Do The Reformed Distinguish Between Law And Gospel?

As a preliminary reply to Mark Jones’ recent post at Ref21 here are some resources to help clarify the picture regarding the Reformed appropriation of the law/gospel distinction:

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  1. David,

    I tried to reply to your email but your ostensible provider says it does not recognize that address. Please contact me directly with a proper email address.

  2. I must travel in the wrong circles. You’re worried about falling into perfectionism and I’m worried about falling into antinomianism. 😉

  3. Of course, to the listing of books above, we must add:

    The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fischer, edited by Thomas Boston:

    Also, Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Walter Marshall.

    If one reads those books, one will not stray either into antinomianism or legalism.

  4. 1. In his recent blog on Ref 21, Mark Jones criticises Tullian T for generally deploying a wrong hermeneutic (possible); repetition (repetition is not itself a bad thing); and ‘vague’ claims about legalist preaching that cannot be proved. (As to ‘vague’, I hope Mark is not really wanting Tullian to list ‘offenders’; it should be sufficient for Tullian to set out what legalist preaching is and for the rest of us to consider whether we see that as a current danger or not).

    2. Tullian is not against preaching the law, just that preaching the law to believers does not of itself bring about obedience. That preaching must be accompanied by something else (the ‘gospel’ ?) that brings about the motivation to obey. (Since Tullian is upholding the need for obedience, calling him an antinomian is surely ludicrous).

    3. ‘Motivation’ can be conscious or unconscious, and might better be rendered as ‘motive power’. Whether one agrees with him or not, Tulllian has had some success in describing the nature of this motive power and its various aspects, while being clear that fear/duty relate more to the First use of the law (an outside-in obedience) than to the Third use (an inside-out obedience).

    4. I therefore find it hard to understand Mark Jones’ own ‘rhetoric’ against Tullian when he himself writes:

    “Well, I do know of some ministers – in fact, even some who were responsible for crafting the Westminster Confession of Faith – who have argued that after Adam’s fall, “God therefore set forth a copy of his law in his word, which is the means of sanctifying us; and sanctification itself is but a writing of that law in the heart” (Thomas Goodwin). Likewise, Anthony Burgess argued that God’s commands not only inform us of our duty, but are also “practical and operative means appointed by God, to work, at least in some degree, that which is commanded.” Samuel Rutherford said essentially the same thing in his disputes against the antinomians because they denied that the law was a true instrument of sanctification.

    “We all know that apart from the Holy Spirit we can do nothing. And we all know that God’s commandments do not have the power, in the abstract, to “produce what they demand.” (In fact, even announcements of God’s saving power in Christ have no effect apart from the Spirit’s application.) But, it should be noted, the faithful preaching of God’s commands in the context of a faithful gospel ministry can produce real change in a sinner’s life because God has ORDAINED HIS COMMANDMENTS TO WORK, “at least in some degree, THAT WHICH IS COMMANDED.” (my caps, and what Mike Horton describes as performative speech-acts)

    5. Tullian is essentially exploring what God means when He says He will write His law on our hearts. Tullian describes the source of this as gospel preaching and the experience of it as love/gratitude. He also suggests it is a gradual process – which is perfectly consistent with Jer 31:33.

    6. On the other hand, the ‘legalists’ (best to say ‘covenantal nomists) whom he is opposing, imply that Jer 31:33 is an instantaneous event on regeneration, but they then have no satisfactory response to the implicit Perfectionism.

    7. The ‘legalists’ view is essentially deistic however much they recite, as if a mantra, ‘We can only do it by God’s grace’. But Ez 11:20 says ‘they will..keep my laws’ – it does not say ‘they will be able to..’ and yet equally able not to if they so choose. This is where Performative Divine Speech-Acts come in (as opposed to what might be called ‘Prescribed Human Effort-Acts’)

    8. This deistic view arises from the ‘legalists’ inability to see that they are using (not just scholastic methodology but also) the Aristotelian notion of ‘habitus’ by which we become good/holy/sanctified by doing/obeying. Tullian is at least trying to explore what it means, experientally, to be changed from the inside out

    • Sometimes differences in emphasis is perceived as differences in doctrine. From what I have read and listened to, my take on it is that Tullian is so focussed on reacting to perfectionism, which is another way of being legalistic and confusing law and grace, that he is overlooking or bypassing addressing sanctification directly. Other than that, I don’t see too many difference between how he approaches sanctification from how Fredrick Dale Bruner approached it when addressing the holiness movement in the charismatic churches in his book, A Theology Of The Holy Spirit. It is not that we abandon the law, it is that most growth comes from appealing to the Gospel and applying faith to life and reflecting the love God has shown us in Christ. In contrast, too much emphasis on the law can produce Christians who are too self-focussed and who are too concrete in their thinking to apply the Scriptures in today’s world.

      In other words, there is something both sides in this debate can learn from the other.

      • Curt hi

        I agree that difference in emphasis can seem doctrinal, but vice versa too

        I don’t know Bruner but IMHO Tullian in no way overlooks sanctification; in fact he is majoring on finding the right motive power for true rather than apparent (Pharisaical) godliness/sanctification. He rightly insists that it must come from a heart warmed by the gospel.

        When we see our heart, we know quickly that perfectionism is impossible. Consequently explanations of a ‘muscular’ self-sanctification that seem to leave the door open for theoretical perfectionism, instead of loudly slamming it closed, must be seriously misplaced; that way lies moralism.

        I appreciate the irenic tone of your post but I think both sides see this as a matter of primary importance, and not therefore one where we can have a mix, or ‘balance’. Each side calls out either ‘legalist’ or ‘antinomian’ and these cannot be resolved by a balance. Jesus never appealed to ‘balance’, nor did Paul (eg Galatians). Yes, there are puzzling antinomies that require deeper thought, but not quick fixes – forgive me if that sounds ‘curt’.

        The last 2 sentences of your main para suggest you basically agree with Tullian

    • Richard,
      Where I am frustrated with Tullian is that I think he needs to be more missional in his preaching. Where I sympathize is that he has been treated unfairly and he has something to contribute.

      BTW, Bruner’s work addressed the perfectionism that permeated the holiness movement.

      • Curt hi

        ‘missional’ – forgive me – is that what I would mean by ‘evangelistic’? His sermons are very evangelistic (and inspirational though not always as exegetical as I would like). Most of his blogs are in-house explanations to other members of the ‘family’ (the church) why he preaches as he does – which is to major on the ‘affections’ in the way that Jonathan Edwards does. They have become an ‘apologia’ required by his critics

        Or does ‘missional’ mean specifically ‘mobilising the church for evangelism’? I think in portraying the constant love issuing from the Father heart of God, he does more than the traditional ‘salvation by mortgage’ approach (salvation is a free gift but once you’ve signed up here are the weekly requirements)

        The recent debacle has uncovered a perfectionism amongst soi-disant reformed folk, not limited to classic holiness types. I have yet to (but yearn to) hear a satisfactory of ‘holiness’ that does not fall into moralism. Can you summarize Bruner on this?

  5. Albert,

    A nice copy of Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Walter Marshall. is available here:

    Robert Haldane’s (1764-1842) Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, is helpful on this subject:

    It is a noble protest against the meager teaching of many so-called Protestants on the subject of justification by faith. Its faithful condemnation of the false, and bold vindication of the true may be reckoned too “decided,” perhaps “extreme,” by “advanced” theologians, but the church of God, in these days of diluted doctrine, will be thankful for such an assertion of Reformation theology. His strong point is his elucidation of the apostle’s statements as to the believer’s being “dead to sin,” which he shows to have “no reference to the character of believers, but exclusively to their state before God, as the ground on which their sanctification is secured” (vol 2, p 22). To be “dead to sin” is a judicial or legal, not a moral figure. It refers to our release from condemnation, our righteous disjunction from the claim and curse of law. This, instead of giving license to sin, is the
    beginning and root of holiness.

    • Thank you, Brad

      “To be ‘dead to sin’ is a judicial or legal, not a moral figure. It refers to our release from condemnation..” Similarly “freed from the power of sin” is freedom from the power of sin to condemn us, rather than freedom from the power of sin to influence/intrude/tempt us.

      When we forget the judicial basis for this state of death/freedom, we slide towards pietism/perfectionism/holiness movements by which we would be ‘subjecting the Son of God to public disgrace’ (in wording used elsewhere)

  6. Dr. Clark,

    You’ve probably been asked this many times, and have given a clear answer on it;

    But with the focus on sanctification and the gospel, how do we understand passages that emphasize “striv[ing] for peace and holiness without which no one will see the LORD (Heb 12:14); and “work[ing] out your own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing it is the LORD who works in you..” (phil 2:12-13)

    I do not intend for these to be proof texts. However these are just a couple of key texts that are brought up in this discussion over Law/Gospel, Progressive sanctification, and works. And I ask you in hopes of gaining understanding and some clarity on your position, as it is difficult to have those things in a web-storm

    Thanks and God bless!


    • Hi Justin,

      This is a good and very important question. The answer, in short, is to distinguish between is and because or through. It IS the case that believers, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, will produce good fruit. They are not admitted to the presence of God, however, because (on the ground of) or through (as in instrument or means) that good fruit.

      In the Belgic Confession (1561), the confession of the Reformed Churches, in Art. 24, we confess:

      Article 24: The Sanctification of Sinners
      We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.

      Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

      These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

      So then, we do good works, but nor for merit—for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”60—thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”

      Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

      So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.

      You see that there is genuine, Spirit-wrought sanctity in believers but that sanctity is ONLY and ever an EVIDENCE of our free acceptance with God. It is the Romanists and the moralists who seek to make sanctity do more than it was ever intended to do.

      Here are some resources where I discuss this:

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