On the Law and the Gospel

Liberal theologians sometimes talk about “first” and “second order” doctrines. This distinction is an effort to create space between the explicit teaching of Scripture and the theological formulations that arise from our reflection upon Scripture. So for example, “Jesus is Lord” is a first order doctrine, while the doctrine of the Trinity as it finds expression in the Athanasian Creed or the definition of Chalcedon is “second-order.”

If we were to apply this generally unhelpful distinction to the doctrine of “Law and Gospel” we must say that such a distinction is “first order.” It is drawn from explicit statements of Scripture. It does not require the assistance of philosophy, nor does it invite metaphysical speculation. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28); “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6, et al).

Especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul we find that law-merit-works is continually set against grace-promise-faith. This contrast must mean something.

Before proceeding further it is helpful to note that the terms “law” and “gospel” are sometimes used in a wide and in a narrow sense. In the wide sense “law” often denotes the entire teaching of Scripture. In the wide sense “gospel” refers to all that God has revealed in Scripture concerning our salvation, which message begins with the threat of judgment (e.g. Rom 1:18).

It is the narrower, more theological sense of law and gospel that concern us when coming to grips with the Pauline theology. I suggest that Paul’s distinction between law and gospel is not one of continuum (e.g. a difference in emphasis), nor a dispensational difference (e.g. law, then gospel). Rather, the distinction is functional. The doctrinal contents of Scripture are made up of two doctrines fundamentally distinct from each other: the law and the gospel.

Having defined the distinction in this way I suggest that there are at least four ways in which the doctrine of the law and the gospel agree, and then at least four ways in which they are contrasted.

(1) First, they are both revelation from God. They do not originate in the minds of the creatures, but come from the creator. This point should not be controversial, but some suggest that Paul’s contrast of law with grace concerns human traditions and the legalistic miss-application of the law by the Pharisees. When Paul writes in 2 Cor 3:7-11 that the law is a “ministry of death” there is no suggestion that he refers to the “tradition of the elders” nor Pharisaic miss-interpretations of the law. Similarly in Rom 7 he writes that the law was “ordained to life” that it is “holy, righteous and good,” and that it is “spiritual” (10-14). But what was “ordained to life actually brought death” and it “produced death in me through what was good” for though the law is spiritual we are “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”

(2) Second, the law and the gospel agree in that they operate in concert with each other. The gospel saves from wrath (Rom 1:16-18) but there is no wrath where there is no law (Rom 4:15; 7:8-11). Paul’s words are plain: “the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). The law apart from the Gospel leads to despair (or self righteousness), while the gospel without the law is meaningless.

(3) Both the law and the Gospel contain the promise of life (Rom 7:10, Gal 3:11-12 et al). The former grants life by the doing and the latter by the believing (Rom 10:1-10).

(4) Fourth, they agree in that it is Christ’s obedience to the law of God that is the grounds of our salvation. Through the substitutionary death and resurrection, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us and our sins forgiven so that we stand before God in the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:12-21, Gal 4:4-5, etc.).

There are at least four was that the law and the gospel are contrasted

(1) They differ in the mode of their revelation. Although both the law and the gospel are revealed in Scripture, the law is also given through nature and inscribed on the heart of mankind (Rom 2:14-15). The gospel, on the other hand, comes only by special revelation (Rom 16:25-26). Any conflation of law and gospel has as its consequence the belief that this gospel-law is written on every heart, opening up a path of salvation for those who follow the light that is in them, but who have no knowledge of Christ.

(2) The law and the gospel differ in the contents of each. The law is summarized in the command to love your God and our neighbor with our whole being (Matt 22:37-40). But in the Gospel we believe in Christ our mediator who justifies those who are lawbreakers (Rom 4:5). In this sense faith excludes law and law excludes faith, for “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12); “for if inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on a promise” (Gal 3:18); “for you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom 6:14); “but if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom 11:6).

Again, some will object that Paul is speaking about the ceremonial law – the Old Covenant – when he is contrasting faith and grace? But examine the context. Paul writes that the law brings a curse for those who do not keep it fully (Gal 3:10). For the Jewish people this naturally included the ceremonial law, and circumcision had become the chief symbol of one’s consignment to that law. But how does this relate to Gentile Christians? Paul further teaches that Christ redeems us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13). This cannot mean simply that his atoning death simply freed us from the Mosaic ordinances. Christ redeemed us from the curse of God’s law when he was made sin on our behalf and suffered the full weight of God’s wrath that was due us, that we might have his righteousness imputed to our account, just as our sins were imputed to him (2 Cor 5:21).

When Paul speaks of the law as that by which sin is aroused and by which death receives its potency (Rom 7:5 ff), which condemns Jews and Gentiles alike (Rom 3:19-20), he cannot be speaking of ceremonies. Rather it is the law that states “you shall not steal” “you shall not commit adultery” (Rom 2:21-22) “you shall not covet” (Rom 7:7). It is the moral law summarily comprehended in the Decalogue; the same law that is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12).

(3) Third, the law and the gospel differ as to the conditions of their promises. The law says that those who perfectly fulfill its demands in toto will be justified (Matt 19:17; Rom 2:7-13; Gal 3:10, 12, Js 2:10). But the condition of the Gospel is that we believe in Jesus Christ and we will be justified apart from works of the law (Rom 3:38; 4:13-14; Gal 2:!6; Eph 2:8-9; Phil 3:9; Col 2:13-14; Tit 3:5). As Paul put it, these two ways constitute two types of righteousness: one of works, the other of faith (Rom 3:21-22; 10:1-10; 11:6)
John Calvin explains these two types of righteousness in his definition of Justification,

“He in whose life that purity and holiness will be found which deserves a testimony of righteousness before God’s throne will be said to be justified by works, or else he who, by the wholeness of his works, can meet and satisfy God’s judgment. On the contrary, justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man” (Inst 3.9.2).

In his commentary on Rom 10:6 and 9 Calvin writes:

“Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that the righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the law. Here is the reason why he so often opposes the promise to the law, as things mutually contradictory: “If the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise” [Gal 3:18]; and passages in the same chapter that express this idea.”
“Now, to be sure, the law itself has its own promises. Therefore, in the promises of the Gospel there must be something distinct and different unless we would admit that the comparison is inept. But what sort of difference will this be, other than that the gospel promises are free and dependent solely upon God’s mercy, while the promises of the law depend on the condition of works? And let no one here snarl at me that it is the righteousness which men, of their own strength and free will, would obtrude upon God that is rejected – inasmuch as Paul unequivocally teaches that the law, in commanding, profits nothing [cf. Rom. 8:3]. For there is no one, not only of the common folk, but of the most perfect persons, who can fulfill it.”

(4) Finally, the law and the gospel differ in their effects. The law “brings knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20), produces and excites sin (7:5, 8), is “the cause of death” (7:13), the “ministry of death” and of “condemnation” (2 Cor 3:7, 9). The Gospel, on the other hand, is the “ministry of righteousness,” of the Spirit and of Life, (2 Cor 3:9), and in it there is “no condemnation” (Rom 8:1).

Understanding the proper distinction between law and grace is fundamental to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Only a faith that clings to Christ alone sets us on firm ground. For not one or two good works are sufficient to justify, neither is every good work imperfectly done enough to put our consciences at rest. As the Belgic Confession rightly states, it is only when we refuse to consider any grounds of justice or love in ourselves and cling only to the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, “that is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach… In fact, if we had to appear before God relying – no matter how little on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up” (Article 23).

Those who suggest that we are justified through our faithful obedience or through love are teaching that the sinner is justified by works. The result from this way of thinking is that “we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Article 24). The law is a beautiful thing, for love is beautiful and love is the sum of the law. But even more beautiful is the free promise of forgiveness for lawbreakers, which Christ gives to us through faith in the gospel apart from works of the law.