Is the Gospel Preached or Lived?

Re-published from February 17, 2008.

Colin raised this question a while back on Unashamed Workman. He asked for comments and, as Mike had just touched on this during the WSC “Missional and Reformed” Conference, I piped up:

Hi Colin,

This business of “living the gospel” is one of those popular evangelical slogans that, on reflection, turns out to be not very helpful. The gospel is by definition ‘good news.’ It’s an announcement. The gospel is the announcement of what Christ has done for his people. That’s why Paul calls preaching foolishness, because it’s hard to believe that God is going to do anything significant with such an impossible message about the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. But that’s what we believe.

To call Christians to “live the gospel” is to turn the good news into a new law. Surely the gospel has consequent obligations but the gospel is not something that we can live. The Christian life is something that is lived, by grace, as a consequence of the gospel.

I would encourage everyone to listen to Mike Horton’s analysis of this call to “live the gospel.”

It can be downloaded at the WSC bookstore site for a nominal fee. The one you want is #1877, “Why the Marks Need the Mission.”



Colin replied by saying that he took the phrase “living the gospel” to mean “living in the light of the gospel.” Would that were true—and it’s probably true sometimes but increasingly it isn’t true. I see precious little evidence that the Emerging folks mean “living in the light of the gospel.” I see every evidence that they mean precisely, “Living the gospel.”

Tim Bridges, who used the phrase which sparked the blog and my critique replied to say:

Dr. Clark,

Point taken, thanks for the insight.

I was speaking in reference to Paul’s words in Romans 5:1-5. I was not suggesting that we should live according to a new law. Nor did Paul suggest such a thing when he called believers to ‘walk worthy of the calling with which you were called’ (Eph. 4:1). I think it is helpful to examine ourselves in relation to the implications of the good news of the Gospel. That is all I meant. I can definitely see how it could be misconstrued, however. Thanks for the encouragement to be precise with language.

Tim Bridges

Clark replies:

My point (and I hope folk will listen to Mike’s lecture) is that the gospel is not a law. We ought not to make it a law. To speak of “living the gospel” makes it a law. This is Emerging/missional “speak” that makes the gospel a new law because the E/M folk don’t distinguish between law and gospel. I’m sensitive to this because there is a long Western tradition of speaking of the “old law” and the “new law” so that, under the “new law” the Spirit is said to aid us so that we can obey it. In other words moralism is just a step away from most of us.

If we want Christians to obey the law (and we should!) we ought to say simply, “Because Christ obeyed, died, was risen and ascended for us who believe we ought to live worthily of the grace that we have received.”

I appreciate the intent but slogans are especially powerful in our age. Many never get beyond the slogan.

In our time especially we need to be clear that the gospel is something to be heard and believed. The Christian life is something to be lived, in the light of the gospel according to God’s law.

I’m sure we agree in substance. My point concerns the rhetoric.


Tim says:

Dr. Clark,

Thanks, and well said. I truly want to understand the essence of your point. If we toss out the phrase/rhetoric ‘live the Gospel’ (which I’m fine with eliminating — I honestly had no idea it was so incendiary), do you take issue with the self-examination questions listed here?

After all, that is the context of the post and the course session: Examining our *lives* in light of the *Gospel* before standing to preach. The Edwards quote from the previous post says it well: ‘Resolved, to *live* so, at all times, as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the *gospel*, and another world’.

The point was to ask oursleves if we have appropriated clear notions of the Gospel in our private lives. It seems the phrase ‘live the Gospel’ muddied what should have been clear waters.

Thanks for pressing us on this, brother. Obviously, I know that you only have concerns for the clarity and purity of our message at heart.


Clark Replies:

Well, yes, I suppose I do. The gospel is not a law. It is the gospel. These are two distinct categories. The gospel is not a cause for shame and repentance. The gospel is a cause for hope and joy. If you want shame (and we need that) and if you want repentance (and we need that!) then reckon your life according to the law of God.

We must resist every effort, however well intentioned, to make the gospel into a law. It isn’t a law.

Does that help?

I post all this because last week’s White Horse Inn program, “Good Advice v Good News” was about this exact question and I want preachers (and others) to see that this is a live question. We really do need to be clear what we’re about in the pulpit. We’re not giving advice and the we cannot call God’s people to “live” the gospel. The gospel isn’t a “life.” The gospel is a message about Christ’s life forus.

We live in the light of the gospel, yes. Amen. We live the Christian life according to God’s holy law, but let the law be the law and the gospel be the gospel. Let Christ be the Savior and let us be the saved.

    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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  1. Thanks for the helpful clarification in terms of the law and the gospel. I wrote a short post about it myself, but I used Tim Keller’s phrase “living in line with the gospel.” Can you flesh out a little more what you think living in light of the gospel means? Specifically I am interested in how the gospel does indeed change certain aspects of obedience, and how that correlates to the law.

    Thanks, James

  2. Dr. Clark,

    The Bible teaches in 2 Thess 1:8 and in 1 Pet 4:17 that the gospel can be disobeyed and that God visits his judgment on those who disobey it. Do these passages imply that the gospel must be obeyed? If not, why not? If so, then why isn’t it true that we must live in line with the gospel?


  3. Hi Tom,

    This is a good question, which comes up frequently in this discussion. It address it a little in the essay, “When the Good News Becomes Bad.”

    The short answer is that the point I was trying to make is that there are two distinct grammatical moods in Scripture: imperative (“do”) and indicative (“done”).

    Further, as I noted in the EVANGELIUM essay, it’s possible to use the word “gospel” in Scripture broadly and narrowly just as it’s possible to use the word “Law” broadly and narrowly. Sometimes “law” has a very specific referent (e.g., the 613 Mitzovth) and sometimes it refers generally to divine revelation (“Oh how I love thy law….”).

    So, too, “gospel” can be used to describe the revelation of Christ generally and not strictly to refer to the divine promise of gracious salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.

    This is how I would take Paul’s language in 2 Thess and Peter’s language in 1 Pet 4. The “gospel” there refers to the revelation of God the Son in Christ and the moral obligation of all to acknowledge the reality of that revelation. Those who do deny the truth of that revelation will face the consequences.

    From these broader uses of “gospel” I would not conclude that there is no hermeneutical distinction to be made between the mood of command and the mood of promise.

    When the Reformed distinguished between law and gospel as hermeneutical categories they were aware of these passages. For more sources on this see this collection of quotations from Reformed writers on law and gospel. See also ch. 12 of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry



  4. Dr. Clark:

    Regarding “emerging folks living the gospel,” I believe they mean just that.
    Jim Wallis of Sojourner’s ministry has had a considerable influence on emergent leaders such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. For Wallis the gospel is found in Matthew 25:31-46. It’s about helping the “down and outer.”

    Living the gospel then is trying to take away someone’s hell on earth.

  5. Whether it’s a right- or left-wing agenda, taking away “hell on earth” is a utopian program. It’s evidence of an over-realized eschatology. Doesn’t it assume the possibility of heaven on earth?

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