Tag Archives: Law and Gospel

We Distinguish…(Part 4) — Law/Gospel

Law-Gospel2

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.


CanRC-URCNA Covenant Colloquium

From l to r:  Dr. Ted Van Raalte, Dr. Jason Van Vliet, Rev. John Bouwers, Dr. Cornel Venema, Dr. Bob Godfrey.

From l to r: Dr. Ted Van Raalte, Dr. Jason Van Vliet, Rev. John Bouwers, Dr. Cornel Venema, Dr. Bob Godfrey.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America.  One of the noteworthy things that happened at Synod Visalia was a colloquium or discussion about covenant theology between theologians of the URCNA and of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Representing the URCNA were Dr. Cornel Venema from Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Dr. Bob Godfrey from Westminster Seminary California.  The CanRC representatives were both professors from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Ted Van Raalte and Dr. Jason Van Vliet.

The colloquium was an initiative of the URCNA Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU).   It seems that fears and suspicions about covenant theology in the Canadian Reformed Churches continue to beleaguer efforts to work towards a merger of our federations.  Hence, this colloquium was proposed as a way to help clear the air.  Most reports that I’m hearing suggest that it definitely was a step in the right direction.  I commend CERCU for organizing it!

Prior to the colloquium, a couple of documents were prepared by the participants.  You can find those documents here, prefaced by a letter from the CanRC Committee for Church Unity to CanRC church councils.  The first document is from the URCNA representatives and lays out their position.  The second is from the CanRC representatives.  They answer some questions posed to them by Dr. Venema and Dr. Godfrey.

I want to note a few things about the CanRC contribution to this discussion.

First, it needs to be recognized that Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet are not presenting the “official” covenant theology of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Apart from what our confessions say (which is not much), we do not have such a theology worked out in the kind of detail you find in this document.

Second, Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet are both professors at our seminary.  Thus, it can be said that this is representative of what is being taught to our seminary students.

Third, I endorse what Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet have written.  I might express myself somewhat differently on some points, but I have no substantial problems or questions about what they have set forth.  I particularly appreciate that they maintain:

  • The imputation of the active obedience of Christ in our justification.  They unambiguously state that this is the position of the Three Forms of Unity.
  • That, in justification, law and gospel are antithetical.
  • That covenant and election are not to be identified with one another, though they are connected.
  • That all the children of believers truly are in the covenant of grace
  • That there are different “outcomes” with regard to those in the covenant of grace:  life or death.
  • The activity of faith in justification is merely receiving or accepting the free gifts of Christ.

I could add more, but those are some important highlights.

I keep hearing that the colloquium was recorded on video, but I have not yet seen or heard of it being posted.  I will let you know if I run across it.  I do know there will be some further follow-up in Christian RenewalDaniel Hyde’s take on the colloquium will be published,  as will a response from Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet.  I look forward to reading that interchange and pray that all of this discussion will further the cause of unity.


Martin Luther: Law and Gospel

The other day I returned from the Philippines.  I was there to teach Reformation church history on the islands of Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro) and Luzon (Malolos).  One of the subjects that we covered was the topic of law and gospel in Luther’s theology.  Below are the lecture notes for this.  Enjoy!

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6.4.3  Law and Gospel

I want to begin here with two quotes.  Please listen carefully:

The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.  The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the Mediator and the free remission of sins, through faith.[1]

That’s the first quote.  Here is the second:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds:  the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.”  For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings…We must pay great attention to these things.  For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.[2]

Now who do you think said those things?  They were both written by Reformed theologians, not Lutherans.  The first quote is from Zacharias Ursinus, from his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.  The second quote is from Theodore Beza, from his confession of faith.  One was a German Reformer, the other Swiss.  Both maintained a distinction between law and gospel.

This is important to recognize because many have said that the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran.  They say that it has its origins with Martin Luther and only Lutherans hold to it.  Historically, this is only half true.

The law/gospel distinction is found with Reformed theologians before, during, and after the time of John Calvin.  It’s also found in the writings of Calvin himself.  So it is not correct to say that this is only a Lutheran doctrine – historically it has been maintained in Reformed theology too and therefore it is found in the Three Forms of Unity too.  In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that we know our sin and misery from the law of God.  In Lord’s Day 6, we know about our mediator from the holy gospel.  In the Canons of Dort chapter 3-4, article 5, we confess that the law is inadequate to save – “it leaves the transgressor under the curse.”  That is why the gospel is necessary according to article 6 of chapter 3-4.  There is a clear distinction between law and gospel in our Confessions.

However, it is true that we can trace the origins of this distinction to Luther.  One can find evidence of it among some of the church fathers (for example, Augustine at times), but it was Luther who recovered it in the time of the Reformation.  From Luther, it was transmitted not only to Lutheran theologians, but also to Reformed theologians.

Before outlining the distinction as Luther presented it, it’s important to consider the background.  Thomas Aquinas was one of the pre-eminent theologians of the late medieval period.  Aquinas held that justification takes place through progressive moral transformation, with the help of infused grace.  Thomas maintained that the Old Testament dispensation involved an old law.  The New Testament dispensation presented God’s people with a new law.  In both dispensations, believers are expected to obey God and thus earn his pleasure.  The difference is that under the new law, believers receive more grace, they receive more help to obey.  To be sure, Thomas said that the main thing about the new law was that it commanded faith.  However, this faith included human good works in its definition.[3]  So what you have with Thomas (and much of medieval theology with him), is justification by good works.

That brings me to the key point to keep in mind with this distinction.  For Luther, as well as for the Lutheran and Reformed theologians, it is a distinction that functions within the context of justification.  It grew out of the recognition that Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians had misunderstood the biblical doctrine of justification.  They had misconstrued how a sinner gets into a right relationship with God.  Thomas and many medieval theologians made it into a matter of works – new law.

Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of justification.  In its place, he came to understand that Scripture speaks in terms of law and gospel.  We find it with Luther as early as 1518 in his explanation of the 95 Theses.  This is what he wrote regarding thesis 62:

The gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace.  It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.

The law is a word of destruction, a word of wrath, a word of sadness, a word of grief, a voice of the judge and the defendant, a word of restlessness, a word of curse….Through the law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away.  And we ourselves cannot take it away.[4]

This distinction became more defined in Luther’s theology as he continued to study.  In 1532, he preached through Galatians.  In one of his sermons, he defined the law as “God’s Word and command in which he commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience.”  The gospel does not demand obedience for justification, but “bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.”[5]

Luther’s law/gospel distinction must not be misunderstood as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament.  Luther maintained that the law was found in both the Old and New Testament.  Similarly, the gospel is also found in both the Old and New Testament.  So this is not a matter of placing one Testament against the other.  Law and gospel are found throughout the entire Bible.

There is a lot more that could be said about this, but let me just draw out one more point that is often misunderstood.  Some forget that this distinction functions within the context of justification.  They say that Luther (and then the Lutherans as well) are antinomians or close to being antinomians.  Because of the law/gospel distinction, the law has no place in the life of a Christian.  They say that, for Luther, the law is only about giving awareness of sin and misery, so that one will be driven to Christ for salvation.  After salvation, the law no longer has a function in the life of a believer.  In dogmatic terms, they say that Luther only advocated the first use of the law.[6]  Because of the law/gospel distinction, they say, he did not advocate the third use of the law, the law as a guide for thankful Christian living.  A recent Reformed biographer says, “Luther simply avoids discussing the Christian’s life of obedience as obedience to the law.”[7]  This is simply not true.  While it is very commonly believed amongst Reformed people, the evidence in Luther’s writings does not support it.  Yes, it is true that Luther’s emphasis is on the first use of the law.  But he also teaches the third use.  You can see it in his Large Catechism.  As he discusses the 10 Commandments, he not only discusses the accusing function, but also points out how these commandments are to actively function in the life of the Christian who loves God and wants to please him.[8]  Moreover, The Formula of Concord, written after Luther’s death (published in 1580) but a good summary of Luther’s theology, says this:

…We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that people who truly believe and are converted to God, justified Christians, are liberated and made free from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10).  Yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2; see also Psalm 119:1).  The Law is a mirror in which God’s will and what pleases him are exactly portrayed.  This mirror should be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently encouraged for them without ceasing.[9]

From this you can see, that Lutherans, following Martin Luther, do indeed teach and confess the third use of the law.

KEY POINTS:  Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of medieval soteriology.  Luther taught a law/gospel distinction within the context of justification.  The law demands payment and obedience.  Through Christ the gospel gives what the law demands.  Both law and gospel are found in both Old Testament and New Testament.  Luther emphasized the first use of the law, but also maintained the third use.  This law/gospel distinction became foundational in all Protestant theology, both Lutheran and Reformed.


[1] Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 2.

[2] Theodore Beza, Confession de foi du chretien – as quoted by R. S. Clark, “Letter and Spirit” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, 342.

[3] Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 336-337.

[4] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 338.  On page 173 in the Portuguese edition of Luther’s selected works.

[5] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 339.

[6] Three uses of the law in Reformed theology:  1) The accusing use – the law exposes our sin and misery and therefore our need for Christ.  2)  The political use – the law is a guide for civil society.  3) The law as a guide for thankful Christian living in response to the gospel of grace.

[7] Nichols, Martin Luther, 81.

[8] See especially Concordia, 395-397.

[9] Concordia, 558.  See also the Epitome, Concordia, 486-487.

 


Distinguishing Law and Gospel — Lord’s Day 2

It is often thought that “God helps those who help themselves” is a quote from the Bible or perhaps that it is a biblical teaching. It is neither. Even though “God helps those who help themselves” is not biblical, it is a very old error. Before the Reformation, the common belief was that “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power” – another way of saying God helps those who help themselves. This manner of thinking was and is connected with a certain way of reading and understanding the Bible.

Before the Reformation, in the Medieval church, it was common to think of the Bible in terms of old law and new law. In the Old Testament, there was old law, where there was no grace and therefore no hope for salvation. In the New Testament, one could find a New Moses, Jesus Christ, and a new law. The difference between the old law and the new law was that God gives more grace so that believers can obey. Believers do everything they can and then God adds his grace so that there is even more obedience. This obedience contributes to one’s righteous standing before God. God helps those who help themselves.

This way of thinking continues to be popular, although today we might more aptly describe this way of reading the Bible as hard law and law light. A very popular author found in Christian bookstores tells readers that we just have to do our best and then God will give us his grace. According to this writer, God looks in our hearts and he sees that they’re basically good and we’re trying to do the right thing. He comes with steps to follow to have “your best life now” or “become a better you.” By living a certain way, you can tap into God’s power and receive all sorts of blessings. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he was asked why he never speaks about Jesus Christ. He just answered that that’s not what he does and that he wants to help a wide variety of people to live better lives. You’ve probably guessed the author I’m speaking about. Joel Osteen is just one example of the modern tendency to preach law light.

What we need today is simply what was needed and rediscovered at the time of the Reformation: a proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Martin Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme after he carefully studied 2 Corinthians 3:6. That passage clearly speaks about the law as a killing letter. Instead of old law/new law, Luther saw that the proper way of understanding the Bible, particularly when it comes to salvation, is to see it in terms of law and gospel. Not very long after, John Calvin followed in his footsteps, also clearly distinguishing between law and gospel when it comes to our salvation.

That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us to find this distinction found in the Heidelberg Catechism as well. In Lord’s Day 2, we discover that we know our sins and misery from the law of God. That law is summarized with Christ’s words in Matthew 22. Later, in Lord’s Day 6, we confess that we know the revelation of Jesus Christ as our Mediator from the holy gospel. The words here were chosen very carefully and if you ever read the commentaries of Ursinus and Olevianus on their Catechism, you’ll see that the distinction between law and gospel was critically important for them.

Click here to continue reading this sermon on Lord’s Day 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism