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.