Is the Gospel Preached or Lived?

An HB Classic

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. The one you want is “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.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]

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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?

  6. We must pay great attention to these things. For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.

    The majority of men, blinded by the just judgment of God, have indeed never seriously considered what curse the Law subjects us to, nor why it has been ordained by God. And, as for the Gospel, they have nearly always thought that it was nothing other than a second Law, more perfect than the first. From this has come the erroneous distinction between precept and advice; there has followed, little by little, the total ruin of the benefit of Jesus Christ.

    – The Word of God by Theodore Beza

  7. Another helpful quote was J. Gresham Machen in Christianity & Liberalism:

    But although Christianity does not end with the broken heart, it does begin with the broken heart; [Christianity] begins with the consciousness of sin. Without the consciousness of sin, the whole of the gospel will seem to be an idle tale. But how can the consciousness of sin be revived? Something no doubt can be accomplished by the proclamation of the law of God, for the law reveals transgressions. The whole of the law, moreover, should be proclaimed…

    … if the consciousness of sin is to be produced, the law of God must be proclaimed in the lives of Christian people as well as in word. It is quite useless for the preacher to breathe out fire and brimstone from the pulpit, if at the same time the occupants of the pews go on taking sin very lightly and being content with the more’ standards of the world. The rank and file of the Church must do their part in so proclaiming the law of God by their lives that the secrets of men’s hearts shall be revealed.

    All these things, however, are in themselves quite insufficient to produce the consciousness of sin. The more one observes the condition of the Church, the more one feels obliged to confess that the conviction of sin is a great mystery’ which can be produced only by the Spirit of God. Proclamation of the law, in word and in deed, can prepare for the experience, but the experience itself comes from God. When a man has that experience, when a man comes under the conviction of sin, his whole attitude toward life is transformed; he wonders at his former blindness, and the message of the gospel, which formerly seemed to be an idle tale, becomes now instinct with light. But it is God alone who can produce the change. Only, let us not try to do without the Spirit of God…

    I’m pretty sure most evangelical-types would have difficulty saying “live the law”, since their aversion to Law is so strong. Thankfully the Reformation shows the proper use of it and is not afraid of telling Christians to obey the law.

    For me personally, as I encountered “living the gospel” proponents & writing about 5 years ago I continually struggled to find the right categories to combat it. It just didn’t make sense to me how one could “live” the gospel. The Reformers’ distinction between law & gospel is what began my journey towards a more robust/confessional form of Reformed theology. Good and essential stuff. Thanks for the post Dr. Clark

  8. Matthew 5:16 let your light shine before others, so that they see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

    Our light is the gospel of grace (not works). When we let this light shine, others will see that our faith is not in works and that not even our “assurance” is in “living the gospel.

    John 3:19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever DOES WHAT IS TRUE comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

    I John 3: 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.

    John 3 is about the difference between a prayerful Nicodemus and a prayerful publican. I John 3 is about the difference between a religious Cain and a religious Abel. It’s not ultimately about Abel being more moral than his physical brother. The religion of Cain was nothing but evil deeds, dead works.

    Cain wanted to glory in/ rejoice in (Phil 3:3) the deeds done by his false god IN himself. Cain refused to put to death (not count) those deeds (Rom 8:13), his religious “flesh”. Cain wanted to worship a god who would accept Cain’s worship for producing life in Cain.

    Many of the Cains of this world are ready for a self-examination and contrast in terms of their morality. They are Pharisees who contrast well with alcoholics and people like me who watch the Simpsons on TV. But these Cains will not come to the light of the gospel, because the light of the gospel (God forgives sinners by Christ’s death) keeps telling these Cains that their deeds are evil. All their deeds, both moral and religious. (John 3:19).

    Hebrews 6:1– “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God”

    Hebrews 9:14–”How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

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