Why the Reformation Cannot Be Avoided

Martin LutherJoel writes in response to the post, “Is the Gospel Preached or Lived?” to ask for a response to his post responding to criticisms of the expression “living the gospel.” The substance of the post is to observe that the NT uses a number of verbs in connection with the gospel. Verbs are words of doing, therefore there is doing associated with the gospel. Amen. That was never in doubt. Ever. What is in doubt is whether such critiques ever understood what was in question in the first place. In this regard there are a couple of important comments in the post illustrate the problem. Joel writes, “I quote those not to involve myself in the whole Law-Gospel distinction discussion….” and “the New Testament does use a few verbs with euaggelion [gospel-rsc] that might make us as Protestants a little nervous.” These sorts of caveats illustrate the problem of biblicism and ahistorical biblical exegesis generally. Joel is a teaching elder in the PCA and he cites a well-known Dispensational writer who has argued that the NT use of subjunctives (verbs the grammatical mood of which signals the sense of “ought”) invalidates the law/gospel distinction.

Posts and claims such as these quite miss the point. They seem to assume that Reformation (and all that occurred before it) may be ignored as irrelevant for the purposes of understanding what Scripture actually teaches. Why would such an approach commend itself to thoughtful interpreters of Scripture? On its merits, it should not but such biblicism (see below) is attractive to moderns, who imagine themselves as more intelligent or more enlightened than pre-modern biblical interpreters. Of course that imagination rests to a considerable degree upon ignorance of pre-modern biblical interpretation or upon supposition about what the quality and characteristics of pre-modern biblical interpretation.

Second, Americans are particularly disinterested in the past. Oh, they’re fascinated with genealogies but they don’t typically care much about history beyond their own families. Americans came to this land in order to escape the past. We tend to be a busy, industrious people and that’s a good thing for economics and society generally but that a-historical attitude isn’t necessarily a blessing when it comes to figuring out how to read Scripture and how to speak about what it teaches and implies. American Christians, particularly evangelicals and those in a broadly evangelical orbit need to learn to adopt one attitude relative to their identity as Christians and another as citizens of the United States. In God’s sovereign providence we live in two spheres simultaneously. As Christians we are organically related to a great family of believers, which really is our family, that stretches back two millennia in Christian history and for several more millennia of biblical or redemptive history. Scripture (e.g., Hebrews 11) describes Noah, Abraham, and Moses as our forebears, who shared substantially the same faith as we do. Hebrews does not present them as mere theists but as Christians looking forward to the same Christ in whom we believe. That is why, the writer argues, that it’s foolish to apostatize back to the synagogue. Perhaps Dispensationalists, because of their two-level reading of redemptive history (Israel and the church), which focuses on national Israel is less able to see the organic development in redemptive history and thus misses the organic, developmental nature post-canonical history?

Third, Reformed Protestants are, in many important ways, the children of all that transpired between the ascension of Christ and the Reformation but the way the story of Christianity is often told in evangelical circles, it is as if Christ ascended, the church did well briefly and then essentially disappeared until the Reformation. As a matter of history this story has no merit at all. The Reformation was deeply influenced by the Fathers and the medievals and it is impossible to understand the Reformation well without understanding the Fathers and medievals. To the degree Reformed Christians, however, are influenced by the a-historical ethos, they are influenced by this story of the magically disappearing and reappearing church. What we say about our history will shape our behavior and biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). If we think of ourselves as disconnected from most of Christian history then we will read the Scriptures as if the Fathers, the medievals, the Reformation did not have much to say. As one who spends time reading pre-modern biblical interpretation I can testify that is an unwarranted and profoundly impoverishing assumption indeed.

Fourth, as a matter of fact everyone reads Scripture with someone. There are those, however, who do advocate the principle of attempting to read Scripture as if no one has ever done it before. Now, I understand the attraction of this approach. Sometimes the work of reading Scripture can become entangled in this view and that. To read Scripture seriously, carefully, historically, contextually, grammatical etc involves balancing a lot of what scholars call “horizons” simultaneously. Young seminary students may sometimes be overwhelmed by it all. I was. I remember being relieved to see Bob Strimple diagramming Greek sentences on the blackboard. It was a relief to see someone interpreting Scripture. It was the difference between training for a race by, e.g., running in water and running the race in ultra-light racing shoes. Of course the racer trained in order to race and he brought with him to the race all that hard work slogging through the pool. When Bob Strimple began exegeting a passage he brought with him all the work he had done in text criticism, source criticism, and the history of exegesis.

When we read Scripture we are reading it with a tradition, even if we’re not aware of the tradition. A small child may think that he if can’t see me that I can’t see him. When he matures, however, he realizes that, in fact, his closed eyes don’t close my eyes. I was there all the time. So it is with the church. Just because we close our eyes to the rest of the church doesn’t make them go away. Indeed, the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever done it before is itself a tradition. It’s called “biblicism” and it’s been around for a couple of centuries formally (i.e., by name) but substantially it’s always existed in the church—and it’s always been rejected by the church as a method of interpreting Scripture.

When the Council of Nicea (325 AD) met to work through the crisis created by the Arians (rationalists who taught that God the Son was not of the very same substance of the Father and therefore subordinate in his being to the Father) one of the first proposals was to put forward quotations from Scripture as a way of reaching a settlement. That proposal failed immediately because it was the interpretation of Scripture that was at stake. Thus, we had to find vocabulary to describe our understanding of what Scripture teaches and then we had to define our terms. Biblicism (simply quoting the bible) would have left the problem unsolved and basic Christianity would have been jeopardized.

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedBiblicists are part of a tradition, even if they don’t know it, and they tend to be more influenced by what is happening around them than they are by past practices. So, they prioritize the present over the past. David Hall has written about the Arrogance of the Modern. We may not always be aware of those with whom we read Scripture but it’s happening nonetheless. We read Scripture with our pastors and elders, i.e., they help to shape our reading of Scripture by weekly forming the grid within which we read it. Our friends help shape the matrix or context within which we read Scripture. So, despite the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before, we are being influenced by others. If that is so, then we ought to choose our reading partners carefully and a good set of reading partners ought to include the past as well as the present. There’s a chapter on biblicism in RRC.

Covenant Justification and Pastoral Ministry-FeaturedFifth, to ignore the Reformation is to create the pre-conditions for the next one. The Reformation adopted a hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel for a reason: Scripture teaches it. If we fail to see understand and appreciate law/gospel distinction then we will find ourselves repeating the prior 1000 years, when the distinction was not understood well. That failure to appreciate the distinction had consequences: it obscured the gospel. In reaction to the threat posed by the Gnostics, many of the Fathers in the 2nd century and following adopted the stance that Scripture is composed entirely of law. The OT was the “the old law” and the NT was the “new law”. They thought in mostly in sequential, chronological categories. Moses/OT = old law and Christ/NT = new law. This was their way of maintaining a substantial continuity between Moses and Christ in the face of the radical dichotomy taught by the Gnostics, who discarded the OT as inferior. In our time, largely unaware of this history, some Reformed folk have done something similar in reaction to Dispensationalism. For a variety of other reasons, in the 20th century, we lost the hermeneutical/theological distinction between law and gospel. There’s a chapter on this in CJPM.

The Reformation recovered the biblical distinction law as one principle and gospel as another and it did so without losing the continuity between Moses and Christ. They were able to do this because they saw both the law principle and the gospel principle taught in both the OT and the NT. There was never any question for the Reformed churches whether the gospel produces sanctification. They knew that the only way to produce sanctity was the pure preaching of the gospel (Belgic Confession, Art 29). They knew that it is through the gospel that the Spirit creates new life (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 65) and they knew that the law never produces sanctity but it norms the Christian life (see Belgic Confession Art. 24 and the third part of the catechism).

The Reformation also understood that there are subjunctives and there are imperatives connected to the gospel but they persisted in teaching a theological distinction between law as a principle and the gospel as another principle because this distinction accounted for important biblical teaching. Yes, the gospel must be believed but that does not turn the gospel, the announcement of good news into law, which is bad news for sinners who want to use it to earn their acceptance with God. According to God’s Word, grace and works are two distinct principles:

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6; ESV).

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…. (2 Tim 1:10–10)

Yes, Christ must be received by faith but that faith, the instrument through which we are justified, is itself a gift (Eph 2:8–10). Yes, grace produces sanctity and obedience in those who receive that sanctity is only and ever fruit and evidence of free acceptance with God (James 2) and never the basis or the instrument of that acceptance. The existence of verbs and grammatical moods of exhortation does not turn grace into works or into law. We do not earn grace. By definition grace is free. By definition wages are earned: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” (Rom 4:4).

If we understand what the Reformation was doing theologically, hermeneutically there is no reason to be the least bit queasy about what Scripture teaches, as if there were some dirty little secret in Holy Scripture of which we are afraid, for which we haven’t accounted—as if when we did, it would cause us to re-think the entire Reformation. Such a suggestion can only be made if one ignores what the Reformation actually wrote, taught, and accomplished.

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  1. Good stuff Dr. Clark.

    Joel’s site states a quote……“I think we need to be careful to keep our theological discourse from devolving into the tendency to police people’s language” He sites Mike Horton often.

    I could not agree more about police of language! Which is why folks should refrain from using terms like Antinomian or Lutheran or conveying a general ….”they don’t care about redeeming the city” or “don’t care about being obedient” to describe folks in the Horton camp. Which has been so often done. Nor should we be over worried about “camps”. Let’s get real, there just are camps. That is not a bad thing, it is real. It’s called working through theological debates. Let’s face it there are those in Reformed circles who lean in the….. “we must do the gospel” direction and there are those who lean in the direction of….”we don’t primarily build the kingdom, we receive it.” This last one seems most Biblical. That is not nitpicking, that is dealing with reality. The question is, which is most Biblical? I am grateful for bros like Joel and no doubt we have the main things in unity, but with all respect, the Horton types (or camp) are only saying that ….We should not over-inflate everything to be “Kingdom work” lest we think more highly of ourselves than we should. Christ rules over every inch, that is not in question. However we live in a time that is far more Neo-Nomian (new law), filled with works righteousness, than we do a time in Reformed circles that leans to hard in a Anti-Nomian direction. For Pete’s sake it does not take a extreme “man of issachar” pulse on culture to figure out that the cause celeb getting all the rage is the …..”Do the gospel” …business. This is more a reflection of following the culture than it is being Biblical. Horton and others are just dealing with this reality. I think this is hard for folks gripped by the PCA ethos to come to terms with. After all this is a denomination which is standing by while the Federal Vision is allowed to run rough shot over Gospel integrity.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your response to my post. I didn’t quite imagine you would write to the extent that you did, but I appreciate you taking the time.

    I think it is possible that you misunderstood the point of my post (which was obviously not written directly in response to your post, given that I wrote it in November 2011). In particular, I think my conclusions are basically in agreement with what you are saying about the phrase “live the gospel.” I.e., I find that it basically doesn’t fit with how Scripture uses verbs in connection with “gospel.”

    I wrote the original post with two concerns in mind: (1) I too was bothered by the use of “living the gospel,” as it is certainly being used in some corners (particularly by the extremes like McLaren, et al) to mean that we are literally the good news. So I examined the biblical data and found that it doesn’t reflect that kind of usage. (2) I was also concerned that some who objected to the usage of “living the gospel” (because of listening to Dr. Horton and others) were jumping all over those who used such language, even though those using it were doing so without knowing the discussion and were simply meaning “live in light of the gospel.”

    So in light of those two concerns, I wrote the post to hopefully clarify that (1) “living the gospel” does not really reflect how Scripture uses the term “euaggelion” (an observation which fits with the law-gospel distinction), and (2) Scripture does use some verbs with it that on the surface sound like they’re saying “live/obey the gospel,” though on examination they really mean “believe in the gospel.”

    But from those two points I was hoping to say that we should avoid the language of “living the gospel,” agreeing with the point of your original post. But I was also saying that we should make an attempt to understand that many people who use the term, particularly within the PCA, simply mean, “live in step with the gospel,” which is terminology from Galatians. And so we should be careful about jumping all over them, saying that they are denying the integrity of the gospel.

    For those like McLaren and others who really mean we are the gospel for the world, then sure, I find that to be a big issue and we should address it.

    As to the rest of your post, I must admit to being a little baffled by the jump into charges of biblicism and ignoring the entire Reformed tradition. I do wish I had not put in the link to Turk’s letter to Dr. Horton, as on reflection it does more to detract from my point than anything else and probably doesn’t contribute that much to the discussion.

    I am quite concerned to avoid the biblicism of standard fare evangelicalism, as indicated by previous posts (which obviously I wouldn’t expect you to have knowledge of) such as several posts related to Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative, which I consider one of the best books I read in 2012.

    But the last paragraph seems a little over the top, particularly considering that I basically agree with your point about “live the gospel”:

    “If we understand what the Reformation was doing theologically, hermeneutically there is no reason to be the least bit queasy about what Scripture teaches, as if there were some dirty little secret in Holy Scripture of which we are afraid, for which we haven’t accounted—as if when we did, it would cause us to re-think the entire Reformation. Such a suggestion can only be made if one ignores what the Reformation actually wrote, taught, and accomplished.”

    I don’t think I ever in the least suggested we should be queasy or worried about a dirty little secret that would cause us to rethink the Reformation. I don’t want to rethink the Reformation. I want people to embrace Reformation theology. I simply made the point that a few texts on the surface use language similar to “live the gospel,” though I went on to explain that the meaning was different than what others have meant by that.

    If I’m talking with a standard-fare evangelical who loves the term “living the gospel,” and he asks me what I think about it (for some reason), I’m probably not going to rehearse for him on the spot the whole history of the law-gospel distinction (though perhaps at some point it might be helpful). He has yet to accept the Reformed tradition as a faithful summary of Scripture. But if I show him how Scripture uses the terms, he will most likely be more willing to listen to my point. I don’t see how that’s biblicism.

    But perhaps some misunderstanding could have been avoided had I not posted my comment as I did, but instead suggested that my post provides some of the biblical material that correlates with your point while also providing a caution. But I nonetheless appreciate your thoughts.


    • Hi Joel,

      Thanks for your response. It certainly got my heart racing this AM. I did not intend to misrepresent your case or your conclusions but having re-read both your original post and your comment I am confused. I wonder if you appreciate the implications of your original post and perhaps your comment.

      I’m still not sure how we how we actually agree. You write:

      Thus while the gospel is objectively true and must be personally proclaimed, what we do is integrally connected to the gospel. Accordingly, if people mean by “live the gospel” what I think they mean, which is that we must live in light of its truth, that we must live as if it is true, then the phrase seems to be supported quite strongly with this Scripture. But “living out of the gospel” or “in light of the gospel” are clearer phrases.


      I am concerned that perhaps in the rhetoric about the gospel only being announced and never lived, we miss that Paul is saying that the way we live does communicate something one way or the other about the gospel.

      These passages seem to take issue with the law/gospel distinction. They seem to imply that it is inadequate to account for the teaching of Scripture. They, with the citation of the piece on the subjunctive mood, seem to imply that there is a more biblical way of speaking about the relations between the law, the gospel, and the Christian life. I doubt that proposition.

      I noted in 2005(linked above) that the noun “gospel” in the NT has both broader and narrower uses. Hence Paul can say, “obey the gospel” so that the word gospel becomes a sort of law, in that instance or in that usage. I discuss this in the essay in CJPM (linked above) but that doesn’t invalidate the distinction of the two principles that the Reformed made in the 16th and 17th centuries.

      E.g., Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author and authorized (by Frederick III) commentator on the Heidelberg Catechism wrote:

      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)

      and William Perkins wrote:

      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).

      Such quotes are found throughout the body of Reformed theology in the classical period and beyond.

      In the context of the PCA, where opposition to the FV at the presbytery level seems to flagging and where the SJC has just issued what now seems to be a a ruling that seems as if it might actually allow the FV to error to flourish, it behooves Reformed us to understand and articulate this vital, essential, basic distinction with utter clarity.

      I think we disagree as to what is intended by the expression “living the gospel.” If all it meant to say is, “live in light of the gospel” then we have a tempest in a teapot. Who but the rankest antinomian disagrees with “live in light of the gospel”? I don’t think there are benign uses of it, however. I don’t think that it’s just Brian McLaren who is abusing the term. I think the expression intrinsically means to turn the gospel into law.

      Obviously, I remain troubled by the caveats you offered. It’s not possible for bible-following, confession-confessing Reformed folk to opt out of the law/gospel distinction. This is at the heart of our understanding of Scripture. It’s not a second blessing for the illuminati. The phrase “living the gospel” is a terrible phrase and it’s intent the places I’ve seen it is destructive of the Reformation. That’s why I wrote the original criticism. This is not about the “language police.” This is about the truth, about the Reformation, about the gospel, and about salvation and the spiritual well being of people who have been placed back under the law for acceptance with God. That has led to all sorts of spiritual misery.

      Perhaps it might help if I explain why I wrote about being queasy about a possible “dirty little secret.” I wrote that because people do suspect that there’s stuff in the NT that for which the Reformation can’t account. In light of the things I quoted both in the body and in this comment, I took you to be implying sympathy with that point of view. That notion, that the Reformation is inadequate, not fully biblical is fueling the exodus of millennials and others, who assume that their evangelical experience is Protestantism. They’ve never actually engaged the Reformation theology, piety, and practice seriously but they assume that whatever they’ve been doing is Reformation stuff. They get dissatisfied. Then, they see evangelical and Reformed folk implying or saying that the Reformation didn’t quite get it right on basic doctrines (e.g., the law/gospel distinction) and before long they’re on the road to Rome or Constantinople or the Emergent Village.

      The sad thing is that they’ve never actually seen Reformation hermeneutics in operation. They’ve never actually experienced Reformed theology and piety in practice. Americans intuitively suspect that someone is hiding something from them. Bloom has argued that Gnosticism is the American religion and he may be right, at least regarding American religion since the 1820s. Many of the 19th century movements were Gnostic. I argue that American evangelicalism became essentially Anabaptist in the 19th century in the 2nd Great Awakening. Anabaptism has connections to Gnosticism and many American evangelicals practice a form of Gnosticism. Thus, when someone suggests that there is a secret in the bible that neither the Reformers nor the churches really got right in the confessions, American Christians are minded to find that quite attractive.

      But the Reformation and the Reformed confessions did get it right, if we understand what they were (and are) about.

      The L/G distinction doesn’t obliterate all the different nuances of use and expression in the NT. Our authors wrote about these things at length but we just haven’t spent the time to read them.

      So, I’m thankful for your interaction and I’m glad to learn that we agree but I’m still a little puzzled as to how we agree in substance.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks once again for your interaction. I appreciate your desire to preserve the gospel from any assailants. I’m still not sure that I see the great disagreement that you’re seeing.

    The two citations you quote don’t seem to me to invalidate the law/gospel distinction, which I certainly accept as a key theological distinction, though as in this older PB discussion I tend to see it more as “do-and-live” (CoW) vs. “live-and-do” (CoG) than a simple indicative/imperative distinction. I’m convinced the CoW/CoG distinction is key, and thus am quite opposed to the FV movement (amongst other reasons of course).

    But in those two citations, all I’m trying to say is this: we can live in or out of step with the gospel. As I wrote in the original post, if I confess Christ publicly, but refuse to show forgiveness to my brother, I obscure the gospel in front of people because I am living out of step with the gospel. Just as Peter refused to eat with Gentiles, and that obscured the beauty of the unifying gospel message, so I would have done the same. And so I should live in “light of” or “in step with” the gospel. And in our zeal to defend the purity of the gospel, I don’t want us to miss that point. That’s all I was saying in those citations you quoted. But as I said in the original article, I don’t think “live the gospel” clearly communicates that idea, and so I don’t use it personally and wouldn’t recommend that others use it.

    We all speak from a context. And in my context, when I’ve heard the term “living the gospel,” I’m very confident that the people who uttered it did mean “live in light of the gospel,” and then when they were jumped on, they didn’t have a clue what the issue was. Perhaps it is more widely used to mean something that explicitly confuses the gospel message, but in my own context (i.e., my own church/community at the time of writing the original post) I didn’t hear it that way.

    I appreciate your concern about people being afraid that there are things in Scripture on these topics that the Reformation teaching can’t handle. That’s not me. I’m not at all worried about that. My comment on the two verbs used with “gospel” were simply saying that while on the surface there may seem to be support for the “live the gospel” language, on closer examination (which I did in the original post), there clearly isn’t. So I don’t think that indicates I’m worried about a dirty little secret, or even that I made a caveat, since I clearly indicated what those verbs meant in context.

    So again, I don’t think “live the gospel” is a helpful or accurate term, and I think my look at the biblical verbs accompanying “gospel” indicate that. I do think the distinction between the CoW/law and the CoG/grace is vital. I think the Reformation tradition beautifully clarifies that. But I also think when we hear someone use the phrase we ought to check to see what he means before telling him he’s perverting the gospel. If he really means it in the way you describe, then sure, we ought to explain much of what you have written. But if he just means “live in light of the gospel,” then we will have saved ourselves from unnecessary denunciations and will hopefully find him more willing to listen to terminological suggestions.

    Regarding my citation of Turk, I agree it was unhelpful, and I’m happy to remove it, as I do think it causes some of the confusion that you reference. Having written the article in 2011 (before I was ordained), I honestly barely remembered that note in there and appreciate you helping me see that it was misguided.

    Thanks once again for your interaction. It has spurred me on to think, and hopefully in future I can write posts that will perhaps be clearer without side-note references that only confuse the situation.


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