Law and Gospel in Redemptive History and Christian Experience

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Joe Thorn, on the Doctrine and Devotion podcast, about the biblical relationship between law and gospel. This subejct is arguably the most significant for us to settle in our thinking, on account of the fact that the entirety of our salvation hangs on the right understanding of the relationship between these two aspects of the divine revelation about the will of God. Many errors have sprung up throughout church history by means of confusion about the relationship between law and gospel. Even Reformed theologians have struggled to come to a place of absolute uniformity in their understanding of the relationship between law and gospel. As Jonathan Edwards once rightly noted, “There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ, as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ.” To come to a settled understanding of the relationship between law and gospel, we have to first grasp the various theological categories by which the Reformed have sought to settle this questions. 

The Scriptures can be divided into two, basic architectonic categories–the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. In the Covenant of Works, Adam stood as the federal head of humanity. What he did in relation to the covenant stipulations, he did as the representative of all who would descend from him by ordinary generation. In the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam had a summarization of the moral law of God. Though God did not tell Adam not to kill Eve, Adam would have known in his conscience (the moral law of God being written on it at creation) that it was evil to murder a fellow image bearer. If Adam had cut down the Tree, made a bat, and killed Eve with it, he would have violated the sixth commandment. For these reasons, we can say that the Covenant of Works was a legal covenant, and that the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was Law. 

By way of contrast, the gospel came to Adam and Eve in the Garden in the form of a Covenant of Grace immediately after their fall. God graciously gave the promise that He would send a Redeemer (i.e., the Seed of the woman) to crush the head of the serpent. God promised to send One who would be a new representative of His people and who would come to conquer the one who conquered man (Genesis 3:15). This promise was the first preaching of the gospel. It was built entirely on the free grace of God and was dependent exclusively on the gracious work of God. In contrast to the law, the gospel promised life and righteousness freely by grace. Christ is the mediator of the Covenant of Grace and came to freely provide in the gospel what God required in the law. In this sense, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace represent the Law and the Gospel. Every man is either in Adam (as his or her federal head) or in Christ (as the representative of the new humanity). 

In the course of redemptive history, another relationship between law and gospel appeared in the giving of the law at Sinai. When God entered into covenant with Israel in the old covenant, He did so by means of the covenant ratification at Sinai. Moses, as the old covenant typical redeemer, received the 613 commands from God on the mountain. In the giving of the law at Sinai there was a three-fold distinction. The 613 commandments can be categorized according to the tripartite division of moral, ceremonial, and civil law. The moral law is the essence of the morality God requires of His image bearers. It is summarized in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial laws are those laws in the Mosaic Covenant that speak distinctly to the cultic practices of Israel. They include laws about sacrifice, priesthood, Tabernacle, and purity. The civil laws were those laws dealing with crime and punishment in the old covenant theocracy. In the New Testament, the word law (nomos) is used sometimes of the entire Mosaic economy, sometimes of the totality of the Mosaic law given at Sinai, sometimes of the ceremonial laws, sometimes of the civil law, and sometimes of the moral law. The context of each passage in which the word occurs will necessitate the way in which we are to understand its usage. 

It is not uncommon to read in the Pauline epistles the contrast between the law and the gospel. In nearly every case, the contrast is set in the context of soteriological questions. A right understanding of the situations in which law and gospel are bring used is vital to a right understanding of the relationship between the two. Herman Bavinck has helpfully digested a number of places in the New Testament in which either law or gospel are used. He wrote, 

“The law is the will of God (Rom. 2:18, 20); holy, wise, good, and spiritual (7:12, 14; 12:10); giving life to those who maintain it (2:13; 3:2); but because of sin it has been made powerless, it fails to justify, it only stimulates covetousness, increases sin, arouses wrath, kills, curses, and condemns (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:20; 7:5, 8–9, 13; 2 Cor. 3:6ff.; Gal. 3:10, 13, 19).

Over against it stands the gospel of Christ, the εὐαγγελιον, which contains nothing less than the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise (Mark 1:15; Acts 13:32; Eph. 3:6), which comes to us from God (Rom. 1:1–2; 2 Cor. 11:7); has Christ as its content (Rom. 1:3; Eph. 3:6); and conveys nothing other than grace (Acts 20:24), reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), forgiveness (Rom. 4:3–8), righteousness (3:21–22), peace (Eph. 6:15), freedom (Gal. 5:13), life (Rom. 1:17; Phil. 2:16), and so forth.

In these texts law and gospel are contrasted as demand and gift, as command and promise, as sin and grace, as sickness and healing as death and life. Although they agree in that both have God as author, both speak of one and the same perfect righteousness, and both are addressed to human beings to bring them to eternal life, they nevertheless differ in that the law proceeds from God’s holiness, the gospel from God’s grace; the law is known from nature, the gospel only from special revelation; the law demands perfect righteousness, but the gospel grants it; the law leads people to eternal life by works, and the gospel produces good works from the riches of the eternal life granted in faith; the law presently condemns people, and the gospel acquits them; the law addresses itself to all people, and the gospel only to those who live within its hearing; and so forth.”

In short, when considering the doctrine of salvation, law and gospel stand in contrast to one another. We are in no sense whatsoever saved by our personal law-keeping or attempts to keep the law. In fact, the law holds forth the prospect of attaining a standard of righteousness is one would fulfill the requirement of perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. The Apostle makes clear in Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

In justification (i.e., the doctrine of the saving blessing of being forgiven and accepted as righteous before God), the law and the gospel are distinct. Jesus was born under the law (Gal. 4:3–4) as the last Adam who would fulfill its righteous requirements by keeping it perfectly in all its demands. Jesus fulfilled the righteous requirements of the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. In fact, Jesus even kept the mediatorial commands that God the Father gave Him in eternity in the Covenant of Grace (or in the Covenant of Redemption). This is seen in what Jesus teaches about his voluntary acquiescence with the divine command of His Father to lay down His life and take it again (John 10:17–18). Since Jesus kept the law, meriting a righteous status for His people, and took the curse of their violations of the law of God in His atoning death, there is a way of justification by faith alone in Him no held out in the preaching of the gospel to sinners. The gospel is the proclamation of the sufficiency of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for the redemption of the elect. 

Jesus’ law-keeping as our representative last Adam is the only law-keeping that factors into a believer’s justification. Although we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, this does not exhaust the extent of the usefulness of the law in the life of believers. Another significant category by which we can establish the relationship between law and gospel is that of the “three uses of the law.” Following Thomas, the Reformed and post-Reformation theologians affirmed a three-fold use of the law: pedagogical, civil, and didactic. These three uses respected differing spiritual conditions and relations of men. The first use is the pedagogical use per Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:24. “The law was our παιδαγωγος,” writes the apostle. It was a schoolmaster given by God to convict sinners of their need for a Savior. The law is meant to drive sinners into the arms of the gracious Savior and Deliverer, Jesus Christ. For the unregenerate, the law is meant to lead men to see their need for Christ. The law is also useful for civil restraint. The Apostle makes this clear in 1 Timothy 1:9–10, where he writes, “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers. . .” The third use of the law has to do with the way in which it is useful in the life of the regenerate. As Westminster Larger Catechism 97 states, 

Q. 97. What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.”

The third use of the law is the sanctificationary use of the law. The moral law of God continues to show believers “how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse” in their place. However, it is also useful in the life of believers to “provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves to it as a rule of their obedience.” Once a man, woman, boy, or girl has been regenerated and justified apart from the law, he or she has had the Spirit of God write the law on their hearts. A renewed heart wishes to do what is pleasing to God out of gratitude for what He has done for them and in them. This is why the Apostle can speak of “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) and “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (5:14). The law, it has been helpfully explained is “the sphere of our sanctification–the boundary markers of our pursuit of holiness in the Christian life.” 

Of course, any sanctification that believers experience in this life is utterly dependent on a believer’s union with Christ. Jesus is the source of justification, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). He is the One who not only provides justification freely by the grace of God through his meritorious work in redemption, He is also the one in whom we find the power to grow in godliness once we have been redeemed. Christ gives us of His own fulness, by the power of His Spirit, the renewal and power we need to walk uprightly. When Jesus died, we died with him to the power of sin. Jesus did not merely die to atone for the guilt of our sin–He also died to break the power of it. When we are united to Christ in time by faith, we experience freedom from the bondage of sin, and are enabled to desire to do what is pleasing to God (Rom. 6:1-14). 

When we begin to understand the important relationship between the law of God and the gospel, we will guard against allowing any perversions of it in our presentation of the biblical teaching about justification and sanctification. We will carefully note the contexts in which these two means of revelation are contrasted in Scripture; and, we will recognize that while the law does not, in anyway whatsoever, play in to our justification before God (except insomuch as Christ kept it for us), we will seek to promote the important place that law plays in the Christian life. Believers, at one and the same time, recognize that they are neither justified nor condemned by the moral law of God and they are zealous to run the course of God’s commandments by faith working through love. 

For anyone wishing to learn more about the Reformed understanding of the relationship between law and gospel, I recommend the following resources: 

A Treatise on the Law and Gospel by John Colquhoun
A View of the Covenant of Works From the Sacred Records by Thomas Boston

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