Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching

Editor’s note: The following is the complete chapter as it appeared in R. Scott Clark, ed., Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 331–63. In 2021, the publisher returned the publication rights to the copyright holder and the chapter is presented here as a service to the public by the Heidelberg Reformation Association. The material is copyrighted. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to link to this chapter but you are not entitled to reproduce it in any way without permission of the copyright holder.



Preaching begins with Bible reading and interpretation. Before a minister can preach a given text, he must decide what it says. To interpret a passage, the preacher necessarily brings to bear his broader reading of Scripture, a system of doctrine, and the history of interpretation. Theology and hermeneutics, therefore, inevitably find their way to the pulpit. Once there, however, the minister is charged with a particular task, that of proclaiming, that is, announcing and applying to the congregation “the whole plan of God” (Acts 20:27).

Since the sixteenth-century Reformation, the Protestant understanding of that “whole plan,” whether understood in redemptive-historical (historia salutis) or systematic theological (ordo salutis) categories, has been that Scripture contains “two words”: law and gospel. This essay will endeavor to explain the meaning and application of these categories more fully, but it is enough here to say that as


a hermeneutical and homiletical category law in its pedagogical use speaks of the demand for “perfect, personal and perpetual obedience” (see WCF 7.2; WLC 20, 93).1

Traditional Protestant thought distinguishes three uses of the law: pedagogical, civil, and normative. The first use drives sinners to Christ, and the third use structures Christian gratitude. The controversy before us concerns the first use, and thus this essay will focus on that use, which in the language of Heidelberg Catechism 2 teaches us “the greatness of [our] sin and misery” (Schaff 3.308).2 As a hermeneutical category, gospel speaks of the gracious, sovereign redemption of Christ’s people (see HC 19–22, 29, 60–65). Confessional Protestantism is united in its conviction that justification sola gratia, sola fide, must produce genuine sanctity. That is, there is a logical and moral necessity for Spirit-wrought sanctity in professing Christians. One has only to read Luther’s exhortations to piety and holiness (e.g., in his 1529 Larger Catechism) and those found in Solid Declaration 4, where good works are said to be necessary for the one who makes a profession of faith.3 In the words of Belgic Confession 24, “it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful” (Schaff 3.410–12). According to Heidelberg Catechism 2, the third thing one must know in order to “live and die happily” is “how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption” (Schaff 3.308). Thus, focus on the distinction between law and gospel should not be construed as a slighting of the necessity of sanctity. Rather, it is my conviction that genuine sanctity flows from true faith and is produced “by the preaching of the holy Gospel” (HC 65 [Schaff 3.328]; see also Westminster Shorter Catechism 88). Thus it is imperative that one first understands what the gospel is, how it differs from the law, and


  1. References to the Westminster Confession of Faith are taken from S. W. Carruthers, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Being an Account of the Preparation and Printing of Its Seven Leading Editions, to Which Is Appended a Critical Text of the Confession (Manchester: Aikman, 1937).
  2. The Hebrew Scriptures often use the expression תּוֹרַת יְהוָה (e.g., Ps 19:7 [MT 19:8]) generically for the whole of Scripture. Thus, in this essay “law” stands for a specific grammatical mood—the imperative—not for all of canonical Scripture.
  3. See Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (trans. Charles Arend et al.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 386–431, 574–81.


how those two words ought to be preached, before one moves to the doctrine of the Christian life.

In contrast to the historic Protestant hermeneutic, in some contemporary discussion, it has become a datum that the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran and not Reformed.4 This essay argues, however, that the Protestant law/gospel hermeneutic is not only Reformed, but also a basic part of “interpreting correctly” (ὀρθοτομοῦντα) (2 Tim 2:15) and preaching correctly God’s word.

History of Law and Gospel

The Reformed theologians followed Luther’s fundamental breakthrough in turning away from the patristic and medieval analysis of Scripture as “old law” and “new law,” in favor of seeing the two words of law and gospel throughout the word. And this hermeneutic may be applied in the proclamation of the word toward the recovery of a fully orbed Reformed, covenantal homiletic.

The Prevailing Patristic and Medieval Hermeneutic

The fathers in the postapostolic church spoke frequently about the gospel, but there is disagreement over the degree to which one can find a clear, developed expression of what confessional Protestants would recognize as the gospel. Thomas Oden argues that many


  1. Among academic writers, Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvins Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), regards Luther’s turn to the law/gospel hermeneutic as introducing an “inescapable tension” (71), which problem Calvin’s covenant theology was to resolve. In popular literature, see P. Andrew Sandlin, “Lutheranized Calvinism: Gospel or Law, or Gospel and Law,” Reformation and Revival 11 (2002): 123–35; and John M. Frame, “Law and Gospel,” http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/0201/020104frame.php (accessed January 13, 2005). On the gratuitous identification of this distinction solely with Lutheran theology, see I. John Hesselink, “Law and Gospel or Gospel and Law: Calvin’s Understanding of the Relationship,” in Calviniana: Ideas and Influence of Jean Calvin, vol. 10: Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies (ed. Robert V. Schnucker; Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Studies, 1988), 13–50. On the common Protestant heritage of the third use of the law and the “guilt, grace, gratitude” structure, see Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (trans. Robert C. Shultz; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 272–73n125. On the contemporary denial of the law/gospel distinction, see Michael Horton, “Law, Gospel, and Covenant: Some Emerging Antitheses,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 279–87.


of the fathers anticipated Luther’s doctrine of justification.5 T. F. Torrance, however, argues convincingly exactly the opposite case, that what one tends to find in the fathers is confusion of law and gospel.6

This is not an indictment of the fathers. To criticize the fathers for failing to use Luther’s (or Calvin’s) language is rather like criticizing Aquinas for not using Einstein’s physics. The conceptual framework within which most early postapostolic Christians read the Scriptures made it difficult for them to see the forensic nature of justification. They tended to think in realistic rather than forensic categories.7 Because Christians were frequently marginalized and criticized as immoral and impious, the fathers placed great stress on piety and morality. They did not, however, always ground their parenesis in the gospel in the same way Paul did.8

Beginning with the early apostolic fathers, Scripture was characterized universally not as containing law and gospel throughout, but as comprised of old law and new law. The pseudonymous Epistle of Barnabas 2.6 (ca. 70–138) spoke of the abolition of the Mosaic order and the establishment of a “the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ὁ καινὸς νόμος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ).9 Justin Martyr’s (ca. 100–ca. 165) Dialogue with Trypho (ca. 135) defended the superiority


  1. Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 40–41.
  2. T. F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959).
  3. The fathers were confronted by significant social pressures. From the late first century (e.g., 1 Pet 4:12–19; Rev 2:3, 9, 13, 19; 3:9–10) to the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, Christians faced a general cultural hostility sometimes erupting into serious persecution (e.g., the Decian persecution). This hostility was the background for the Apocalypse of St. John in the early 90s and Augustine’s City of God in the early fifth century. See W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (New York: New York University Press, 1967); and Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986).
  4. Compare 1 Clement to 1–2 Corinthians. Clement spent proportionally much more space on exhortation. See Oscar von Gebhardt et al., Patrum apostolicorum opera: textum ad fidem codicum et graecorum et latinorum adhibitis praestantissimis editionibus (3rd ed.; Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1876), 3.1.2–110 (ANF 1.5–21). The fathers also faced the doctrinal and moral threat of Gnosticism. Gnostic bifurcation of the Hebrew Scriptures (with its demigod) from the Greek, combined with the Jewish moral and theological criticism of Christians as worshipers of a criminal, created an external stimulus for Christians to emphasize the unity of the church and the covenant of grace and to downplay strong distinctions between law and gospel.
  5. Gebhardt, Patrum apostolicorum opera, 2.8 (ANF 1.138). See also Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Utrecht: Spectrum/Westminster, MD: Newman, 1962–64), 1.85–92.


of “the new law” over against Moses.10 Moses’s law was provisional, but Christ’s was the “final law” (11.10). For Justin, the new covenant is the new law. In his First Apology (ca. 148–61) he contrasted Moses and Christ by speaking of the gospel as a “new law.” In his refutation of Marcion’s radical dichotomy between Moses and Christ (Against Heresies), Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. 130–200) spoke the same way. He affirmed the unity of Scripture by using the old law/new law approach (ANF 1.475–78).11 Even when he spoke (Against Heresies 4.12.3) of the “law” and the “gospel,” the distinction was not one of kind but purely historical.

Among the Latin fathers, Tertullian and Augustine are representative. In his treatise Against the Jews, Tertullian (ca. 155–ca. 225) repeated Justin’s argument for the continuity of the faith and used the same old law/new law categories.12 Augustine (354–430) in City of God (413–26) used the now-traditional terminology lex vetus/lex nova, though, in his anti-Pelagian writings, Perfection in Human Righteousness (ca. 415) and Proceedings of Pelagius (417), he was able to describe the entire Mosaic epoch as “law” and Christ’s teaching as “gospel.”13 His commitment to soteriological realism virtually required him to see justification as the recognition of inherent righteousness and result of sanctification. Because of the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversies, however, Augustine came to ascribe that process to sovereign grace rather than to human cooperation with grace.

Occasioned by the Pelagian controversy, Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter (412) was devoted to the question of hermeneutics and especially to the relations between Moses and Christ.14 His hermeneu-


  1. See Quasten, Patrology, 1.202–4 (ANF 1.200, 211). Quasten (1.202) says that Trypho was probably the Rabbi Tarphon mentioned in the Mishnah.
  2. Quasten, Patrology, 1.287–313, gives a traditional Roman interpretation of Irenaeus’s theology.
  3. See especially Against the Jews 3, 4, 6 (ANF 3.153–56, 157). Quasten, Patrology, 2.269, warns that Against the Jews 9–14 is spurious, but that does not affect this case. On Tertullian’s theology, see Gerald Bray, Holiness and the Will of God (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979).
  4. City of God 10.5; 16.43; 20.21, 26; 21.27 (ed. J. P. Migne; Patrologia latina; Paris: Migne, 1844), 41.13–804 (NPNF1 2). On City of God, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 299–329. Augustine uses “law and gospel” in Perfection in Human Righteousness 22 (NPNF1 5.167) and Proceedings of Pelagius 13 (NPNF1 5.196). In this last usage, however, he uses the expression as a synonym for old law/new law.
  5. Patrologia latina 44.201–46. On this period in Augustine’s ministry, see Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 340–75.


tical program was structured by 2 Corinthians 3:6: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” For Augustine, the “letter” refers to the law, “which plain forbids whatever is evil” (Spirit and the Letter 5 [NPNF 1 5.85]). The “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit whom God infuses into the elect in order to create inherent righteousness toward justification (3, 5 [5.84–85]). Where the Spirit is not present to infuse righteousness, the letter/law kills (5, 14, 16 [5.86, 94, 95]).15

Having argued for the continuity of sovereign, infused, predestinating grace, Augustine turned to a sort of redemptive-historical argument, attempting to address the contrast between Moses and Christ in 2 Corinthians 3:6 (Spirit and the Letter 17 [NPNF1 5.95]). Spirit-wrought sanctity turns the letter into Spirit. The law written on stone was “letter,” because it lacked the Holy Spirit (17 [5.96]). For Augustine, when Paul says “Spirit” he means “the law of the New Testament”(18[5.96]). The great blessing of the new covenant, promised in Jeremiah 31, was the profusion of the Spirit, who would work justifying righteousness within his people (18 [5.97]).

Augustine used a variety of terms. He sometimes recognized a kind of distinction between law and gospel, that the law can be bad news, a killing letter, and distinct from the gospel. More often, however, he wrote of Scripture as one word with differing degrees of grace attached in the old and new covenants. Nevertheless, his recognition that the law per se is unable to justify opened a hermeneutical path that Luther, mutatis mutandis, would take with revolutionary consequences.

For the mainstream of Western medieval theology, represented by Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224–74), there was little question about how one is justified: by progressive moral transformation through the infusion of a medicinal grace.16 As in the fathers, there was no law/gospel


  1. Hence in Spirit and the Letter 6 Augustine described baptism as a “medicine.” This conception of the sacraments as conveyors of medicinal grace became a given for Bonaventure and Thomas. Thus, Augustine understood the Pauline phrase “justifies the ungodly” (e.g., Spirit and the Letter 7 [NPNF1 5.86]) to mean “sanctifies the ungodly unto justification.”
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (ed. Thomas Gilby; London: Blackfriars, 1963), I-II QQ. 109–13. See also Bonaventure’s Breviloquium 6 in Bonaventure, Tria opuscala: breviloquium, intinerarium mentis in deum & de reductione artium ad theologiam (Florence: St. Bonaventure College Press, 1911), 203–51. On medieval hermeneutics, see Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964); and Henry de Lubac and E. M. Macierowski, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).


hermeneutic, but rather an old law/new law hermeneutic. Grace was to help us keep the new law. This much is evident in Summa theologiae I-II Q. 107.1, where Thomas considered the relations between the old law to the new. He addressed three objections: (1) that the new and old laws are not distinct, (2) that “there is little difference between the Law and the Gospel” (quoting Augustine) since both Moses and Christ require charity, and (3) that both the old and new laws are laws of faith and works.

In his Sed contra, Thomas argued from Hebrews 7:12 that Christ brought a new priesthood and therefore a new law. In his response he elaborated by arguing that both Moses and Christ are law. They have the same purpose, that is, human subjection to God, but they differ in degree of “perfection.” The “new is the law of perfection,” because it brings with it the grace of charity (with which believers are infused unto final justification) (Summa theologiae I-II Q. 112.1).

With the fathers, Thomas rejected a categorical distinction between law and gospel. The lex vetus consisted chiefly in “moral and sacramental” deeds. The lex nova is so-called only because there is relatively more grace given under Christ the legislator to enable the believer to obey. It is true that, for Thomas, the new law consists chiefly of faith in Christ, but he defined it not as knowledge, assent, and trust in Christ and his finished work, but as an infused grace that exists to the degree that one makes it a reality (Summa theologiae II-II Q. 4.3).

The Reformation Breakthrough

Rejecting the old law/new law scheme, Martin Luther capitalized on Augustine’s insight that 2 Corinthians 3:6 teaches that the law is a killing letter for sinners.17 Where Augustine understood the gospel to be Spirit-wrought sanctity in the sinner, Luther defined it as Christ’s accomplishment of redemption for the sinner.18 In contrast to the


  1. On Luther’s hermeneutic, see James Samuel Preus, From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).
  2. Martin Luther, Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe (ed. J. K. F. Knaake, G. Kawerau, et al. Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–), 2.551–52; Martin Luther, Luthers Works (ed. J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress/St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–), 27.313. See also Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (London: Fontana, 1993), 78.


patristic and medieval doctrine of justification through sanctification, Luther declared a “joyous exchange” wherein “the rich, noble, pious bridegroom Christ takes this poor, despised, wicked little whore in marriage, redeems her of all evil, and adorns her with all his goods.”19

The hermeneutical foundation for this doctrine was the law/gospel distinction. It appeared quite early in his Protestant development. In 1518, before Luther himself understood fully the implications of his views, he turned to the law/gospel distinction to explain the Ninety-Five Theses. Regarding thesis sixty-two, he explained that the “gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace. It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.” In contrast to the gospel, the

law is a word of destruction, a word of wrath, a word of sadness, a word of grief, a voice of the judge and the defendant, a word of restlessness, a word of curse. . . . Through the law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away. And we ourselves cannot take it away.

The good news of the gospel is understood only in the light of the relentless demand of the law for perfect obedience:

Therefore for those of us who are held captive, who are overwhelmed by sadness and in dire despair, the light of the gospel comes and says, “Fear not,” and “comfort, comfort my people. . . .” Behold that one who alone fulfills the law for you, whom God has made to your righteousness, sanctification, wisdom, and redemption, for all those who believe in him. . . . Therefore those who are still afraid of punishments have not yet heard Christ or the voice of the gospel, but only the voice of Moses.20

Whereas only a few years before, with the rest of the medieval church, Luther understood all of Scripture to be law, he was now employing


  1. Luthers Werke 7.1; Luthers Works 31.51.
  2. Luthers Works 31.231.


different hermeneutical categories to organize various passages from both Old and New Testaments into two distinct words.

In a 1532 sermon on Galatians Luther defined the law as “God’s Word and command in which he commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience.” The gospel does not demand our obedience for justification, but “bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.” So basic is this doctrine that every 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 importance is this differentiation.”21

In a 1532 sermon entitled “The Sum of the Christian Life,” from 1 Timothy 1:5–7, Luther reminded his congregation:

We must now learn to distinguish between the two parts which are called the law and the gospel. . . . The law brings us before the judgment seat, for it demands that you settle accounts and pay what it requires, there it cancels itself. For even if you have performed what it requires, this still will not stand before God, since before him there will still be much which is lacking and failing. . . . The law keeps harrying you and accusing you through your own conscience, which testifies against you, and absolutely demanding the judgment upon you.22

In the gospel, however, Christ says to the terrified sinner, “come to me and have no fear of any wrath. Why? Because, if you believe in me, I am sitting here in order that I may step between you and God, so that no wrath or displeasure can touch you.”23

In his 1535 lectures on Galatians 3:2 Luther argued that Paul was saying that we receive the Spirit through the gospel, not through the law.24 Faith comes by hearing the gospel, not by doing the law.25 The law is a demanding taskmaster, the gospel does not demand but grants freely. It commands us to “hold out our hands and receive what is


  1. Ewald M. Plass, ed., What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 2.732.
  2. Luthers Works 51.279.
  3. Ibid., 51.280.
  4. Ibid., 26.202–3.
  5. Ibid., 26.203–4.


being offered.”26 In De servo arbitrio (1525) Luther lambasted Erasmus for confusing law and gospel, by making God’s promise of mercy in Ezekiel 18:23 into law, something we must do.27 Whenever God offers us salvation (in the Old or New Testaments) that is gospel.28

The Reformed Use of the Law/Gospel Hermeneutic

As a matter of history, the assertion that the law/gospel distinction is really Lutheran and not Reformed flies in the face of the overwhelming testimony of the Reformed tradition and confessions.29 Yet Peter A. Lillback juxtaposes Calvin’s “covenantal hermeneutic” with the Lutheran law/gospel hermeneutic.30 He claims that Calvin replaced Luther’s law/gospel hermeneutic with a spirit/letter hermeneutic.

The evidence against this conclusion is quite strong however. First, in his 1546 commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:6, Calvin said that Paul was making a “comparison of law and gospel.”31 Calvin did not think that the false apostles were “confusing the Law with the Gospel.”32 Rather, this comparison of law with gospel was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the ministry of the new covenant.33 Commenting on 3:7 he argued that in this passage “letter” means


  1. Ibid., 26.208.
  2. Ibid., 33.132–38.
  3. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (trans. Robert C. Schulz; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 87.
  4. Andrew Bandstra, “Law and Gospel in Calvin and Paul,” in Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin (ed. David Holwerda; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 11–39, is generally correct in his interpretation of Calvin, and his exhortation to read widely in Calvin is well taken, but he overstates the tension between Lutheran and Reformed theology on the law/gospel distinction. The Lutheran orthodox view is represented in Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs; 4th ed.; Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1889), 508–20.
  5. Lillback, Binding of God, 125. John H. Leith, “Creation and Redemption: Law and Gospel in the Theology of John Calvin,” in Marburg Revisited: A Reexamination of Lutheran and Reformed Traditions (ed. Paul C. Empie and James I. McCord; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966), 141–51, is a good example of a muddled interpretation of Calvin’s use of Luther’s law/gospel distinction. For a superior account see Michael S. Horton, “Calvin and the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic,” Pro ecclesia 6 (1997): 27–42.
  6. “Nunc comparationem persequitur Legis et Euangelii”; John Calvin, Commentarii in secundam pauli epistolam ad corinthios (ed. Helmut Feld; Ioannis Calvini opera omnia, series 2: opera exegetica; Geneva: Droz, 1994), 53.
  7. Ibid., 53–54.
  8. Ibid., 54.


“law” and Spirit means “gospel.”34 The law is brittle, but the gospel is a “holy and inviolable covenant because it was struck by the Spirit of God as sponsor.”35 Therefore “from the law they bring back nothing but guilt, because there God demands what is owed to himself, but confers no means of fulfilling it. The Gospel, however, is a ministry of righteousness and hence of life, by which men are regenerated and through the gracious forgiveness of sins are reconciled to God.”36 Despite their similarities, the “distinction is great” between them.37 The law can do nothing but condemn, that is its “office.”38 The gospel, however, is the instrumentum of regeneration and “offers gracious reconciliation with God.”39

Calvin’s account of the law/gospel distinction in 2 Corinthians 3 was actually clearer and more pointed than Luther’s. It is evident from this passage and others that Calvin adopted the hermeneutical program of distinguishing between law and gospel. This is evident also in Institutes 3.11.14 where he attacked the Roman theologians of the Sorbonne (the sophistae) because they “have fun and perverse delights” with Scripture, chiefly by failing to observe the law/gospel “antithesis.”40 “Legal righteousness” (iustitiam legis) is obtained by law keeping, whereas gospel righteousness, that is, “the righteousness of faith” (iustitiam fidei), is obtained “if we believe that Christ was dead and was raised.”41 This was his argument also in 3.11.17: The “distinction” (discrimen) between the law and the gospel is that the


  1. Ibid., 57.
  2. “Euangelium ergo foedus est sanctum et inviolabile, quia percussum Spiritu Dei sponsore”; ibid., 57.
  3. “Lege nihil quam reatum eiusmodi reportant, quia illic Deus exigit, quod sibi debetur, facultatem vero praestandi non confert. Euangelium autem, quo regenerantur homines et per gratuitam peccatorum remissionem Deo reconciliantur, ministerium est iustitiae, et proinde etiam vitae”; ibid., 57.
  4. “Longum sit discrimen”; ibid., 57.
  5. Ibid., 58.
  6. “Offert gratuitam cum Deo reconciliationem”; ibid., 57.
  7. John Calvin, Opera selecta (ed. P. Barth and G. Niesel; Munich: Kaiser, 1962), 4.198.12–13, 23. On Calvin’s relations to medieval Scholasticism and the identity of the “Scholastics” and “Sophists,” see David C. Steinmetz, “The Scholastic Calvin,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 16–30. See also Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 46–61.
  8. Calvin, Opera selecta, 4.198.25–27.


law “attributes justification to works,” whereas the gospel “grants it gratuitously, without [our] works.”42
Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Calvin’s successor in Geneva, announced the Reformed hermeneutical and homiletical program in a popular handbook of the faith, Confession de foi du chrétien (1559):

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. . . . We must pay great attention to these things. For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.43

It is of particular interest to us here that Beza made these comments in the course of explaining what ministers ought to preach. He defined the law in distinction from the gospel as a “doctrine whose seed is written by nature on our hearts.” In these commandments, God “sets out for us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to his majesty and to our neighbours. This on contrasting terms: either perpetual life, if we perfectly keep the Law without omitting a single point, or eternal death, if we do not completely fulfil the contents of each commandment (Deut 30:15–20; James 2:10).”44 The gospel, in distinction from the law, “is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Matt 16:17; John 1:13). . . . By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom 3:20–22), provided that, by faith, we embrace him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).”45

Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) was primary author and the authorized expositor of the Heidelberg Catechism. In his Loci theologici, he argued that the best way to make sense of Scripture is to remember


  1. Ibid., 4.201.2–4. He repeated this same point in Institutes 3.11.18.
  2. Beza, Christian Faith, 40–41.
  3. Ibid., 40.
  4. Ibid., 40–41.


that the “whole of Scripture consists in two parts, Law and Gospel.”46 The first line of his lectures on the catechism declared that “the whole and uncorrupted doctrine of the church is the doctrine of the law and gospel.” These are the “two parts of the church’s doctrine” in which “the whole of Sacred Scripture is contained.”47 The distinction between law and gospel was no mere theologoumenon or abstraction, however, because he explained it in redemptive-historical or covenantal terms. In his Summa theologiae (1561), written as a teaching tool and as part of the development of the document that would become the foundation for the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus asked, “What distinguishes law and gospel?” The answer:

The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake.48

It is most significant that Ursinus chose to explain the distinction between law and gospel in terms of the covenants of works and grace. For Ursinus, the covenant of works functions on a different principle than the covenant of grace.49 It was constituted in


  1. Zacharias Ursinus, Opera theologica (ed. Quirinus Reuter; Heidelberg, 1612), 1.426: “Quid Sacra Scriptura doceat? . . . totam scripturam duabus constare, Lege et Evangelio.”
  2. Ibid.: “Doctrina ecclesiae est integra et incorrupta doctrina legis et evangelii”; “partes doctrinae ecclesiae sunt duae, Lex et Evangelium, quibus summa totius scripturae sacrae continentur.”
  3. Ibid., 1.14: “Quod est discrimen legis et evangelli? Lex continet foedus naturale, in creatione a Deo cum hominibus initium, hoc est, natura hominibus nota est; & requirit a nobis perfectam obedientiam erga Deum, praestantibus eam promittit vitam aeternam, non prestantibus minatur aeternas poenas. Evangelium vero continet foedus gratiae, hoc est, minime natura notum existens: ostendit nobis eius iustitiae, quam Lex requirit, impletionem in Christo, & restitutionem in nobis per Christi Spiritum; & promittit vitam aeternam gratis propter Christum, his qui in eum credunt.”
  4. R. Scott Clark and Joel Beeke, “Ursinus, Oxford, and the Westminster Divines,” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century: Essays in Remembrance of the 350th Anniversary of


nature (hence he described it as a foedus naturale). Therefore it is universally known and revealed naturally (Rom 1:18–2:14). It contains promises, but the conditions are legal. In contrast, the gospel (evangelium) contains a foedus gratiae. It is revealed only in special revelation (not nature). Its promises are not conditioned on our doing, but grounded in Christ’s law keeping and promised freely to those “who believe in him.” Ursinus’s construal of the law/gospel distinction would seem to make impossible any disjunction between covenant theology and the law/gospel hermeneutic. In other words, if we follow Ursinus, to preach covenantally is to preach the law (relative to justification) and the gospel as two distinct principles.50

Girolamo Zanchi (1516–90), a contemporary of Ursinus and Olevianus, placed relatively strong emphasis in his theology on union with Christ and the logical necessity of sanctity flowing from our union with Christ.51 Nevertheless, he was unambiguous in his affirmation of the necessity of distinguishing law and gospel. The substance of the law is “only commandments, to which are added irrevocable curses if they are violated in the least.”52 The condition of eternal blessedness under the law is “most perfect obedience” (perfectissimae obedientiae). The gospel, however, is “properly a blessed announcement” that “Christ


the Publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith (ed. Ligon Duncan; Ross-Shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2004), 2.1–32.

  1. Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), Ursinus’s colleague and one of the more significant Reformed theologians of the period and a principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism, taught the same hermeneutic: “For this reason the distinction between law and gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith”; Caspar Olevianus, In epistolam ad romanos notae (ed. Theodore Beza; Geneva, 1579), 148: “Causa. Ut retineatur legis & Evangelii. Lex non promittit gratis, sed sub conditione, si omnia feceris. Et si quis eam semel sit transgressus, non habet lex seu foedus legale promissionem remissionis peccatorum: evangelium vero gratis promittit remissione peccatorum, & vitam si non praestiterimus legem, propter Filium Dei, per fidem.” See also R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology; Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005), 79, 83, 106, 120, 139, 149–53, 159–62, 166, 179.
  2. See John L. Farthing, “De coniugio spirituali: Jerome Zanchi on Ephesians 5:22–33,” Sixteenth Century Journal 24 (1993): 621–52.
  3. H. Zanchi, De religione christiana (London, 1605), 143: “Quia legis materia, tantum sunt mandata, additis irrevocabilibus maledictionibus, si vel minima in parte ea volentur.”


our Redeemer, freely forgiving sins and saving us,” required nothing of us but “true faith in Christ.”53

Johannes Wollebius (1586–1629) of Basel is witness to Reformed theology in the period surrounding the Synod of Dort (1618–19). He correlated the antelapsarian foedus operum (covenant of works) to the “law” and the postlapsarian foedus gratiae (covenant of grace) to the gospel.54 Law and gospel have much in common—“the Redeemer is known through the law and through the gospel”—but they have different functions. Wollebius even said that they are “opposed” (opposita) in justification.55 From “the law we learn the need for a redeemer, and from the gospel we learn the truth of redemption.”56 Though they have much in common, they differ in that the law is known naturally, but the gospel is known only by God’s gracious revelation. The law “primarily teaches what is to be done,” but the gospel teaches “what is to be believed.” The law drives us to seek Christ, but the gospel reveals him. The law demands “perfect righteousness,” the gospel shows it in Christ.”57

Francis Turretin (1623–87) also articulated this hermeneutic in the high orthodox period. Inasmuch as the law stands for the covenant of works and the gospel stands for the covenant of grace, there is an “opposition” between them (Institutes 2.236–37 §12.8.15). The law demands “entire and perfect obedience to the law (Rom 10:5).” The law commands, but does not give righteousness. The law says, “Do this and live.” The gospel, however, grants righteousness to those who believe (2.186 §12.3.6). Turretin also correlated law to the covenant of works and gospel to the covenant of grace (2.236–37 §12.8.15).


  1. Ibid., 143–44: “At vero Evangelium proprie felix est nuntium, Christum nostrum Redemptorem, peccata gratis remittentem, et servantem, gratis etiam proponens: nihilque a nobis exigens ad salutem consequendam, nisi veram in Christo fidem.”
  2. Johannes Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae (ed. E. Bizer; Munich: Moers, 1935), 1.7; idem, Compendium of Christian Theology in Reformed Dogmatics (ed. and trans. John W. Beardslee III; New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 64.
  3. Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.15.7. Johannes Polyander, Andreas Rivet, Antonius Walaeus, and Antonius Thysius, Synopsis purioris theologiae (ed. H. Bavinck; 1625; repr. Leiden: Didericum Donner, 1881), shows the same distinctions in disputation 18: “De lege dei (Polyander),” and disputation 22: “De evangelio.”
  4. Wollebius, Compendium of Christian Theology, 75; idem, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.13.
  5. Wollebius, Compendium of Christian Theology, 85; idem, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.15.


The use of the law/gospel distinction was not a Continental Reformed peculiarity. It is found, for example, in William Perkins (1558–1602), one of the two most outstanding figures of English Puritanism.58 One of his most well-known works is The Art of Prophesying (1592), which remains a valuable resource for ministers who would “preach the word . . . in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2 ESV):

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. . . . A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them. . . . By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works.59

The lesson Perkins was trying to teach preachers in the late sixteenth century remains salient. He recognized a clear distinction between the imperative and indicative moods. He took it as a given that there are two distinct but closely related words within the one word of God. He recognized that these two words perform different functions. The law reveals sin and, following Paul (Rom 7:7), stimulates sin. Perkins recognized a distinction in the relative powers of law and gospel to effect salvation. The law “provides no remedy” for sin. The law says “do” and demands perfect, inherent righteousness. By contrast, the gospel “speaks of Christ and his benefits.” According to Perkins, the sanctity so evidently desired by those set


  1. Perkins’s student, William Ames, who exercised massive influence on Continental Reformed theology through his students Gijsbertus Voetius and others, followed his teacher on this point. See William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (trans. John D. Eusden; Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1983), 1.10.6, 1.16.11.
  2. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 54–55. See also idem, The Works of That Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ (London, 1616), 3.273, 495, which employed the same distinction and definitions in Perkins’s exposition of Rev 2:5 and Jude. I am grateful to Brannan Ellis for pointing me to these two places in Perkins’s Works.


to revise Reformed hermeneutics and homiletics comes through only the gospel. A Christian preacher must know the difference between the two.

William Twisse (1578–1646), the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, opened his 1632 catechism by arguing that the word of God teaches us to come to the kingdom of God in two ways: “Law and Gospel.”60 As for all confessional Protestants, Twisse understood the pedagogical word of the law to be “do this and live.” The gospel says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”61 It is not possible for sinners to come to the kingdom “by way of God’s law” because the law requires perfect obedience, which no sinner can perform.62 Therefore, the good news must be preached to sinners. For Twisse, the distinction between law and gospel was basic to Christian faith and piety: “This is the first lesson, to know the right way to the Kingdom of Heaven: and this consists in knowing the difference between the Law and the Gospel.”63

Britain’s greatest seventeenth-century theologian, John Owen (1616–83), used the same hermeneutic. In his Greater Catechism (1645), he argued that, relative to justification, the law is the word of God that teaches us our need of a Savior and the gospel that offers us our salvation.64 This distinction was even more evident in his Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677). In his preliminary remarks, he reminded the reader that the doctrine of justification was the central concern of the Reformation. He quoted J. H. Alsted (1588–1638), who called the Protestant doctrine of justification “the article by which the church stands or falls.” He also quoted and agreed with Luther, who said, “If I lose the doctrine of justification, the whole Christian doctrine has been lost.”65 He recognized that there was a movement during his life to downplay the significance of the doctrine of justification among some Reformed writers.


  1. William Twisse, A Brief Catechetical Exposition of Christian Doctrine (London, 1632), 3.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. Ibid., 5.
  5. John Owen, The Works of John Owen (ed. W. H. Goold; New York: Carter, 1851–53), 1.476, 485–87.
  6. Ibid., 5.67: “Amisso articulo justificationis, simula amissa est tota doctrina Christiana.”


Among the issues that Owen addressed was the “order, relation, and use of the law and the gospel.” The law is “presented unto the soul with its terms of righteousness and life, and with its curse in case of failure. Without this the gospel cannot be rightly understood nor the grace of it duly valued.” The gospel, in contrast, is the “revelation of God’s way of relieving souls of men from the sentence and curse of the law, Rom i.17.”66 In justification, the function of the law is to convict sinners. The gospel, not the law, is the “principal” of faith.67 Owen was zealous to maintain “the order and use of the law and the gospel, with their mutual relation unto one another.”68

In view of these examples, on this question (as on most others of its kind) any distinction between British and Continental Reformed theology must be drawn very carefully indeed. The Reformed consensus in the classical period was quite firm on this basic hermeneutical issue.69

In nineteenth-century Reformed theology, the distinction was largely assumed by Old School confessionalists and received renewed attention in the early twentieth century among orthodox Reformed such as J. Gresham Machen, Louis Berkhof, and John Murray.70

Because the first question before us is whether it is Reformed to distinguish law and gospel and how those two moods ought to be recognized and preached, this essay focuses on their differences. The Reformed have always recognized that, however antithetical law and gospel are to sinners, they are not antithetical to God.71 It is the basic biblical confession that God is “one” (Deut 6:4). The distinctions we make between God’s attributes (e.g., mercy and justice) are for our sakes. We understand that they do not exist in God. There are not


  1. Ibid., 5.75.
  2. Ibid., 5.76.
  3. Ibid., 5.82.
  4. It is remarkable that Ernest F. Kevan’s widely read The Grace of Law: A Study of Puritan Theology (1965; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), makes no mention of the distinction between law and gospel. His less well-known volume, Moral Law (1963; repr. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 66–70, does admit the traditional Protestant distinctions affirmed in this essay but manifests some confusion over the history of Reformed covenant theology.
  5. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 612–15; John Murray, Principles of Conduct (1957; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 181.
  6. Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.15.1, 8.


two competing principles in God. So too, the Reformed have recognized that law and gospel have several things in common:72

  1. Law and gospel do not denote absolutely separate parts of Scripture. Moses and Jesus both preached law and gospel.73 This is why Reformed theologians consistently quoted Jesus’s response to the lawyer in Luke 10:28—“do this and live”—as the prototypical example of law. One could just as easily cite the prologue to the Decalogue (Exod 20:2) as the prototypical example of the gospel word: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The question is not so much where these words occur in the canon, but the mood (imperative or indicative) with which they speak and the conditions attached to their promises.
  2. As Wollebius noted, both the law and the gospel urge obedience using promises and curses. They differ in their “proper material” (propria material). That is, the stuff of gospel is not the stuff of law. The law is about our “doing” (facienda), and the gospel is about our “believing” (credenda).74
  3. It is not that the law is strict and the gospel is lax. Rather, both law and gospel require “perfect obedience.”75 The law demands it of us, and the gospel announces that Christ has accomplished it.
  4. Both words are directed at sinners, but, again, with different consequences and conditions or instruments.76
  5. Both moods glorify God, and both seek to foster Christian virtue in believers. The law, however, is powerless to justify or sanctify; only the gospel achieves those ends.77 For the unregenerate, law and gospel are antithetical. To believers, however, for whom Christ has satisfied the righteous require-


  1. See, e.g., Beza, Christian Faith, 41–43; Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.15.7; Turretin, Institutes 2.233–40 §12.8.
  2. Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.21.16.
  3. Ibid., 1.15.2.
  4. Ibid., 1.15.3.
  5. Ibid., 1.15.5.
  6. Ibid., 1.15.4, 6.


ments of the law, the law is “subordinate” to the gospel.78 In other words, the gospel is the power of life and sanctity, and the law serves to structure Christian sanctity.

The Twentieth-Century Rejection of Law and Gospel

If the law/gospel discrimen was so foundational to Reformed hermeneutics and homiletics in the formative period of our tradition, how has it come into disuse?79 I venture to offer some general hypotheses. One of the linchpins of the orthodox view was human depravity. According to Reformed orthodoxy, antelapsarian man was able to “do and live.” It is postlapsarian man who is unable and unwilling and who needs the gospel. The reigning anthropology of modernity, however, has not featured human depravity. Instead, the Enlightenment taught human progress and perfectibility.

In that same period some of the systematic-theological, confessional, and theological sandbags that provided some protection from the rising modernist tide were called into question even by the orthodox. For example, Reformed orthodoxy correlated the covenant of works with law and the covenant of grace with gospel. With the dismissal of the covenant of works as a category, its corollary—the distinction between law and gospel—was therefore eclipsed.

From the period beginning with end of the nineteenth century until the middle 1980s, the chief issue before us had to do with the knowledge of God and the reliability of Scripture. Due to the distraction created by higher criticism, some traditional categories fell into neglect. Another part of the explanation for the eclipse of law and gospel as hermeneutical and homiletical categories has to do with the shape of Reformed theology in the mainline European and American


  1. Ibid., 1.15.8.
  2. The loss of this hermeneutical category has impaired some accounts of Reformed hermeneutics. D. L. Puckett, “John Calvin,” in Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (ed. Donald K. McKim; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 171–79, asks how Calvin related the Old and New Testaments but ignores this question. A similar approach is also evident in Wayne G. Strickland, ed., The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), in which the two of the writers professing to represent the Reformed understanding of law and gospel address them only as redemptive-historical categories rather than hermeneutical categories. They address the relations between the old and new covenants, not between law and gospel per se, but neither writer seems aware of the distinction.


churches and academies in the twentieth century. In reaction to the nationalism of German liberals, Karl Barth rejected the Reformation and confessional distinction between law and gospel.80 They are not, he said, two distinct words. As one Lutheran critic wrote, Barth “inverted” the traditional order.81 There are not, considered hermeneutically, two words in Scripture—“do” and “done for you”—but only one word: grace, which takes different historical forms (Moses and Christ). Of course, for Barth, “grace” means the universal electing favor of God.

This inversion of law and gospel to grace and obligation has found formal acceptance as one of the positions of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) and also among conservative evangelicals such as Daniel Fuller and among Reformed theologians such as Klaas Schilder and Norman Shepherd.82 They neither collapse history into the decree like Barth nor share Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. Nevertheless, they do follow his move to obliterate the distinction between the covenants of works and grace and the distinction between law and gospel. Consequently, they establish a grace-and-obligation scheme in which to construct their doctrines of justification. This is the structural impetus for revising the doctrine of justification by rejecting the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and to revise the definition of faith as it functions in justification. Having received initial grace, now the emphasis falls on the obligation to cooperate with grace. This move is fundamental to covenantal nomism and is common to the Reformed


  1. Originally published in 1935 as Evangelium und Gesetz; for English translation see Karl Barth, Community, State, and Church: Three Essays (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968). Hesselink (“Law and Gospel,” 32) concludes that Calvin’s use of law and gospel is much closer to Luther’s than to Barth’s.
  2. Thomas Coates, “The Barthian Inversion: Gospel and Law,” Concordia Theological Monthly 26 (1955): 481–91.
  3. This is the basic structure of the Confession of 1967; See The Book of Confessions (Louisville: Presbyterian Church USA, 1999), 253–62. See also “Confessional Nature of the Church Report,” in Book of Confessions, xvii–xviii; W. Robert Godfrey, “Westminster, Justification, and the Reformed Confessions,” in The Pattern of Sound Words: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple (ed. David VanDrunen; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 132–33; idem, “Back to Basics: A Response to the Robertson-Fuller Dialogue,” Presbyterion 9 (1983): 80–84; O. Palmer Robertson, “Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? A Review Article,” Presbyterion 9 (1983): 84–91. On Schilder’s covenant theology, see A. C. DeJong, The Well-Meant Offer: The Views of H. Hoeksema and K. Schilder (Franeker: Weaver, 1954); and A. Strauss, “Schilder on the Covenant,” in Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Klaas Schilder (ed. J. Geertsma; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 19–34.


revisers of the doctrine of justification. Any such grace-and-obligation scheme is flatly contrary to the Reformed confessions.

Preaching Law and Gospel

The purpose of this essay is to encourage ministers not only to read Scripture correctly, but also to preach it correctly. It is not faithful to either the Scriptures or the Reformed faith to adopt a naïve, biblicist approach to the proclamation of the word. Yes, the minister must preach the word, but, according to Scripture as understood by our confessions and theologians, the word has two moods—law and gospel. At any moment, the minister is preaching either law or gospel. It is not possible to “preach the word” indiscriminately. The faithful minister will be conscious of that fact and adjust his preaching accordingly.83

In the Reformed Symbols

It should not seem odd to turn to the Reformed symbols under the heading of “preaching.” They are public, ecclesiastically sanctioned expositions of the faith that themselves have preaching very much in view. Heidelberg Catechism 65 says that “the Holy Ghost works [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel” (Schaff 3.328, emphasis added). As will become apparent, when the Heidelberg Catechism says “gospel” it does not mean Scripture generically, but a distinct word and mood. In approaching the work of preaching this way, I hope that other ministers will take the symbols as a guide for their hermeneutics and their homiletics. One of the primary functions of the Reformed confessions and catechisms was to help us preach God’s word more faithfully. It is the way the confessions and catechism read the Scriptures and teach us to read and preach the word. The Heidelberg Catechism was quite explicit about the different functions of law and gospel both in the historia salutis and in the ordo salutis.


  1. I am indebted on this point to a 1999 lecture by my colleague Michael Horton, “Preaching Law and Gospel,” given under the auspices of the Westminster Institute for Christian Leadership conference entitled “The Glory of Preaching.”


Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism said that the catechism was structured according to the law/gospel distinction.84 In his lecture on Heidelberg Catechism 92, he turned to covenant theology to explain the distinction made by the catechism. Law and gospel seem to agree in that both promise eternal life “freely,” since no “obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God.” Nevertheless, there is a “great difference between the law and the gospel.” They differ as to mode of revelation: the law is natural revelation, and the gospel “was divinely revealed after the fall of man.” They differ in doctrine: the law teaches what we “ought to be in order that we may be saved,” but the gospel teaches how “we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ.” The differ in their “conditions or promises”: the promises of the law are conditioned on “our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us,” whereas gospel promises are conditioned upon “faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf.”85

According to Ursinus, then, when the Heidelberg Catechism says “law,” it means, in the first instance, that word from God that says “love God and love neighbor” (4) and pronounces the curse of death on any who disobeys (10 [Schaff 3.308, 310]). God made Adam (and us in him) able to fulfill the law (6, 9) but sin resulted in depravity and inability so that now, in its first use, the law teaches me only “the greatness of my sin and misery” (2–3 [Schaff 3.308]). Divine justice requires that our good works be completely “conformable to the divine law” (62), a standard that no sinner ever meets (Schaff 3.327).

The Heidelberg Catechism also uses the word law in a second, redemptive-historical sense to describe “Moses and the prophets” (19). Here law is contrasted with gospel to describe the types and shadows of the “sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law” that were fulfilled in “his well-beloved Son” (Schaff 3.313).86

The Heidelberg Catechism uses the word law in a third sense (tertius usus legis) to describe God’s moral standard for those who have been redeemed (91 [Schaff 3.339–40]). In this instance, obedience


  1. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (trans. George W. Williard; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1985), 13, 14, 20.
  2. Ibid., 492.
  3. Belgic Confession 25 uses the law/gospel distinction in this sense explicitly.


to the law is not for justification, but follows logically and necessarily from justification. The fact of human depravity does not ease God’s moral requirements. We are “with earnest purpose” to “begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the commandments of God” (114 [Schaff 3.349]).

The law does not change, but one’s status relative to the law changes. For those not “under law” but “under grace” (Rom 6:14–15), God continues to “enjoin” the law upon us for two reasons:

First, that all our life long we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that we may continually strive and beg from God the grace of the Holy Ghost, so as to become more and more changed into the image of God, till we attain finally the full perfection after this life. (HC 115 [Schaff 3.349])

Therefore, the Heidelberg Catechism has come full circle relative to the law. Having begun with the usus elencticus in Heidelberg Catechism 2–3, the catechism returns to it in the third part of the catechism. The law is not good advice for successful living. Human sinfulness is such that even believers, having been justified sola gratia, sola fide, need to hear the thunder of the law, need to be driven again to Christ. Only in the law do we see our need for Christ’s imputed righteousness and the consequent need for thankful sanctity.

When the Heidelberg Catechism uses the word gospel (evangelium), it means “how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery” (2) accomplished by a “true and sinless man” (16) who is also “true God” (17) and the mediator of salvation to all who believe (18 [Schaff 3.309, 312]). This gospel was first revealed “in Paradise” (19), after the fall, and proclaimed by the “holy Patriarchs and Prophets” and foreshadowed in the ceremonial types (Schaff 3.313). In the catechism, gospel does not mean, as it meant before the Reformation, “the law before the new law,” but rather that word from God announcing our redemption in Christ either prospective or retrospectively.

Heidelberg Catechism 21 gives its definition of the gospel: “That not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace,


only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (Schaff 3.313). Heidelberg Catechism 60 elaborates by adding that God “of mere grace, grants 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” (Schaff 3.326–27). The gospel is that message through which the Holy Spirit works “true faith” (21, 65 [Schaff 3.313, 328]).

The gospel is, as Luther reminded Melanchthon, extra nos (outside of us), the message concerning Christ’s “alien righteousness,” that is, what he accomplished pro nobis (for us), not, as the medieval church had it, about what is being accomplished “in us.” Heidelberg Catechism 66 repeats a similar summary. The gospel is that which, “of free grace,” God “grants us . . . the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross” (Schaff 3.328). The gospel is to be proclaimed by the church on the Sabbath (103) as the key that opens the kingdom to believers (83–84 [Schaff 3.345, 337]). The catechism says it consists of promises (22, 66) that are summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and is confirmed by the use of the sacraments (65 [Schaff 3.314, 328]).

It is essential to this discussion to understand that the Heidelberg Catechism defines the gospel solely in terms of God’s gracious provision of Christ’s active and passive obedience, which satisfies the justice for God for all who believe. There is not the slightest shadow over any part of the catechism suggesting that that Christian obedience is either the ground or instrument of justification. Indeed, the catechism (67) says, “The Holy Ghost teaches in the Gospel, and by the holy Sacraments assures us, that our whole salvation stands in the one sacrifice of Christ made for us on the cross” (Schaff 3.328–29). The message of the gospel to believers is that “all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits” (84 [Schaff 3.337]).

The law/gospel hermeneutic of the Heidelberg Catechism could hardly be clearer. One learns the greatness of sin and misery not from the gospel, but from the law. One learns of grace, not in law, but in the gospel (21, 56, 60–61 [Schaff 3.313, 325–27]). Even though the moral law structures Christian obedience, it is the gospel, not the law, that is the stimulus to sanctity.


One finds the very same categories used in the Westminster Standards (1647). What was implicit in the covenant theology of the Heidelberg Catechism eighty-four years earlier was made explicit in Westminster Confession of Faith 4.2, where the law is described as that word of God written on the heart of Adam, who had the “power to fulfill it.” To Adam’s natural knowledge was added “the covenant of works” (7.2). If our first parents had kept that law, “they were happy in their communion with God” (4.2). Sin is defined as “transgression” of God’s law (6.6). Under the covenant of works, the condition of eschatological blessedness was “perfect and personal obedience” (7.2).

Like the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession of Faith also reckoned the law redemptive-historically. “Law” stands for those epochs of the historia salutis before the incarnation (WCF 7.5). And our Lord Jesus, like Adam, was “made under the law,” but unlike Adam, he “did perfectly fulfill it” (8.4).

The first use of the law is to create in a sinner a “sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God” (WCF 15.2). As part of this project, the same moral law (19.3) promulgated to Adam in the covenant of works was “delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments” (19.1–2). The Reformed orthodox of the period thought of this restatement of the covenant of works at Sinai not as a third redemptive-historical covenant (contra Amyraut), but, in the words of Wollebius, as a “pedagogue to Christ” and as expression of the temporary, typical national status of the Israelites.87 Following the


  1. Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae, 1.21.17. It was widely held among the Reformed orthodox that the Decalogue was a republication of the covenant of works. To give but a few examples, the following taught it: Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man (trans. William Crookshank; 1803; repr. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1990), 1.336–37; Leonard Van Rijssen, Compendium theologiae didactico-elencticae (Amsterdam, 1695), 89; John Owen, “An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Works of John Owen (ed. W. H. Goold; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 6.85; Johannes Marckius, Compendium theologiae christianae didactico-elencticum (Amsterdam, 1749), 345–46; Peter Van Mastricht, Theoretico-practica theologia (Utrecht, 1699), 3.12.23. Pace D. Patrick Ramsey, “In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg,” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2005): 395, Thomas Boston appealed to the logic implied by the grammar of WCF 19.1–2, which reasserts the doctrine of 7.2 that God “gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach


mainline of Reformed orthodoxy, Peter Van Mastricht (1630–1706) appealed to the republication of the covenant of works at Sinai as proof of the foedus operum.88 According to the confession, the moral law (which WCF 19.3–5 explicitly distinguished from the civil and ceremonial) reflects the divine nature, it “doth forever bind all” and is not relaxed by the gospel, contrary to the medieval and Tridentine view, but strengthened by it. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the gospel is that Christ has met the terms of the law for his elect.

“Receiving and resting” in Christ’s active and passive righteousness (WCF 11.1), believers continue to owe obedience to the law, not “to be thereby justified” but “as a rule of life” that informs, directs, and binds the believer to God’s revealed moral will and that gives the believer “clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience” (19.6). For those outside Christ, law and gospel are two radically distinct words. For those in Christ, the law is not opposed to the gospel. As a consequence of justification, “the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling” the believer is able to “freely and cheerfully” obey Christ out of thanks (19.7).

Like the law, the gospel is something that humans must “obey” (WCF 3.8), but that obedience is not our doing, but “receiving and resting on him and his righteousness” (11.1) in Christ’s perfect obedience. In redemptive-historical terms, the word gospel denotes promise and fulfillment of the Son’s incarnation, obedience, and resurrection (7.5–6). Just as the law was expressed in a covenant of works (or life, so WLC 20), the gospel was expressed in a “covenant of grace” after the fall, “wherein he freely offers to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they


of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, . . . was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments.” The phrase covenant of works in WCF 19.1 is appositive to the noun law. Thus the law is reckoned here as a covenant of works. Thus when, 19.2 establishes “this law” as the subject of the verb “was delivered,” the antecedent can be none other than the law defined as a covenant of works in 19.1. This reading of the confession caused Boston, in his notes in The Marrow of Modern Divinity (repr. Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Books, n.d.), 58, to exclaim: “How, then, one can refuse the covenant of works to have been given to the Israelites, I cannot see.” These same theologians also held that Moses was an administration of the covenant of grace. The doctrine of unity of the covenant of grace and the doctrine of republication were regarded as complementary, not antithetical.

  1. Van Mastricht, Theoretico-practica theologia, 3.12.23.


may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe” (WCF 7.3).

Preaching the Law

Reformed theologians distinguished law and gospel in order to preach the word. Beza argued that the Holy Spirit has ordained the preaching of both law and gospel. Because of sin, we are “so blind” that we are “ignorant even of our ignorance.” We tend to be pleased with those things that ought “to displease us most.” Therefore, it is necessary for God to make us know “most clearly the cursed pit in which we are.” He informs us of our plight “by the declaration of the law.” For this reason “God begins with the preaching of the Law. In it alone we can see what we ought to be; and yet we cannot fulfill a single point of it. In it alone, we can see how near we are to our damnation, unless there comes to us some very strong and sure remedy.”89

This is the proper function of the law. It was not given to justify, but to condemn, to show us the “hell which is opened wide to swallow us.” It is evidence of our blindness that we tend to seek our salvation in the very thing that condemns us. The only remedy for the law’s just condemnation is “running to Jesus Christ by faith.” Instead, we tend to add to our condemnation by adding “law upon law” to our consciences. “This then is the first use of the preaching of the Law; to make known our innumerable faults so that in ourselves we begin to be miserable and greatly humble ourselves.”90 According to Beza, only those who know their sin turn to Jesus with saving faith and only sinners learn their great need from the law.

One gets a sense from these passages how Beza himself preached the law and to what purpose. Any of the orthodox British Reformed theologians would have given their “amen” to Beza’s homiletics.

In the twentieth century, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) applied these same principles to the crisis created by modernism and its desire to tame the law in the service of mainline, middle-class American liberalism:


  1. Beza, Christian Faith, 43.
  2. Ibid., 44.


A new and more powerful proclamation of law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skillful in relieving men of their burdens. . . . “Making Christ Master” in life, putting into practice “the principles of Christ” by one’s own efforts—these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one’s obedience to God’s commands.91

To preach, as Machen’s liberal contemporaries Harry Emerson Fosdick or Henry Sloan Coffin did or as many conservatives do today, a message of corporate or individual self-improvement is to turn the gospel into law and to remove the sting from the very instrument ordained by God to drive sinners to their Savior.92

When a minister comes to a text that proclaims the law, his duty is to “go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37 AV). He must, of course, first recognize the law for what it is—God’s unbending moral will requiring “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (WCF 19.1) before and after the fall. This is how Paul read Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (NIV).

Jesus was the preacher of the law par excellence, as seen in his encounter with the νομικός (lawyer) in Luke 10:25–37. The encounter follows the commissioning and return of the seventy-two to go into the surrounding cities to preach and demonstrate the kingdom of God (10:1–20). Just then the lawyer rises “testing” Jesus: “Having done what [τί ποιήσας], shall I inherit eternal life?”93 The question was a test because it contained within it a false premise, namely, that


  1. J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 141.
  2. On Machen’s liberal contemporaries, see Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). On Machen, see D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). On the similarities between conservative evangelicalism and modernity, see idem, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
  3. This rough translation of the aorist participle is intended to reveal the logic of the lawyer’s question, which is perhaps more evident in the Greek text than in the more polished English translations where the question sounds more innocent than it was.


inheritance of eternal life was logical consequence of his “doing.” For the sake of discussion and the opportunity presented by this arrogant question, Jesus accepts the unstated premise of the question. He queries Mr. Legality on how he “interprets” (ἀναγινώσκεις) the law (10:26). The lawyer says, in effect, “Love God and love your neighbor” (10:27). Jesus replies, “You have answered correctly” (10:28). Jesus, however, preaches the law when he turns the law on the lawyer: “Do this, and you shall live.” The response of the lawyer is worth noting. Rather than accepting the full brunt of the law and acknowledging his own fundamental inability, as a son of sinful Adam, to meet that standard, he attempts to change the standard. Luke says that the lawyer was “wishing to justify himself” by seeking to qualify the class of those humans to whom love is due. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” (10:29). Jesus again refuses to soften the relentless demands of the law. He tells the parable of the Samaritan (10:30–35) and tests the lawyer by asking who in this story was the true neighbor (10:36). Echoing ποιεῖν κρίμα καὶ ἀγαπᾶν ἔλεον in the Septuagint version of Micah 6:8, the lawyer gets it right: “The one having done mercy” (ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος) (Luke 10:37). Again, Jesus preaches the law to the lawyer: “Go and do likewise.”

From the vocabulary and movement of the narrative, it seems clear that Jesus defied the lawyer’s expectations. The lawyer expected and attempted to tone down the demands of the law. Instead, Jesus intensified the demands of justice. If the lawyer would inherit eternal life through law keeping, Jesus gives him the terms of the law: perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience.

The implications for preachers of Jesus’s proclamation of the law are several. First, the law must be proclaimed. It has have been said that “Reformed ministers do not proclaim the law, they proclaim the gospel.” It is difficult to know from where such a notion arose, but it did not arise from the Reformed theologians or confessions, and it did not arise from Scripture. The ministers of the old covenant (2 Cor 3:6), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others, did nothing if not proclaim the law in precisely the sense and to the ends described in this essay. Amos 1:2 says that Yahweh “roars” (יִשְׁאָג) I in his proclamation of the demands of the law.


Second, the law, in both its first (pedagogical) and third (normative) uses must be proclaimed with appropriate vigor and application. Again, one could turn to any of the prophets, especially perhaps to the Minor Prophets, to find dozens of examples of such preaching. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, however, is a good example of the vigorous and pointed preaching of the law.94 Having explained the meaning of the outpouring of the Spirit, he addresses the crowd directly (for the second time) and directly confronts them about their moral guilt before God’s law: “Israelite men, listen to these words . . . this Jesus . . . you condemned, having crucified him” (2:22–23). Peter spoke directly to that congregation, as it were, and spoke about their murder of Jesus. Then he turns to announce the good news that, despite our worst efforts, the Messiah lives and reigns. At the end of the sermon, he preached the law (and the gospel) again, in one sentence: “Let every house of Israel know certainly, this Jesus whom you crucified, God made him Lord and Christ” (2:36). The moods of law and gospel could not be clearer than they are in this sentence. The law comes in the imperative (γινωσκέτω) and with the rhetorical finger pointed in the second-person plural “you crucified” (ἐσταυρώσατε). The gospel comes in the indicative, declarative clause “God has made” (ἐποίησεν ὁ θεός). Sin and law-breaking are intra nos, but salvation and righteousness are extra nos.95

Third, the law must be allowed to be the law. The temptation of our therapeutic, medicated age is to take the edge off the law by making it user friendly. The law is God’s demand for justice and obedience, not helpful advice. It was because Peter roared the law to those Israelite men gathered at Pentecost that they were “stabbed in the heart” (Acts 2:37). Peter did not say, “I know you meant well.” Rather, he declared in effect, “You shall have no other gods. . . . You shall not murder.” Only when directly confronted with the naked righteousness of God did the elect see their need and turn to Christ.96


  1. Of course, Luke’s record of the sermon is telescoped and stylized, but this means that we should pay even closer attention to what is included in the synopsis.
  2. The pattern of the sermon also suggests that there need be no artificial separation of law and gospel. Peter moves freely between them in this sermon.
  3. Because this essay concerns the existence and nature of the distinction between law and gospel, it focuses on the first use of the law. The reader should not infer from the focus of the essay, however, that the third use of the law is being slighted. To the contrary, by clearly


Preaching the Gospel

Beza said, “We call Gospel the Good News, which, from the beginning, and by his grace and mercy alone, God has announced to his Church: those who, by faith, embrace Jesus Christ shall partake of eternal life in him (Rom 3:21, 22; John 6:40).”97 The gospel refers to the second mood or word to be preached, the announcement that the Second Adam by his one act of obedience (Rom 5:18) has kept the law, fulfilled the covenant of works, and made a new covenant in his blood for us sinners (Luke 22:20) and was crucified, buried, and raised on the third day for our justification (1 Cor 15:1–3).98 Where the law says to sinners, “Do and live,” the gospel announces, “Christ has done.” The good news is about justification earned for us by Christ, who kept the covenants of works and redemption, and offered freely to us (Rom 10:4) in the covenant of grace.

Just after a stern denunciation of “the cities where his acts of power had occurred” (Matt 11:20), Jesus prays, giving thanks for the mystery of God’s grace (11:25–26). He announces that he is the sole saving revelation of the Father and that only the elect, those to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father, know him (11:27). Then he declares, “Come to me all who are laboring and who have been loaded with burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon yourselves and follow me, because I am gentle and meek in heart, and you will find rest [ἀνάπαυσιν] for your souls” (11:28–29).

This is a gospel sermon. It has imperatives, but the imperative here is not to fulfill the law, but to come in faith to Jesus the law keeper. This is the indicative voice of God’s word, the announcement of “rest,” that is, salvation. The gospel comes with urgency—“come,” “follow”—but those imperatives are grounded in promises: “I will give


establishing the distinction between the law and the gospel the way is prepared for a proper understanding and proclamation of the law as the norm for the Christian life.

  1. Beza, Christian Faith, 46.
  2. In several places (e.g., 2 Sam 4:10; 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kgs 7:9) the noun for “good news” refers to something that has occurred outside of us that benefits his people. In other places, e.g., Ps 96:2, we are daily to “proclaim the good news” of Yahweh’s salvation. Most famous of all such Old Testament passages is Isa 52:7: “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).


you rest,” “I am gentle and meek,” “You shall find rest.” The ground of the gospel is Christ’s performance.


Luther’s great hermeneutical breakthrough was not that the Bible should be read and preached literally, or that it should be preached redemptive-historically, or even that there is within it an eschatological thread. The church had long taught these things under the quadriga (the fourfold system of interpretation). What Luther, Calvin, the Reformed confessions, and Protestant orthodox realized—and what preachers must again understand—is that Scripture contains “two words,” or one word with two moods, and that the failure to recognize this distinction has the greatest implications for preaching.

Besides the historical reasons for the eclipse and contemporary criticisms of the law/gospel hermeneutic and homiletics surveyed above, preachers should be aware of another obstacle. According to Scripture, humans want their minister to turn the gospel into law because it makes the foolishness of the gospel a little more reasonable. Such an approach, however, minimizes the “scandal of the cross” (Gal 5:11). If Paul had preached to the Galatians how to behave themselves so that God would approve of them, he could have silenced his critics.

The act of preaching is inherently “foolish” (1 Cor 1:21). It is an analogue of the Christian faith: “It pleased God to save those who believe, through the foolishness of the preached message.” To those who demanded “signs” and “wisdom” (1:22), Paul deliberately preached “Christ crucified” (1:23), which he knew to be offensive to virtually everyone.

If Reformed churches are going to remain faithful to the Scriptures and their confessions, their ministers must recover the biblical and historic Reformed distinction between letter (law) and Spirit (gospel), for the study and—more importantly—for the pulpit. They must preach the killing letter and the life-giving gospel (2 Cor 3:6–7) because it is this act of faith that God has ordained to bring salvation to his people (Rom 10:1–5).



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