Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Uniquely Lutheran?

Gospel-Driven Blog

In reply to my recent post on Beza’s distinction between law and gospel, Richard wrote (see comment section under Theodore Beza on the Law and Gospel, Part 2),

    “You know–I was just told by my (PCA) pastor that this distinction is a “Lutheran” thing (and that, by the way, is a way to write off the guys at Westminster West). This is what he was taught at RTS in Jackson. Do you sense a hostility to the Law/Gospel distinction in Reformed circles?”

Without question, a law/gospel distinction is very prominent in Lutheran theology. But, it is simply wrong to suggest that a law/gospel distinction is uniquely Lutheran. This common but misguided notion is one reason (to be sure not the only reason) why I posted Beza’s teaching on the law and gospel. And it is without question that the law/gospel distinction has come upon hard times within Reformed circles…

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The Law and the Gospel by Henry Eyster Jacobs

CHAPTER XXV.

THE LAW AND THE GOSPEL.

1. How is the Word of God divided?

Into Law and Gospel, or Command and Promise.

2. Does this distinction coincide with that between the Old and the New Testaments?

No. There is Gospel in the Old Testament, as the promise concerning Christ was made from man’s fall (Gen. 3: 15), and became fuller and clearer as the time of its fulfilment approached (see Chapter X, 1, 5). There is also Law in the New Testament, of which the Sermon on the Mount is a summary (see Chapter XIII, 9-12). But in the Old Testament, Law; in the New Testament, Gospel preponderates.

3. Where is this distinction briefly stated?

John 1:17—”The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” 2 Cor. 3:6—”Who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

In the former passage, the grace of the Gospel is contrasted with the inflexible rigor of the Law; and the fulfilment of the promise and the presence of the substance under the Gospel, with the types and shadows of the Law.

In the second passage, the points of contrast are: (a) Between the Law, or letter, as prescribing a course of conduct and making demands, but giving no power to obey: and the Gospel as bringing the Holy Spirit with His regenerating and renewing powers, (b) Between the Law as leading to despair, when the impossibility of meeting its demands is learned; and the Gospel as encouraging and cheering with its offer of Christ’s righteousness as our own. (c) Between the Law, as except through Christ nothing but a letter, and the Gospel, as being the fulfilment of the Law in us by the enkindling of love, (d) Between the Law as containing much that is typical and unintelligible until its true interpretation is found in the Gospel, and the Gospel as the goal of all that towards which the Law is directed.

4. What importance is attached to the distinction between Law and Gospel?

“This distinction between Law and Gospel is the highest art in Christianity, which all who boast or accept the Christian name, can or should know. For where there is a defect on this point, a Christian cannot be distinguished from a heathen or a Jew; for it is just here that the difference lies” (Luther).

The greatest care must be taken, “lest these two doctrines be mingled with one another, or out of the Gospel a law be made, whereby the merit of Christ is obscured and troubled consciences robbed of the comfort they would otherwise have” (Formula of Concord, 589).

5. What, then, is the main point of difference?

Everything in Holy Scripture that commands us to do or to give or to be something, or that forbids us to do or give, or be, is Law. Everything that asks us to receive something is Gospel. “By the Law, nothing else is meant than God’s Word and command, wherein He enjoins what we should do and leave undone, and demands our obedience. But the Gospel is that doctrine or Word of God that neither requires works of us, nor enjoins the doing of anything, but announces only the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The Gospel offers God’s gifts and bids us only open the sack to receive them, while the Law gives nothing, but only takes and demands of us” (Luther).

Everything that reproves sin and threatens is Law; everything that encourages and comforts and offers the grace of God is Gospel (see Formula of Concord, 593).

“The Law shows sin; the Gospel, grace. The Law indicates the disease; the Gospel, the remedy. The Law, to use the words of Paul, is a minister of death; the Gospel, of life and peace” (Melanchthon).

Rom. 3:20—”Through the law cometh the knowledge of sin.’ Rom. 7:J—”I had not known sin except through the law.” Gal. 3:12—”The law is not of faith; but he that doeth them, shall live in them.”

6. Are the words “Law” and “Gospel” used in Holy Scripture in but one sense?

Each has various meanings. In its widest sense, Law includes all that God has revealed (Ps. 1:2). In a narrower sense, it refers to the Old Testament (John 10: 34), and particularly, the Pentateuch (Luke 24:44). In its strictest sense, as used here, it is God’s revelation of His will concerning man’s character and acts. So “Gospel,” in the widest sense, means all the doctrine taught by Christ and His Apostles (Mark 1: 1-14; 16: 15). Rut as contradistinguished from Law it designates the promise of grace through Christ, whether before His coming, or since He has come (Is. 41: 27; 52: 7: Rom. 10: 16; 1:2).

7. How has the Law been divided?

Into universal and particular. The former has been declared from the beginning, and pertains to all times and places. The latter was prescribed for temporary purposes to a particular nation. The former we know as the Moral Law; the latter is divided, according to its diverse purposes, into the Forensic and the Ceremonial.

8. What is the Moral Law?

God’s declaration concerning what He would have man be, do or omit to do. “Divine doctrine, wherein the true and unmistakable will of God is revealed, as to how man ought to be, in his nature, thoughts, words and works, in order to be pleasing and acceptable to God.” “Divine doctrine teaching what is right and pleasing to God, and reproving everything that is sin and contrary to God’s will” (see Chapter VIII, 2-4).

9. How has the Moral Law been distinguished?

Into Natural and Revealed. The former designates the original knowledge of God’s will impressed upon man’s nature when created, and constituting one of the features of the Image of God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). (See Chapter VII, 27, 28.) While, by the Pall, this knowledge was largely lost and greatly corrupted and perverted, some traces of it still remain. Conscience, or the power to discriminate between right and wrong belongs to some extent to all men. “Human reason naturally understands in some way the law” (Apology, 85).

Rom. 2:14, 15—”For when the Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these not having the law, are the law unto themselves, in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them.”

10. What is the office of the Natural Law?

To stimulate men to seek after God (Acts 17: 27), and when they fail to respond to convict them of sin (Rom. 1:20).

11. What shows its feebleness in man’s fallen estate?

Its merely superficial effects.  The knowledge of the extent of the inner corruption of the heart is learned only from the revealed law.

Rom. 7:7—”I have not known sin except through the law” (i. c. the revealed Moral Law); “for I had not known coveting except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” v. 8—”For apart from the law sin is dead.” The connection shows that the meaning is, that unless the Revealed Moral Law be known, the knowledge of sin is so weak that it may be accounted dead.

12. What is the Revealed Moral Law?

The declarations of God’s will repeatedly given to man since the Fall, and formally promulgated through Moses on Mt. Sinai, concerning matters of universal and permanent obligation.

13. Where is it summarized?

In general, in the Ten Commandments, and still further by Christ in Matt. 22 : 37-40:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And a second like unto it, is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments the whole law hangeth and the prophets.”

14. Where are the Ten Commandments repeated?

In Matt. 19: 18, 19; Mark 10: 19; Luke 18:20; Rom. 13:9.

15. Where is their meaning fully explained and applied?

In the Sermon on the Mount.

16. How can the perpetual obligation of particular precepts be determined, and their place in the Moral Law established?

Any precept of the Old Testament sanctioned by the express words of Christ or any of the inspired writers of the New Testament, belongs most clearly to the Moral Law.

17. Can we say that everything in the Ten Commandments as reported in Ex. 20 belongs to the Moral Law?

In the promise of the Fourth Commandment, the particular blessing was local and national. St. Paul, accordingly, shows in Eph. 6: 3, that there was a generic blessing, which lifted the promise to a higher level and gave it a vaster range. So the Third Commandment, concerning the Sabbath, contains a ceremonial element, which our Catechism, following St. Paul in Col. 2:16, traces to a generic command of universal obligation concerning the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, and of a cessation of labor for that purpose.

18. Is the Moral Law a code of co-ordinate and parallel precepts?

It is an organic whole, reducible first to two, and at last to one commandment, that of supreme love to God (Matt. 22: 37-40; Luke 10: 27).

19. What is its sphere?

It includes all the acts and states and relations of men. But it lays chief stress upon the inner life, the thoughts and intents of the heart (Matt. 5:22, 28), and summarizes all its demands in the one word “love.”

20. What obedience does the Moral Law demand?

That which is the most perfect and complete:

(a) As to the source of the acts. As above seen they must proceed from entire and completely self-surrendering and self-forgetting love, and be wrought by man’s undivided powers.

(b) As to the details of the acts. The failure of the least particular vitiates the whole. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

Deut. 27:26—”Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them.” Gal. 3:10—”Cursed is he that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law, to do them.” James 2:10—”For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet shall stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”

(c) As to perseverance. Even if perfection were attainable for a time, it is valueless unless maintained to the end.

Ez. 18:24—”When the righteous turneth away from his righteousness. and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he hath done shall be remembered; in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.”

21. What is the result?

Man, because of his depraved and enfeebled nature, being unable to meet these demands, the Law which has been given for eternal life, becomes accidentally the occasion for eternal death. .

Rom. 7:10—”The commandment which was unto lite, this I found to be unto death.” v. 12—”So that the law is holy and righteous and good…. but sin, that it might be shown to be sin, by working death to me through that which is good.”

The Epistle to the Romans opens with a long argument, showing the inability both of the Gentiles by the Natural, and of the Jews by the Revealed Law to attain justification before God.

Rom. 3:20—”By the works of the law, shall no flesh be justified; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

22. If the Law, therefore, cannot justify, is it not useless?

“As the argument is invalid, ‘Money does not justify, therefore it is useless’; ‘the eyes do not justify, therefore they should be torn out’; ‘the hands do not justify, therefore they must be amputated’; so, too, the argument is equally fallacious that the Law is useless, because it does not justify. We should ascribe to everything its proper office and use. In denying that it justifies, we do not destroy or condemn the Law” (Luther).

Another illustration of Luther is that the Law is food which the organs of the invalid, enfeebled by sin cannot digest.

23. What, then, is the use of the haw?

It has a three-fold use:

(a) Political. By its threats of punishment, it checks the violence of godless men, and protects society against external acts of crime. It is of this use that 1 Tim. 1:9 sq. speaks:

“The law is not made tor a righteous man, but for the lawless and unruly, for the ungodly and sinners, tor the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for fornicators,” etc.

(b) Elenchtical. As it convicts or convinces of sin.

Rom. 3:2o—”Through the law, cometh the knowledge ot sin.”

This it does by bringing evidence not attainable by the light of nature, and by showing that what is chiefly significant is that, beneath the act, there is such a desperate state of sin. The Law is not only the standard, by which sins are discerned, but the light which displays them in all their heinousness and enormity. It does more than instruct concerning sin; the Holy Spirit uses it as a means to condemn and terrify on account of sin.

Rom. 4:15—”For the law worketh wrath.” John 16:8—”He will convict the world of sin. and of righteousness and of judgment.”

Thus the law indirectly leads or forces men to Christ (Gal. 3:24). This indirect office has been separated from the elenchtical use by our later Lutheran theologians and called the pedagogical.

24. Before proceeding to the third or didactic use, state whether the consideration of the sufferings of Christ, as an exhibition of God’s anger against sin, does not belong to the elenchtical use of the law, rather than to the Gospel.

The consideration of the sufferings of Christ has a double effect. They reveal, as nowhere else, the guilt of sin, and they testify to the love of God for sinners. The former belongs to the elenchtical use of the law ; the latter to the Gospel. See Formula of Concord, 591:

“What more forcible declaration of God’s wrath against sin is there, than the suffering and death of Christ His Son? But as long as this all preaches God’s wrath and terrifies men, it is still properly the preaching neither of the Gospel, nor of Christ, but of Moses and the Law against the impenitent. For the Gospel and Christ were never provided in order to terrify and condemn, but in order to comfort and cheer those who are terrified and timid.”

25. What, then, is the didactic or third use?

As a guide and standard for the regenerate. “The Holy Ghost teaches the regenerate, in the Ten Commandments, in what good works ‘God hath before ordained that they should walk’ (Eph. 2: 10)” (Formula of Concord, 597).

26. But why is this necessary, when the regenerate have the Holy Spirit who constantly impels them to do God’s will?

Because of their corrupt nature which is only partially renewed, they can never trust their own impulses, but must constantly test them by God’s law. in order to determine what is of God and what is of the flesh.

27. What is necessary for fulfilling the duty of a true Christian pastor in preaching the Law?

That all of these uses of the Law be constantly urged, and that none of their requirements be abated. The hearts of men are receptive to the Gospel only to the extent that they have been enlightened by the Law.

Matt. 5:6—”Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.”

Great danger is always imminent lest the demands of the Law be relaxed in accommodation to the weaknesses of men, and lest, in commending purely external morality and urging its demands, its insufficiency for justification, and the deeper righteousness of the heart be overlooked.

28. What were the Forensic and the Ceremonial Law?

The Forensic Law was the code of the Israelitic State;

the Ceremonial, the ritual of the Israelitic Church.

29. How were they related to the Moral Law?

They are applications of the Moral Law to the temporary circumstances and conditions of the Jewish people. The Ceremonial Law provided for a series of exercises of the First Table of the Law, by defining the rites of worship and its circumstances. The Forensic Law provided for a series of exercises of the Second Table, by prescribing rules of conduct in respect to man’s social and civil relations. In the theocracy, everything was determined by direct and minute prescription. In the educational process, whereby God was training for Himself a people, at first nothing whatever was left to human freedom or man’s enlightened conscience. The period was one which had not received the endowment of the Spirit in His fulness. (See Chapter XVI, 4.)

30. How did the Forensic and Ceremonial Laws differ from the Moral?

(a) In mode of revelation. The Moral was implanted in man’s nature, at his creation; and on Sinai was only republished, whereas the Forensic and Ceremonial were given only through Moses.

(b) In obligation. The Moral Law is universal; the Forensic and Ceremonial Laws were obligatory only as long as the Israelitic State stood, and even then only upon Jews.

(c) In duration. The Moral Law is perpetual; since it is the declaration of God’s eternal will. But, as the Epistle to the Hebrews shows in a long argument, the Forensic and Ceremonial are limited in duration.

(d) In purpose. The object of the Forensic and Ceremonial Laws was to keep Israel separate from other nations, that through it God’s purposes for the race might be prepared. The Moral Law was to direct the experience and destiny of people of all nations and times, not only within, but beyond and above the limits of Israel.

31. How do you prove the abrogation of the Forensic Law?

The destruction of the Jewish State renders its administration an impossibility. Obedience to the rulers of other governments is commanded (Rom. 13: 1, 5; 1 Peter 2: 13 sq.). Citizenship in other States is approved (Acts 22:25; 25:10).

32. What were the contents of the Ceremonial Law?

Regulations concerning:

(a) Sacred persons—the high priest, the priests, Levites, Nazarites, etc., and prescriptions concerning personal matters, as food and drink, clothing and other matters pertaining to the individual or domestic life.

(b) Sacred things—the furniture, vessels and utensils for public worship, and the sacrifices and sacraments of the Old Testament.

A sacrifice is a sacred action, in which an object is offered to God through a prescribed ceremony, as an acknowledgment of the guilt of sin (Heb. 10:3), and a testimony to the complete and perfect sacrifice which God was hereafter to provide.

(c) Sacred times—the Sabbath, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Pentecost, the Sabbatical Year, the Feast of Jubilee.

(d) Sacred places—the Holy City, the Tabernacle, the Temple. In these buildings, each of its three divisions, the Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, had its peculiar significance.

33. What was the chief object of the Ceremonial Law?

To foreshadow the blessings to be procured and offered through Christ.

Col. 2:16, 17—”Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day, or of a new moon, or a sabbath day: which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ’s.”

34. How is the abrogation of the Ceremonial Law proved?

(a) From the argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews concerning Melchisedek.

Heb. 7:12—”For the priesthood being changed, there is made ot necessity a change also of the law.”

(b) From its argument concerning the temporary character of the first tabernacle.

Heb. 9:9—”Wrhich is a figure for the time present.” v. 12—”But Christ having come through the greater and more perfect tabernacle.”

(c) From the proceedings of the council at Jerusalem, the first synod of the Christian Church (Acts 15: 1 sqq.).

(d) From Peter’s vision (Acts 10: 11).

(e) From Paul’s rebuke of Peter (Gal. 2: 14-16), and of the Galatians, who insisted on the permanence of ceremonial ordinances.

Gal. 4:10, 11—”Ye observe days and months and seasons and years. 1 am afraid of you, lest by any means 1 have bestowed labor upon you in vain.” 5:2—”If ye receive circumcision, Christ shall profit you nothing.”

(f) When the body comes, its shadow disappears; the type yields to the antitype (Heb. 10: I; Col. 2: 17).

35. How is “Gospel” to be defined when contrasted with “Law”?

The promise of the gratuitous forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. (See above, 6.)

In the New Testament the verb “euaggelizein” occurs fifty-six, and the noun “euaggelion,” seventy-two times, In the Gospels and Acts, the reference is simply to “good tidings.” In Luke 16: 16, the contrast with “Law” first appears. In the Epistles the restriction to the specific good tidings brought by Christ becomes very marked, as in Gal. 1: 8; Rom. 1: 16. A study of the passages in the Gospels, in the light of the use of the word in the Epistles, shows that the same specific meaning belongs also there.

“It is the complex of the promises which are grateful, joyful and salutary to sinful men, a summary of which is found in John 3: 16” (Baier).

36. How does the Gospel regard Christ?

Solely in His Mediatorial Office, with its Priestly functions as the very center.

37. Can any doctrine concerning the goodness or the Fatherhood of God, which is not based upon a clear confession of the divinity and priestly work of Christ be termed “Gospel”?

In answer to some modern theologians who have had a wide hearing and who claim that the Gospel is not doctrine concerning Jesus Christ, but only concerning God the Father, we turn to Paul.

Rom. 1:1-4—”The Gospel of God, concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc

38. May it not be regarded a new law, offering salvation upon easier terms than were given by the former law?

Law and Gospel differ not in degree, but in kind. The Gospel offers an entirely different righteousness from that which is attainable by the Law (Rom. 1: 17; 3: 21).

39. How do they differ?

(a) In revelation. The Law partially by Nature (Rom. 2:15); the Gospel only through Christ (John 1:18; Rom. 16:26; Col. 1:26; Eph. 3:9; Matt. 11:25-27).

(b) In subject matter. The Law is doctrine concerning works, prescribing what we ought to be, to do, or to omit to do (Ex. 20) ; the Gospel is doctrine concerning faith (Rom. 1:17) offering Christ and bringing the Holy Spirit.

(c) In form. The promises of the Law are conditional, requiring perfect obedience (Lev. 18:5); those of the Gospel are gratuitous (Rom. 3:23-25; 4:4, 5).

(d) In effect. The Law accuses, terrifies, works wrath (Rom. 3:20; 4:20); the Gospel consoles. The Law makes known the disease; the Gospel brings the physician and the remedy (Rom. 1 : 16). (See also above, 3, 5.)

40. In what do they coincide?

Both are heavenly doctrine divinely revealed. Of both God is author. Of both the purpose is salvation, the inadequacy of the law being attributable to no inherent weakness, but to man’s inability, in his enfeebled state, to fulfil its requirements (Rom. 8:3; 7:12, 13). Both are universal; the Law announces a universal obligation: the other tenders a universal promise.  Both are of perpetual validity; the Law (Matt. 5:18); the Gospel (Matt. 28: 19 sq.; Rev. 14:6).

They harmoniously unite and co-operate, when the Law demands complete obedience, and the Gospel declares that this complete obedience has been rendered for us by Christ.

Rom. 3:31—”Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? nay, we establish the law.”

In Illumination, the Law shows the need of faith; in Regeneration, the Gospel brings faith. In the Renewal, the Law indicates the works that please God; while the Gospel brings the true motives and the strength to do these works (2 Cor. 5: 14, 15).

<a href=”http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA298&id=SGNHAAAAYAAJ&output=text”&gt; Chapter XXV – The Law and the Gospel from A Summary of the Christian Faith by Henry Eyster Jacobs, 1905</a>

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