Between 1513 and 1519, as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again at the University in Wittenberg, Martin Luther (1483–1546) not only became an Augustinian anti-Pelagian in soteriology (sola gratia); in that same period he also recovered the biblical doctrines of imputation, and justification sola fide. He was young, restless, and Augustinian. In 1545 he wrote that it was in 1519, as he was working through the Psalms again, when it became clear to him that in justification, faith is not a virtue (i.e., faithfulness) but an instrument. This is why Calvin later called “the exclusive particle” (i.e., sola) so very important in sola fide (through faith alone). By March of 1521, ahead of the Reichstag at Worms, he was articulating a doctrine of sola scriptura in defense of the Ninety-Five Theses of 1517. One of his most important recoveries, however, was his recovery and elaboration in On The Spirit and the Letter, of Augustine’s incipient and inchoate distinction between the law as one kind of speech and the gospel as another. It is not easy to say exactly when he made this breakthrough. Certainly he had achieved it by the time he published On The Bound Will in 1525 against Erasmus. It seems likely that he had achieved it by 1521, since it is evident in Melanchthon’s first (1521) edition of the Loci Communes.
All of these points—the recovery of Augustine’s doctrine of sin and grace, the development of imputation, faith as knowledge, assent, and trust, and Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life—were essential to the Protestant Reformation. None, however, were more important than the development of the distinction between law and gospel. According to the Reformation, the law says “do this and live” (Luke 10:28), and the gospel says that Christ has done for us (John 3:16). For Luther, just as the theologian of the cross is a real theologian (vs. the theologian of glory—this distinction is entirely relevant to the dialogue with Christian Nationalism), so too “whoever knows how to distinction the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.”1 More than that, he explained in 1532, every Christian should be able to articulate this distinction:
This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines.2
This distinction was fundamental to the Reformation and became a pan-Reformation conviction. Though one might not know it by reading twentieth-century Reformed theology, the early Reformed embraced Luther’s distinction between law and gospel. Calvin taught and practiced it throughout his career.3 The Reformed churches confessed it (e.g., the very structure of the Heidelberg Catechism assumes it), and her theologians in the classical period taught it widely. Zacharias Ursinus (1536–83) taught it explicitly in his Summa Theologiae, a large catechism he developed for his students, and in his lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism (published as Corpus Doctrinae). He correlated the law with the covenant of works and the gospel with the covenant of grace, so that the distinction became essential to the development of Reformed covenant theology. The distinction between law and gospel not only informed the Reformed understanding of the application of redemption by the Spirit to the elect (ordo salutis); it also informed the Reformed reading of the history of redemption (historia salutis).
Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1519–1605), wrote,
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.4
Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) wrote that the whole book of Romans may be said to be about the distinction between law and gospel. In his 1567 catechism, Firm Foundation (Q. 10), he explained the distinction as clearly as Luther ever did.
The law is a doctrine that God has implanted in human nature and has repeated and renewed in His commandments. In it He holds before us, as if in a manuscript, what it is we are and are not to do, namely, obey Him perfectly both inwardly and outwardly. He also promises eternal life on the condition that I keep the law perfectly my whole life long. On the other hand, He threatens eternal damnation if I do not keep every provision of the law my whole life long but violate it in one or more of its parts. . . .
The gospel or good news, however, is a doctrine of which even the wisest knew nothing by nature but which is revealed from heaven. In it God does not demand but rather offers and gives us the righteousness that the law requires. This righteousness is the perfect obedience of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, through which all sin and damnation, made manifest by the law, is pardoned and washed away (Rom 5; Gal 3). Furthermore, God does not give us forgiveness of sins in the gospel on the condition that we keep the law. Rather, even though we never have kept it nor will ever be able to keep it perfectly, He still has forgiven our sins and given us eternal life as an unmerited gift through faith in Jesus Christ.5
The distinction between law and gospel guided Robert Rollock’s commentary on Ephesians and William Perkins’ commentary on Galatians.6 The Synod of Dort re-affirmed the distinction in their response to the Remonstrants. Edward Fisher defended it against the moralists in the middle of the seventeenth century (to the applause of a great number of orthodox English Reformed theologians). The distinction was also central to the work of the Marrow Men (e.g., Thomas Boston and the Erskines) in the eighteenth century,7 who defended the Marrow against the neonomians in the Scottish Kirk (who had come under the baneful influence of Richard Baxter).8 In the nineteenth century, Herman Bavinck stood with the Reformed tradition on distinguishing between law and gospel.
So, it is interesting to see how the proponents of Christian Nationalism address this fundamental distinction in Reformation theology. In Article XV they write:
WE AFFIRM that the gospel is the royal announcement to the world about God acting in the person and work of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to abolish sin and death and reconcile sinners and the world to Himself through His sinless life, substitutionary death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and future return just as God graciously planned from eternity, promised throughout Scripture, and achieves within history. We affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, and to the glory of God alone. We affirm that all sinners are commanded to repent and believe the gospel and, upon doing so, are justified before God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and caused to love God and His Law and to walk zealously in good works that God has prepared. We affirm that Christ’s kingdom is at hand and that He will continue to work until all His enemies are defeated, and the knowledge of His glory covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.
We affirm that God gave Adam a Law of universal obedience written on his heart, that this same Law continued to be the perfect rule of righteousness after the fall, and that God delivered it upon Mount Sinai in Ten Commandments. We affirm that the general equity of this Law is the essential moral principle embedded by God in each command which: all men are bound by God to obey, reflects God’s holy character, and applies in various circumstances in each sphere of life. We affirm that obedience to this moral Law is the delight of all who are born again in Christ, those empowered by the Holy Spirit to love God and their neighbors as themselves by doing the good works that God has planned for them.
We affirm that a Christian nation provides cultural conditions conducive to the perpetuation and thriving of the family, the preservation and advancement of the Christian church, the spread of the gospel for salvation by the Church, and the abundance of blessings to the nonbelieving.
WE DENY that the content of the gospel includes obedience to the Law and that any work of obedience merits salvation. We deny that law-keeping contributes in any way to justification before God or declaring the sinner righteous based on anything other than faith in Christ. We deny that the Law can be separated from the love of the personal God who gave the Law. We deny that citizenship in a God-glorifying, Christian nation or anything outside of the above affirmation has any saving power.
Scripture: Isaiah 42:4; Ezekiel 36:27; Habbakuk 2:14; Matthew 5:16; John 3:16, 14:6; Romans 1:16; 5:8-19; 8:16; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 15:24-25; Ephesians 2:8-10; Colossians 1:10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14; Hebrews 4:15; 10:24; 1 Peter 2:12; 2 Peter 1:8.
They affirm that the gospel is “the royal announcement,” but is that announcement good news for sinners? Yes, they affirm imputation and the Reformation solas. They write, “sinners are commanded to repent and believe the gospel.” Sinners are commanded to repent and believe. At the outset of his ministry, our Lord Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). It is also true that sinners are sometimes called and even invited to trust in Christ for righteousness and life, as in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Indeed, in the Reformed tradition, we have spoken of the “well meant” and “free offer of the gospel,” which is absent in the Statement.9 In that way, this article, though it wants to distinguish law and gospel, loses some of the sweetness of the gospel.
It should not surprise us, however, to see edges of the goodness and graciousness of the good news pared off in a Statement on how the government should institute and even enforce Christianity as the state-religion. After all, the state has really only one set of tools: hammers. One can put a hammer in a velvet bag but it remains a hammer. The state is a creature of the law, not of the gospel. Thus, there is a natural tension between the ministry of the gospel and the ministry, if you will (Rom 13:1–7), of the civil magistrate.
We should agree with the Statement when they affirm that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone are also “caused to love God and his Law and walk zealously in good works.” Given the context and culture out of which the Statement comes, it seems likely their affirmation, “Christ’s kingdom is at hand” such that “He will continue to work until all His enemies are defeated, and the knowledge of His glory covers the earth as the waters cover the sea,” is code for a postmillennial or triumphalist eschatology. It all depends upon when they envision the gloria Dei covering the earth. If it is before the consummation, amillennialists typically deny this statement. That is a theology of glory. If they are thinking of the consummation, amillennialists can more easily agree. On the problems with postmillennial exegesis and theology, see the HB resource page on eschatology.
I agree entirely with their affirmation of the ante-lapsarian covenant of works, the republication of the covenant of works at Sinai, and general equity with the qualifications I have previously offered in this series on general equity and natural law.10
We should agree with the Statement when it denies that the gospel includes obedience to the law, or that Christian obedience merits salvation, or that our law-keeping contributes to our justification. We should agree that the moral law cannot be separated from the love of God and that citizenship in a Christian nation does not have any saving power.
The third paragraph affirms that a “Christian nation provides cultural conditions conducive to the perpetuation and thriving of the family, the preservation and advancement of the church, and the spread of the gospel,” and even “the abundance of blessings to the nonbelieving.” This paragraph gets to the animating concern of Christian Nationalism. Its proponents think that if only we can get back (or forward) to a Christian Nation, families, the church, and even pagans will flourish. Is it true?
The very phrase, “Christian Nation,” is wonderfully ambiguous since we have no biblical account of any such thing, nor have we a biblical mandate for such a thing. We know what the Christian faith is because Holy Scripture is quite explicit and the church has confessed the holy catholic (universal, ecumenical) faith since the early second century (regula fidei). Further, we know what the Christian life is because our Lord Jesus taught us, and his apostles explained more fully what it means to follow Christ. But what exactly makes a nation Christian? Is it so because a certain percentage of the people are professing Christians? Did the Roman Empire become Christian when Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion? Must the magistrates be Christians? Must the laws and policies be Christian? What percentage of the populus or government officials must be Christian for a nation to be Christian? What makes the laws of a Christian nation Christian? Is a Christian plumber a Christian who plumbs or a person who plumbs in a distinctively Christian way? If the latter, what does that mean? Does the Christian plumber have secret insights into the nature of plumbing to which the pagan has no access? Do not the laws of physics and fluid dynamics apply equally to the pagan and the Christian? These are perplexing questions to which the advocates of Christian Nationalism have not offered satisfactory answers. One suspects that there are none.
There are today nations with state churches, which are nominally “Christian Nations.” Has the Church of England, the National Church of Finland, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church produced the sorts of benefits promised by the Statement? In 2022, a Christian member of the Finnish Parliament was put on trial for affirming, in a radio interview, the historic Christian view of homosexuality. Christians in England must regularly go to court to preserve basic religious liberties. It is not obvious that the Church of England is a great force for the flourishing of the family, the church, or pagans.
Once more I remind the patient reader that Christianity was not born in the womb of a Christian Nation or a state church. It was born in the context of a pre-Christian world. It was ignored, and when it was not ignored it was misunderstood, hated, and persecuted from the mid-first century until the early fourth century. Nevertheless, Christianity was not destroyed. When they were not being murdered for their faith (and many times while being murdered for their faith), Christians gave such a powerful witness to the faith that pagans were converted. Christian parents had children. They nurtured and raised them without the support of the state or a nominally Christian culture. If Christian Nationalism is so essential to the faith, why did none of the apostles or the early post-apostolic Christians think to ask for it?
Certainly it is increasingly uncomfortable for Christians to live in a post-Christian culture, and it is more comfortable for Christians to live in a place where Christianity is accepted, or even in some sense, the norm. But comfort is not the flourishing of families, church, or culture. It is true that the legalization of Christianity in the early fourth century brought with it certain benefits to both Christians and pagans alike (e.g., properties were returned to Christians and certain laws were liberalized, which benefitted both pagans and Christians), but the Statement seems to envision an almost mythological world that has never much existed in history.
- See section on Galatians 2:14 in Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26, Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1–4 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 115–16.
- Martin Luther, “Sermon on Galatians” (New Years, 1532) on Galatians 3:23–24. WA 36.25, in What Luther Says, ed., trans. Ewald M. Plass, vol. 2 (Concordia Publishing House: St Louis, 1959), 2.732.
- Calvin certainly used the terms law and gospel but he also used works and grace to make the same distinction. R. Scott Clark, “Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching,” in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 331–63. Also available on Apple Books.
- Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (East Sussex, UK: Focus Christian Ministries Trust), 40.
- Caspar Olevianus, Firm Foundation, trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 9–10. See also R. Scott Clark, “Law and Gospel in Early Reformed Orthodoxy: Hermeneutical Conservatism in Olevianus’ Commentary on Romans,” in Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition, ed. Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma, and Jason Zuidema (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
- Robert Rollock, Commentary on Ephesians, trans. Casey Carmichael, Classic Reformed Theology Series vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021); Paul M. Smalley, ed. The Works of William Perkins, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).
- Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2009) is the best modern edition.
- John Colquhoun is a good representative of the eighteenth-century Reformed appropriation of the distinction. See his A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999).
- R. Scott Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple, ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80; R. Scott Clark, “Seriously and Promiscuously: The Synod of Dort on the Free Offer of the Gospel,” in The Synod of Dort: Historical, Theological, and Experiential Perspectives, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Martin I. Klauber (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 2020), 89–104; Donald John MacLean, James Durham (1622–1658) and the Gospel Offer in its Seventeenth-Century Context, Reformed Historical Theology, vol 31 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2015).
- See parts 13 and 14 for discussions of these issues.
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