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.

Romans 2:13 and the Covenant of Works

paulatdesk“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). This verse is among the most misinterpreted verses in the Bible. Some find in this verse the doctrine of justification by works plus faith, while others – rightly insisting that justification is by faith alone (Rom 3:28, et al.) – understand the Apostle to be speaking of works as the fruit of faith (i.e. justification is by faith alone, but that faith is never alone in the person justified.). Both approaches miss the Apostle Paul’s point entirely.

Properly interpreting this verse does not depend so much on the grammar as it does on the context and it illustrates how far afield we can go by viewing verses as mere proof-texts without proper consideration for their context. Paul is not here discussing the relationship of works and saving faith. He approaches this subject in chapters 6 and 7. His topic is the condemnation of the law and verse 13 does not represent a parenthetical comment on another subject, but it is rather the crux of the matter.

To understand Paul’s argument we must follow it from the beginning. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul states his purpose in giving a full presentation of the Gospel and presents his thesis statement, “the just shall live by faith.” The section that follows, however, does not speak of the grace of Jesus Christ, but of “the wrath of God” (v. 18). God’s mercy has no meaning if it were not for God’s holiness and his righteous judgment and wrath against sin. Grace is nonsense without law.

As the first chapter unfolds Paul parades the sins characteristic of the gentiles. When he wraps up his case against the heathen he then rather surprisingly states that this sinful condition belongs to all people universally. “You who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things” (2:1-2). Such a bold statement needs explanation, so he continues by quoting the Old Testament: God “will render to every man according to his deeds.” That is, one’s works, or obedience to the law determines where one will be for eternity. He will “render” as a waged earned. This is what he explains later, “now to the one who works, his wages is not reckoned as a favor, but what is due” (Rom 4:5).

Paul continues to tighten the screws – “to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitions and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (7-8). These verses present parallel ellipses. This suggests that we must supply the same word/concept for both. We know that God graciously grants eternal life to those who believe, but we cannot say that he graciously grants wrath and indignation. It should be clear that the word to be supplied is “earn” or “merit.” By our deeds we will either merit eternal life or eternal death. Paul is not here speaking of “evangelical obedience” as verse 12 makes clear with its emphasis on the law which will judge both Jew and gentile.

At last we arrive at verse 13 where Paul argues that it is the “doers of the law who will be justified.” Paul’s point here is not to safeguard the doctrine of justification by faith from the error of antinomianism. Paul has not even mentioned justification by faith! He does not even begin to address the gospel in general, the atonement of Christ, or justification by faith until the pivotal point in chapter three.

Paul makes a play on the verbs of hearing and doing. Many of you are probably aware that “to hear” in Hebrew idiom is a synonym for “to do.” If you hear the word of God, then you do the word of God. Paul is saying “it is not those who make a solid effort to do the law, but those who REALLY DO the law – as in every jot and tittle, in thought word and deed, perfectly and perpetually – who will be justified.”

James makes the same point when he writes “for whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). The point Paul and James are making is that the law is rigid, and in its very nature excludes grace.

Paul continues by addressing how it is that gentiles are condemned under this law. They did not receive it engraved on tablets of stone as the Jews did, but God wrote the law on their hearts. God will judge those who know right and wrong from nature by what they know and did not do (2:14-15).

Here we understand clearly the nature of the relationship that God established with Adam in the beginning. “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with the power and ability to keep it” (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.1). Although we no longer have the power and ability to keep God’s law, yet, by virtue of our creation, we – with Adam – have the law written on our heart, and this law will accuse or defend us on the Day of Judgment.

Everything in Paul’s argument is driving to the conclusion that “we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all are under sin” (3:9), that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10), so that “every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (3:19). The law brings only wrath and condemnation. Although “the law promised life” (Rom 7:10), as sinners we can never cash in on that promise. Commenting on Romans 2:13, John Calvin writes,

That if righteousness be sought from the law, the law must be fulfilled; for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works. They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. For the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, – That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law (Commentary on Romans).

Paul still holds in his mind what he wrote earlier, that “the doers of the law will be justified” when he states the conclusion of the matter, “by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20).

The next verse represents the pivot point. When Paul writes “but now apart from the law” (3:21) he begins his exposition of another way of salvation, which is by grace. Even as the law excluded grace, so grace now excludes the law. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). As the corollary to law is merit, the corollary to faith is grace. The law is not of faith, and grace is opposed to merit. “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works” (Rom 11:6).

If anyone should keep the law then they are rightly said to merit God’s approbation. “The one who works, his wages is not reckoned as favor, but as what is due” (4:5). God would justify such a person according to their righteousness. But as sinners we have no claim to such a reward. But by faith we receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ. “To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4:5).

The corollary to the covenant of works/grace is this sharp distinction between law and gospel. The law through its doing promised life on the basis of merit. The gospel through faith promises life on the basis of grace. Such a distinction between law and gospel is essential for our understanding of the gospel, and why the Protestant Reformers taught it as such.

For further study on Romans 2:13 see the commentaries on Romans by John Calvin, Charles Hodge and Robert Haldane, and Geerhardus Vos, “Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification.”