Stop Saying It Please

Reformed people need to stop saying that the distinction between law and gospel is “Lutheran” and that the Reformed did not (and do not) make that distinction.

It may be that someone told you that the Reformed rejected the law/gospel distinction. If so, you have been misinformed. It was a commonplace in Reformed theology to distinguish between law and gospel in the same way Luther did. There was no intent among the Reformed to distinguish themselves from the Lutherans on this point. Indeed, the distinction between law and gospel essential to the Reformation. For a variety of reasons, e.g., the unhealthy influence of Karl Barth, reaction to Dispensationalism, and attempts to revise Reformed theology from within we lost track of the distinction after WWII but that brief period of confusion is not the baseline for Reformed theology.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. …and praise God for that distinction. To hear it faithfully preached in my URCNA church has been a source of comfort and assurance.

  2. How could Lutheran affirm the law/gospel distinction, but fall into “in by grace and stay in by not resisting”? There must be something different about how Reformed and Lutheran view law/gospel distinction.

    • Julia,

      You are assuming that the Lutherans feel compelled to be coherent. They do not. When we press them on this they accuse us of rationalism. The historical fact is that of all the criticisms the Reformed made of the Lutherans (e.g., on Christology, worship, sacraments) we did not criticize their distinction between law and gospel, which we all received from Luther.

      See this essay:

      Resources on Understanding the Differences Between the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions

    • Thank you for the resources Dr. Clark. There are differences even with intra-Lutherans. The UOJs (universal objective justification) view justification as universal and the radical Lutherans avoid mentioning the 3rd use of the law. They affirm the distinction but differs in how to define gospel and law.
      I’ve read the linked post and each single comment. It is mind-blowing. I am eager to learn more. Thank you, Dr.

      • Julia,

        There is a difference to be made between sociology, i.e., observing patterns of behavior etc, and confession. The Lutheran confession is quite clear about the 3rd use of the law. Luther himself opposed antinomians in the 1520s and taught what Melanchthon called “the third use of the law” then and later. Those “radical Lutherans” to whom you refer are antinomians and, as such, not confessional Lutherans at all. There are Baptists who call themselves Reformed. Mark Driscoll called himself Reformed. That didn’t make him Reformed.

        I’m decidedly not Lutheran but we should represent their views fairly (even if they struggle mightily to bother to represent our views fairly).

    • Dr. Clark,
      I found the clip:
      5:21 “…law and gospel. …No, they are definitely not the same…”
      From his video, I can see Lutheran view justification as continual events. It seems they have a different view on justification/gospel. Your article is very helpful. I doubt Lutheran deny immutability, I find some evidence from some lay Lutherans, e.g. they use quantum theory to explain mutability, but I didn’t find it from their official position paper.

      I enjoy the conversation between Greg and you. Regarding to rationalism. It is funny I see Cooper said, “I could not consistently hold to the objectivity of the Gospel and accept Limited Atonement.” “not consistently” should be highlighted. Sounds like rationalism halted him.

      • Julia,

        Jordan is a cage-stage Lutheran. He’s ex-Reformed and like some Reformed folk, out to highlight or create as many differences between the Reformed and the Lutheran as possible. I’ve seen this phenomenon many times in different settings (e.g., ex-Lutherans, or ex-Baptists etc).

        No Lutheran confesses Jordan Cooper. They confess the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord etc.

        These are widely and easily available online. In 1580, in response to the publication of the Book of Concord, the Reformed published a harmony of Reformed confessions. It included the 1540 (Augustana Variata) of the Augsburg Confession. They explicitly agreed with art. 4 of the Augsburg and the Lutheran doctrine of justification.

        You will find no Reformed writers in the classic period criticizing the Lutherans on justification. We did argue with them on other issues. Some Lutherans have argued, essentially, that if we really believed the doctrine of justification then we would also believe x. This was Luther’s argument against Zwingli. If x then y. It’s a non-sequitur. They attempt to turn every issue into the gospel.

        As to limited atonement, it all comes down to the definition of objective. He’s defined it as to require a universal atonement, which would surprise the Luther of 1525, On The Bondage of the Will. As a matter of logic, to say that Jesus died for the elect and only them is quite objective. He objectively accomplished redemption for all his people. The Spirit subjectively applies it to all the elect. We preach the gospel to all and freely invite all to Christ because no human has a priori knowledge who is an is not elect.

  3. In addition to the attempts to revise Reformed theology listed in your post, was there also a downward pressure (subtle though it may have been) from mainline Presbyterian communions on the smaller sideliners to go along with the crowd, so to speak?

    • Perhaps. I think this might affect a few Reformed academics, who desire the approval figures in the mainline but I don’t think that pressure from the mainline caused us to abandon the covenant of works etc.

      It is possible, however, that the drumbeat (mostly from the mainline) that the covenant of works is “legalistic” might have had some influence. I do think that Barth changed the environment and made some things more plausible and others less and affected even the confessional Reformed more than we knew.

  4. Yes, I heard this in a PCA GA Overtures Committee. Coincidental with the assertion that the Law/Gospel distinction is Lutheran was the claim that Romans 13:8-10 was a “gospel imperative” despite Paul having plainly written that, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

    • Greg,
      Having served on that same committee and arguing against the concept of a ‘gospel imperative,’ I was pretty much told that I was an antinomian. We might be describing the same episode.

  5. Hi Scott,

    Relative to your response to Julia re: the charge of rationalism on the part of Lutherans as per the Reformed…it seems to me that “rationalism” is a type of category, or rhetorical/polemical “hammer”, if you will, used by various individuals/denominations/traditions to either squelch criticism or avoid the hard questions. Doesn’t Roman Catholicism level the charge of “rationalism” at any who would take issue with their doctrine of transubstantiation…saying they’ve been victimized by the Enlightenment? You mentioned the Lutherans contra the Reformed in your own answer. Then, there’s the charge of “rationalism” that many Reformed level against some of their own—namely the Clarkians (Gordon H. Clark). This charge got Clark himself in trouble in the OPC and at Westminster. If you have not done so, could you do a comprehensive post on “rationalism”, what it rightly is, what it is not, it’s nexus with confessionalism, how it may be caricatured, etc., etc.? I can imagine that there are many of us coming from formerly Pietistic backgrounds who want to be precise when it comes to how we may rightly consider these problems of epistemology. You also used the word “coherence”. This is exactly what Clark (and John Robbins of the Trinity Foundation and other Clarkians) have alleged is lacking among the VanTillian set, and by extension…this lack of coherence has caused doctrinal chaos in some NAPARC denominations. The Trinity Foundation has published small monographs on just that thing. The Clark-Van Til controversy is it’s own event, but at the expense of repeating myself, I think that “rationalism”—used as a polemical device—may be a broader concern. I also suspect that “rationalism” is inextricably linked with ongoing problems bound up with QIRC concerns. Do you agree? I do hope you will do a larger post on this subject! Grace and peace—

    • Greg,

      Fair question. Indeed the R word gets thrown around loosely. The Lutherans are among the chief offenders here.

      Historically there are two kinds of rationalism, which (in class) I call R1 & R2.

    • R1 = intersection of the divine and human intellects.
    • Thomas Aquinas & Gordon Clark were R1 rationalists. Both got there via Platonic influences.

    • R2 = the autonomy & ultimacy of the human intellect
    • Protragoras and all the Enlightenment thinkers and all those influenced by the Enlightenment represent this kind of rationalism.

      On G. Clark see

      “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80.

      About his R1 rationalism there should be little doubt. He was among the few (e.g., Justin Martyr, Abelard) in the history of the church to paraphrase John 1:1, “In the beginning was logic…”. Justin was an R1 rationalist. Abelard was a rationalist (for at least some of his career). Like Clark he was a philosopher who wandered into theology and got into a lot of trouble. I’ve been reading and teaching him for a long time and find him hard to categorize but anyone who says that or who holds a Sabellian view of the Trinity (as Abelard did) is a rationalist.

      Clark et al rejected the categorical distinction and its correlate, the Reformed distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology. On this see the essay above and the chapter in Recovering the Reformed Confession. The Clarkians simply are not Reformed on this point. The evidence is very clear. CVT made one significant mistake: he said God is one person and three persons. Of that Van Tillians ought to repent but in the controversy with Clark, CVT was with the Reformed tradition.

      QIRC, the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty, is a way of helping people understand and think about the effects of R1 rationalism in the church.

      • Thanks for your helpful reply. I will carefully consider those resources. A couple of things: I read your post of today (dated 2019?) having to do with the God/evil “dilemma”; as we were just speaking of Gordon H. Clark, it occurred to me that there is a monograph of his (possibly a collection of essays) published by the Trinity Foundation entitled “God and Evil: The Problem Solved”. I wonder if you have read it and think that perhaps this is a case of Clark’s rationalism working at a problem beyond what the Reformed formally confess. IF he does so…is this wrong? At what point does writing theology become some sort of vain or sinful? speculation, I suppose is what I’m asking. In Clark’s mind, I imagine that he thought he was doing the Reformed layperson a service, by trying to get at a very thorny issue.
        Re: the “Platonic influences” to which you allude…I had noticed that Craig Carter—in a blog of some weeks ago—said that a return to Platonic categories was precisely what was needed in our day of evangelical declension; I’m going to presume that you see this as wrongheaded, and a pathway to the sort of rationalism akin to Clark?
        Also: I forgot to mention it, but the Roman Catholics and Lutherans are not the only offenders to lay a charge of “rationalism” at the Reformed; it comes also from the Eastern Orthodox. I have an acquaintance who has referred me to Father Trenham videos on YouTube (I think Trenham was perhaps a former student of Sproul? Or attended Westminster, Escondido?), where you have a formerly Reformed person supposedly lodging the charge of rationalism as at least part of his conversion to Orthodoxy. In any case, my personal acquaintance cries foul especially when I’ve broached the topic of apologetics (laws of logic, law of identity, non-contradiction, etc.), saying that my Christianity has been influenced by the Enlightenment. My question here is how can that be? The Reformed churches are heirs to Augustine and Calvin—which predate the Enlightenment. Isn’t this a phony, anachronistic charge? It is difficult to talk to Eastern Orthodox in a way that they can understand or accept. I wonder that there is hardly a lingua franca with which we might engage non-Protestant folk, sometimes. Speaking in a way that is natural or normative for me just often gets blank stares, oftentimes from those outside our camp—

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