The Distinction Between Law And Gospel Emerged From Augustine’s Struggle With Pelagius

When many Christians think about the Reformation, they do not think about the distinction between law and gospel. Indeed, it is a truism for not a few modern Reformed folk that the distinction between law and gospel is solely a Lutheran conviction. Of course, this would come as a great surprise to Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Olevianus, and many others who taught the very same distinction between law and gospel that Luther taught but, nonetheless, when they think of the Reformation (if they should happen to think about it) they think about sola Scriptura or sola fide or perhaps soli Deo gloria.

Despite its widespread neglect, the distinction between law and gospel was just as essential to the Reformation as any of the Reformation solas. Recovery of the theological and hermeneutical distinction between law and gospel was one of the five most significant developments in Luther’s theology between 1513—18.

What does it mean to distinguish law and gospel theologically? Well, traditionally, very early in the history of Christian theology, the early post-apostolic theologians spoke of the “old law” and the “new law.” They did this in order to express the essential unity of Scripture and redemption. Some of our more important theologians (e.g., Barnabas, 2 Clement, Justin, and Irenaeus) even turned to the biblical category of covenant to express this unity. For the most part, when, in the ancient and medieval church, theologians spoke of law and gospel they were speaking in historical and chronological terms or categories, not theological categories.

All that began to change, however, when Pelagius, a British monk, arrived in Rome c. AD 380. He was attracted to Jerome’s strongly moralist preaching. He was greatly offended, however, by Augustine’s saying, “Give what you command, command what you will” (See Confessions, 10.29; De dono perseverantiae, 53). He knew a priori that such talk about relying upon grace would lead to licentiousness. He cut us off from Adam. He knew that Paul’s indictment of sin and sinners in the first part of Romans had to be particular, not universal. He knew that we are not Adam’s children by nature. In fact, he knew that Adam had merely set a bad example just as Christ had set a good example. We are all born like Adam, with an unencumbered ability to choose obedience or sin.

One interesting move that Augustine made in response to Pelagius and his colleague Coelestius, whom the Council of Ephesus condemned in AD 431, was to distinguish between law and gospel. He began to do this in his great work, On the Spirit and the Letter (c. AD 412). He argued that “complete righteousness” (salvation) “belongs to human agency to accomplish, yet it is also a divine gift, and therefore, no doubt that it is a divine work; ‘for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’”1 Remarkably, he did not think (in De spiritu anyway) that the Pelagian doctrine of entire perfection was all that harmful (De spiritu, 3). I am inclined to disagree. He did, however, think that the Pelagian doctrine of divine grace “must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor…” (De spiritu, 4).

Early on (ch. 6), Augustine turned to his exposition of 2 Corinthians 3:6, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” which would be the heart of his reply to the Pelagians in this treatise. He was aware that the verse had been widely interpreted to mean that the literal sense of the law kills but the figurative sense gives life. He rejected that reading as the “sole meaning” of the text. He continued by advocating the “plain” sense of the law, which is salutary. When and why does the law kill? It is when the Holy Spirit “withholds his help” because it is the Spirit who diffuses love in our hearts (Rom 5:5). Apart from the Spirit’s work, the law, though good in itself, “only augments the evil desire by forbidding it.” Augustine took the, well, Augustinian position on Romans 7 (cf. chapters 8 and 9).

Implicitly he was beginning to make a categorical (or theological) distinction between the law as one sort of word and the gospel as another sort of word. What he hinted in ch. 6 he made explicit in ch. 7. The juxtaposition of Spirit and letter “do not refer to figurative phrases…but rather plainly to the law, which forbids whatever is evil.” The law, by nature, is a “commandment to teach him how he ought to live…”. Baptism, however, teaches us that the gospel does what the law cannot (De spiritu, 10):

Now it is plain enough that here by the mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection is figured the death of our old sinful life, and the rising of the new; and that here is shown forth the abolition of iniquity and the renewal of righteousness. Whence then arises this vast benefit to man through the letter of the law, except it be through the faith of Jesus Christ?

It is not the law that is the source of this “vast benefit” but “faith” in Christ. Paul knew this, that is why he contended so courageously and earnestly “against the proud and arrogant, and such as plume themselves on their own works, in order that he may commend the grace of God” (De spiritu, 12). That is why he “unfalteringly preaches that gift of God, whereby alone salvation accrues to those who are the children of the promise, children of the divine goodness, children of grace and mercy, children of the new covenant” (De spiritu, 12). The Judaizers (whom he compared to the Pelagians) “thought they were fulfilling the law of God by their righteousness, when they were rather breakers of it all the while!” (De spiritu, 13). Thus, the law brought condemnation, not salvation. It is the Spirit, however, who works “the circumcision of the heart,” i.e., “the will that is pure from all unlawful desire; which comes not from the letter, inculcating and threatening, but from the Spirit, assisting and healing.”

To be sure, Augustine was not teaching Luther’s forensic doctrine of justification. He did not teach a fully developed distinction between law and gospel but he did make a categorical or theological distinction between them. My contention is that distinction is inherent to the Augustinian response to Pelagianism.

After Augustine we see this distinction preserved and expressed, in Augustinian terms, in the Canon 21 of the Second Council of Orange (AD 529):

Concerning nature and grace. As the Apostle most truly says to those who would be justified by the law and have fallen from grace, “If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal 2:21), so it is most truly declared to those who imagine that grace, which faith in Christ advocates and lays hold of, is nature: “If justification were through nature, then Christ died to no purpose.” Now there was indeed the law, but it did not justify, and there was indeed nature, but it did not justify. Not in vain did Christ therefore die, so that the law might be fulfilled by him who said, “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17), and that the nature which had been destroyed by Adam might be restored by him who said that he had come “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Here, law and grace, which is how Calvin would later often articulate the distinction between law and gospel, have essentially the same function as law and gospel. They represent two distinct messages. The former signals condemnation and inability. The latter signals God’s free favor toward helpless sinners. Note too that “nature,” here also stands for law. We should observe also how stoutly the Augustinians opposed the confusion or conflation of nature and grace, since such confusion is one of the marks of Pelagianism. Remember that the next time someone tells you that the pre-fall covenant of works was really a covenant of grace.

The first step in Luther’s turn toward what we know as Protestantism was his encounter with Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms. It helped him to identify and repudiate the Franciscan Pelagianism he had learned in university. It was not long after he began to become Young, Restless, and Augustinian that he began to distinguish between law and gospel. It would take several years to work out the distinction to the form by which we know it today, but his Augustinian turn was essential to his embrace of the distinction.

The Synod of Dort (1618–18) was an Augustinian-Reformed response to a renewed Pelagianism in the theology of the Remonstrants. Synod repeatedly denounced the Remonstrant theology as Pelagian and, at the same time, they re-asserted the pan-Protestant distinction between law and gospel.

Fundamentally, the distinction between law and gospel is an Augustinian impulse, it is an anti-Pelagian impulse. All who agree with Augustine’s rejection of Pelagianism ought to embrace heartily the distinction for the same reasons Luther and the Synod of Dort did.


1. Phil 2:13. De Spiritu, 2; in  Augustine of Hippo, A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter, in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 84.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Was Luther Augustinian in his view of the fourfold estate of man? Does his continued use of the Latin Baptismal exorcisms, though amended or abbreviated somewhat in his Baptismal Book of 1523, indicate a possession by Satan rather than an estate of sin and misery?

  2. Excellent! One question; where do you find the basis for: “Remarkably, he did not think (in De spiritu anyway) that the Pelagian doctrine of entire perfection was all that harmful (De spiritu, 3).”
    I’ve looked and can’t find it in Schaff”s trans. I must be overlooking it. Thank you.

    • Michael,

      I’m reflecting on this sentence:

      “They therefore are not a very danger set of persons who and they ought to be urged to show, if they are able, that they are themselves such, who hold that a man lives or has lived here without any sin whatever.”

Comments are closed.