Does "Law" = OT and "Gospel" = NT?

Eliza writes to ask,

You say the Bible in the OT says “do” and the NT says “done”. True, but some Puritan said that the false gospel is “do this and live” and the true gospel is “live and do this”.

Once we are saved we will “do”, for we were created in Christ Jesus for good works. Would you agree? (I know the stuff we subsequently do is only by God’s help and grace, but we do “do”– out of thankfulness, not for merit).

rsc-july08To be clear, what I said is “the law says ‘do’ and the gospel says ‘done.” The law and the gospel are found throughout the bible. This is a common misunderstanding so I’m glad you gave me an opportunity to clear it up.

 The gospel is found throughout God’s Word from Genesis to Malachi. Every time God’s Word announces that salvation will be accomplished (Gen 3:15; Gen 15, Gen 17 etc) that is a reflection of or an announcement of the gospel. The prologue to the law given at Sinai is an announcement of the gospel: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt…” In Exodus 14 when the Lord promises to deliver the church out of Egypt, that’s gospel.

In the same way, the law is found throughout the NT. Our Lord himself preached the law repeatedly. When he said, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28) he was preaching the law.

When Protestants speak of “the law” and “the gospel” in this way we’re speaking about what grammarians call a “mood” of speech. The law is in the imperative mood. The gospel is in the “indicative” mood. To add a layer of complication there are imperatives connected to the gospel so not every imperative is law but we also don’t want to turn faith into a work. You can read more about this here and here To add another layer, it is true that Protestants sometimes have spoken about the OT generally as law and the NT generally as gospel insofar as there is proportionately more law under the OT and there is proportionately more gospel revealed in the NT. When our writers have spoken thus they are usually speaking about the progressive accomplishment and revelation of redemption. It was promised in the OT and fulfilled in the NT.

As to your second question, in Reformed circles we speak about the “third use of the law.” So yes, as you say, we have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone in order that we might be sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The power of sanctification is never the law (i.e. the command: “love God and love neighbor”). The law is like a set of railroad tracks. The tracks provide no power for the train but the train must stay on the tracks in order to function. To go off the tracks is to break the law, which is sin, but the law always remains law. It only says, “obey God, love neighbor.” It never gives any power to do what it commands. Only the gospel has power, as it were, to move the train.

Through the gospel the Holy Spirit makes us alive, gives us faith, unites us to Christ, and makes us truly thankful. By grace alone we live in thankful obedience to God’s law, we die to self and live to Christ, we sin and confess our sin, we daily repent of it (turn away), and embrace Christ and seek to be conformed more and more to his image by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, in union with Christ, by the power and presence of the Spirit.

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  • 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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  1. I certainly agree completely with the notion that the gospel as well as the law are not limited to either Testament. In a hurry I was using shorthand, and not very good shorthand, to make my point. At the same time it was the OT Jews that Paul was speaking against in Galatians who used the Law given in the OT (the Mosaic covenant) the wrong way. He noted that “Sinai gendereth to bondage”–not that it was intended as such, but because the OT Jews used it so as to be in bondage (Galatians 4:24). And Jesus’ pointed words to the rich young ruler were likewise law. Understood.

    (After rereading your post, though, it seems as if you would say the Mosaic covenant was intended as such–“Do this and live”), while you note the preface displaying God’s mercy.

    However, I am still dubious about using the word “law” in such a negative way, for although it has no power to bring about obedience to it, it still is the reflection of the character of God. It’s still glorious, though people cannot keep it (without first being converted, and then only by the power of God’s Spirit, and never in this life perfectly.)

    I have not yet read the other posts which you have linked to, so I really do need to further digest this topic. I have been reading Ernest Kevan’s The Grace of Law, which I find fascinating as well as illuminating. Thank you.

  2. Eliza,

    When you finish reading Kevan, I hope that you will read more balanced presentations concerning the law. Start with Galatians 3. See what Paul says about the law there. The problem is never the law, of course, in itself. The law is holy, just, and good. It reflects God’s character. The problem is our sin and mixed with the law the combination is deadly.

    As to the history in Reformed theology of speaking of the law this way see chapter 12 in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

    You can also see original sources in Reformed theology on this very topic here.

    This distinction was foundational to the Reformation.

  3. Thanks for all the references.
    Do you think I’ve never read Galatians 3?
    So far I’ve said nothing that differs from your view at all, except apparently you do not appreciate Kevan’s book.

  4. Eliza,

    I don’t doubt that you’ve read Gal 3 but the medieval church read Gal 3 for 1000 years and they misunderstood it because they didn’t see the distinction between law and gospel. They read the bible as “old law” and “new law” and so when they saw the words “faith” (which they understood to refer to “sanctity”) and “gospel” and “not from the works of the law” they understood them in a sense that caused them to miss the Apostle’s intent. For Paul, “the works of the law” is synonymous with “by the flesh.” In 3:1-14 Paul teaches that, because of our sin, the law isn’t our friend relative to justification. It is our guide and norm as creatures and especially as believers but it is not “gracious.” It does not forgive. It does not give unmerited favor. It does not give what it demands. The law only demands. That is why Paul quotes Deut 27:26. He wants to remind the Galatians that, should they persist in attempting to present themselves to God on the basis of law keeping, they are condemned by the law.

    I do appreciate aspects of Kevan’s book but I criticize aspects of his argument in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. In another volume, however, the title of which escapes me just now, he did complement the account he gives in The Grace of Law which helps to complete the picture.

    In the 20th century most Reformed folk have never heard of the law/gospel distinction and so I’m trying to help folks recover an essential part of our confession.

  5. “In the 20th century most Reformed folk have never heard of the law/gospel distinction and so I’m trying to help folks recover an essential part of our confession.”

    And, unfortunately, I believe that there are a fair number who hear of it, and who don’t like it.

    I preached from a great passage this past Lord’s Day (Mark 7:1-23), having given it the title “For that little Pharisee in all of us.” I sometimes wonder if it is that little Pharisee that makes some of us in Reformed congregations bristle when the law/gospel distinction is brought up, and not necessarily that we are really to engage in arguments over “Lutheran vs. Reformed” theological distinctions.

    I found not a few of the Heidelberg Disputation’s Theological Theses to have come in handy in wrapping up the sermon.

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