Federal Vision Error #8: Denying An Essential Protestant Distinction

Wes White continues his analysis of the Joint Federal Vision Statement from 2007. The latest post is on their denial of the Protestant distinction between law and gospel. It is a good indicator of the prevailing theological, hermeneutical, and historical ignorance of our age that the distinction between law and gospel is considered novel, sub-Reformed, or radical.

John Calvin. But they observe not that in the antithesis between Legal and Gospel righteousness, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all kinds of works, with whatever name adorned, are excluded, (Galatians 3:11, 12. For he says that the righteousness of the Law consists in obtaining salvation by doing what the Law requires, but that the righteousness of faith consists in believing that Christ died and rose again, (Romans 10:5-9.) Moreover, we shall afterwards see, at the proper place, that the blessings of sanctification and justification, which we derive from Christ, are different. Hence it follows, that not even spiritual works are taken into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith (Institutes, 3.11.14).

John Calvin. For the words of Paul always hold true, that the difference between the Law and the Gospel lies in this, that the latter does not like the former promise life under the condition of works, but from faith. What can be clearer than the antithesis — “The righteousness of the law is in this wise, The man who doeth these things shall live in them. But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh thus, Whoso believeth,” etc. ( Romans 10:5.) To the same effect is this other passage, “If the inheritance were of the law, faith would be made void and the promise abolished. Therefore it is of faith that in respect of grace the promise might be sure to every one that believeth.” ( Romans 4:14.) As to ecclesiastical laws, they must themselves see to them: we acknowledge one Legislator, to whom it belongs to deliver the rule of life, as from him we have life (Antidote to the Council of Trent, 1547).

John Calvin. Though then there is a complete concord between the law and the gospel, as God, who is not inconsistent with himself, is the author of both; yet as to justification, the law accords not with the gospel, any more than light with darkness: for the law promises life to those who serve God; and the promise is conditional, dependent on the merits of works. The gospel also does indeed promise righteousness under condition; but it has no respect to the merits of works. What then? It is only this, that they who are condemned and lost are to embrace the favor offered to them in Christ. (Commentary on Habakkuk 2:4)

John Calvin. Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that that righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the law. (Calvin commenting on Romans 10:9) (Institutes, 3.11.17)

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).

Zacharias Ursinus. In What Does The Law Differ From The Gospel? The exposition of this question is necessary for a variety of considerations, and especially that we may have a proper understanding of the law and the gospel, to which a knowledge of that in which they differ greatly contributes. According to the definition of the law, which says, that it promises rewards to those who render perfect obedience; and that it promises them freely, inasmuch as no obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God, it would seem that it does not differ from the gospel, which also promises eternal life freely. Yet notwithstanding this seeming agreement, there is a great difference between the law and the gospel. They differ, 1. As to the mode of revelation peculiar to each. The law is known naturally: the gospel was divinely revealed after the fall of man. 2. In matter or doctrine. The law declares the justice of God separately considered: the gospel declares it in connection with his mercy. The law teaches what we ought to be in order that we may be saved: the gospel teaches in addition to this, how we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ. 3. In their conditions or promises. The law promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us: the gospel promises the same blessings upon the condition that we exercise faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf; or the gospel teaches that we are justified freely by faith in Christ. With this faith is also connected, as by an indissoluble bond, the condition of new obedience. 4. In their effects. The law works wrath, and is the ministration of death: the gospel is the ministration of life and of the Spirit (Rom. 4:15, 2 Cor. 3:7) (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 92).

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).

Edward Fisher (c.1601-1655). 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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