not been subjectively changed by God's grace.
So the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.2, even in speaking of assurance of salvation, refers not only to the truth of God's promises (objective), but also to the “inward evidence of those graces” and “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption,” which are in some measure subjective.
In fact, we cannot separate the objective and the subjective. Objective truths are subjectively apprehended. We cannot have objective knowledge, confidence, or assurance, unless we are subjectively enabled to perceive what God has objectively given us.
8. The Two Kingdoms
We should also note the “two kingdoms” view of Christ and culture, that draws on the sharp distinction between law and gospel.9 In general, that view states that there are two kingdoms of God, one, as Luther put it, the kingdom of God's left hand, the other the kingdom of his right hand. The former is secular, the latter sacred. In the former, God rules by law, in the latter, by his word and Spirit.
The problem is that the two-kingdom doctrine claims a duality, not only between law and gospel as such, but also in God's standards, his norms. There are secular values and religious values, secular norms and religious norms. Secular society is responsible only to natural laws, the morality found in nature. So, Gene Veith says, “morality is not a matter of religion.”10 The church is subject primarily to the gospel, but in a secondary sense (as we have seen above) subject to both law and gospel, the whole content of the word of God. Therefore, although the Christian can participate in the general culture, he should not seek to Christianize it, to turn it into a Christian culture. There is no such thing as a Christian culture; there is only secular culture, and a Christian church. Nor, of course, should he try to bring secular standards into the church: secular music, for instance.11
It is true that we should not try to force unregenerate people to become Christians through civil power. The church does not have the power of the sword. Nevertheless, there are not two sets of divine norms for civil society, only one. And those norms are in the Bible. Morality is most emphatically a matter of religion. The unregenerate have some knowledge of God's law through natural revelation (Rom. 1:32), but believers see that law more clearly through the spectacles of Scripture. The biblical view of civil government does not require us to force unbelievers to behave as Christians in every way, but it does call upon us to restrain their (and our!) sin in certain areas. We should be active in society to promote those godly standards.12
The sharp distinction between law and gospel is becoming popular in Reformed, as well as Lutheran circles. It is the view of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Modern Reformation magazine, and the White Horse Inn radio broadcast. The leaders of these organizations are very insistent that theirs is the only biblical view of the matter. One has recently claimed that people who hold a different view repudiate the Reformation and even deny the gospel itself. On that view, we must use the term gospel only in what the Formula calls the “proper” sense, not in the biblical sense. I believe that we should stand with the Scriptures against this tradition.
1. Lutheran theologians, however, frequently complain that Reformed theology “confuses” law and gospel, which is in the Lutheran view a grave error. The main difference is that for the Reformed law is not merely an accuser, but also a message of divine comfort, a delight of the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2). Also, the Reformed generally do not give the law/gospel distinction as much prominence within their systematic theological formulations. And, historically, they have been more open to the broader biblical language which the Lutheran Formula of Concord calls “correct” but not “proper” (see below).
2. The passage cited by the formula, Acts 20:21, does not use the euaggello root, the usual term for “gospel” and “gospel preaching,” but the term diamarturomai. But Acts 20:21 is nevertheless significant, since it gives a general description of what Paul did in his preaching to “both Jews and Greeks.” That preaching was certainly gospel preaching. Paul resolved in his preaching to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” Luke 24:47 is also significant, for it includes both repentance and forgiveness of sins as the content Jesus gives his disciples to preach (kerusso) to all nations.
3. N. T. Wright believes that this use of gospel has a double root: “On the one hand, the gospel Paul preached was the fulfillment of the message of Isaiah 40 and 52, the message of comfort for Israel and of hope for the whole world, because YHWH, the god of Israel, was returning to Zion to judge and redeem. On the other hand, in the context into which Paul was speaking, "gospel" would mean the celebration of the accession, or birth, of a king or emperor. Though no doubt petty kingdoms might use the word for themselves, in Paul's world the main ‘gospel' was the news of, or the celebration of, Caesar,” “Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire,” available here. Of course both of these uses focus on the rule of God as Lord, and both involve what is traditionally called law.
4. This a triad of the sort expounded in my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publications, 1987), Doctrine of God (forthcoming from the same publisher in 2002) and elsewhere.
5. Although I am critical of the general stance of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and their publication Modern Reformation on this issue, I would strongly recommend Kim Riddlebarger's essay, “Reformed Confessionalism and the ‘New Perspective' on Paul,” available at the Alliance web site, as an excellent introduction to this discussion. I fully endorse the conclusions of that article.
6. The phrases “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace” found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2-4 are not found anywhere in Scripture. Covenant in Scripture refers to particular historical relationships between God and his people, mediated by Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. “Covenant of grace” generalizes the common features of these historical covenants, seeing them as successive manifestations of God's redemptive Lordship. “Covenant of works” finds in God's relation to our first parents features identical to his later covenants with, of course, significant differences.
7. Theological literature speaks of three “uses of the law”: (1) to restrain sin in society, (2) to terrorize people in order to drive them to Christ, and (3) as a guide to believers. In Lutheranism (not in Reformed circles) there has been controversy over the third use, though the Formula affirms it. But in Lutheranism, it is often said that “the law always accuses.” So the third use is essentially the second use directed at believers, driving us to Christ again and again and away from our residual unbelief. Reformed writers do not deny our continual need for Christ and the importance of hearing again and again that we are saved only by his grace. But in Reformed theology, the law also plays a more direct role, giving us specific guidance in God's delightful paths.
8. So, again, saving faith works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without works (James 2:14-26).
9. See, for example, Gene Veith, “Christianity and Culture: God's Double Sovereignty,” from The Whirlpool (Jan.-Feb., 1997), available here.
11. There are, of course, reasons to criticize the use of secular music in the church other than the two-kingdoms concept. But if that concept is rejected, then the distinction between sacred and secular is relativized somewhat, and one must evaluate “secular” music piece-by-piece, rather than as a general category.
12. In terms of the categories of H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture (NY: Harper, 1951), we should be “transformationalists,” not “dualists.”
Topics: Biblical Law, Reformed Thought, Theology