Do You See How He Makes This Distinction Between Law And Gospel?

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)

John Calvin | Institutes, 3.11.17.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention again, Dr. Clark. Without gospel/law distinction, one will always end up with FV, NPP or Catholicism. There is no other way. This is so crucial to Reformed Faith. Thank you again.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    What’s your opinion of CFW Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel? Do you think he draws the lines properly? Is it a useful work, or one better to be avoided?

    Grace and peace,

    • Hi Tim,

      I’ve only read parts of it. It’s a classic statement of the post-19th century confessional Lutheran approach. Honestly, it’s hard to me to read CFWW. I’ve read a good bit of his stuff for other purposes but that I’ve not found it that interesting. Lot’s of people have been helped by it, however. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it. Personally, I like the Marrow of Modern Divinity and John Colquhoun’s little volume on law and gospel. They’re very good. I’m most influenced by Calvin, Olevianus, Ursinus, Perkins, and Wollebius on Law and Gospel. See the chapter on this in CJPM.

    • Thanks. I’m pretty new to this discussion. Are there any ways in which the Lutheran approach to the Law/Gospel distinction would differ from the Reformed? Grace to you,


      • Tim,

        In broad terms I don’t know that there are massive differences. It is sometimes alleged to me that there are great differences but I’ve not seen that case argued in detail anywhere. Calvin was not conscious of any great difference between his hermeneutic and Luther’s. The law/gospel hermeneutic was shared property among the Protestant Reformers. It was basic to the Reformation but has been largely forgotten or rejected in our time. I try to walk through this in the volume, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

        Here’s where things may get complicated. Lutheran orthodoxy developed after Luther. Some would say that LO diverged from Luther. Tensions between Lutheran orthodoxy and Reformed orthodoxy developed. The low/gospel hermeneutic is a theological hermeneutic, insofar as there are theological differences between LO and RO, those differences may manifest themselves in application of the L/G hermeneutic.

        That there are two “words” in Scripture, law and gospel, is universally affirmed by the classical Reformed theologians and Reformed confessions.

        Here are some proofs of this claim.

        There are lots of posts on this on the HB.

        Take a look at these resources.

    • Tim hi – yours of Jan 15th above

      1a. In the written copy of his sermon on “Man’s Working Together With God After Conversion II Corinthians 6:1-10”, CFW Walther states

      “After his Conversion Man not only Can but Must Work Together with God if he does not want to Lose God’s Grace Again.”

      b.This clearly goes against the Reformed position of the perseverance of the saints and must be seen as ‘off message’. (Nor is there anything in the sermon to suggest that he is really saying that man must then work with God if he is to prove that he really was converted in the first place – which would appear closer to the Reformed position but would be equally dangerous not least in undermining any possibility of assurance) etc)

      2a. Dr Irv Busenitz (TMS) does see a distinction between Luther and Calvin on the Third use of the Law – hear his 2005 talk on the NPP at

      b. Luther was not antinomian but I suggest he and Calvin differed on how God would bring about the sanctification in us that He cares so much about. For Calvin, a humanist streak suggests, put crudely, that God gives the power and the will but that it is ‘us’ that uses that power in the direction of that will. I suggest that, for Luther, we do not have even that degree of restored autonomy; we are ridden either by the devil or by God – this is of course a much harder notion to get our heads around since (i) we very clearly have the experiential ‘sense’ of autonomy and (ii) we unconsciously (believing ourselves to be like gods) assume that responsibility implies ability, in sanctification if not in justification

      c. For Calvin therefore, the Law was preached to Christians in its Third use (a phrase first used by Melanchthon arguably when he and Luther were already drawing apart theologically) to bring about progressive sanctification. For Luther, the Law and the Gospel were preached to Christians but it was paradoxically the Gospel, not the Law, that then brought about that progressive sanctification. Albeit controversially, one might say that Calvin would be happy with the CFWW statement above until it gets to the word ‘if’.

      d. One might argue that this Luther/Calvin distinction was solely a terminological issue but at its root, it goes even deeper than the Law; it goes to the question of what happens at conversion; what is the nature of regeneration; who is the New Man?

      e. We know that conversion is accompanied by justification (an imputed, forensic status) and, arguably, by definitive sanctification (being set apart for God by God). But does regeneration return to us that ‘free will’ that we want to attribute to Adam? We are freed from the penalty and power of sin, but is that the power of sin to condemn us, or the power of sin to influence or control us?

      f. I believe Luther and Calvin differ on some of these if only in emphasis, but the emphasis works its effect. For Luther the preacher must proclaim gospel truths (yes, in the context of law) and it is the ‘performative’ nature of these Words that transform and sanctify (yes, that can sound too passive and even antinomian). For some (nb some) in the Reformed tradition, it might only be necessary to describe those truths (and heaven forbid, issue an offer) on the basis that God has already provided the means for progressive sanctification (and that is why that preaching can sound or be moralistic).

      g. What then is the nature of our new freedom? If we want to say that we have the autonomy to cooperate in our sanctification (a certain form of synergism), then are we saying that God returns to us autonomy for that, ie for our holiness (and perhaps rewards) but not for justification and ultimate salvation? We quickly enter a morass.

      3. At heart therefore, we need to decide what Philippians 2 v12 really means (we know what CFWW might say but yet to call it a tension is to say we don’t know)

    • 3:11:23-
      … it is entirely by the intervention of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment. Thus vanishes the absurd dogma, that man is justified by faith, inasmuch as it brings him under the influence of the Spirit of God by whom he is rendered righteous. This is so repugnant to the above doctrine that it never can be reconciled with it. There can be no doubt that he who is taught to seek righteousness out of himself does not previously possess it in himself…

      This is most clearly declared by the Apostle, when he says, that he who knew no sin was made an expiatory victim for sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21.) You see that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in Christ; that the only way in which we become possessed of it is by being made partakers with Christ, since with him we possess all riches. There is nothing repugnant to this in what he elsewhere says: “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us,” (Romans 8:3, 4.) Here the only fulfillment to which he refers is that which we obtain by imputation.

    • No, in my humble opinion

      Once you use the word ‘our’ then it is not ‘by grace alone’

      Nor is it that we are first justified ‘by a legal fiction’ but with God then ‘infusing’ (a very Romanist idea) grace into us, so that the imputed righteousness turns into a reality such that we have become righteous in ourselves. However this is widely taught in many ‘evangelical’ churches

      Jack usefully reminds us of Augustine’s “The righteousness of the saints in this world consists more in the forgiveness of sins than the perfection of virtue,”

      If so, we could get to the Judgment seat and thank God that he helped us or caused us to become righteous and, as righteous, we should be let into heaven. Even the Pharisee, seeing the tax collector, was not quite so cocksure.

  3. Continuing in 3:11:17-
    But the Gospel differs from the Law in this, that it does not confine justification to works, but places it entirely in the mercy of God…

    When the Lord, therefore, admits him to union, he is said to justify him, because he can neither receive him into favor, nor unite him to himself, without changing his condition from that of a sinner into that of a righteous man. We add that this is done by remission of sins…

    It is evident therefore, that the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their pollutions wiped away by the remission of sins, so that this justification may be termed in one word…

    The mode of obtaining this righteousness he explains to be, that our sins are not imputed to us.

    • More 3:11:18,21,22-

      Thus Augustine says: “The righteousness of the saints in this world consists more in the forgiveness of sins than the perfection of virtue,” (August. de Civitate Dei, lib. 19, cap. 27.)

Comments are closed.