Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Only Lutheran?

Lane at Green Baggins has been addressing this. Here’s part 1 and part 2 and part 3. The answer, of course, is no. Here are some resources:

There is an entire chapter, chock full O’ quotations from classic Reformed theologians and footnoted references to other primary and secondary sources, in CJPM devoted to this question. There is also a extensive collection of primary source quotations at my WSC site on this very question.

Here are just a few to whet your appetite:

John Calvin. For Paul often means by the term “law” the rule of righteous living by which God requires of us what is his own, giving us no hope of life unless we completely obey him, and adding on the other hand a curse if we deviate even in the slightest degree. This Paul does when he contends that we are pleasing to God through grace and are accounted righteous through his pardon, because nowhere is found that observance of the law for which the reward has been promised. Paul therefore justly makes contraries of the righteousness of the law and of that of the gospel [Romans 3:21 ff.; Galatians 3:10 ff.; etc.] (Institutes, 2.9.4).

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83). Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel? A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

Caspar Olevian (1536-87). For this reason the distinction between law and Gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith (Ad Romanos Notae, 148; Geneva, 1579).

Theodore Beza (1534-1605). We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

William Perkins 1558-1602). The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust,1996, 54-55).

If the Reformed theologian J H Alsted was right to say that justification was the article of the standing or falling of the church, then the law/gospel distinction is the term of the standing or falling of the gospel. Without this distinction there is no good news.

As a matter of history, without this distinction there Reformation would not have happened. The medieval church spoke about the gospel for 1000 years but when they said “gospel,” they did not mean, “the announcement of the unmerited and undeserved salvation of the elect on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ received through faith resting and receiving alone.” The medieval church defined “gospel,” as the “new law.” The Bible was said to be composed of old law and new law. The distinction between them is that there was said to be more grace, with which we were said to be infused by the sacraments to enable us to cooperate with grace, in the new covenant to keep the new law. Truly, in the medieval church we were “in by grace” and we “stayed in by faith and works.”

The Reformation rejection of that scheme was foundational. Are there differences between the confessional Reformed understanding of the law/gospel distinction and the confessional Lutheran construction? Yes, but it is categorically not the case that the law/gospel distinction is only Lutheran.

Resources

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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15 comments

  1. The Law/Gospel is quite biblical. For evidence please read 2 Corinthians 3 for the Letter/Spirit contrast as defined by the Apostle Paul.

    Not only is it biblical it is for all practical purposes forgotten in the church of Christ. Makes one wonder if we give all too much priority to the theological systems over the clear truth of God’s word seeing that the question should not need to be asked in the first place.

  2. Hi Moe,

    Thanks for reading.

    I quite agree with you that this is a biblical distinction, but the medieval church was quite aware of 2 Cor 3:6. They quoted it repeatedly, following at least prt of St Augustine’s understanding of it in primarily historical categories. The problem is that the the law/gospel distinction refers to more than just the distinction between the old and new covenants. After all the law and gospel were expressed in the old covenant (under Moses) and in the new covenant (under Christ).

    When confessional Protestants speak about the difference between “law and gospel” we’re thinking about an important hermeneutical distinction. I won’t go over it here since there are so many links and resources above.

    This is a vital distinction, one that a lot of so-called “Reformed” seem to think isn’t Reformed despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

  3. Thanks for this list–having these resources in one place will help in future, I’m sure of it. The law/gospel distinction is so vital, and one of the things I’m drumming into folk at church at every available opportunity.

    I’ve a question on the matter of the law/gospel distinction as “an important hermeneutical distinction”. The way Lutherans sometimes express this (though not quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, by any means), they make it sound like every verse can be neatly classified into “law” or “gospel”, which I don’t think is the Reformed approach? Mike Horton talks about law/gospel as finding its roots in the covenants of works and grace respectively; is that how you see the hermeneutical link working out?

  4. Hi Philip,

    Yes, I agree with Mike. This is how many of our covenant theologians proceed. Ursinus did so explicitly as did other, later, writers. Rollock was very good on this.

    This is a difference with the Lutherans, who typically deny the covenant of works.

    I agree that sometimes the orthodox Lutherans can give the impression that one can put the passage into the law/gospel machine and crank out an answer. My approach, and I think it’s the approach of the Reformed tradition generally, is to ask “How do law and gospel relate in this passage?”

    Sometimes the answers come easily. Sometimes the answers are a little more difficult but it’s an essential question. Perkins was clearly operating with this sort of hermeneutic.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate this post! Thank you for defending what is the most crucial hermeneutical principle we must hold on to at every cost. My only question has to do with using this principle in relation to sanctification as well as to justification. Am I correct in saying that there is difference within the Reformed camp, and quite possibly in the writings of various men in the history of the Reformed churches, on this issue? Do we need to have a law/Gospel distinction in the sphere of sanctification? I am not asking whether or not we are sanctified by the same faith by which we are justified. I am simply wondering if we can apply the same law/gospel distinction in regard to sanctification. Thanks for any thoughts you have for me.

  6. Hi Nick,

    Well, there have been some who’ve tried to make the law into gospel in sanctification. We have to remember the elenchtic function of the law even in sanctification. The law never gives what it demands, not even in sanctification. Does our relation to the law change? Yes. We’re no longer under condemnation. We come to love the law and see it for what it is (good, holy, and righteous), but that doesn’t make the law into gospel nor the gospel into the law, not even in sanctification.

  7. Thanks for another great post, Dr. Clark.

    In addition to the list above, I found Dr. Michael Horton’s exegetical defense of Law and Gospel in “Covenant and Salvation” to be extremely helpful.

  8. Would it be incorrect to say, as Tom Wright does, that “law” (nomos) refers exclusively to Torah in Paul’s writings?

    It seems to me that the assumption that nomos=any-form-of-imperative results from the context of the Reformation and not necessarily on sound exegesis. Reviewing this assumption could radically change how we read Paul.

  9. The resources you point to are somewhat ambiguous and seem to be fighting a different battle – however they seem, in places, support Wright’s view that the Torah refers to the Law given to the Jews i.e. Torah:
    > However, his ordinary use of the word refers
    > to the laws or rules given at Sinai.

    Put another way, is there any passage in Paul in which “nomos” cannot mean Torah?

    I wonder if we have not too long read the english word “law” to mean any kind of imperative and thus missed Paul’s distinction between “faith and Torah” and instead read “faith and legalism”. Not that Torah is in any way bad, Romans 7 makes that clear. Indeed if we read “laws” as “legalism” we suddenly see that legalism is good!

    Is not Paul’s chief purpose to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers into one family and not, as some have supposed, to lay out a radical new Soteriology?

  10. Marc,

    As far as I’m concerned, the NPP is flat wrong about this. It’s premised on poor exegesis, poor history of exegesis, and bad theology. Have you read Horton’s response to Tom Wright? This has all been hashed out. Have you read the resources to which I pointed you above?

    What is “ambiguous” about Hortons’ dismantling of Tom Wright’s exegesis and theology? What’s ambiguous about Guy Water’s deconstruction of the NPP or ambiguous about the other responses to which I pointed you? Ambiguous means “unclear.” There’s nothing unclear the rejection of the NPP by Steve Baugh in CJPM and elsewhere. You may disagree with it, but I can’t see how it’s ambiguous.

  11. I would add to Dr. Clark’s resources a chart that Douglas Moo drew up showing the various (and there were most certainly a variety) of uses of the word “nomos” in the NT. There is no way that N.T. Wright is right. You would have to reject every orthodox theologian in the history of the New Testament church, from the apostle Paul onward, in order to side with Wright.

    Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your response to my question above. I love the quote by Bunyan:

    “Run, John, run,” the law demands
    It gives me neither feet nor hands
    Better news the Gospel brings
    It bids me fly and gives me wings

  12. Your link to part 2 of Lane’s series need to be fixed from:

    http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/is-the-lawgospel-distinction-only-lutheran-part-2/

    To:

    http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2008/10/17/is-the-lawgospel-distinction-only-lutheran-part-2/

    Also Lane did do a part 3 available at:

    http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2008/10/28/is-the-lawgospel-distinction-only-lutheran-part-3/

    Does anybody know if there has been interaction between the Reformed understanding of Law and Gospel and the 25 thesis of C.F.W. Walther?

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