Pan-Protestantism on Law and Gospel?

Olevianus, Beza, Perkins, Twisse, The Marrow Men: Lutherans? You decide.

Caspar Olevianus (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).

Marrow of Modern Divinity. Now, the law is a doctrine partly known by nature, teaching us that there is a God, and what God is, and what he requires us to do, binding all reasonable creatures to perfect obedience, both internal and external, promising the favour of God, and everlasting life to all those who yield perfect obedience thereunto, and denouncing the curse of God and everlasting damnation to all those who are not perfectly correspondent thereunto. But the gospel is a doctrine revealed from heaven by the Son of God, presently after the fall of mankind into sin and death, and afterwards manifested more clearly and fully to the patriarchs and prophets, to the evangelists and apostles, and by them spread abroad to others; wherein freedom from sin, from the curse of the law, the wrath of God, death, and hell, is freely promised for Christ’s sake unto all who truly believe on his name (The Marrow of Modern Divinity; 1645, repr. 1978, 337-38. NB: The author of the Marrow was designated only as E.F. Therefore some scholars doubt whether Edward Fisher was actually the author).

William Twisse (1578-1646). How many ways does the Word of God teach us to come to the Kingdom of heaven? Two. Which are they? The Law and the Gospel. What says the Law? Do this and live. What says the Gospel? Believe in Jesus Christ and you shall be saved. Can we come to the Kingdom of God by the way of God’s Law? No.Why so? Because we cannot do it. Why can we not do it? Because we are all born in sin. What is it to be none in sin? To be naturally prone to evil and …that that which is good. How did it come to pass that we are all borne in sin? By reason of our first father Adam. Which way then do you hope to come tot he Kingdom of Heaven? By the Gospel? What is the Gospel? The glad tidings of salvation by Jesus Christ. To whom is the glad tidings brought: to the righteousness? No. Why so? For two reasons. What is the first? Because there is none that is righteous and sin not. What is the other reason? Because if we were righteous, i.e., without sin we should have no need of Christ Jesus. To whom then is this glad tiding brought? To sinners. What, to all sinners? To whom then? To such as believe and repent. This is the first lesson, to know the right way to the Kingdom of Heaven.: and this consists in knowing the difference between the Law and the Gospel. What does the Law require? That we should be without sin. What does the Gospel require? That we should confess our sins, amend our lives, and then through faith in Christ we shall be saved. The Law requires what? Perfect obedience. The Gospel what? Faith and true repentance. (A Brief Catechetical Exposition of Christian Doctrine, 1633).

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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 can see how Twisse’s proper qualification on the gospel (“To whom then is this glad tiding brought? To sinners. What, to all sinners? To whom then? To such as believe and repent.” — i.e. it’s not good news for you if you don’t repent and believe) would stick in the craw of Amyraldian troublemakers, but how on earth could anything Twisse says be considered distinctly Lutheran? Just because he doesn’t discuss the three uses of the Law?

    Surely not every theological concept has to be expressed in every place one writes.

    Scratchin’ his noggin,


  2. TF,

    The post is a response to those who want to build a Berlin Wall between the “Reformed’ view of law/gospel and justification and “the Lutheran” view.

  3. Dear RSC,

    Whilst the reformed pitted law against gospel (from one perspective), they were different from the Lutherans by including commands (other than the command to faith) in the gospel itself. Hence, there is no Pan-Protestant understanding of the law / gospel distinction. Indeed, there is a variety of understandings within the reformed tradition. Take Perkins for example. Keep reading the same work from which you quote above, because you’ll see that while he pits law against gospel, he includes commands in the gospel something very different to Lutheranism:

    “For the law is thus far effectual as to declare unto us the disease of sin and by accident to exasperate and stir it up, but it affords no remedy. Now the Gospel, as it teacheth what is to be done, so it hath also the efficacy of the Holy Ghost adjoined to it, by whom being regenerated we have strength both to believe the Gospel and to perform those things which it commandeth. The law therefore is first in order of teaching and the Gospel second.” (Perkins, Art of Prophesying VII, Breward 1970:341-342.).

    Ursinus wants to include the command to repent in the gospel, particularly against the Flaccians:

    Ans. We deny the major [i.e. We deny there is no precept, or commandment belonging to the gospel”], if it is taken generally; for this precept is peculiar to the gospel, which commands us to believe, to embrace the benefits of Christ, and to commence new obedience, or that righteousness which the law requires. If it be objected that the law also commands us to believe in God, we reply that it does this only in general, by requiring us to give credit to all the divine promises, precepts and denunciations, and that with a threatening of punishment, unless we do it. But the gospel commands us expressly and particularly to embrace, by faith, the promise of grace; and also exhorts us by the Holy Spirit, and by the Word, to walk worthy of our heavenly calling. This however it does only in general, not specifying any duty in particular, saying thou shalt do this, or that, but it leaves this to the law; as, on the contrary, it does not say in general, believe all the promises of God, leaving this to the law; but it says in particular, Believe this promise; fly to Christ, and thy sins shall be forgiven thee (Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism 19.3.4, Williard, p. 105).

    I could multiply citations like this from a variety of authors.

    Generally speaking the gospel for the reformed was the covenant of grace, which of course includes commands, but commands not to be justified, but out of gratitude–unlike the law (covenant of works).


  4. ps: It’s worth reflecting on how much the Lutheran law / gospel distinction contributed to the rise of Pietism, which was a pendulum swing in the other direction.

  5. Marty,

    I understand that there were differences. I’ve posted on that on the HB. We’re talking past each other, I think.

    My concern is simply to establish the idea that the old Reformed writers believed in a distinction between law and gospel. In North America, in some “Reformed” quarters, the very existence of ANY distinction, in Reformed theology, between law and gospel is disputed. ANY distinction is routinely dismissed as LUTHERAN.

  6. Dear RSC,

    OK, we’re cool. I understand your context now. Thanks for filling me in. In my context it’s the complete opposite–bordering on antinomianism.

    God bless you,


  7. Dear Marty,

    We have plenty of antinomianism here. That’s why I wrote chapters in RRC on the Sabbath (4th commandment) and the RPW (2nd commandment) but sanctification can only take place in the context of the gospel. If we don’t get the gospel right, we’ll never achieve the goal of sanctification.

  8. Dear RSC,

    Amen and hear, hear! Calvin and Owen are magnificent on just this point: Works arise from gratitude not guilt, from having been justified, not trying to be justified. It’s so simple, so profound, and yet so easily missed. This is precisely where we differ from Rome, not to mention popular evangelicalism and the emergents. Keep up your great work of fighting this fight.

    Many Blessings,


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