The Grace of Law?

An HB Classic

The question comes:

I once heard someone say (or write) that the Law was also “graceful” because at least in this God’s case, He was letting His subjects know what was expected and wanted from them.

I appreciate the intent of the sentiment. There are two problems here. First is the semantic problem. The English language is a little limited here. We use gift, grace, and favor, as synonyms. If we could distinguish “gift” from “grace” and “favor,” then we might be able to speak that way. What we need is a word that connotes something freely given that is isn’t necessarily saving and, in some cases is beneficial but not all. The word “benefit” does this.

The second problem is the pervasive and persistent problem that some Reformed and would-be Reformed folk have, in reacting to antinomianism, of conflating grace and law. This is the more serious 

Rather than speaking of the grace of the law, it would be better to speak as the Westminster Confession does. The Westminster divines (theologians) did not confess that the covenant of works was “a covenant of grace,” or “a covenant of favor,” nor did they say that God “graciously” instituted the covenant of works. Rather they said (7:1) that God established the covenant of works by “voluntary condescension.” In other words, rather than appealing to the nature of the law they appealed to God’s exercise of his free will.

WCF ch. 16 summarizes the Reformed doctrine of good works and there we do not find the law called a grace or gracious. Chapter 19 is devoted the the Law of God. If the confession is going to speak of the grace of the law anywhere, it would be there. Yet, in WCF 19.3, it says that God “was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age….” As in chapter 7, they appealed to traditional Reformed language concerning the will of God.

WCF 20.7 is a model for relating grace and law when it says,

Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.

Here grace and law are related closely and carefully without being identified. The law isn’t called a “grace” or even “gift.” It does say that the law is complementary to the gospel. There’s no doubt that the moral law is a benefit to Christians inasmuch as it is that Word God the Spirit uses, in its first or pedagogical use, to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and to drive us to Christ. It does this before we come to faith and it does it after we come to faith (HC 2-3, 115). In its civil use, it is a benefit inasmuch as it reveals, in the second table, God’s moral will for civil, public life. It is a benefit to believers in the third use as it guides our new lives in Christ. To deny the third use of the law is antinomianism. To conflate the law with the gospel is moralism. If we read God’s Word with the Reformed churches it isn’t that difficult to avoid both of these pitfalls.

Since Christ has delivered us believers from the curse of the law it no longer terrifies us relative to our righteousness before God. Since we are free from the curse and condemnation we are free to delight in God’s law and to see its wisdom and perfections.

Nevertheless, in this life we still sin and suffer the consequences and subjective effects of sin. We rightly feel guilty and ashamed of our continuing sins and sinfulness and the law offers us no remedy for sin, its guilt, or its consequences nor does it sanctify. Only the gospel provides those remedies. Only the gospel sanctifies.

Thus, as much as we might be tempted to react to antinomianism by speaking of the “grace of the law,” we should not. It’s better to speak of the benefits of the law. It is notable that the Westminster Divines, who also faced a significant threat of antinomianism in their day, did not react by conflating “grace” and “law,” not even to make a rhetorical point. In that case we should follow the example of the divines and exercise the same degree of self-control and continue to make the same distinctions.

[This first version of this post first appeared on the HB in 2007]

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40 comments

  1. What you said, plus the fact that even if the law were meant to convey the gospel, that would not make it “graceful.” Ballerinas are graceful, but the gospel is gracious.

  2. (The “all things white” discussion is a few posts down, I know, but that brand of white self-deprecation is…so white. So are references to ballerinas. See, there I go again, being all fish-belly. Funny how white people are allowed to do this sort of thing.)

  3. Thanks for that.

    A friend from OURC recommended your book “Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry”, so I ordered it and am pretty excited to read it.

  4. Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for stopping by and for the good word.

    Let me know what you think of the book.

    Jason,

    You’re my hero.

    There is a typo in the “Stuff White People Like” #99 on grammar. The writer dropped a definite article.

  5. It seems to me entirely Biblical to say that the Law was a gift of God’s grace to His (already) redeemed people. After all, the line introducing the ten commandments is, “I am the LORD your God.” The law comes not from a stranger, not from a God to whom we still have to be reconciled but it comes from the God of the covenant who is our God and who wants us to know that we are His well-loved people. God’s people twisted this gift of God’s grace into an instrument of pride and a basis for moralism. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the Law was and is a gift of God’s grace. Rob Schouten

  6. Hi Rob,

    I’m not sure we’re communicating.

    In this context, when I say, “the law,” I’m not speaking in purely historical terms, i.e. that revelation given to Moses. I’m speaking in hermeneutical terms: “Do this and live.” These are two distinct categories (historical and hermeneutical) that overlap.

    There were law words given under Moses (e.g. the ten commandments) and under Christ (e.g. the sermon on the mount).

    We need to distinguish between two distinct kinds of speech in Scripture, whether it occurs in the OT or in the NT. When Scripture says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage….” That’s the prologue to the law. It’s not law per se, but Gospel. It’s a declaration of the Good News of Salvation. “You shall have no other gods before me” is not gospel but law. There’s no good news in, “You shall not steal.” Neither is there any good news in the words, “If you say to your brother, ‘You fool’….” These are the categories I was trying to distinguish.

    In reaction to dispensational antinomianism it has become customary in some circles to speak of the “grace of the law.” This way of speaking, though perhaps well intended, has the consequence of confusing these two hermeneutical categories.

    For more on this see the chapter in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry on the distinction between law and gospel.

    See also these source materials.

  7. I see no need to divide the whole Bible into either law statements or gospel statements, as if these are two separate and impermeable categories. To respond to your example, I see lots of goodness in the sentence, “You shall not steal.” It’s a lovely sentence to think about. It tells me so much about the kind of God we worship: just, equitable, wise and so forth. Honestly, I can get into raptures of worship just thinking about these four words. I also think it’s wrong to separate the prologue of the law from the law itself. It would be very strange for a minister of the gospel to read the law without the prologue. That’s because without the prologue, the law has no frame of reference. The prologue is the only frame of reference God wants it to have. The law is covenantal law, pure and simple. I’m not reacting to American dispensationalism when I speak about God’s gracious law. I’m just echoing the Bible which pervasively speaks of the law as a beautiful gift of the Lord for His liberated people.

  8. Rob,

    Have you read the sources I linked for you? Have you read the chapter in CJPM? I’m not sure that you really understand what is at stake here.

    I cannot and will not repeat all the material in those places.

    I’m sure you believe that you’re only following the Bible. The Remonstrants also believed that they were only following the Bible. The Socinians said that they were only following the Bible. Things didn’t end well for those folks.

    Please take a moment to find out what the issue is.

  9. Your dire warnings are misplaced in this context. I won’t discuss things if dark associations are made at once with famous heretics. I think I do understand the issues tolerably well, though I’m no professional theologian. I’ve read most of CJPM by now and been edified by it. But I do think using the law/gospel distinction as the overarching hermeneutical structure for the whole Bible is unhealthy. To go back to your example, when Jesus warns about insulting our brothers by calling them fools, this was the love and the mercy and the goodness and the grace of Jesus in action as He sought to correct the people of God. It’s not wise in my opinion to refer to that kind of teaching as “law” and to forbid people from seeing it in any way as “grace.” As I said, though, I’m not interested in having people shut down discussion with paternalistic remarks. So I’m out of here.

  10. Rob,

    If you’ve read CJPM and the source materials linked above then you surely realize that this over-arching hermeneutic was essential to the Reformation and that to dispense with it would take us back to the medieval pattern of old law/new law.

    This is exactly what some (the FV) are proposing.

    I’m not saying that the L/G question is the only question asked. Perkins didn’t say that it was the ONLY question of a passage – just the first.

    My point about the Remonstrants and Socinians is that they said the very same things you are saying. I’m saying that words have consequences. I’m saying that the Reformed churches were quite aware of this when they confessed their faith. That’s why the HC follows the book of Romans and is in three parts: law, gospel, and sanctification. HC 19 also urges us to see Christ revealed in all of Scripture.

  11. A distinction between what God requires and what God gives is accepted by all Reformed people. Not accepted by all Reformed people is that we need to sort the Bible out into “statements of law” and “statements of gospel.” As I said, the law of God is a covenantal gift. Gift implies grace. Framework and content of the law can be distinguished but not separated.

  12. Two comments: First, your point is well taken. This is why I do not like the title of E.F. Kevan’s book, “The Grace of Law”; how confusing! Second, since grace is, as you note, something very special, not just a benefit, why do the Reformed continue to speak of “common grace” (other than out of respect to Van Til)? I once asked a Protestant Reformed professor what term he would use for the rain on the unjust, etc. and he suggested “mercies”. “Benefits” would be a good one, too. I’m not of the PRC, but I am a little jealous about the term “grace” being put together with the word “common” and I hope it’s not just my semantical problem.

  13. If you want to know what Canadian Reformed congregations hear concerning the law of God, a good place to find out is:

    http://www.spindleworks.com/library/holwerda/Holwerda_LD_34.htm

    The first point of Holwerda’s sermon captures what I’m trying to say far better than I could do myself. I think some United Reformed folks could find it provocative.

    Here’s a few lines to entice you to read the whole:

    “Brothers and sisters, that is why redemption commences with only the gospel. After that, the law is added to the gospel, which is not the opposite of the law, but leads to the perfection of what was begun by only the gospel. Besides the gospel appears the law, which itself is part of the gospel, and then these two belong together always.”

  14. Rob,

    That’s just the point I’ve been trying to make over the last few years. I cite Beza, Ursinus, Olevianus, Wollebius etc and you cite modern CanRC/Liberated writers.

    If we’re trying to figure out what “Reformed” means shouldn’t we start with the fellows and documents (namely the confessions and the fellows who wrote them) who defined it?

    Perhaps the Reformed tradition and confession has been wrong, but the evidence that the Reformed have historically distinguished between two moods of speech is overwhelming.

  15. Hi Eliza,

    I expressed reservations about Kevan’s book in CJPM.

    As for “common grace” we used to simply speak of providence. I think that’s helpful.

  16. Hello Scott,

    I don’t start with theologians. I start with the Bible, the ecumenical creeds and the Three Forms of Unity. Holwerda’s sermon (and the many others like it in the Dutch Reformed tradition) are fully in accord with Scripture, the Creeds and the TFU. The boundaries of our exegesis are not set by theologians but by the adopted confessions of the Churches of God.

  17. Yes, and Ursinus says that the HC is in three parts: law, gospel, and sanctification. Ursinus, who wrote about 70% of the catechism and who was its authorized expositor, says that the covenant of works = law and the covenant of grace = gospel.

    Guido Debres said essentially the same thing in response to the Anabaptists.

    Olevianus said the same thing.

    You cite idiosyncratic modern Dutch theologians and I cite the folks who wrote our confessions.

  18. I cite an exegetically grounded Reformed preacher of the gospel with massive command of the Word of God and you don’t respond to what he says but resort to calling him idiosyncratic. I would describe his sermon as fresh, invigorating, stimulating, richly Biblical and fully in accord with the confessions of the Church. Maybe Holwerda did understand better than did Ursinus the covenantal nature of the law of God.

  19. Ursinus wasn’t exegetically grounded? Have you read his biblical commentary? Olevianus wasn’t exegetically grounded? Have you read his biblical commentaries? Wollebius was an OT prof. Holwerda isn’t the first Reformed guy to read the Bible.

    Can’t we appreciate the insights of contemporary biblical scholarship without fundamentally overturning the Reformed faith?

  20. Scott, I hope I didn’t insinuate that these theologians were exegetically challenged. I only said that Holwerda was a good exegete and therefore not easily dismissed as some wacko. I certainly have no interest in overturning the Reformed faith nor did Holwerda. But I do want to see that there is room in the Reformed churches for the kind of preaching exemplified in the sermon of Holwerda without someone calling into question the man’s confessional integrity.

  21. Rob,

    I’ve read B. Holwerda’s sermon. In that sermon he uses the word “law” in two senses. He seems to use it in an historical sense. This is one and an important way that Scripture uses the word law. It’s an important way that our theologians have used the word.

    He also uses the word hermeneutically, i.e. to speak of various law words preached by the prophets. In other words, Holwerda seems to do the sorts of things I was describing and the sorts of things that made you uncomfortable.

    In general Holwerda seems to be speaking about what we call the third use of the law or at least that’s how I take him when he says “We may not look at the law before we have seen grace. We must first bow before the Gospel, for, ‘I am the Lord your God Who leads you out.'”

    That’s is true relative to our sanctification, which seems to be Holwerda’s primary interest in this sermon.

    There are, however, two other uses of the law: the pedagogical and the civil. The HC says that before we can appreciate the gospel, we must know the greatness of our sin and misery and we only learn that from the law. When it speaks that way it isn’t speaking historically but hermeneutically.

    I do observe, however, that Holwerda makes a clear distinction between law and gospel throughout the sermon. If you agree with Holwerda, I shouldn’t think you have any trouble with what I’m saying here.

    I share Holwerda’s concern about antinomianism. I’ve been writing about and against antinomianism in worship lately, on the sabbath, and in other regards. I’ve always preached against antinomianism.

    Holwerda says:

    “After that, the law is added to the gospel, which is not the opposite of the law, but leads to the perfection of what was begun by only the gospel.”

    I can live with this way of speaking even though it is not felicitous. It’s certainly true that law is complementary to gospel, relative to sanctification but relative to justification it’s also the antithesis of gospel. Holwerda seems to be thinking of sanctification.

    I disagree, however, with H. when he suggests that the law sanctifies us. If he’s speaking of the “Word” generically, well, okay, but if he means that specific hermeneutical category (which is what he seems to mean) that says “do and live” then I dissent. Law, in that sense, doesn’t sanctify. Only the gospel gives what the law demands.

    In the next section, however, I do detect some over-reaction to antinomianism and significant confusion. Holwerda says:

    “Besides the gospel appears the law, which itself is part of the gospel, and then these two belong together always. ”

    If Holwerda is speaking in hermeneutical categories, as he seems to be here, then this is just flatly wrong. “Do this and live” is not “gospel. “Do this and live” is not the same thing as “Christ has done that you might live.” These are two distinct types of speech. Yes, Law and Gospel always belong together but the “law,” hermeneutically considered, is not the gospel. This sort of confusion is quite unnecessary. If he’s speaking historically, well, it’s true the gospel is in the law and the law is in the gospel (i.e. the good news is in the Torah, there is law in the NT).

    When he says, “For the law is now no longer at enmity with the gospel, but the law of new obedience serves as a passage for grace.” I would remind him of HC 115 which says:

    “115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

    First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.”

    Even in the Christian life, the law never becomes the gospel. It is the law, not the gospel, that teaches Christians their sins. It is the gospel, not the law, that announces to believers that they have been redeemed from the curse of the law. Because the law condemns us we are driven back to the grace of Christ and renewal in his image by the gospel.

    I understand he’s using “salvation” broadly, but I’m a little dissatisfied with his expression “the beginning of salvation.” How exactly did the law contribute to Israel’s salvation from Egypt? The gospel announced to them that they had been slaves and that they had been delivered. They did nothing. The law did nothing to save them. Only grace saved them. They owe obedience to the law out of gratitude (which Holwerda says, but he’s not entirely satisfied with that way of speaking).

    I’m a big fan of Biblical theology and redemptive-historical preaching, but I think it can be done better and without confusion of fundamental biblical and reformed distinctions. G. Vos was a gifted redemptive-historical preacher and he managed to read Scripture redemptive-historically without making these sorts of errors.

    Caspar Olevianus was a gifted redemptive-historical preacher who preached Christ from all of Scripture without calling the law gospel and vice-versa.

    I would venture to say the same was true of other of our earlier more orthodox preachers and theologians.

    It appears that, in this sermon and in others from this period and setting that I’ve read, there was a great interest in sanctification. There was also a short cut taken that skips the gospel mystery of sanctification. Only the gospel produces sanctification. The law structures our sanctification but the law doesn’t have the power to do it. That’s why Paul speaks of “foolishness” in 1 Cor 1 and 2. The way to sanctity is through Christ’s cross.

    See Walter Marshall, Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. See also C. F Allison, The Rise of Moralism.

  22. I know that I am way out of my depth here, and maybe I am misunderstanding your point, Dr. Clark, but can we divide law and grace into two totally different categories? In the HC, it does say that the law reveals to us our sinful nature. To me that is grace. God, in his grace, shows me that I am sinful and need him. If I didn’t know that I was sinful, I wouldn’t know that I need God. If I didn’t know that I need God, I wouldn’t seek him out, wouldn’t love him, etc (of course, so enabled by the Holy Spirit). If I didn’t do these things, I would be everlastingly lost. To me it is God’s grace that I am not. This is how I have understood it, am I mixing things up too much?

    I will have to look at the resources you linked to above.

    Thanks for the food for thought, both you and Rev. Schouten.

  23. Scott, I’m amazed that you’ve already taken the time in your undoubtedly very busy life to read this particular sermon. I appreciate your reflections about it. Some misunderstanding on my part is removed and that’s helpful. I’m heading off to a youth retreat in a little while and won’t have access to my computer again until Monday afternoon. I may respond a bit more then, since I think you’re wrong in seeing a “short cut” in what Holwerda and others of his time said about sanctification. The “short cut” you suspect is the very thing they opposed in their struggle against the moralizing of the gospel. I also would want to say something about the distinction between historical and hermeneutical. A blessed day to you. I’m going to be talking to the young people about something totally different: Surviving as Christians in a Culture of Affluence.

  24. Hi Stuart,

    I tried to anticipate these problems in the original post by distinguishing between “gift” and “benefit.”

    Yes, the Spirit uses the law to drive us to Christ, and that’s to our benefit, but, in English (and in other languages) “gift” and “grace” and “favor” are all synonyms and the law is none of those things. The law doesn’t “do” anything for us. It doesn’t justify us or sanctify us. It condemns us, in the first use, and norms us, in the third use. The law is good and holy but it isn’t the gospel.

    That’s an vital distinction to make.

  25. Scott, would you say it’s an abandoning of the Reformed perspective to consider Wilson’s way of reading the law/gospel dichotomy as a distinction between readers than parts of the Word? Wilson states that for those who are in Christ, everything they read in the Word is gospel, to be apprehending by faith alone. This seems to me to be the way we were taught to read the Psalms at least at WSC: when it talks about the one who has clean hands and a pure heart being the one who ascends the hill of the Lord, we are to trust that this is perfectly true only of Christ, rather than look at ourselves and say “But my heart and hands are not clean!” It seems that this would hold true for the decalogue, et al, pursuant to Israel’s mistake as Paul says in Rom 9:30-32 (cf. 3:20-21 on the proper use of the law: to witness to Christ, not to be a rule of life).

    On the other hand, aren’t there people who look at faith as a work, something we have to do? When they hear the invitation to come to Christ, they think: “Okay, I better try harder to believe,” or something like that?

    I should note that this is all post-Fall. The error of those who read the gospel as something “they have to do” are actually making the error that they are in the same situation as Adam, which is the error usually associated with the FV.

    I’ve found Wilson’s distinction here helpful and resonant with Scripture. So, do I need to report to my pastor and elders that I’m not submitting to the WCF on crucial doctrines and thus denying my membership vows?

    If you’d like, you can respond to the email on this post. I don’t check this blog very often.

  26. Joshua,

    In a word, yes because it doesn’t go far enough or it seeks to take us back to a pre-Reformation hermeneutic.

    As I’ve pointed out many times, the words “law”and “gospel” can be used historically to designate parts of God’s Word. They were used that way during the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods.

    The words can also be used hermeneutically. The hermeneutical distinction between the imperative and the indicative is of the essence of the biblical dichotomy between grace and law and fundamental to the entire Reformation.

    Have you read ch. 12 of CJPM?

  27. “We need to distinguish between two distinct kinds of speech in Scripture, whether it occurs in the OT or in the NT. When Scripture says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage….” That’s the prologue to the law. It’s not law per se, but Gospel. It’s a declaration of the Good News of Salvation. “You shall have no other gods before me” is not gospel but law. There’s no good news in, “You shall not steal.” Neither is there any good news in the words, “If you say to your brother, ‘You fool’….” These are the categories I was trying to distinguish”

    I have a question; apart from a classic third use of the law category would this conclusion ever be concluded?

    I’ve heard it argued elsewhere, can’t remember where, that the prologue to the decalogue rather than fitting neatly into, in this case, IMO, an illegitimately imposed L/G grid is actually an escalating of “Law word” by increasing the guilt and offense of failure of “doing” the decalogue in spite of having a God who renders to you justice and goodness.

    I post this for two reasons; One, as much as I agree with CJPM I find it to be a little too wooden in it’s L/G hermenuetic. I suppose this is o.k. as it regards pastoral proclamation on sunday mornings and as corrective to what happens now in most churches, but from a BT perspective this seems flawed. Two, I tend to side with Irons and others that while helpful catechetically, the third use of the law for exegetical purposes and subsequent systematizing is flawed.

    Sean

  28. The redeemed are saved by the keeping of the law in its entirety. The only question is who has kept that law in order for you to be saved? We say that Christ satisfied the law perfectly (no one else can), both by paying the required penalty for sin and living a perfect life of obedience to the law; and through faith alone in him our sins are forgiven and his obedience is credited to us. We are accounted as law keepers in Christ. So Paul says…

    Rom. 8:3-4. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (ESV)

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