When The Good News Becomes Bad

The word “Gospel” is so familiar and frequently used that it is possible to lose sight of its genuine meaning, “good news.” This question is vital as we face a series of movements within our churches which seek to redefine the meaning of the Gospel. In each case we are being offered “another Gospel” (Gal 1:6). The Good News of Christ faces a threat on the order of that faced by the Galatian Christians.

What Happened to this Good News?

The fathers in the early church spoke the Gospel, but their concerns tended to focus on apologetics, the Trinity, Christology, the canon of Scripture and the church. As often as not the “Gospel” message among the early fathers was that Christ had come, and salvation is available to those who trust Christ and behave themselves. This was not good news for sinners.

By the thirteenth century the Gospel of grace was understood as a progressive transformation of a person’s moral life. The gospel equaled sanctification. People were thought to be morally sick and in need of an injection of a medicinal substance called grace. In this scheme, one is as justified as he is sanctified, and sanctification comes by cooperating with this medicine (grace) received in the sacraments. Their Gospel exclaimed: “salvation is available for those who cooperate with grace and obey the Law.” This was more bad news for sinners. Instead of Christ’s perfect righteousness earned for us, we were left with a partial righteousness worked in us.

The Reformation of the Good News

In contrast, Martin Luther and John Calvin believed the Bible contained “two words”: Law and Gospel.(1) “Law” describes anything in Scripture which says, “Do this and live” (Luke 10:28), while “Gospel” describes anything which says, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

“Do this and Live!”

The Law is God’s unbending moral will. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 19.1 reminds us that God’s Law requires “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” before and after the fall. This was exactly Moses’ doctrine in Deut 27:26 and Paul’s in Gal 3:10: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the Law.”

The Reformers taught that God revealed his Law to Adam in terms of a covenant of works, “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). The implicit promise to Adam of eternal blessedness was conditioned on his obedience as the representative of all humanity.(2) In his sin, Adam broke the covenant of works and all humanity fell with him.(3) As a result, regarding justification, the Law is bad news for sinners, accusing us that we “have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and [are] still prone always to all evil” (Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 60).

“It is Finished!”

The Good News is another thing however. It is the announcement that by his one act of obedience, Christ, the Second Adam, has kept the Law, fulfilled the covenant of works, and made a “new covenant” in his blood for sinners.(4) The promised Savior-King has come with his kingdom and covenant of grace.(5) While the Law says, “do,” the Gospel says, “done!” While the covenant of works says, “work,” the covenant of grace says, “rest!” This is why the Gospel is such “good news,” since it is about our justification earned for us by Christ and offered freely to us.(6)

According to Heidelberg Catechism 21, true faith believes that “everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Where the Law demands my perfect obedience, the Good News announces and promises that Christ has fulfilled the Law for me, cancelled the notice of debt against me and “imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (HC 60).(7)

This is what Scripture means by Good News. In several places the noun for “Good News” refers to something which has occurred outside of me which benefits me.(8) In other places we are daily to “proclaim the Good News” of God’s salvation.(9) Most famous of all such Old Testament passages is Isaiah 52:7 which says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (ESV).

What was foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures bursts forth in brilliant clarity in the New Testament. The Gospel is the accomplishment of salvation for God’s people in the obedient life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.(10) Nowhere is this plainer than in 1 Cor 15:1-5. The Gospel declares that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….” It is this “foolish” message (1 Cor 1:18) which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). The Gospel is not that we might be justified if we are good, but that I am justified because Christ was good. This is why the Gospel is good news for sinners!

What Happened to the Good News?

As in Paul’s day, not everyone is satisfied with the Gospel of free grace in Christ today. The early church was tempted to add conditions to the covenant of grace.(11) They said, “trust in Christ of course, but there is more to being right with God than trusting in Christ.” The opponents of the Gospel wanted to redefine faith as “trusting and obeying.” So Paul declared,

…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).

The Reformers rightly applied this passage to their controversy with the Roman church. Rome taught a Gospel of cooperation with grace. Their definition of the Gospel made our works a part of becoming right with God, which demeans Christ’s finished work. In contrast, the Apostle Paul argued that the Good News declares that believers are justified now and that there is “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:1).(12)

Common Misinterpretations

Like Rome, those who offer a false “Gospel” of justification by grace through faith and obedience argue that Galatians 5:6, “faith working through love,” teaches that true faith exists only to the extent that love exists, so that one is only as justified as he is sanctified. They also appeal to James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Read in context, it has been plain to Protestants since the early sixteenth century that Gal 5:6 is speaking not about justification but about sanctification or the Christian life. John Calvin wrote, “…that passage is irrelevantly introduced into a question about justification, since Paul is not there considering in what respect faith or charity avails to justify a man, but what is Christian perfection…” To interpret this passage to teach justification through faith and obedience is to put us back under the Law. In the same way, James 2:24 must be read in the light of James 2:14. James is writing about the fruit or evidence of true faith. If one “says” he has true faith, but has no evidence, that sort of faith is not genuine. The issue for James is not how we are right with God but the evidence of true faith. “Justified” in James 2:24 does not mean “declared right with God,” but it means that the existence of true faith is “vindicated.”

Confusing Gospel with Church Membership

Some argue that the Gospel is not that we have been declared right before God, but that we are members of the church. They argue that the role of faith in justification is not simply to receive Christ and rest in His righteousness, but to cooperate actively with grace to keep what we have already been given in baptism. They argue that the Bible teaches a justification which can be lost if we do not keep the law.

Reformed theology has always been covenantal, but this approach turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works by confusing Law with Gospel. In the covenant of grace, we are justified by “faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28). If salvation must be retained by works, how is it gracious? How can sinners ever cooperate well enough?

Salvation happens in the context of the visible church indeed, so there is no reason to juxtapose the corporate and personal, but Scripture nowhere speaks of justification in purely corporate terms. Church membership does not equal justification. Not everyone in the visible church is necessarily part of the elect. Many in the Israelite congregation did not benefit from the covenant of grace because they did not believe.(13) Though Esau was an outward member of the covenant of grace, he was not an inward member because he was not elect. Not every member of the visible congregation is actually united to Christ “head for head,” as they say. Such a view would have Esau elect until he forfeited it.(14)

Confusing Gospel with Law

Finally, some argue that since the Law makes promises and the Gospel requires sinners to “obey,” there is no real difference between Law and Gospel.

It is true that both the Law and Gospel have promises and demands. Rom 2:16 teaches that according to Paul’s “Gospel,” God “judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” and Rom 10:16 says that not all have “obeyed” the Gospel. In the latter case, however, the verb “to obey” is defined in the same verse as “to believe.” In Romans 2:16, it is apparent that, as elsewhere, Paul uses “Gospel” to refer broadly to his entire message of sin and salvation, of which Christ’s return and the final judgement are properly included.(15) It is important to notice that the judgement to which Paul refers in Rom 2:16 is not conditioned on my perfect and perpetual obedience to God’s Law but rather refers to the sin of unbelief.

Though both Law and Gospel have commands and promises, the Law and the Gospel have different conditions. The condition of the Law (covenant of works) is perfect and perpetual obedience. The condition of the Gospel (the covenant of grace) is faith that trusts, i.e., rests in and receives the finished work of Christ. The “work of God” is to “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).


The Good News is that Christ has obeyed the Law, satisfied God’s just wrath, and his righteousness is freely credited to me and received through faith alone. Scripture is clear about the Gospel and warns us very starkly about corrupting it.(16) Nevertheless, for much of Christian history, there has been confusion about the good news. It has been turned into bad news, so it must be guarded with care.(17) We are to be careful not to let anyone take us “captive by philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men and the basic principles of the world” (Col 2:8) especially where it touches the Good News of Christ’s work for sinners.


1 John 1:17; Rom 6:14; 11:6; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 2:21; 5:4
2 Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 9; WCF 7.2; Gal 3:12; Hosea 6:7
3 HC 6, 9; WCF 7.2; 19.1
4 Rom 5:18, Luke 22:20
5 Isa 52:7; Matt 4:23; Mark 1:15; HC 19
6  Rom 10:6
7 Rom 10:4; Col 2:14
8 e.g. 2 Sam 4:10; 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kings 7:9
9 e.g. Psalm 96:2
10 Rom 16:25
11 Gal 1:16; Col 2:4
12 Rom 5:1
13 1 Cor 10; Heb 3-4
14 Rom 9:11-13
15 e.g. Rom 11:28; 1 Cor 4:15
16 Gal 1:9
17 1 Tim 6:20


This essay appeared originally on the Westminster Seminary California website (2010).

    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. Amen! The Law/Gospel distinction: nowhere is there more confusion, and nowhere is it more important to get it right.

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