For centuries, Reformational Theologians have rightly noted that in the Bible God speaks two fundamentally different words: law and gospel. The law is God’s word of demand, the gospel is God’s word of deliverance. The law tells us what to do, the gospel tells us what God has done. So, when we speak of the distinction between law and gospel we are referring to different speech acts–or what linguist John Austin calls “illocutionary stances”–that run throughout the whole Bible. Everything in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is either in the form of an obligatory imperative or a declaratory indicative. “Hence,” wrote Martin Luther, “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”
This may seem like a distinction that would fascinate only the theologian or linguist. But, believe it or not, every ounce of confusion regarding justification, sanctification, the human condition, God’s grace, how God relates to us, the nature of the Christian life, and so on, is due to our failure to properly distinguish between the law and the gospel.
Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity. (Theodore Beza)
Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology–the entire Christian life, even–depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel. (Martin Luther)
Obviously, both God’s law and God’s gospel come from God which means both are good. But, both do very different things. Serious life confusion happens when we fail to understand their distinct “job descriptions.” We’ll wrongly depend on the law to do what only the gospel can do, and vice versa. As Mike Horton says, “Where the law pronounces us all ‘guilty before God’ (Romans 3:19), the gospel announces ‘God’s gift of righteousness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (vv Romans 3:21). The law is unyielding. It commands, but doesn’t give. The law says, “Do!”, but the gospel says, “Done!”
So, I’m going to be doing a series of posts that will spell out this distinction and hopefully explain why it’s so important. If we are ever going to experience the unconditional freedom that Jesus paid so dearly to secure for sinners like me, we must have a clear understanding of this crucial distinction.
To get things started I thought I would post this poetic and helpful hymn from Ralph Erskine where the job descriptions of both the law and the gospel are clearly spelled out and distinguished. Enjoy…
The law supposing I have all,
Does ever for perfection call;
The gospel suits my total want,
And all the law can seek does grant.
The law could promise life to me,
If my obedience perfect be;
But grace does promise life upon
My Lord’s obedience alone.
The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done;
The former cannot ease my grief,
The latter yields me full relief.
The law will not abate a mite,
The gospel all the sum will quit;
There God in thret’nings is array’d
But here in promises display’d.
The law excludes not boasting vain,
But rather feeds it to my bane;
But gospel grace allows no boasts,
Save in the King, the Lord of Hosts.
Lo! in the law Jehovah dwells,
But Jesus is conceal’d;
Whereas the gospel’s nothing else
But Jesus Christ reveal’d.
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