Yes Virginia, There Is A Law-Gospel Distinction

colquhoun-john-the-law-and-gospelWhen Martin Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms (1521), on the day after he asked for time to think, his examiner asked whether all the books stacked on the table were his. Luther began to answer by distinguishing between the various books. He fell back upon his theological and philosophical training which had taught him to appeal to particulars, that which distinguishes, over universals, that which unites. His examiner, an ecclesiastical functionary, became impatient and demanded a straightforward answer “without horns,” i.e., without equivocation, with an appeal to “the many” over “the one.” Knowing the game was up and that he had to tell the truth and live with the consequences replied, “I will reply without horns and without teeth.”

Universals And Particulars

Since Luther’s time scholars have not given up appealing to particulars over universals. We live in a time (late modernity) when the particular trumps the universal, where belief in universals is regarded with skepticism. I myself, in the study of Reformed orthodoxy, have appealed to particulars as a way of helping overturn the old, false narrative about Reformed orthodoxy—that it was deduced from a so-called “Central Dogma” (Zentraldogma), that it was dominated by Aristotelian philosophy, that it was rationalist, cold, and spiritually sterile. That caricature was a universal but not one that was inferred from the particulars, from the facts, from the primary sources. It was fabricated out of whole cloth, assumed on the basis of what “must be” (a priori), resting upon the flimsiest of premises.

Nevertheless, as useful as particulars are, universals remain. As I learned from Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) we must account for both “the one” (universals) and the many (particulars). In the question of the history of Reformed theology, there are both. In his recent critique of Tullian Tchividjian one writer appeals to particulars and seems to suggest that there were no universals, no genuine commonalities between Lutherans and Melanchthonians (followers of Philipp Melanchthon), or between the various Lutherans and the Reformed or between the various Reformed writers in their use of the distinction between law and gospel. The rhetorical effect of his argument seems to be that there were so many particularities, so much diversity, that it is really meaningless to talk about “the distinction” between law and gospel but rather we may only talk about “this distinction” and “that distinction.” He writes:

Tchividjian’s penchant for throwing quotes around on his blog should not be mistaken for historical theology. Even a cursory glance at Reformed and Lutheran theologians from the time of the Reformation proves that the law-gospel distinction has a messy history once we move from the matter of justification to other thorny questions (e.g. does the gospel include repentance?). Before chastising other (anonymous) Reformed (and non-Reformed) preachers for confusing categories, perhaps Tchividjian could explain the similarities and differences between Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Musculus, Zanchi, Ursinus, Owen, and Rutherford?

Perhaps he could comment on the intra-Lutheran debates between the Philippists and the Gnesio-Lutherans? Philip Melanchthon, Erasmus Sarcerius, and Johann Spangenberg all include poenitentia in the Gospel and read Luke 24:47 as a reference to the Gospel. Johann Wigand and Jacob Heerbrand excluded poenitentia from the Gospel. Reformed theologians, Jerome Zanchi and Zacharias Ursinus, both took issue with certain Lutheran understandings of the law-gospel distinction. Moreover, there appears to be slight differences even among Reformed confessions on the nature of the gospel. With whom does Tchividjian agree and disagree? Simply asserting the importance of the distinction does not mean one has understood the distinction. As the saying goes: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Tullian doesn’t claim to be a historical theologian but the writer of the critique does and as such there are some things that he seems to have omitted that we might have expected in his account. There are at least two aspects to the law-gospel distinction. There is the distinction itself, in se and then there is its application, its use. As I read the history of Protestant theology in the 16th and 17th century there was a fair degree of unity on the former and more diversity (as there is today) in the latter.

What Happened To The Distinction In The Reformed Vocabulary?

It’s important to understand a couple of things. First, in the modern period, the distinction between law and gospel was gradually eclipsed, particularly in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. I’ve tried to give a brief account of how and why that happened in the essay “Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching,” in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 331-63 (also available on iTunes. Here is a resource post on this question). As a consequence of this eclipse the distinction fell into disuse. Further, it became fairly common by the 1970s and 80s, in many quarters of American Reformed and Presbyterianism, to categorize the distinction as a purely Lutheran matter. This happens when secondary textbooks and surveys replace original sources (Ad fontes!). Textbook writers need clean, clear lines in order to tell a story.

This response on the OPC website is typical of the way Reformed folk came to talk in the 19th and 20th centuries about law and gospel. A correspondent writes to ask about attending an ELCA congregation. In the (anonymous) reply among the distinctions made between the Lutherans and the Reformed is the difference between the way the Reformed and the Lutherans relate law and gospel.

The Law/Gospel distinction. Lutheranism tends to draw a very distinct and pronounced divide between Law and Gospel (as well as between Old Testament and New Testament). The Law is generally seen as an oppressive thing by Luther. The Law, for him, only seems to have one primary purpose; i.e., to act as a schoolmaster to lead a sinner to Christ, faith, and repentance.

The Reformed, while affirming fully this purpose of the law, also teach other uses of the law. For instance, the Law is a guide even for the unbeliever. Luther seems to dismiss this use of the law. He also seems to believe that since the Christian is free from the law for his justification, somehow he is also free from the law for his sanctification.

Calvin believed that the Law was a way in which God administers his common grace, using the law to suppress wickedness even among pagan peoples, and also promoting righteousness and social orderliness. And for Calvin the third use of the law is the “principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law [and] finds its place among believers in whose ‘hearts the ‘Spirit of God already lives and reigns” (Calvin’s Institutes, II. vii. 12). This is in keeping with the Psalmist’s statements, “I find my delight in your commandments, which I love” (Ps. 119:47, English Standard Version) and “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97, ESV), and with the Apostle Paul’s statement, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Rom. 7:22, ESV).

So, to summarize this point, for Luther the covenant God make with man seems to be completely one way. God makes covenant with man to save him and that’s it. The covenant has no stipulations for man, whereas in Calvin’s view of the covenant, it is a two-way street. Yes, God sovereignly administers his covenant to his people by grace alone, but every covenant has obligations. Every covenant has, in other words, Law and Gospel. So the Reformed tend not to separate Law and Gospel as dramatically as do the Lutherans.

I dissent. Calvin wrote:

For Paul often means by the term law the rule of righteous living by which God requires of us what is his own, giving us no hope of life unless we completely obey him, and adding on the other hand a curse if we deviate even in the slightest degree. This Paul does when he contends that we are pleasing to God through grace and are accounted righteous through his pardon, because nowhere is found that observance of the law for which the reward has been promised. Paul therefore justly makes contraries of the righteousness of the law and of that of the gospel [Romans 3:21 ff.; Galatians 3:10 ff.; etc.] (Institutes, 2.9.4)

Quotations like these are easily multiplied. Calvin not only distinguished explicitly, hermeneutically, between the law and the gospel as “contraries,” i.e., as competing principles relative to justification but he even more frequently distinguished between works and grace, by which he intended to teach essentially the same fundamental distinction as taught by Luther and Melanchthon.

The Reformed orthodox after Calvin spoke frequently of the distinction between law and gospel. Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), a long-time student of Melanchthon, addressed the distinction explicitly in his Summa Theologiae (c. 1561):

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

Cast in terms of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, Ursinus was saying that, on this point, the Reformed were essentially agreed with the Lutherans. He continued to make use of this distinction this way in his lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism (in his Summa Doctrinae). He even argued that the Heidelberg Catechism, of which he was the primary author and on which he was the authorized commentator, is organized by the distinction between law and gospel. Further, I don’t believe that, at the Lutheran and Reformed colloquies (Maulbraun or Montbeilard), in the 1560s and 80s, there was any substantial disagreement between the Reformed and the Lutherans on this principle.

Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), a contributor to the Heidelberg Catechism and a significant early formulator of the Reformed covenant theology (a reading of the history of redemption via covenants) argued explicitly, in his commentary on Romans, that the Reformed “retain” the distinction between law and gospel. Indeed he said that the whole book of Romans was about the distinction between law and gospel and at no time did he ever indicate that he thought there was any disagreement with the Lutherans on this point.

Theodore Beza (1534-1605), in his catechism written while Calvin was still alive, said:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

He did not go on to explain he disagreed with the Lutherans and how he did not mean what they meant by “law” and “gospel” in this context.

In the late 16th century, William Perkins (1558–1602), one of the fathers of English Reformed theology (frequently called “Puritanism”) explained to future preachers:

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).

Edward Fisher (c.1601–55), whose Marrow of Modern Divinity was endorsed by a number of English Reformed theologians and taken up again by the so-called “Marrow Men” (Thomas Boston and the Erskines) in the 18th century and still regarded as a gem of English theology wrote in 1645:

Now, the law is a doctrine partly known by nature, teaching us that there is a God, and what God is, and what he requires us to do, binding all reasonable creatures to perfect obedience, both internal and external, promising the favour of God, and everlasting life to all those who yield perfect obedience thereunto, and denouncing the curse of God and everlasting damnation to all those who are not perfectly correspondent thereunto. But the gospel is a doctrine revealed from heaven by the Son of God, presently after the fall of mankind into sin and death, and afterwards manifested more clearly and fully to the patriarchs and prophets, to the evangelists and apostles, and by them spread abroad to others; wherein freedom from sin, from the curse of the law, the wrath of God, death, and hell, is freely promised for Christ’s sake unto all who truly believe on his name

William Twisse (1578–1646), the first prolucutor (moderator) of the Westminster Assembly (1640s), which gave us the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, wrote in 1633:

How many ways does the Word of God teach us to come to the Kingdom of heaven?

Which are they?
The Law and the Gospel.

What says the Law?
Do this and live.

What says the Gospel?
Believe in Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.

Can we come to the Kingdom of God by the way of God’s Law?

Why so?
Because we cannot do it.

Why can we not do it?
Because we are all born in sin.

What is it to be born in sin?
To be naturally prone to evil and …that that which is good.

How did it come to pass that we are all borne in sin?
By reason of our first father Adam.

Which way then do you hope to come tot he Kingdom of Heaven?
By the Gospel

What is the Gospel?
The glad tidings of salvation by Jesus Christ. To whom is the glad tidings brought:

To the righteous?

Why so?
For two reasons.

What is the first?
Because there is none that is righteous and sin not.

What is the other reason?
Because if we were righteous, i.e., without sin we should have no need of Christ Jesus.

To whom then is this glad tiding brought?
To sinners.

What, to all sinners?

To whom then?
To such as believe and repent.

This is the first lesson, to know the right way to the Kingdom of Heaven.: and this consists in knowing the difference between the Law and the Gospel.

What does the Law require?
That we should be without sin.

What does the Gospel require?
That we should confess our sins, amend our lives, and then through faith in Christ we shall be saved.

The Law requires what?
Perfect obedience.

The Gospel [requires] what?
Faith and true repentance.

The Sum of Saving Knowledge written by David Dickson (1583–1663) and James Durham (1622–58) (see Chris Coldwell’s nice background here), which was bound with the Westminster Standards beginning c. 1650, distinguished clearly and structurally between law and gospel. They wrote:

The sum of the covenant of works, or of the law, is this: “If thou do all that is commanded, and not fail in any point, thou shalt be saved: but if thou fail, thou shalt die.” Rom. x. 5. Gal. iii 10, 12.

The sum of the gospel, or covenant of grace and reconciliation, is this: “If thou flee from deserved wrath to the true Redeemer Jesus Christ, (who is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God through him,) thou shalt not perish, but “have eternal life.” Rom. x. 8, 9, 11.

Dickson and Durham were not paralyzed by “the many,” i.e., the alleged discrepancies between “this view” of law and gospel and “that view.” They made the distinction the way Protestants had been making the distinction for more than a century. The Sum was received by the Reformed as mainstream doctrine. This distinction wasn’t regarded as Lutheran or esoteric.

In the 20th century J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), the founder of Westminster Seminary and the principal organizer of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church wrote in 1925:

A new and more powerful proclamation of law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skillful in relieving men of their burdens… ‘Making Christ Master’ in the life, putting into practice ‘the principles of Christ’ by one’s own efforts-these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one’s obedience to God’s commands (What Is Faith?).

His rhetoric, aimed at mainline, liberal Protestantism (particularly mainline Presbyterianism, e.g., the PCUSA) is unintelligible without the assumption of a distinction between law and gospel.

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957), probably the dominant theologian of the Christian Reformed Church for the first half of the 20th century, whose influence continues to be felt even today, wrote:

The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies to both Testaments. There is law and gospel in the Old Testament, and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or in the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love o God in Christ Jesus (Systematic Theology, [Grand Rapids, 4th edn. 1941], 612).

It is hard to see how Berkhof does not fall under the censure of being “simplistic” or reductionist that has been leveled against Tullian and others who are enthusiastic (in the best) sense about recovering the distinction between law and gospel theologically and homiletically.

Finally, for this section, John Murray (1898–1975), the founding systematic theologian of old Westminster, wrote in 1957:

…the purity and integrity of the gospel stands or falls with the absoluteness of the antithesis between the function and potency of law, one the one hand, and the function and potency of grace, on the other (Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, 186)

Were there variations in the way the distinction was used? Certainly. Was the distinction widely employed and did it operate on the same principle across the centuries, until the 19th and 20th centuries? Yes.

The answer on the OPC webpage gives the strong impression that the Reformed do not also make a sharp distinction between law and gospel. As has been demonstrated here and has been shown in print and as been available, in English, freely, widely, and continuously on the internet since 2001, such an impression does not accord with the history and confession of the Reformed Churches.

Neither is the account of the Lutherans (as embodied either in their classical theologians or in the Book of Concord) accurate but it is the sort of textbook account one finds in various surveys. This way of speaking is probably derived from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (4.454–55). Bavinck’s account of the Lutheran view probably reflects more what he was seeing in 19th-century Lutheranism than what was actually taught by the classical sources and in the Lutheran symbols. Geerhardus Vos, who gets quoted in this discussion, simply repeated Bavinck.

Not only do the Reformed and the Lutherans share common principles when it comes to distinguishing law and gospel, we also share common principles when it comes to distinguishing between the pedagogical, the civil, and normative or third use of the law. The term tertius usus legis (third use of the law) comes to us from Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560). Luther did not use the expression but he did teach the substance. He was not aware of any significant difference between his teaching and Melanchthon’s on this issue. He certainly taught the substance of the third use (as a guide to sanctity) in his 1529 catechisms and in his responses to to the Antinomians. The Reformed did (and do) teach the 3rd use and we agree with the Lutherans that, even in the 3rd use it continues to have a pedagogical function. In the third part of the catechism, after explaining what the law of God requires of believers as a consequence of their justification, the catechism 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.

The first thing that catechism says is that the long continues to teach believers the greatness of their sin and misery. The notion that the law continues to have a pedagogical function even for Christians is not a distinctively Lutheran view. It is what the Reformed Churches confess.

How I Re-Learned The Distinction And How It Helped My Ministry

Because we lost our earlier vocabulary and our unashamed use of the distinction and because the distinction (and its rejection) came to be identified with denominational and partisan differences not only did Reformed and Presbyterian folk stop speaking about it but in too many places they openly opposed it. I cannot count the number of times people have told me that even to make the distinction is “Lutheran” and that anyone who makes the distinction is “Lutheran.” When I began to become Reformed circa 1980 I learned many new things but the distinction between law and gospel was not one of them. The folks who taught me were wonderful and they were life savers. They opened the Scriptures for me literally and metaphorically—they kept the Bible from becoming a closed book, available only to “spiritual giants” or some illuminati. Still, for the first 18 years of my Reformed life I did not hear much talk about the distinction. I heard the category invoked in seminary but it was never explained in any detail. I suppose those who used it assumed we knew what it meant. We didn’t.

I learned it from reading the Reformed orthodox writers, in primary sources and I became convinced of its truth but it would be several years before anyone would explain how it affected preaching. This was no small thing. For years I preached the gospel earnestly from all of Scripture, trying to preach “the whole counsel of God” but I had the idea that, in the conclusion of the sermon, I had to press the moral obligations of God’s law upon the people. I did this but I did so without having a clear distinction between law and gospel. Thus, as a consequence, rather than pressing the obligation of the moral law in its third use—the law-gospel distinction doesn’t destroy the third use; it saves it!—as a consequence of the gospel, to be lived out gratefully, by grace alone (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 35), through faith alone I too often put my congregation back under the law for acceptance with God. I did not mean to do it. I did not know that I was doing it but I knew there was something desperately wrong with my preaching (many things, I suppose but this one great thing) but I did not know what it was because I lacked this category, this way of analyzing things. It made the congregation restless. It made me miserable. My preaching was infected with disease and I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how to treat it.

Once my beloved senior pastor Norman “Nub” Hoeflinger, with whom I served for two years, told me of the time a parishioner asked him why he was so dissatisfied with the congregation. He was shocked because he didn’t think he was but they felt he was. We talked about it because he still struggled with it and so did I but we never came to a resolution. We couldn’t solve the problem because neither one of us—Nub graduated from WTS in 1955 and I graduated from WSC in 1987—were given these categories relative to preaching. It wasn’t until Mike Horton explained the distinction in a brief 1998 conference talk that I understood with any conceptual clarity what it meant to distinguish between law and gospel in preaching. I learned how to preach the law in all its ferocity, the gospel in all its sweetness, and how, in Christ, the law and the gospel do agree with each other. Believers are no longer under condemnation and now we are free, by God’s grace and in union with Christ, to seek to bring our lives into conformity with God’s holy law.

This Is No Small Thing

The reader should understand that the recovery of the distinction between law and gospel was essential to the Reformation. Without it there would have been no Protestantism, no Luther as we know him, no Calvin as we know him. It was a sine qua non and it did not happen overnight. Luther gradually recovered the distinction from 1513–21 (and beyond). Even as he matured through the 1520s and into the mid 30s Luther was still perfecting his language about law and gospel. Still, it was clear enough that it was one of his major criticisms of Erasmus in was arguably his greatest work, De servo arbitrio (1525) where he lambasted the moralist humanist Erasmus (whose work was delightful when skewering Roman excesses and ignorance and truly dreary when doing theology) for confusing law and gospel. I commend to you the reading of Bondage of the Will. You won’t regret it. Melanchthon, of course, picked up this basic distinction in his Loci Communes (1521), which became the basic textbook of the Reformation, which clearly influenced Calvin’s 1536 Institutes. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, that there was a basic, hermeneutical or theological distinction in Scripture between those words that said, “do this and live” and “for God so loved the world” became a fundamentum (foundation) of Protestant theology and understanding of Scripture. At its core that distinction, as you’ve seen, taught that when Scripture promises life or acceptance with God on the basis of our performance of the law or our obedience, that is law. When it promises life or acceptance with God on the basis (implicitly or explicitly) of Christ’s obedience for us, received through faith (resting and receiving) alone—whether looking prospectively from the OT or looking retrospectively from the New—that is gospel. That was the res or the stuff of the distinction.

Yes, there were differences of opinion about the implications or application of the distinction. There were differences of opinion (not doctrine) over whether we should include repentance under law or gospel (e.g., Olevianus includes it under law). Those debates were really about definitions. If a writer was using the term gospel broadly he might say one thing. If he was using it narrowly, he might say another.

The question I have is whether those differences of opinion were so great as to render the distinction virtually meaningless. I don’t think so. One prima facie reason why I don’t think so is that when the Reformed spoke about the distinction, they did so usually without qualifying it in the way that the critic implies. E.g., when the fellow whom I’ve studied the most, Caspar Olevianus spoke about it he simply wrote of the “distinction” (discrimen) between law and gospel. He didn’t say, “our” or “the Reformed” or “their” (Lutheran) distinction. He invoked the distinction as if everyone knew what he was saying. That is true of Beza, Perkins, and many other Reformed writers whose use I’ve documented (see the resource page).

The Hillary Question: What Does It Matter?

It is ironic that we’re having a controversy over sanctification, because, of course, sanctification is the process of being conformed to Christ. There are many bad things about such a controversy, e.g., the desire to “win” and to “be right” rather than to “get it right” and to help. One good thing about controversy, however, is that it is an opportunity to learn (or relearn) basics and to grow.

The medieval church confused law and gospel for most of a millennium. God was gracious and continued to save his church but Christ’s glory was diminished by the confusion and much harm was done. The recovery of this distinction was among the most powerful engines of the Reformation and its something of which no Reformed person should ever be ashamed. Ever.

The distinction is not mere theory. It’s essential to the ministry of the Word. It’s essential to the way we care for the sheep whom God has entrusted to us. We need to know, in the pulpit, what we’re doing. Are we preaching the law or the gospel? How do those two principles relate to the passage at hand? (To ask the question isn’t to answer it!). I don’t want young preachers (or old ones) to do to their congregation what I did to mine: to put them back under the law for justification.  I want the gospel preached freely and graciously. I want the law explained winsomely to God’s people, who’ve embraced the gospel,  who want to obey. Yes, there is a place for holy fear—of displeasing our heavenly Father, not that he will reject those for whom Christ efficaciously gave his life but because we love our Father who first loved us in Christ.

We can’t get any of that right until and unless we distinguish the way our Reformed forefathers did between law and gospel. That distinction is essential to the message that we need to communicate to a lost and dying world.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This is great – both philosophically and theologically sound and quite clear. Many following the current ‘debate’ would be well served with this piece. Your use of the appeal to Luther’ s awareness of the universal vs. the particular is enough to illuminate the fact we inhabit a very different philosophical landscape than our reformed forefathers. Thanks!

  2. Another wonderful, helpful, insightful Clark post! And regarding the agreement between law and gospel in Christ, I find Calvin’s comments on James 1:25 particularly helpful:

    The perfect law of liberty. After having spoken of empty speculation, he comes now to that penetrating intuition which transforms us to the image of God. And as he had to do with the Jews, he takes the word law, familiarly known to them, as including the whole truth of God.

    But why he calls it a perfect law, and a law of liberty, interpreters have not been able to understand; for they have not perceived that there is here a contrast, which may be gathered from other passages of Scripture. As long as the law is preached by the external voice of man, and not inscribed by the finger and Spirit of God on the heart, it is but a dead letter, and as it were a lifeless thing. It is, then, no wonder that the law is deemed imperfect, and that it is the law of bondage; for as Paul teaches in Galatians 4:24, separated from Christ, it generates to condemn and as the same shews to us in Romans 8:13, it can do nothing but fill us with diffidence and fear. But the Spirit of regeneration, who inscribes it on our inward parts, brings also the grace of adoption. It is, then, the same as though James had said, “The teaching of the law, let it no longer lead you to bondage, but, on the contrary, bring you to liberty; let it no longer be only a schoolmaster, but bring you to perfection:it ought to be received by you with sincere affection, so that you may lead a godly and a holy life.

  3. I have rarely seen the interests of historical theology and pastoral theology come together so beautifully in a single essay. Thank you for this service to the Church.

  4. This was a captivating read, thanks Dr. Clark! I’m having trouble getting to the OPC link response you put on here.

  5. The commands of the moral law are, in substance, embodied in both the law as a covenant of works and the law of Christ or third use of the law. Both are law that command and are binding. The distinction has to do with the “why” of obedience. For one under the law as a covenant of works the motive to obey is fear of condemnation and the false hope of meriting salvation. For the believer in Christ the motive to obey is gratitude born of grace with no need to fulfill the law’s demands whatsoever, for Christ has finished that burdensome task…

    This is one principal difference between the law and the gospel, and was ever so esteemed in the church of God, until all communication of efficacious grace began to be called in question:
    “The law guides, directs, commands, all things that are against the interest and rule of sin. It [the law] judgeth and condemneth both the things that promote it [rule of sin] and the persons that do them; it [the law] frightens and terrifies the consciences of those who are under its dominion. But if you shall say unto it, “What then shall we do? this tyrant, this enemy, is too hard for us. What aid and assistance against it [sin] will you [law] afford unto us? what power will you communicate unto its destruction?” Here the law is utterly silent, or says that nothing of this nature is committed unto it of God; nay, the strength it hath it gives unto sin for the condemnation of the sinner: “The strength of sin is the law.” But the gospel, or the grace of it, is the means and instrument of God for the communication of internal spiritual strength unto believers. By it do they receive supplies of the Spirit or aids of grace for the subduing of sin and the destruction of its dominion. By it they may say they can do all things, through Him that enables them.
    [bracketed explanatory words added]
    [A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace by John Owen]

  6. Scott,

    I appreciate what you’re saying. I was wondering if you would comment on chapter 20 of Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology. The chapter is entitled “The Puritans on Law and Gospel.” What do you make of it?

    • Wes,

      1. As I keep saying, we should probably talk about English/Scottish/Welsh or British Reformed theology. “Puritan” is about as useful to describe 17th cent. theology as “Evangelical” is today–which is to say not very.

      2. That evidence they adduce in that chapter only supports my thesis: unity in se and diversity in application.

      3. I appreciate that they mention Luther and Ursinus and acknowledge the distinction in se.

      4. It’s interesting that they point to eternal justification as a key element of antinomianism–something of which Tullian has never been accused and something which he denies.

      5. As I said in the two H-Cast episodes on conditions in the covenant of grace, and as Rutherford said, sanctity is a matter of “is” (BC 24) not “through” or “on the basis of.”

      6. The chapter might be clearer on exactly HOW the gospel “requires” good works—as a consequence not as a prior condition. Failure to observe this distinction only leads to confusion and mischief.

      7. Again, it’s not whether conditions but of what sort and in what logical relation to justification and sanctification.

      8. Yes, the Marrow was accused of antinomianism, which the authors recognize to have been a false accusation, but by whom? I’ve been accused of antinomianism a calumny and lie that I not only reject but have shown to be utterly false. That the Marrow and the Marrow Men were accused of it only shows that ANYONE who preaches the gospel of grace and the unconditional (in the sense of prior conditions–the covenant of grace is not a covenant of works!) will eventually be accused of antinomianism.

      9. It’s easy to get people to mouth the orthodox line re justification but watch out for those fellows who put free grace and justification sola fide in a lockbox, who only take it out like a museum exhibit, who handle it with white gloves and then put it away to turn our attention to what we must do (or else).

      10. Yes, there were differences of opinion between the Lutheran and the Reformed on whether repentance belongs to law or gospel and there were differences between the Reformed on the same. As I said, it comes down to definitions. If the quality of my repentance becomes a condition of justification then we no longer have a covenant of works.

      11. Judging by the authors surveyed, I would hazard a source-critical guess (Redaktionsgeschichte) that Jones was the primary author of this chapter.

      I dissent from the lead sentence of the conclusion. It doesn’t follow from the evidence adduced. Frankly, evidence adduced, as I say, supports my analysis but it doesn’t support some of the conclusions drawn in the chapter, which were later reflected in Jones’ Antinomianism.

  7. In the first place, I am not comfortable with how some use the terms “law” and “gospel”. Some admit that they use these terms not in their precise biblical sense, but rather as “systematic” categories. A few may even be so bold to agree that the Torah contains both “law” and “gospel”. To insist that the “gospel” equals “done” and the “law” equals “do” invites confusion for any serious student of the Bible. This antithesis causes a host of problems when read back into Scripture, particularly since Paul has a version of law-gospel that bears little resemblance to the “Lutheran” antithesis.

    The Reformed have historically taught that the gospel both promises and commands. To say that all imperatives are strictly law reflects an Antinomian position, at least historically.
    – Mark Jones, Confusing “Law” and “Gospel”

    This fellow it seems is a bit eager to label someone who disagrees with him in such a way as to put one in the dock. Now prove you’re not an antinomian! He knows he’s right…

  8. …..”We can’t get any of that right until and unless we distinguish the way our Reformed forefathers did between law and gospel. That distinction is essential to the message that we need to communicate to a lost and dying world.”


    Compared to a great many other distinctives that to often get top billing in the Reformed world (the list is long really) , I can scarcely think of a distinction more important than law and gospel clarity. Which is why the continued controversy baffles. But it shouldn’t baffle me I guess. After all some things never change. To many Christians and Christian leaders fancy themselves the sanctification police or certified fruit inspectors, which I’m am convinced at its core is what drives much of this. A lot of pseudo spiritualized justification for being a busy body really.

    Being in league with the Marrow Men (biblical and classic reformed theology) does not make one antinomian or even Lutheran.

    Grace and Peace

  9. This might be my favorite Heidelblog post yet (whether from HB version 1.0 or 2.0). Thank you for the reminder and encouragement to uphold this distinction in my preaching.

  10. I think you’re bang on about Jones putting JBFA in a lockbox: He writes a book attacking Tullian on law/gospel; on Christ the Centre podcast, Jones seems to express sympathy with the Marrow critics (without going as far as fully endorsing their charges); and in his review of Frame’s ST he raises concerns about many things but says squat about Frame’s vindication of Shepherd. Maybe Tullian should write a book called “Nomism” and blog about Jones getting kicked off Ref21.

  11. Dr. Clark, Another superb article that should put to rest any historical speculation by Mark Jones about the distinction between Law and Gospel. Now that Tullian is out of TGC, we’ll have to see whether a total rejection of the principle is in the works. After all, if the “Gospel Coalition” rejection, who is going to accept it? (except a few odd ducks like WSCAL).

  12. the covenant of grace is not a covenant of works!

    Dr. Clark, I agree completely. Yet, your readers need to be reminded that you argue elsewhere that the Mosaic administration of the COG was both an administration of the covenant of grace and the covenant of works, which introduces significant difficulty. It is fine to cite law/gospel distinctions in Reformed history and your post here compiles them well. But when we dig past these general distinctions, the current controversy has its root in the covenant confusion you and I discussed previously, one that results in the first use of the law incorrectly being equated with the covenant of works, and the third use fading off to the distance.

    There is no doubt both sides agree there is a law/gospel distinction. The current debate is over how one views the law in its first and third use. Covenant theology drives those views.

  13. Sorry for the length, but as to this Reformed proclivity to portray Luther and the Lutherans as slouching toward antinomianism (and that Calvinism has something of a monopoly on understanding the third use of the law), Fesko does a fine job of helping to put to bed the Lutheran epithet. Here is a bit of the conclusion to “The Westminster Standards and Confessional Lutheranism on Justification” from The Confessional Presbyterian (Volume 3, 2007, pgs. 22-24):

    In turning to the second half of our investigation, we must explore the question of whether the Lutheran commitment to sola fide is such that they make absolutely no place for the necessity of good works, in some sense, in the broader category of their soteriology. In other words, is Lutheran soteriology antinomian? There have been those in both the distant and recent past who have argued that Luther and Lutheranism only hold to two uses of the law: the political or civil, in retraining evil, and the elenctic or pedagogic, in leading people to knowledge of sin and the need of redemption. Yet, at the same time a perusal of primary sources, including Luther’s writings, Lutheran confessions, and other Lutheran theologians evidences that Luther and Lutheranism hold to the third use of the law in some form, the didactic or normative use, regulating the life of the regenerate. One may begin with Luther’s own writings, as his writings are incorporated in the confessional corpus of the Lutheran church.

    While Luther certainly divided the scriptures into the categories of law and gospel, commands and promise, just because a person became a Christian did not mean that he was now suddenly free from the demands of the law. Luther, for example, writes that

    “…as long as we live in a flesh that is not free of sin, so long as the Law keeps coming back and performing its function, more on one person and less in another, not to harm but to save. This discipline of the Law is the daily mortification of the flesh, the reason, an dour powers and the renewal of our mind (2 Cor 4:16)…There is still need for a custodian to discipline and torment the flesh, that powerful jackass, so that by this discipline sins may be diminished and the way prepared for Christ.”

    So long as the Christian is simil iustus et peccator, there is always a need for the law in the life of the believer. Luther’s use of the law in the life of the believer is further evidenced from his catechisms.

    Luther’s Small Catechism begins with an exposition of the Decalogue. At the close of the exposition of the Decalogue in Luther’s Large catechism, Luther explains the importance of the law in the life of the believer:

    “Thus, we have the Ten Commandments, a compend of divine doctrine, as to what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God, and the true fountain and channel from and in which everything must arise and flow that is to be a good work, so that outside the Ten Commandments, no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, however great or precious it be in the yes of the world.”

    Luther saw a need for good works, but was careful, like the Reformed tradition, to teach about the proper relationship between good works and justification. Luther addresses the proper place of the law as it relates to justification when he writes:

    “The matter of the Law must be considered carefully, both as to what and as how we ought to think about the Law; otherwise we shall either reject it altogether, after the fashion of the fanatical spirits who prompted the peasant’s revolt a decade ago by saying that the freedom of the Gospel absolves men from all laws, or we shall attribute to the law the power to justify. Both groups sin against the Law: those on the right, who want to be justified through the Law, and those on the left, who want to be altogether free of the Law. Therefore we must travel the royal road, so that we neither reject the law altogether not attribute more to it than we should.”

    Luther saw a place for the law in the life of the believer. When he was explaining the doctrine of justification he said that there was no place for works or the law. In relationship, though, to one’s sanctification and the knowledge of what is pleasing to God, the Decalogue served as guide as well as a tool in the hand of God to confront the remaining sin in the believer. This careful fencing of justification from works, yet at the same time connecting justification to sanctification, is especially evident in the Lutheran confessions.

    The Augsburg Confession is the first official Lutheran confession, and was largely written by Luther’s lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560). The Augsburg Confession carefully explains that justification is by faith alone: “Our works can not reconcile God, or deserve remission of sins, grace, and justification at his hands, but that these we obtain by faith only, when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone is appointed the Mediator and Propitiatory, by whom the Father is reconciled.” Yet, at the same time the confession gives an apology against antinomianism: “Ours are falsely accused of forbidding good works. For their writings extant upon the Ten Commandments, and others of the like argument, do bear witness that they have to good purpose taught concerning every kind of life, and its duties; what kinds of life, and what works in every calling, do please God.”

    The confession even goes so far as to say that Lutherans “teach that it is necessary to do good works,” but it specifies that “not that we may trust that we deserve grace by them, but because it is the will of God that we should do them. By faith alone is apprehended remission of sins and grace. And because the Holy Spirit is received by faith, our hearts are now renewed, and so put on new affections, so that they are able to bring forth good works” (Augsburg Conf., ¶ 20, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.24-25). So, here, in this Lutheran confession we see the emphasis upon justification by faith alone but also the need for good works, informed by the law. While this is not precisely the same nomenclature that one finds in the Westminster Standards [it] is nonetheless parallel to the Standards’ emphasis on the third use of the law (WLC qq. 95-97; WCF 19.6; cf. Belgic Conf., ¶ 25; Heidelberg Cat., q. 93). What we find in inchoate forms in the Augsburg Confessions, however, emerges quite clearly in the formula of Concord.

    …It is in the Formula of Concord that the Lutherans, legendary for their insistence upon justification by faith alone, also state that “good works must certainly and without all doubt follow a true faith (provided only it be not a dead faith but a living faith), as fruits of a good tree” (Formula of Concord, ¶ 4, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.122.). It is in article six, “Of the third use of the law,” where the document makes its most pronounced statement about the importance of the law and good works: “We believe, teach, and confess that although they who truly believe in Christ, and are sincerely converted to God, are through Christ set free from the curse and constraint of the Law, they are not, nevertheless, on that account without the Law (Formula of Concord, ¶6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.131.). The document goes on to state that “the preaching of the Law should be urged not only upon those who have not faith in Christ, and do not yet repent, but also upon those who truly believe in Christ, are truly converted to God, and regenerated and are justified by faith” (Formula of Concord, ¶6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.132.). So, then, it appears from primary sources such as Luther, the Augsburg Confession, and the Formula [of] Concord that Luther and Lutheranism places a heavy emphasis upon justification by faith alone but not to the exclusion of the importance and necessity of good works or the third use of the law. This is not a unique conclusion.

  14. Dr. Clark, to be clear, I did not say you argued for the Mosaic as a covenant of works for salvation. I understand you have always made that qualifier. The issue is that you still argue for the Mosaic as including an administration of the covenant of works, and as I indicated, the outworking of that view affects the role of the law in the life of the believer. It has turned a “use” of the law into a covenant of works. That is a different matter, in my view, and is where this controversy is stemming from– not from whether people hold to a law/gospel distinction. All sides affirm such a distinction. The debate is what is being done with that distinction.

    • Frank,

      If all sides in this discussion affirm the law/gospel distinction I wouldn’t have written thousands of words on it over the last two days.

      NO! The third use is NOT a covenant of works! I’ve argued against that extensively. I wrote a multi-part series precisely to reject that error.

      The ONLY thing I have done is to re-affirm what we confess in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 115:

      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.

      We confess that the law of God continues to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery. It never stops being law. That does not make it a covenant of works. WCF ch. 19 is very clear about that. Please read the series on warning passages linked above. Please consider carefully the teaching of HC 115.

  15. Dr. Clark, Since Mark Jones has offered to debate publically with Tullian Tchividjian and Carl Trueman has offered to join with Mark Jones as someone who has historical knowledge of Luther, how about you joining with Pastor Tullian as one who also has knowledge about Luther and as one who feels strongly about this issue. This debate could be enlightening and help produce clarity and unity or needed division.

    • Richard,

      I don’t think it would. I watched the debate/discussion at Biola. Did we learn anything that we didn’t know before? No.

      My experience (no reference to you) is that people like to see a cat fight. I can blog about the Heidelberg Catechism til I’m blue in the face (and have done) and relatively few people care. If I reply to someone a lot more people read.

      There are other reasons not to do them but this is enough. I’ve written a great deal about these issues. I’ve done dozens of podcasts by myself and in discussion with others. It’s all online. It’s all free. It’s all in English. Anyone who wants to know what I think can find out quite easily.

    • I saw that discussion that Dr. Clark mentioned and was left disappointed. So many assumptions were left unchallenged, and other things just ignored. Carl Trueman did a bad job. Imagine all those BIOLA and So. CA people (not to mention Internet viewers) who don’t follow the kind of content in this blog and the impression they were left with? All in the presence of Peter Leithart, a PCA minister!

  16. Dear Dr. Clark,

    As a seminary student and a person who has, at times, struggled with the importance of historical theology in the Christian life, thank you for this post. It’s very timely, points out some unclear thinking that happens in our generation(s), has reminded me the grand importance of historical theology, and pushed me closer to the gospel. Thank you again.

  17. Such a great post! I was a youth pastor who did the same thing to my youth through beating them up with the law. Of course, I didn’t mean to do so either. I am thankful for men like yourself who have helped me unwind my misunderstanding of the law and gospel distinction and how it is applied in preaching.

  18. I wasn’t going to add a comment to this formidable list, but I think I have to say THANK YOU! And to add that this post is just one good example that I tell people that reading the Heidelblog over the past year has practically given me a graduate level education in Reformed Orthodoxy!

  19. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this incredible essay. Thank you for helping to bring further light into Historical Theology, which is desperately needed.

    Would it be okay if I share a few more who have understood, embraced, and treasured the Law/Gospel distinction and it’s centrality to the faith?

    1. Patrick Hamilton, Patrick’s Places. One cannot be more clear than he was… and he sealed his testimony with a martyr’s death- hardly an antinomian neanderthal. His theses come very close to the “do…done” language that is used today. John Knox loved Hamilton and his theology.

    2. Charles Spurgeon, Baptist. Read everything he wrote. It all leads to the Law/Gospel distinction and a CLEAR difference between the covenants of works and grace. For a quick reference, however, read his “Christ the End of the Law,” found in Banner of Truth’s new publication, “Christ’s Glorious Achievements.”

    3. Charles Hodge, Princeton theologian. Read his commentary on Romans 3. Again, it is extremely “Lutheran.” Read it and weep- weep for joy, that is. He is so clear.

    4. Robert Haldane, Commentary on Romans. Again, great clarity comes from this great Scot!

    5. Most of all, a slow and thoughtful meditating through Romans 3 would once and for all put the controversy to rest. I truly believe the root problem to this controversy is a lack of seeing the majesty and perfection of God’s Law. If we saw that, we would keep our mouth forever silent (Rom. 3:19) and would cling to justification with all our hearts and with a Biblical sense of proportion.

    A final note: Your quoting of HC 115 in one of your above responses is beautiful… and again, with such terse summaries, I wonder why there is any controversy at all.

    The whole controversy is sickening… and weird, quite frankly.

  20. Pulling on the same thread Frank McMahon was pulling on above,

    “The Theological problem posed by the republication thesis can be stated rather simply. If what belongs to the substance of the covenant of works does not belong to the substance of the covenant of grace in any of its administrations, it is semantically and theologically problematic to denominate the Mosaic administration as in any sense a covenant of works.”

    Dr. Cornelius Venema

    • Peter,

      I agree with Cornel when he says, “in the history of Reformed covenant theology, the Mosaic covenant has often been misinterpreted as a covenant of works that republishes the pre-fall covenant with humankind in Adam.”

      Lots of resources here including a three-part podcast reviewing all the issues beginning here.

      I can’t agree with Cornel’s description and assessment of the issue.

      Take a look at the resources.

    • According to what Frank says above and what you point out here through Dr. Venema, there is a clear misunderstanding of the issue as whole, which Dr. Clark has already pointed out in his stated agreement.

      The issue with what you both are trying to say is that you assume that by affirming a works principle in the Mosaic administration you thereby claim that the Mosaic administration is an administration of the THE pre-fall CoW. Moreoever, Venema seems to assume that ANY covenant which contains a works principle somehow participates in/is an administration of the pre-fall CoW.

      This is not what republication ordinarily teaches and is not what is taught at WSCal.

  21. Dr. Clark’s pastoral heart speaks volumes in this article. As one of the Lord’s sheep who was caught up in the legalism of theonomy for a decade, all I can say is praise the Lord for this recent “controversy” regarding sanctification and justification which is helping me and others to learn and grow in the grace of our Savior. May the good Lord continue to use Dr. Clark for His truth and glory. Amen.

    • Thank you, Angela. I really appreciate your messages about your movement away from theonomy; I am sharing with others who are caught in its legalism still–one young man I am trying to minister to is wrecking his marriage and family over this and “Family Integrated Church” issues. Thank you for your writings.

      • Dear Richard, I’ll pray for the young man and that God will bless your efforts. I’ve seen marriages destroyed by those in the movement, and if not for the grace of God, mine would probably have dissolved, too. Please click on my icon and look for a link to Christian Heritage News. I’ve posted some resources there regarding theonomy that you might find helpful. One thing that might reach your friend – ask him if he’s still as on fire to evangelize the pure Gospel or has it morphed into him predominately wanting God’s Law to be recognized in the civil realm. Is he as zealous for souls as he is for establishing civil laws?

  22. I was eager to read Antinomianism when it came out–especially after he not-so-subtly called out the White Horse Inn fellows as opponents (I listen weekly). Then I read his sections about having a “faith like Jesus’ faith”–it sounded like the very thing Machen knocked down in Christianity and Liberalism and What is Faith?. Hasn’t set well with me since.

    This post, and the interaction in the comments, have helped the fog lift a bit more. Thank you (again), Dr. Clark!

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