The ongoing conversation regarding the nature of the gospel, the role and purpose of God’s law, the relationship between justification, sanctification and union with Christ, and how all of this impacts preaching and the life of the Christian, is super-important (see here). These are big issues. I’ve devoted my life and ministry to working these things out.
One good friend of mine who has been instrumental in helping me think these things through is Mike Horton (when I recently referred to him as my personal theological “Yoda”, he responded by saying, “Yoda only in body shape and odd speech patterns”).
Mike is the author of of over twenty books including his recently published one-volume Systematic Theology entitled The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. He is Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California. In addition to his work at the Seminary, he is the president of White Horse Inn, for which he co-hosts the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated weekly radio talk-show exploring issues of Reformation theology in American Christianity. He is also the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine.
Recently, I asked Mike a series of questions with regard to the issues that I mentioned above. Over the next week I’ll be posting his answers to my questions in the hopes that he might bring theological help and clarity to those of us who long to see a gospel revolution sweep the church.
In what sense has the current conversation been merely a matter of different emphases, and in what sense are there genuine disagreements?
I have only had opportunity to read bits here and there. However, I can speak to your question more generally. Sometimes it’s no more than emphasis. However, faithful preaching includes the law and the gospel—never assuming that believers know either well enough that one can be heard without the other. Of course, we do have to be sensitive to different contexts of pastoral ministry, but every believer and therefore every church is simultaneously justified and sinful. Not only at the beginning, but always, every believer needs the law and the gospel.
It would be a lot simpler if we could say that congregations tending toward legalism need more gospel and those leaning toward antinomianism need more law, but I question that this is how it works.
In the first place, I’m not sure that “legalism” and “antinomianism” are the best categories for what seems to me at least to dominate contemporary “Bible Belt” religion in the U.S. today. Sure, there are some antinomians (in theory) who believe that you can be justified without being sanctified—even without continuing in faith. Sure, there are some who say that the third use of the law (guiding believers) is no longer in effect. In their view, referring to the Ten Commandments as normative for how we should live would be going back “under the law” in the sense that Paul condemned. I’m also sure that there are legalists out there. But the portrait of the preacher threatening card-players with the fires of hell is a distant memory, replaced by the smiling motivational speaker telling you how you can have your best life now if you follow his seven easy principles.
That’s where I think it all gets so tricky. We’re using theological categories when one of the most transformative events in our churches has been cultural: namely, what Philip Reif called “the triumph of the therapeutic.” What we’re dealing with today in the majority of cases, I believe, is not accurately described as either antinomianism or legalism, but a pragmatic and narcissistic appeal to moralism. It’s not “stop going to parties or you’ll go to hell,” but “follow these ten principles and your life will be a party.” It’s “principles for living” on any number of life management topics, mining the Bible for quotes, but for the most part ignoring the interests of the text itself.
So you can’t really call this diet antinomian: it’s full of imperatives (rules, steps, principles, motivational tips—some kind of “To Do” list). But you also can’t call it legalistic, because the reference point isn’t really salvation or damnation—or even God, but me and my happiness or unhappiness. God only makes a cameo appearance. The whole paradigm is what sociologist Christian Smith defines as: moralistic, therapeutic deism. Say what you will about the legalists and antinomians of yesteryear, but despite their heterodoxy, they were more interested in the Triune God and in interpreting and applying Scripture than a lot of what passes for evangelical preaching today.
Can you explain the law-gospel distinction for those who may be unfamiliar with it? And why is this so important?
It’s important to recognize that in Scripture “law” and “gospel” can be used in two different senses.
First, there’s the redemptive-historical transition from “the law” as an era when the church was under the supervision of the Mosaic types and shadows, to “the gospel” as an era in which the old covenant is fulfilled and is therefore obsolete. In thise sense, law and gospel are not opposed, even though the latter is greater than the former.
Second, “law” and “gospel” refer to radically opposed principles for gaining the covenantal inheritance. The Mosaic covenant was strictly conditioned on Israel’s obedience: “Do this and you shall live.” It was about long life in the land, not about everlasting life. It was about salvation from the nation’s enemies, as a type of the deliverance from God’s wrath and the powers of darkness. Paul’s agitators had confused these two covenants—the Abrahamic and the Mosaic—and were trying to secure the everlasting promise by way of the temporal covenant (something never intended in the Old Testament).
So in this second sense, “law” and “gospel” refer to two antithetical answers to the question, “How can I be saved?” This is what most people have meant by the need to clearly distinguish law and gospel. There is basic continuity between law and gospel in the redemptive-historical sense (as Old and New Testaments), but radical discontinuity between law and gospel in a covenantal sense. That’s why the law-gospel distinction was espeically developed in Reformed theology by way of the differences between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
Law is everything in the Scriptures that commands and gospel is everything in the Scriptures that promises God’s favor in Christ. If we confuse these, we’ll weaken the law, lowering the bar to something that we can (or think we can) actually clear, and we’ll make the gospel anything but good news.
The Triune God directs us by his law, but delivers us by his gospel. This distinction was not only crucial to Luther and Lutheranism but to Calvin and Calvinism. The gospel is never an exhortation for us to do something, but an announcement of something that God has done for us. We are called to obey the gospel—that is, to embrace it, but the gospel itself is the good news about what God has done for us in Christ. Beza said that “confusion of law and gospel is one of the principal sources of the corruptions in the church.” Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said the same. So did the great Elizabethan Puritan William Perkins, as well as John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and Charles Hodge. On and on we could go. So when some say that that this is merely a Lutheran distinctive, it is ill-informed. It’s routine in our standard theological works and, as I said, it’s woven deeply throughout our whole Reformed system in the covenant of works-grace scheme.
It’s easy to see when law and gospel are being confused when Rome says, “Do penance and you will be saved,” or Charles Finney says, “Perfect obedience to the law is the necessary condition of present justification.” It’s more difficult to recognize that the gentle, affirming, smiling stream of exhortations and life coaching in our day is also a form of law (not necessarily biblical) that is often presented as if it were the gospel.
The word “antinomianism” has been thrown around a lot in this conversation. Can you explain what it is?
It means, literally, “against law.” One branch of the ancient Manichean (Gnostic) movement taught this in the second century. It survived in various sects during the Middle Ages. It’s usually part and parcel of “enthusiasm”: the contrast between the Spirit speaking to me in my heart, directly and immediately, versus the Spirit speaking through an external Word, preaching, sacraments, or church officers. So it has often gone hand-in-hand with extreme forms of mysticism.
In 17th-century England, that was certainly true. Basically, the “Calvinistic” antinomians believed that the elect were justified from all eternity (otherwise their faith would be a condition of salvation). Not only in regeneration, but in conversion and sanctification, the believer does nothing (even by grace) but is always acted upon. It was the “let go and let God” philosophy that became especially prominent in the Keswick or “higher life” movement (despite its more Arminian underpinnings). Many within this group denied the third use of the law. Because we are in Christ, the law has no place in the believer’s life.
We see antinomianism today, as I mentioned above, especially in the “carnal Christian” teaching. However, it should be said that many very sound people (like Thomas Goodwin and John Owen) were charged with antinomianism by legalists (like Richard Baxter and John Goodwin). The “Marrow Controversy” in early 18th-century Scotland was an example of this. A great theological textbook, written by a formative Reformed orthodox theologian (Edward Fisher) in the late sixteenth century, was rediscovered by preachers like Thomas Boston. Yet now, this standard Reformed teaching was regarded by many ministers in the Church of Scotland as “antinomian.” That wasn’t because it actually was antinomian, but because the Church had become increasingly dominated by legalism.
To be continued…
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