April 9, 2013

What is the Law/Gospel distinction?

by Jesse Johnson

LawGospelCupAt the center of covenantal hermeneutics is the distinction between Law and Gospel. If a dispensationalist cannot explain his hermeneutics without using the phrase “literal, historical, and grammatical,” a covenentalist cannot explain his hermeneutics without describing the Law/Gospel distinction.

These two hermeneutical grids are not mutually exclusive. Obviously, both are largely true. This post is not going to pit them against each other, as much as it will explain what is meant by the Law/Gospel hermeneutic. Understanding this approach to scripture is extremely beneficial, because at its core is a constant reminder about the power of the gospel. When the Law/Gospel distinction is appreciated, it is a powerful aide to sanctification.    

This hermeneutical approach begins by essentially splitting all scripture into one of two categories: Law or Gospel. It is at this point that many dispensationalists get confused. When we hear the word “law” we can’t help ourselves: we immediately interrupt and ask: “Which Law? The Law of Moses? The law on our hearts? The Law of Christ? What law are we talking about here?” And when we hear the word gospel,  we think of Jesus’ sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection.

Check those definitions at the door—you can pick them back up again when you leave. For the sake of the Law/Gospel hermeneutic, Law refers to the commands of the Bible. The imperatives. When the scriptures command you to do something, that is Law. In both the Old and New Testaments, any imperative is understood as Law. Meanwhile, any description of what God has done is Gospel. Those are the indicatives.

Rod Rosenbalt (a theology prof at Concordia—yes, they have those there—and a co-host with Michael Horton on the White Horse Inn) defines Law as anytime “God gives orders and tells us what will happen if we fail to obey those orders perfectly.” All the imperatives of the Torah are obviously Law. But so are commands concerning baptism, being unequally yoked, showing partiality toward the rich, and all the rest. Those are the imperatives. Paul commanding Timothy to bring him his winter coat? Law.

And of course Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection are properly referred to as Gospel. But so are any statements about what God has done. Jesus walking on the water? Gospel. Peter healing the beggar? Gospel. Any indicative—anything that has happened—that is Gospel. Timothy arriving with previously aforementioned coat? Gospel.

This system helps sanctification by continually reminding you that you can’t keep the Law. God’s commands were not given to you so that you could earn favor with him by doing them, but were instead given to you to show you how to live, and to remind you of your sin. Conversely, everything God has done, he has done with the aim of reconciling sinners to himself in Christ. He forgives us through the gospel for our failure to keep his law. Rightly understood, even passages of law become encouragement to the soul, not because they are burdensome, but rather because they are continual reminders of the forgiveness we have in Christ.

Together, the concepts of Law/Gospel are easy enough to understand. Where it becomes a hermeneutical system is when you realize that in covenantal hermeneutics, all scripture fits into one of these two categories. Theodore Beza famously wrote:

 “We divide this word into two principle parts: 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.”

Ursinus (the main architect of the Heidelberg Catechism) wrote that the Law/Gospel distinction is “the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures…and the chief and general divisions of the Holy Scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein.”

It is important to recognize that for those holding this hermeneutic, the distinction is absolute. Calvin, Luther, Beza, Ursinus, and others all repeatedly warn of the errors of confusing passages of Law with passages of Gospel. Calvin says that preaching that does not make this distinction will confuse listeners, and would be unable to give rest to the consciences of the congregants. Spurgeon (who also appears to have held to this distinction), wrote:

“There is no place on which men make greater mistakes then on the relations which exists between the law and the gospel…A certain class maintains that the law and gospel are mixed. These men understand not the truth and are false teachers” (You can read that entire sermon here).

Understanding the Law/Gospel distinction is not academic. Rather, it is a powerful aide in sanctification. There are far too many inside of churches who prove Spurgeon’s words true. They failed to be crushed by the law, and so they fail to see the greatness of the gospel. Also, I’ve found that the best counsel I can give a Christian who is overly introspective (the person who is continually doubting their salvation because they don’t think they have been changed enough, or they don’t think they are holy enough) is to walk them through this distinction. It is enormously freeing to remember that the commands of the Bible are not given to save us, and that if we trust in our obedience for our salvation we are destined for failure and disappointment.  It is foolish to trust in obedience to God’s law to save us, and it is equally foolish to trust in it after our conversion.

And this is exactly the strength of this approach. It helps us understand the greatness of the gospel by constantly reminding us of the centrality of what God has done for us. Today, there is gospel-centered everything (parenting, sports, missions, church, music, etc.). Well, this is gospel-centered hermeneutics. It puts at the core of Bible study the basic question: “does this verse teach me something I can’t do perfectly and have been forgiven for failing to keep, or does this verse show me what God has done to save me from my sins?”

The other aspect of the Law/Gospel distinction that I find helpful: it articulates my objections to all the other gospel-centered advice. Horton, who is the most able defender of the Law/Gospel distinction today, writes this:

“We often hear calls to ‘live the Gospel,’ and yet, nowhere in Scripture are we called to ‘live the Gospel.’ Instead, we are told to believe the Gospel and obey the Law, receiving God’s favor from the one and God’s guidance from the other.”

So, I hope its clear that I appreciate the Law/Gospel distinction, and I find it quite helpful in my personal battle against sin and in helping others in their fight as well.

Tomorrow I’ll post some of my concerns with this system. I’ll explain where I see it falling short, and why I ultimately do not end up persuaded that it is a distinction that should be on the ground-floor of one’s hermeneutics. If you want to do some more reading on this, I suggest Michael Horton’s explanation of the hermenutic here, and it pairs nicely with Frank Turk’s open letter to Horton here.

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.
  • Excellent article. Looking forward to tomorrow’s.

  • This is really helpful, Jesse. Thank you. Looking forward to tomorrow.

    I rarely comment on blogs, but I’ve been meaning to tell you guys this: CG has become the top blog in my feed. You guys consistently post top quality material week after week. All meat. No filler. And I am especially pleased by the fact that you aren’t afraid to engage in polemic when necessary, yet you always do so in a fair and even-handed manner. Label me ‘edified’.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Reagan. I appreciate the encouragement.

    • Suzanne T

      We stated, Reagan, top of my list for those reason too! I’d also like to mention the charitable treatment of commenters I have consistantly seen in here…at times painstakingly so! 🙂 (Looking forward to delving into this article later)

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  • Ash Curkpatrick

    Also looking forward to tomorrow’s post! Thank you.

    It’s good to have this distinction outlined as you’ve done here, Jesse. My church seems to take a covenentalist hermeneutic approach to scripture and at times I’ve had quite some difficulty trying to come to grips with their understanding of the purpose and intent of scripture and what I’ve seen to be a ‘blanket application’ of the use of the word gospel (which I believe has had practical implications). This, I believe, has lead to a lot of confusion in communication on both sides.

    Whilst I am coming to grips with the understanding of the hermeneutic itself, I’m finding that quite conversely to the Law/Gospel distinction and the centrality of God’s good work in all things – it actually has a detrimental effect towards the imperative need to make distinctions between Christians and non-Christians in terms of their application and understanding of scripture. I would also dare (maybe incorrectly?) to say that there can be a slight danger in watering down the importance of what Jesus did on the cross. That is, instead of Christ’s death and resurrection being the focal point for God’s redemptive work, it is more of a cumulative expression of God’s good and salvific character.

    My fear is (possibly quite incorrectly) that when viewing scripture strictly in this hermeneutical grid there is a loss or a lack of emphasis on 1) the debt of sin and the necessary repayment for sin for men to live in righteousness, and 2) the importance of active repentance in the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification. When a person comes to faith in Christ, they can do so because they can trust in God’s good and completed work revealed throughout scripture – instead of primarily in the completed work of Christ, specifically for the forgiveness of sins. For example, we can encourage non-believers to come to faith in Christ because when they understand his character, they can be free from the troubles and fears of the world. The ‘gospel’ as defined, solves these worldly and relational issues. This runs conversely to the idea that unless knowledge of the debt of sin comes about, and is subsequently relieved through the cross, relief of worldly fears, anxiety, etc are irrelevant contrasted to the impending wrath of God.

    I think it fails in distinguishing that the bible is primarily for believers – for their building up and edification. Continually growing and sanctified in the knowledge of God and His great work through history. Secondarily it is for non-believers in the sense that continually classifies them as enemies with no escape. The practical application in life for the knowledge of God’s good character is pointless and useless unless it first comes through the cross. Essentially, it places non-Christians and Christians alike in the position of perspective in line with OT Jews, who having faith in God’s goodness, saw the coming of Christ.

    This is not to say that anyone who holds a covenentalist view would deny these things – but that in practise, my belief (with what limited understanding I have) is that it has these deficiencies. I’ve tried carefully to spell out my thinking, which may be completely off, but I hope it is at least coherent and I’m not just continuous rambling nonsense. Or maybe I’m ruining points you may bring up tomorrow. So with that, sorry, I’ll stop now 🙂

    • That is very well said Ash. Let me know after reading the next post if there are still questions you want to bring up here. Thanks!

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