2017 is a “Reformation Year.” It is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and an opportunity to remember the Reformation basics. One of those is the distinction between law and gospel. One of the five most basic distinctions Luther recovered for us is the distinction between God’s Word when it says, in effect, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) and “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). These are both God’s Word but they are quite different words. In its first use, God’s holy law convicts us of our sin. Paul says, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Rom 7:7). In this use, the law is a harsh schoolmaster who beats us when we transgress (Gal 3:24,25). The gospel is good news for believing sinners. It declares to them by God’s favor, which Christ earned for them, according to his unconditional election that their sins have been forgiven, that they are accepted with God, indeed that they have been saved from the wrath to come and that God is at work in them conforming them to Christ (Rom 5:1; 8:1; Eph 1:1–15; 2:8–10; Phil 1:6).
How We Lost The Law/Gospel Distinction
In its desire to promote sanctity among God’s people and because it greatly feared what we have come to call antinomianism, the medieval church essentially rejected this distinction. Following several of the earlier fathers, she spoke of law and gospel only in historical terms: “the old law” and “the new law.” To be sure, the Reformation and post-Reformation churches, theologians, and confessions continued to use the traditional language of “law” to refer to the Mosaic covenant and “gospel” to refer to the new covenant. We may call that the historical use of law and gospel. The Protestants also used the distinction theologically and it is that distinction that concerns us here.
Quite naturally we have tended to talk about law and gospel relative to justification. This was one of the principal points of contention with Rome. The distinction, however, applies just as much to the doctrine of sanctification. God the Spirit uses the law in three ways:
- To teach us the greatness of our sin and misery (the pedagogical use)
- To norm civil life (namely via the 2nd table
- To norm the Christian life
In the classical period of Reformed theology these distinctions were received and taught as basics but in the modern period, particularly due to the pernicious influence of Karl Barth (1886–1968) but also due to the influence of what I have called the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) we have lost our classical and confessional categories and vocabulary. We have tended to replace these categories with alien categories from Pentecostalism and fundamentalism and from other sources. Thus, through the 20th century it was difficult to find Reformed people speaking this way and those whose historical horizon stops somewhere in the late 19th century might be excused for being surprised that the law/gospel distinction that Luther articulated was taken as a fundamental Reformed conviction but it was as has been demonstrated in this space and in print several times over the last many years.
Because many Reformed confessing Christians are unfamiliar with this distinction it is not in their toolbox when it comes to approaching either the doctrine of justification or the doctrine of sanctification but it is a vitally important tool that we must recover. One area where I see the omission of the distinction is in the discussion of racism. Granted the traditional definition, racism is a sin. I contend that the traditional confessional Protestant theology is sufficient to address the sin of racism. We do not need either to redefine racism as a state from which there can be no deliverance. As Jay Adams used to say, the good thing about talking to people about sin (instead of complexes or disease etc.) is that there is grace for sinners. We are all sinners and we can all repent of sin, i.e., to acknowledge it for what it is, turn from it, and embrace Christ and seek to live in a way that accords with gospel. Believers seek earnestly to die to their sin and to live to Christ. They do so, however, only by God’s grace only, out of gratitude to God, only in union with Christ.
The law convicts us of our sin and it norms the Christian life but it does not empower us to obey it. The gospel gives to us what the law demands: perfect righteousness. The Spirit is at work in those to whom God has given new life and true faith. He is gradually, graciously working actual righteousness in them. Christians must openly and honestly admit the sin of racism, the prejudging of others on the basis of their ethnic heritage and/or the degree of melanin in their skin. Such attitudes and acts are wicked. As we seek to address this sin, we must address it as we address other sins. We must recognize that however essential the law is in exposing and convicting sin, it will never change the human heart. It will never produce repentance and change. Only the Spirit does this and he does it through the gospel.
The Attraction Of A Legal-Eschatological Religion
The power and attraction of both the early Anabaptist movements (1520s) and of Karl Marx’s social vision was their shared eschatology. Both had what should be called an “over-realized” eschatology. This is the source of the renewed attraction of Walter Rauschenbusch. They wanted too much of heaven right now. They each offered a sort of legal covenant that promised a glorious outcome in this world if only enough people would do their part. Of course, there was nothing new in this. There were early rabbis who taught that if every Israelite would obey God’s law at the same time for just a moment, the Messiah would come and usher in his glorious reign. We see the great Reformed theologian and pastor Heinrich Bullinger reacting to the persistence of the idea of an earthly glory age (particularly among the Anabaptists) in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566):
We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different (ch. 11).
As in the 1920s (e.g., Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel”) and in the 1960s (the “Jesus People), there is a strong sentiment among Christian young people today “to do something good in the world” that they “want to make the world a better place.”In the 1920s the context was World War I. In the 1960s the context was the Vietnam War. In our time the context is the Long War Against Islamist Terrorism.
Again, this is not new. Young people always say this. They always think they their generation will be different from the previous generations. Their perspective is necessarily myopic—this is why we used to teach World History and Western Civilization etc.–and this is what motivates them to do the good they do. The Peace Corps probably did real good. We should not be cynical about the good that energized and organized people can do.
One thing it cannot do, however, is to change the human heart. Only the Holy Spirit can do that (see John 3 and Ephesians 2). Sin and its effects continue. When we combine the seduction of an over-realized eschatology (“we can change the world now”), with a denial of the law/gospel distinction, what we get is a legal-horizontal version of Christianity. One sees this in some approaches to the sin of racism. Instead of using the law to expose the sin and instead of addressing sinners with the gospel and then turning to the law as the norm for Christians, some seem content to use only the law or to combine it with eschatology in a legal-eschatological religion.
The legal-eschatological religion is popular. Most Marxists have a legal-eschatological religion. The attraction of Marxism is the “material” (i.e., this-worldly) dialectic (the process of history) whereby the proletariat will triumph over the middle and upper classes. The attraction of much of American fundamentalism is their legal-eschatological religion. The preacher angrily denounces the sin of “those wicked people out there,” gives the congregation a list of things to do and sins to avoid, and then promises a coming earthly glory age about which he will be holding a three-day seminar next weekend. One of the more popular works among second-century Christians was The Shepherd of Hermas, which is an expression of this legal-eschatological spirit.
The legal-eschatological religion is not the gospel. It is not Christianity, which is the history and doctrine of the religion of Jesus the Messiah, who is God the Son incarnate for sinners, obedient in their place, crucified, dead, and buried for them and raised for their justification. It is an eschatological religion but not the sort that claims to change the world right now. Christ brought with him the heavenly kingdom and everyone who believes has entered into it already. It is leavening the world but Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36; ESV). In this connection we might think about Judas. Evidently, he had an eschatological-legal religion. He wanted social change right now. He became disenchanted with Jesus when it became clear to him that Jesus was not going to bring about the sort of change he and others wanted.
There is no gospel in the legal-eschatological religion. There is a promise of a future earthly glory age (“if only enough people will do x”) but that is no gospel. The gospel involves a crucified Jewish Messiah and an empty tomb. Future earthly glory ages are not good news, they just revenge for past injustices. Revenge is not good news for sinners. As one of my old professors once told me, be careful about praying for justice. You might get it. The legal-eschatological religion is a self-righteous religion. Christianity is a religion about Jesus’ righteousness for us and the gradual (but incomplete) formation of that righteousness in us as a consequence of his death and resurrection.
Any attempt to synthesize Christianity and any form of the legal-eschatological religion is doomed to fail. The good news is that Christianity still is and it is still enough for sinners, even those guilty of the sin of racism.