April 10, 2013

3 reasons the Law/Gospel distinction is not a law

by Jesse Johnson

Yesterday I reviewed the basics of the Law/Gospel distinction central to covenantal hermeneutics, and I noted a few reasons why I generally find it a helpful distinction to make. But today I want to explain why—although I often find the Law/Gospel approach to scripture useful—I do not adopt this approach as a hermeneutical principle that can be applied to every passage.

I have three reasons why I don’t see the Law/Gospel distinction as foundational to hermeneutics:  

1. To force all passages of Scripture into either the category of Law or Gospel goes beyond what is written

While the distinction between Law/Gospel (or imperative/indicative) is helpful conceptually, there are simply too many passages of Scripture that don’t neatly fit into one category or the other, and the system can quickly become imposed on the text rather than come from the text. It’s unclear to me, for example, if prophecy would be considered Law or Gospel. In what sense does historical narrative fit this grid? Does Manasseh’s life show the punishment that awaits those that fail to keep God’s law (Law), or does it show the forgiveness that God gives based on faith alone (Gospel)? Which part is which? What about the death of Ananias and Sapphira? God did that, right there in a gospel-centered church and everything. Which column does that get placed in?

In other words, not every passage fits into one or the other category. I appreciate the principle, but in practice the attempt to apply the principle to every passage presents an artificial burden that simply wasn’t intended by the original author. The Law/Gospel distinction is helpful precisely because it constantly reminds you that you cannot keep the commands of the Bible perfectly, and God does not expect you to. Instead, he forgives your failures. That is true and helpful. But then to go beyond that principle and insist that the first step to interpreting any passage is to categorize it as either Law or Gospel takes the concept too far, and makes the distinction more of a hindrance than a help.

2. Some passages turn the Law/Gospel concept on its head.

Here I’m thinking of Moses on the mountain and the Law he brought down with him. The gathering at the base of the mountain, the fear, the trembling, the thunder, the whirlwind, and the earth quake are all indicatives, but are they Gospel? “Indeed, so terrifying was the voice that spoke that even Moses trembled with fear.” This certainly was not received as good news.

But then Moses got the Law. God ended the ambiguity of how Israel was to live, and for the first time in recorded history, God revealed in written form exactly what he required of his people. This is all Law, yet it is also good news. But if there is ever Law that is simultaneously Gospel, this system stops having any kind of universal effect.

Two more examples are pertinent to me. What about the sacrificial laws in the Torah? Certainly they are all imperatives, and should be categorized as Law. But they all so obviously point to Jesus, that even in those commands are the good news of the gospel. In the NT, the similar problem exists with baptism. It is a command, but it is also a glaring reminder of the gospel. In all these examples, the laws are so flagrantly Gospel, and the indicatives are so obviously bad news, that the distinction becomes convoluted.

I have interacted with many who hold to the Law/Gospel distinction who have a difficult time saying “how happy are those who live according to Yahweh’s law” (Psalm 119:1). They have to give lots of disclaimers before they would ever say something like, “Open my eyes so that I may behold wonderful things in your law” (v. 18). If you ever trick them into saying “I will always keep your law, forever and ever” (v. 44), they immediately follow it with an explanation about how that is actually referring to the gospel, because nobody can keep God’s law. And when I look confused about how a verse that uses the word law is actually Gospel, and not Law at all, they imply that the problem is with me, rather than with their system.

This works the opposite way as well. In the NT, preaching the gospel is intricately connected to the call of repentance. What the Gospel authors call “the gospel” is often expressly linked to imperatives (eg. Mark 1:1-3), and thus the distinction between indicatives as Gospel and imperatives as Law seems contrived. Moreover, if the consequences for disobedience fall under the category of “Law,” what of verses like Romans 2:16, which describes “the day when God judges what people have kept secret, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus”? So there are places in the OT where the word “Law” is used and it is connected to forgiveness and indicatives, and there are places in the NT where the word “gospel” is used, and it is connected to judgment and coupled with imperatives. At the very least, those kind of examples (and there are many) demonstrate that the Law/Gospel distinction is not as absolute as its proponents make it sound.

3. Some proponents of the system have a difficult time being clear when it comes to how Law affects believers.

I’ve heard and read several proponents of this distinction argue that pastors shouldn’t call people to obey straightforward biblical commands (aka “Law”), and that rather than calling people to obedience, pastors should call Christians to realize they can’t obey. They argue that preachers need to realize challenging people to obey imperatives will cause them to trust in their own strength for sanctification and ultimately turn them into a Pharisee. Instead, the key to sanctification is to simply trust more in the gospel. Which, in one sense, is absolutely true. But in another sense, can be very confusing.

Let me illustrate with a simple, practical, real world example: Imagine a Christian who is tempted to look at sinful things on-line. Now pretend you are allowed to talk to him in his moment of struggle. Do you say to him, “flee sexual immorality! Are you crazy? Run Away! God tells you to, and he wants what is best for you, so RUN!”

Or do you say, “you need to recognize that you are unable to flee from sexual immorality, so instead think about what Jesus did for you: he fled from sexual immorality perfectly, and your failure to do so was placed on him. Now through faith His Spirit dwells with you, and so your contentment is in Christ, and thus acting on your temptation would show a lack of appreciation for and a lack of contemplation of the substitutionary death of Jesus. Think about it.”

I have talked to many people who hold this Law/Gospel distinction as if it were, well…law, and it has often struck me how unwilling they are to encourage people to obey God simply because God commands them to. Instead, their pleas for sanctification often get very complex and convoluted, to the point where it seems they are simply unable to call Christians to flee from sin like the Bible commands them to. They ironically become very man-centered, and search for the key to sanctification internally (realizing what God has done for you) rather than as an overflow of simple obedience to the creator of the universe.

The thing is, there are different kinds of people, and both of those above approaches have their place, depending on the person, and the amount of time you have for the conversation. In the above example, both of those responses are true, and both can be helpful. But I insist that the first of those two responses is quite clear, does not lead to someone becoming a works-righteous Pharisee who trusts in his own strength for sanctification; rather, it is a biblical and loving thing to say to someone at that moment. Further, if you find yourself unable to look a brother in the eye and say “flee from sexual immorality” because your hermeneutical grid is giving you problems, it is probably time to take a step back from your copy of Berkhof.


In considering these three concerns with the Law/Gospel system (it goes beyond what is written, some passages turn the distinction on its head, and it can lead to confusion about sanctification), I conclude that the Law/Gospel distinction is not absolute, and cannot be applied as a hermeneutical grid to all passages in a consistent way. This does not mean that I reject the system in its entirety. As I pointed out, I find much that is helpful with it, and when it is understood in a balanced way, this division is quite helpful in our fight against sin. But when a system has to push and shove passages to get them to fit, it is a warning that it has gone too far.

And that is probably the best lesson to take from this discussion; when any hermeneutical principle becomes a rule that does not jibe with the point of a particular passage, the rule has outlived its usefulness. That doesn’t mean the rule was misguided. Rather, it is a reminder that all hermeneutics are limited by their effectiveness. Hermeneutics serve the passage, and the temptation is ever present to reverse that relationship.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jesse, what a well thought-through article. I appreciate your willingness to help others think through different sides of an issue in a gracious fashion. A lot of sound thought, reflection, and consideration can often be disregarded simply by the default of which isle of theology one resides upon. Thanks for the encouragement to think. The closing paragraph speaks volumes. Keep writing.

  • Paul Stewart

    I really appreciate the tone of kindness and respect throughout this article. If we are not careful

  • Paul Stewart

    I really appreciate the kindness and respect throughout this article. If we are not careful we end up causing and becoming casualties of friendly fire. I appreciate all the work the covenantal guys are doing for the gospel. At the same time I am trying to teach solid hermeneutics so that those I am teaching don’t buy a system wholesale and end up in confusion. Thank you for exemplifying how we can appreciate someone’s work without buying their system.

  • Pingback: What is the Law/Gospel distinction? | the Cripplegate()

  • scollins

    Please humor me. So I just finished reading the posts from yesterday and today. I am no academic theologian, I’m ignorant of much, and cannot weigh in on some of the nuances of Jesse Johnson’s posts, but I am curious about a couple (I think key) issues. When someone confesses an ensnarement in lustful sin, isn’t the law/gospel distinction hermeneutic one that chiefly presses the motive behind the command to “flee,” doing no harm to the responsibility of the sinner to actually flee? Yes, flee, and flee knowing and loving that your flight begins, continues, and ends in and through Christ’s gospel and not your own strength/fear/guilt. From the relatively little I’ve read on this subject I don’t think that the law/gospel distinction hermeneutic and those who hold to it promote antinomianism, just obedience from love of Christ and the gospel instead of fear or guilt or some kind of responsibility severed from grace through faith. And no law/gospel proponent flees perfectly either, but may articulate better why to flee… Anywho, Johnson writes, that the law/gospel proponent holds that the “key to sanctification is to simply trust more in the gospel.” And he continues, “Which, in one sense, is absolutely true. But in another sense, can be very confusing.” That sounds to me like hedging and very confusing. Is it absolutely true or not? Anything can be confusing. Is there a Biblical alternative to sanctification by grace through faith in the gospel (Rom. 5:2, “Through [Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand”)?

    Another key issue he addresses is the “floor level” of this hermeneutic and the resulting imposition of it on texts that appear to naturally (due to authorial intent) resist it. Johnson mentions prophecy as an example of texts/passages that escape this hermeneutic. Doesn’t it depend on what the prophecy is prophesying? And concerning the indicatives about Hell, it does appear to me that the “law/gospel” distinction is actually much more precise and applicable than “imperative/indicative.” It depends on what is being indicated. As soon as a law is commanded, that is imperative, but the promise of curse upon disobedience is indicative – I would consider the whole of such a passage law (for instance, the fifth commandment and its promise). Any conditional promise in scripture founded on my obedience doesn’t encourage me without the gospel of Christ (or for OT saints, the promises of life and forgiveness in Messiah). Also, the record of judgment against past sin is indicative. That is to say, I don’t find it necessary to impose the law/gospel hermeneutic on imperatives and indicatives, but on the gist of the passages. Forgive me, I’m rambling through my thoughts.

    I’ll end this here. I care about this because studying these things (the law/gospel distinction) has encouraged my rest in Christ and enabled me to see better how the law kills me and Christ alone gives me life.


    • Thanks for your comment Stephen. I don’t think that those who hold this distinction are antinomian at all. Its hard to accuse someone of being antinomian when their system as the word Law in its title!

      I also agree that sanctification is by grace. I hope you didn’t read otherwise above. If you did, let me know where, and I’ll tweak it.
      So, were you saying that prophecies about hell were law or gospel? And the fifth commandment: is that law or gospel in your mind? What of the commands for sacrifices? Are those law or gospel? I’m asking sincerely.

      Thanks Stephen, I appreciate your interaction here.

      • scollins

        Thank you for your response. And I appreciate your graciousness as I’m a brother and new to these things.

        My comments about antinomianism were in light of the law/gospel distinction hermeneutic’s potential or supposed inability to rightly exhort others to simply “flee” sexual immorality. If one can’t exhort another to flee (as a command) because of a hermeneutic, the result appears to me to be at least somewhat antinomian. I was trying to work through whether or not your argument there accomplished too much, rendering the l/g hermeneutic effectually/practically lawless in Christian living. But I see we agree that the l/g hermeneutic still allows for exhortation to obey scriptural imperatives, such as “flee youthful lusts.” I see the l/g hermeneutic emphasizing the work of Christ in fleeing properly – unto Christ and not mere external adherence to law. I see the distinction emphasizing proper motive for obedience over mere obedience.

        I did not read above that you thought sanctification is not by grace, but was trying to emphasize that the l/g hermeneutic, as far as I know, presses the fact that actual sanctification is the result only of grace through faith in Christ and not of our mere efforts to obey. That is to say, even the lost can flee pornography, alcoholism, and many other sins. Why is the lost’s man’s fleeing, etc., displeasing to God? He does so, at times only because that’s what the law says (cf. Pharisees). What I’m getting at is also that if someone only tells a brother in the faith, “flee,” without having taught him how, and why, and where to flee, in light of gospel, the full has not been told and that “obediently fleeing” brother will certainly become ensnared again.

        If the prophecy about Hell is in the context of law, I’d say it’s law. If the context is gospel, for instance, salvation from the curse of sin (Hell, etc.) then it’s gospel. I don’t apply the l/g hermeneutic to every jot and tittle, but to passages (so to speak) in context.

        In scripture, and my mind, the fifth commandment is law. There is promise of long life, but it’s conditional and no one, save Christ, ever kept it perfectly. Do you think it’s gospel? Or, is it not gospel or law?

        As far as commands for sacrifice: law. What if sacrificial commands weren’t obeyed? Judgment. What the sacrifice foreshadows, but is itself certainly not, gospel. I think sacrificial commands were laws that pointed to Christ and His gospel, but were not themselves gospel – the blood of bulls and goats aren’t gospel, but point to it. I know we agree about this, but I don’t see the problem with viewing laws commanding sacrifice as laws, which foreshadow gospel. Law can point to gospel (e.g. the fourth commandment). Can you help me understand the problem?

        I don’t think the distinction between law and gospel is a divorce between the two.

        I hope this clarifies some of my previous thoughts. And again, thank you. I’ve recently begun reading about these things and have been encouraged and had my affections for Christ and His gospel rekindled. I appreciate your posts and your demands for accuracy and righteous interpretation.

        • That’s well said Stephen. I think you summarize the view quite well. The problem is simply that I find the distinction too forced, especially in the passages we talked about it. If a passage’s categorization hinges on how people respond to it, I think it gets divorced from the intent of the author. As for the 5th (or 4th) commandment, I don’t feel like I have to put it in either category. I see how the 4th commandment is fulfilled in Christ, and I see how the 5th commandment applies to the church because of Ephesians 6:1-3. So I can tell believers to honor their father and mother, and point to the existence of blessing in the 5th commandment as a motivation to obey. And I do all that without categorizing either into “Law” to obey or “Gospel” to believe.
          My goal here is not to talk you out of your understanding of the l/g dynamic, as much as it is to explain why I am not persuaded that it is a rule that governs one’s interpretation of scripture.
          Thanks Stephen.

          • scollins

            Thank you.

  • Rochelle Cavanaugh

    I think your definition of the law/gospel distinction is amiss. If I’m reading you rightly, you believe covenant theology teaches every verse contains a law and gospel. But this is not so and no one adhering to Covenant Theology would use this definition. Your overview of the law gospel distinction must have been brief indeed.

    We see the law/gospel distinction made throughout scripture as a whole, not individually, as you pointed out with Moses. Within a sermon exegeting say, Sinai, a person with law gospel distinction would preach exactly what it is: pure law. This is why I see the sacraments as a vital impprtance to a complete service on Sunday. Though the exegeted passage was pure law, at the Lord’s Table we receive the grace of the one who kept this law perfectly for us (gospel) and not only kept it but drank of the cup of God’s wrath due us so we may drink from the cup of eternal life.

    • Did you read my post yesterday, where I explained what the Law/Gospel distinction is? If you think I’m having a hard time understanding it, that would be thread to bring that up on: http://thecripplegate.com/what-is-the-lawgospel-distinction/
      Thanks Rochelle.

      • Rochelle Cavanaugh

        Thank you for directing me to that post. It was good!

        But, I still am puzzled why you think we covenanters apply this “tool” for hermeneutics as if it were THE guiding principle? I don’t know anyone who convolutes like your examples above, especially the one about fleeing sin. Also, it seems, and maybe we’re saying the same thing here, your critiques have more to do with the use of law-gospel distinction then the doctrine itself. Your thoughts, please?

        • That’s well said. I do find the distinction helpful. But I don’t find it necessary to be used as a starting point for hermenutics, like I’m sure Michael Horton (or for that matter, Calvin) would. I’m not sure if Horton calls it THE guiding principle (you are right when you say how something is fulfilled in Christ is probably THE guiding principle in a lot of covenantal hermenutics). But Horton does say it is “at the heart of the Reformation’s hermenutics.” Thanks Rochelle!

          • Rochelle Cavanaugh

            True. It is at the heart of covenant theology, but that is because the bible is summarized into these two distinctions, according to the confessions and Horton. What else does the bible principally teach except that God is holy, revealed himself via laws, we transgressed and he redeems? What else would you add? Is that not a complete summary?
            Thanks for your dialogue and clarity! 🙂

          • Roundheads

            This Law/Gospel issue is causing a lot of confusion and I think I know why it becomes difficult.

            It is a matter of a lack of definitions. The imperative/indicative by definition is not a direct correlative of the Law/Gospel or Law/Grace in the first place. Law and Gospel are nouns and imperative/indicative are both adjectives.

            The word hermeneutic is from the Greek meaning an interpreter. Hermeneutic describes an analytical method of interpreting, explaining and unfolding the significance of a pericope, that is a certain passage of scripture.

            A hermeneutic then can be said to be the science or art of expositing the scriptures. A hermeneutic is a collection of disciplines or rules of interpretation that are applied by the expositor to determine the intent and

            meaning of the particular collection of words, in their context, that were intended to convey a certain meaning by the author. In short a hermeneutic is finding the meaning of the text.

            Literal, Grammatical, Historical is, in brief, a name used to describe the particular classical method of interpretation of words to arrive at their collective meaning in scripture.

            Law is the humanly unachievable standards of the nature and perfections of God as He is revealed in the scriptures and is often related to His people in the form of commands to obey those standards.

            The Gospel is the revelation of the way in which God himself fulfilled His Law on behalf of sinners who failed to attain to those commanded standards.

            Trying to reconcile these diverse terms above with each other is like trying to find a comparison of apples to oranges, only a very broad term fruit applies.

            Therefore the broad term scripture is being examined from different perspectives. Apples and oranges both have seeds and skin but they are different in appearance and composition yet have like purpose in the fruit.

  • Rochelle Cavanaugh

    I’d also like to note that law gospel distinction is more or less a tool for hermeneutics not the main principle. Christ is our interpretive principal showing us how to use law and gospel. As for Psalms mentioned above, many of those are messianic pointing us to Him, the one who keeps God’s laws perfectly and imputing this righteousness to us.

    I don’t know who your covenantal friends are but if you are seeking to critique covenental hermeneutics please begin with Michael Horton’s Intro to Covenant Theology. Because it seems you are misrepresenting Covenant Theology in your post.

    Warmly, a sister in Christ

    • Thanks Rochelle–see my response to your comment below. I have spent a lot of time with Horton (not in the flesh, but in print). I think I have read (almost) everything he has written, and he has written a lot! I respect him tremendously and benefit from not only his writing but also his preaching. Thanks for your comment here.

  • You’re only demonstrating that YOU don’t know the difference. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true or that your questions can’t be answered, simply because you can’t answer them.

  • “I have talked to many people who hold this Law/Gospel distinction as if it were, well…law,”

    Yes, that is what it is. It’s law, we are commanded to carry out the law and gospel in our message. Is the command to take the gospel to the world law or gospel? The law shows people their sin and their need for Christ, the gospel presents Christ in his love and forgiveness… freely.

    It’s law, as is every command God gives and every judgement that he enacts upon people. Prophecy can be either, depending on the passage. So I’m not sure why it is so confusing for you.

    All God’s commands are law. However, because we are IN HIM, we love that law and we try to fulfill it. When our consciences accuse us for not fulfilling it perfectly, we remember the GOSPEL which says that Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf. This again sets us free from condemnation, so that we can get up and serve God (obey the law) without fear of punishment, and so our motives are simply out of love for God.

    Yes, it is counter intutive, but only to those who are still operating primarily under fear of punishment/hope of reward. If that’s you, I’m sorry for you. Christ has forgiven you, therefore you are free. Now what are you going to do, now that you don’t have to do anything?

    • Paula: I can’t tell if you are being sarcastic when you call it a law. If you aren’t, I hope you see the irony of your statement. 🙂

      The great omission is another example in the same vein of Romans 2:16. I used the Romans 2:16 example above because it uses the word “gospel” in it, right there along side “judgement.” And my point was that if you have a verse with the word “gospel” in it, and you turn around and tell me it is “law” and not “gospel,” that I refuse to believe the problem is with me. Ditto with the great commission If you try and tell me that the command to take the gospel to the world is rightly categorized as “law” and not “gospel,” then I want to give you the same look I give the barrista when he tells me that the “tall” drink is the actually the smallest.

      Also, did you mean to say that believers “try to fulfill” the law?

    • One other thought from your comment. The question about reward is a really good one. I do live to earn a reward, certainly. I know that I will stand before the Bema seat. I know that in this life I can store up treasure for myself in heaven. Those two passages (along with lots of others), teach that believers will be rewarded differently. As Piper says concerning the command to “store up treasure in heaven”: The existence of the command lets us know that not every believer will do it equally, and only a really evil teacher would tell his class “work hard and you will get a reward” and then turn around and get upset that the students were motivated for work by the promise of a reward.

  • J

    Jesse… I appreciate your post and agree, with the most part, that the Law/Gospel distinction is helpful, but not absolute. I am not a covenantalist but a dispensationalist, and so my hermeneutic is probably very similar to yours. But I am greatly helped by my covenantal brothers who desire to keep the glory of God, namely the glory of Christ’s person and work, at the heart of the Bible.

    With this in mind, it then becomes necessary that the motivation behind the believer’s obedience be truly centered on God’s glory. What other motive is higher than this? What other biblical truth holds greater weight and priority than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? (1 Cor 15:1-4) All of creation, history, and redemption exists for this purpose… to glorify the grace of Christ in His Cross work.

    If this be so, then why would we teach and counsel and encourage believers to “obey” without the proper motivation? Why wouldn’t we want to repeatedly call them to see the glory of Christ and then, to be captivated by this glory and desire to obey? (2 Cor 3:18) I don’t believe Scripture teaches an either/or paradigm for our sanctification – just indicatives or just imperatives. But it teaches both! Jesus taught this very truth in John 14:15 – “If you love Me, you will obey me.”

    But where is the priority placed? Isn’t the prior act love for Christ, which then leads to obedience? Shouldn’t love for Christ be the basis of all Christian obedience? Without love for Jesus Christ, all we are left with are external works of self-righteousness (1 Cor 13:1-3; Rev 2:4-5). The illustration you gave, about counseling someone to run away from porn, CAN lead to pride and CAN be motivated by someone other than Jesus Christ! Luke 18:11-12 shows this can be true… right actions for wrong motivations.

    My point is simply this – both indicatives and imperatives are to be taught. But let’s place the accent and priority where Scripture places the accent and priority – on the indicatives first, which believed, will lead to obedience to the imperatives. I would love your thoughts on this if you have time… thanks for responding to these posts!

    • I agree with you. Obviously, the fuel for long term obedience can only come from the deep roots of the gospel taking hold of your heart. And you are exactly right: the imperitives flow out of the indicatives. Who we are in Christ is the primary motivation for becoming what he commands us to be. There is a reason Col., Eph., and Romans are all structured like they are. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  • Carl Spiess


    Thanks so much for the posts. I’m a seminary student in my
    final year and this blog has helped me with a number of issues in recent
    months. For example, I had to write a paper reviewing Tim Keller’s Center
    Church for my capstone class and as a dispensationalist I wasn’t sure where to
    start at first…posts like these gave me a lot of guidance.

    That said, I thought I’d make a couple of observations that
    may be slightly off topic but seem relevant to your writings of late. I think
    that mostly these are in relation to the third point you made in this post.

    First – it seems to me like the natural end of the “law”
    aspect of the “law/gospel” approach is what some have been calling “religion”. Keller,
    for example, on page 65 of Center Church has a chart where he contrasts what he
    calls “religion” with his understanding of the word “gospel”. Under “religion”
    he supplies a long list of things which seem to describe the habits of a person
    who is trying hard to follow a bunch of rules and as a result is essentially a

    His solution to this, of course, is the “gospel”. I don’t
    have any qualms about endorsing the traits he lists there, but am confused as
    to why he uses the heading “gospel” and furthermore, why these things are
    somehow have no part in “religion”. Isn’t the gospel part of Christianity,
    which is a religion? You are right in what you wrote yesterday – in approaching
    these kinds of things one really does have to check various definitions at the

    Perhaps I’m still a theological greenhorn, but to me
    definitions are really important. I’ve been pretty consistently confused by the
    way “religion” has been used by a lot of people lately – and now, it seems, the
    word “gospel” too. Is it too much of a
    stretch to say that while words such as gospel shouldn’t be incorrectly reduced,
    they do have actual definitions that prohibit them from being correctly
    attached to anything and everything?

    In my opinion, redefining and reapplying words like these
    two are the part of the reason, as you said, “some proponents of the
    [law/gospel] system have a difficult time being clear when it comes to how law
    affects believers.” For example, Keller at times seems to talk about the gospel
    in a way that seems to match my understanding, but at other times he talks
    about things such as “gospel renewal” which in his mind essentially means that
    a Christian is sanctified through having a correct orientation to their justification
    (page 71 of Center Church). This is an interesting understanding and application
    of the word “gospel” in my view, but apparently, this is the basic way that
    Christians are supposed to grow more Christlike. I agree with you when you
    indicate that this type of approach seems to make it tough for a believer to
    free from sin.

    The only other option to “gospel renewal”, to Keller, though,
    is basically legalism which consists of trying to “force or scare ourselves
    into doing the right thing” (71). So it seems that what he’s saying is that
    trying to do what God says is basically “religion”…which I’m assuming is somewhere
    downstream of “law” (though he doesn’t use the latter term). But then again, if
    you flip back to page 65 under “gospel” he says that one who correctly
    understands the gospel will think “I’m accepted, therefore I obey”. How does
    one obey, practically speaking, without doing something that God commands? I
    guess this all seems confusing to me, because the Scriptures themselves don’t
    seem to portray things quite this way…legalism is certainly a danger, but to
    pit any kind of human activity against the gospel (whatever definition one
    uses) seems to be a false dichotomy.

    To summarize, I do think these comments are a bit tangential
    but are related to what you’ve been writing about. My guess is that by using
    words like “religion” and “gospel” in ever changing ways, folks like Keller are
    in actuality building on what you’ve described as the “law/gospel” aspect of
    covenantal hermeneutics. They don’t all use the same terms or use them consistently,
    though, and in my view it’s getting harder and harder to even figure out what
    people mean by what they say. There are people I know, for example, who pretty
    much share the same theological views I do but initially liked just about all
    of what Keller had to say in Center Church – but I think this is partly because
    it’s hard to understand what he really means sometimes.

    Just some thoughts — thanks for reading!

    • Thanks for that. I have not read Center Church, but I agree that definitions are important. And that’s where my dispensationalism kicks in. I want to define what Law is and what Gospel is, and I want to define it in away consistent with how the scripture uses those terms.

  • Michael Delahunt

    Jesse this reminds me of your discussion on TWOTM ministries. Reading through the Puritan Theology, and am covering that. This stuff is so good to read!

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  • Great article, Jesse.

    Saying that Christians shouldn’t try to obey the law because we can’t obey the law perfectly is like saying that a baseball player shouldn’t try to hit the ball, because he’ll never have a perfect batting average.

    If a ball player has a lifetime batting average of .400, he’s a shoe-in for the hall of fame! But that .400 batting average takes 100% effort all the time.