When 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?
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?
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?
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?
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.