The Two Parts of the Word of God: Law & Gospel
- by Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
- The following article by Theodore Beza was taken from chapter four (sections 22-30) of his book The Christian Faith, translated into english by James Clark (Focus Christian Ministries Trust, East Essex England, 1992). This book was a “best seller” during the Protestant Reformation, and appeared in 1558 under the original title of Confession De Foi Du Chretien. The current modern edition contains no copyright notice, therefore it is assumed that the articles contained within it may be freely distributed. The electronic edition of this book was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. Original pagination has been retained for purposes of reference. Original title appears below.
That which we call The Word of God: Its two parts — the Law and the Gospel
On this subject we call the “Word of God” (for we know well that the Eternal Son of God is also so named) the canonical books of the Old and New Testament; for they proceed from the mouth of God Himself.
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 the other of these two headings.
What we call Law (when it is distinguished from Gospel and is taken for one of the two parts of the Word) is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts. However, so that we may have a more exact knowledge, it was written by God on two Tables and is briefly comprehended in ten commandments. In these He sets out for us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to His majesty and 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).
What we call the Gospel (“Good News”) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Matt 16:17; John 1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. 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). By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time he renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor 2:4).
The similarities and the differences between the Law and the Gospel
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 principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.
The majority of men, blinded by the just judgement of God, have indeed never seriously considered what curse the Law subjects us to, nor why it has been ordained by God. And, as for the Gospel, they have nearly always thought that it was nothing other than a second Law, more perfect than the first. From this has come the erroneous distinction between precept and advice; there has followed, little by little, the total ruin of the benefit of Jesus Christ.
Now, we must besides consider these things. The Law and the Gospel have in common that they are both from the one true God, always consistent with Himself (Heb. 1:1-2). We must not therefore think that the Gospel abolishes the essence of the Law. On the contrary, the Law establishes the essence of the Gospel (Rom 10:2-4); this is what we shall explain a little further on. For both set before us the same God and the essence of the same righteousness (Rom 3:31), which resides in perfect love to God and our neighbour. But there is a great difference in these points which we shall touch on, and especially concerning the means of obtaining this righteousness.
For, in the first place, as we alluded to before, the Law is natural to man. God has engraven it in his heart from creation (Rom 1:32; 2:14,15). When, a long time afterwards, God made and exhibited the two Tables of the Law, this was not to make a new law, but only to restore our first knowledge of the natural law which, because of the corruption of sin, was little by little becoming obliterated from the heart of man (Rom 7:8-9). But the gospel is a supernatural doctrine which our nature would never have been able to imagine nor able to approve without a special grace of God (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14). But, the Lord has revealed it, firstly to Adam shortly after his sin, as Moses declares (Gen 3:15), afterwards to the patriarchs and the prophets in increasing degrees as seemed good to Him (Rom 1:2; Luke 1:55,70), until the day in which He manifested Jesus Christ in Person. It is He who has clearly announced and accomplished all that is contained in the Gospel (John 15:15; 6:38). This Gospel God still reveals today and will reveal it until the end of the world by the preaching instituted in His Church (John 17:18; Matt 28:20; 2 Cor. 5:20).
In the second place, the Law lays bare to us the majesty and justice of God (Heb. 12:18-21). The Gospel sets forth this same justice to us, but there it is pacified and satisfied by the mercy manifested in Christ (Heb. 12:22- 24).
In the third place, the Law sends us to ourselves in order to accomplish the righteousness which it commands us, that is to say, the perfect obedience to its commandments, which is necessary in order to escape guilt. That is why it shows us our curse and subjects us to it, as the Apostle declares (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:10-12). But the gospel teaches us where we shall find what we do not have and, having found it, how we shall be able to enjoy it. That is why it delivers us from the curse of the Law (Rom 3:21,22; Gal 3:13,14). In conclusion, the Law pronounces us blessed when we accomplish it without omitting anything; the Gospel promises us salvation when we believe, that is to say, when, by faith, we take hold of Jesus Christ who has everything which we lack, and still more that we need. Now, these two terms — to do what the Law commands, or to believe what God offers us in Jesus Christ — are two things which are not only very difficult but totally impossible to our corrupt nature. This latter, as St Paul says, cannot even perceive what is of God (2 Cor. 3:5; Phil 1:29). That is why it is necessary to add a fourth difference between the Law and the Gospel.
Thus, the fourth difference between the Law and the Gospel is that the Law, by itself, can only show us, and make us see, our evil more exceedingly, and aggravate our condemnation; not through any fault of its own (for it is good and holy), but because our corrupt nature burns for sin the more it is reproved and threatened, as St. Paul has declared through his own example (Rom 7:7-14). But the Gospel not only shows us the remedy against the curse of the law, but it is at the same time accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit who regenerates us and changes us (as we have said above); for He creates in us the instrument and sole means of applying to us this remedy (Acts 26:17,18).
In order to speak even more clearly, let us expound these words “letter” and “spirit” which some have taken in the wrong sense. I say, therefore, that the Gospel is not “letter”, that is to say, only a dead doctrine which sets before us in their bareness and simplicity (I do not say those things which it is fitting for us to do — for that is the office of the Law) the things which it is necessary for us to believe: that salvation is promised freely in Jesus Christ to those who believe; but it is “spirit”, that is to say, a powerful means full of efficacy from the Holy Spirit, and He uses it to create in us the power to believe the things which He teaches us, that is to say, to embrace free salvation in Jesus Christ. It is thus that the Law itself, which kills us and damns us in ourselves, justifies us and saves us in Jesus Christ, taken hold of by faith (Rom 3:31).
This is the reason why I have said that the Law and the Gospel are not contrary in that which concerns the essence of the righteousness with which we must be clothed in order to be accepted before God and to participate in eternal life; but they are contrary with regard to the means of having this righteousness. For the Law justly seeks in us this righteousness; it has no regard to what we can do but to what we ought to do (Gal 3:12). Man, indeed, by his own fault alone, has made himself unable to pay; nevertheless, he does not cease to be a debtor even if he is unable to pay. And consequently, the Law does us no wrong in demanding from us that which we owe, although we cannot pay it. But the Gospel, softening this righteous rigour as with the honey of God’s mercy, teaches us to pay by Him who has made Himself our Surety, who has put Himself, I say, in our place and paid our debt, as principal debtor, and to the last farthing (Col. 2:13,14). So that the rigour of the Law which made us tremble in ourselves and struck us down completely, now confirms us and accepts us in Jesus Christ. For, since eternal life is due to those who have obeyed the Law perfectly, and Jesus Christ has fulfilled all righteousness in the name of those who should believe in Him and take hold of Him by faith (1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9), it follows that, even according to the rigour of the Law, salvation cannot fail those who, by faith, have become united and incorporated with Jesus Christ.
For what ends the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the Law
Having carefully understood this distinction of the two parts of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, it is easy to understand how and to what end the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the one and the other in the Church. For there is no doubt that He employs them for the purpose for which they have been established.
We are then all so blind, whilst our corruption reigns in us, that we are ignorant even of our ignorance (John 9:41) and, not ceasing to smother the little light of knowledge which has been left to us so as to render ourselves inexcusable (Rom. 1:20,21; 2:1), we are pleased about that which ought to displease us most. It is necessary, before all things, that God, all good and full of pity, makes us know clearly the cursed pit in which we are. He could do it no better than by informing us, by the declaration of His Law, what we ought necessarily to be. Thus, blackness can never be better known than in being placed beside white (Rom. 3:20; 7:13).
This is why God begins with the preaching of the Law. In it alone we can see what we ought to be; and yet we cannot fulfil 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.
And indeed, the stupidity which has reigned in the world at an times and reigns now more than ever, shows clearly how necessary it is that God begins at this point in order to draw us to Himself: by making us know what great and certain danger those are in who think least of it. The fact is, the Law was not given to justify us (for if this were so, Jesus Christ would have died in vain, as St. Paul says; Gal 2:21; 3:18-21), but, on the contrary, to condemn us, and to show us the hell which is opened wide to swallow us, to annihilate and totally abase our pride, in making the multitude of our sins pass before our eyes and showing us the wrath of God which is revealed from Heaven against us (Rom 1:18; 4:15; Gal 3:10,12). However, for a long time men have been blind and senseless. Not only do they seek their salvation in that which condemns them wholly or in part, that is to say, in their works, instead of running to Jesus Christ by faith, the only remedy against all that they can be justly accused of before God; but, what is more, they do not cease to add law upon law to their conscience, that is to say, condemnation upon condemnation, as if the Law of God did not condemn them enough (Gal 4:9,10; 5:1; Col. 2:8,16-23). It is like a prisoner to whom the prison door would be opened, but who, turning away from a freedom which he does not understand, goes away and voluntarily locks himself in a prison which is even more secure.
There 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; in short, to beget in us the first degree of repentance which is called ‘contrition of heart’; this produces a full and open confession toward the Lord. For he who does not know that he is sick will never come to the physician. ‘Mere are none more unfit to receive the light of salvation than those who think they see clearly by themselves, through lack of understanding how thick is the darkness in which they are born; so great that they must come out of it. On the contrary, they have always made it thicker from then on, and have not ceased to rush on willingly in it (John 9:41).
The other part of the Word of God called “Gospel”: Its authority, why, how and for what end it was written
After the Law comes the Gospel, the use and necessity of which cannot be better understood than by noting the following points:
Firstly, even as there is only one Saviour (Matt 1:21; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5), there is also only one doctrine of salvation which is called Gospel, that is to say, Good News (Rom 1:16). It was fully announced and declared to the world by Jesus Christ (John 15:15) and the Apostles (John 17:8; 2 Cor. 5:19,20), and faithfully recorded by the Evangelists (Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet 1:25) so as to prevent the wiles and craftiness of Satan who, without this, would have more easily put forward to men his dreams under the name of the gospel; however, he has not entirely failed to do so, by the just vengeance of God who has been provoked to anger against the men who, in their accustomed manner, have always preferred darkness to light. And when we say that the Apostles and Evangelists have faithfully recorded all the doctrine of the Gospel, we understand three points:
1. They have truly added nothing of their own as far as the substance of the doctrine is concerned (Col. 1:28; 2 Tim 3:16,17), but they have obeyed with precision and simplicity what the Lord had said to them: “Go, preach all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20); and St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, confesses that he does so (1 Cor. 11:23).
2. They have omitted nothing of that which is necessary to salvation. For, otherwise, they would have been disloyal to their commission which is not possible. And we see also St. Paul (Acts 20:27; Gal 1:9) and St. Peter (1 Pet 1:25) testify how conscientious they have been and how particular in this area (John 15:15; 16:13). That is why St. Jerome, writing on this subject, says, Chatter and babbling must not be believed without the authority of Holy Scripture.” And St. Augustine says even more clearly, “It is true that the Lord Jesus did many things which have not all been written down; for the Evangelist himself testifies that Jesus Christ said and did much that has not been written down. But God has chosen to have written down those things which are sufficient for the salvation of those who believe. (John 20 :30- 31)
3. What they have written, is written in such a way that the most uncultured and most ignorant in the world, if it is only held out to them, can learn there what is necessary for their salvation (1 Cor. 1:26,27). For otherwise, why would the Gospel have been put in written form in a language which everyone was then able to understand (1 Cor. 14:6-40), and even in the most familiar and popular manner of speaking which it had been possible to choose (1 Cor. 2:1). That is why St. Paul said that if the Gospel was hidden, it was hidden to those who were perishing and whose mind the god of this world had blinded, that is to say, the unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:3). And, indeed, the experience of all times has shown that God has not called the most wise and most learned, but, on the contrary, mostly of the most ignorant of the world (Is 29:14; Luke 10:21; 1 Cor. 1:26,27; 3:18); so far from the truth is it, that He wished to hide or cover His doctrine so that it should be understood by no-one.
We draw, then, two conclusions from this discourse which are very useful to what we are discussing:
The first is, that it is not necessary to reckon as Gospel anything which men have added to the Word of God written, that is to say, the doctrine contained in the books of the Old and New Testament; but that all additions are merely superstitions and a corruption of the only true Gospel of our Lord (Matt 15:9); St. Paul, has also spoken of this (Gal 1:8-9; 2 Tim 3:16,17). And St. Jerome wrote on this subject, “What is said without the authority of Holy Scripture is also easily set aside, as has been said.”
The second conclusion is that those who say that it only belongs to certain persons to read Scripture, and who, for this reason, do not want it to be translated into the common language, for fear that simple women and other people may read it (Rom 1:14; Gal 3:28; Matt 11:28), are the true antichrists, and instruments of Satan (Matt 23:13); they are afraid that their abuses be discovered by the coming of the light.
The manner in which the Gospel includes, in substance, the books of the Old Testament
Moreover, by this word Gospel we are far from meaning what is commonly called such, i.e., certain extracts which are disconnected without reason, neither discourses from the books of the four Evangelists or from the Epistles of St. Paul. On the contrary, we understand under this word Gospel, not only all of the New Testament but also all that has been promised or predicted in the Old Testament on the subject of Jesus Christ (Acts 26:22-23; 28:23 John 5:39; Rom 1:2).
For, as we have already said, the Gospel is the only means by which from the beginning of the world, God has always saved His elect (Heb. 13:8; Acts 4:12). That is why, as Moses declares (Gen 3:15), God began to announce it to the world from the sin of Adam, although it was manifested and preached clearly, a long time afterwards, by Jesus Christ Himself in Person, and by His Apostles (Rom 1: 1-6; 16:25, 26).
Thus, to summarize, 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).
How what we say about the authority of the written Word must be understood: Why it is necessary that it be translated into all languages
When we say that the Gospel, written and recorded in the manner which God has given us, is the sole ordinary means which God uses to save men (that is why this Word is called The Word of Life and of reconciliation; John 6:68; Acts 5:20; Phil 2:16); we do not stop at the syllables, nor at the paper and ink, nor at a Gospel hung by the neck, or pronounced only as the charmers pronounce their charms, nor at a well patterned book, or worshipped with incense or other fineries. Let us never displease God by approving such sorceries and sacrileges.
But, in the first place, we close the door to all these fantastic notions which the Devil has made use of, in all times, to corrupt men.
And then, we hear the Gospel well and duly preached and expounded, so as to better understand the substance of it (Rom 10:8; 1 Pet 1:25), to put it in the heart where, by faith, it can produce the fruits of true repentance (Matt 13:23; Acts 16:14). The Apostles show this clearly. When Jesus Christ sent them out, He did not say to them, “Go, read the Gospel in an unknown tongue, and worship the book in which it is written.” but He said to them, “Go and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Matt 28:19). 1 leave aside the remonstrances that St. Paul makes to the Corinthians when he speaks of the abuse that those committed in taking pleasure in hearing foreign languages ring out in the Church of God, without any prophet to explain what was said (1 Cor. 14). But how shall anyone believe without having heard, seeing that faith comes from what is heard, as St. Paul says (Rom 10:17)? And how shall anyone hear it when, far from being duly expounded, it is chanted in an unknown language (1 Cor. 14:9, 16-28)? How also shall anyone be established in the holy and true doctrine, comforted amid so many and various temptations, warned to resist false doctrines (Rom 15:4; 2 Tim 3:16), without meditating night and day in the Word of God (Ps. 1:2), and examining carefully the passages of Holy Scripture (Acts 17:11; John 5:39). Thus has it always been done in the Church, until the Devil, through the just punishment of God, removed this light to bring in his darkness, without anyone perceiving it. St. Peter is a witness for this, when writing to all believers, he commends the diligence with which they should take heed to hear the word of the prophets (2 Pet 1: 19,20). For he knew that the word which the Lord had said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17), must be heard from the preaching of the Word of Life. St. Paul, also, expounded the same thing and practised it (Acts 20:27,28).
However, we do not say that it is permitted to everyone to be a teacher in the Church, and to expound the Holy Scriptures; for this office belongs, as we shall soon say more fully, to those who are called and lawfully ordained to do it (Rom. 10:15). But we say that everyone must read the Scriptures, and have the knowledge of them to confirm what has been expounded well in the Church, and to reject the false doctrine of false pastors. We say that the reading of the Holy Scriptures, — adding what is necessary, i.e. the pure preaching and exposition of them: it is for this that teachers and pastors are ordained in the Church (1 Cor. 4:2; 2 Cor. 5:19,20), and not to re-sacrifice Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:18) or to howl in a language unknown to the people (1 Cor. 14:28) –, is far from committing heresy; on the contrary, there is no other means of extirpating heresies (2 Tim. 3:15-17). And whoever prevents the reading of the Scriptures takes away, at the same time, from the poor people the only means of consolation (Rom. 15:4) and salvation (Luke 1:77; Acts 13:26; Eph. 1:13).
How the Holy Spirit uses the external preaching of the gospel to create faith in the heart of the elect, and to harden the reprobate
In the same way as the external preaching of the Gospel is an odour of death for the rebels who harden themselves, so is it an odour of life for the children of God (2 Cor. 2:15,16). Not that this force and power to save resides in the sound of the word, or that it comes from the energy of him who preaches (1 Cor. 3:7-8). But the Holy Spirit, whose office we are describing, uses this external preaching as a pipe or channel; He comes then to pierce to the depth of the soul, as the apostle says (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet 1:23), so as to give by His grace and goodness alone, understanding to the children of God that they may be able to perceive and comprehend this high mystery of their salvation through Jesus Christ (Acts 16:14; Eph. 1: 18,19). Then, He also corrects their judgement so that they approve, with wisdom from God, what sense and reason used to think was folly (1 Cor. 2:6-16). Moreover he corrects and changes their will so that, with ardent affection, they embrace and receive the sole remedy which is offered in Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:29; Acts 13:48) against the despair into which, without this, the preaching of the Law would necessarily bring them (Eph. 2:1,4,5).
This then is how the Holy Spirit, by the preaching of the Gospel, heals the wound which the preaching of the Law has uncovered and made worse (Rom. 6:14). This, I say, is how the Holy Spirit, by the preaching of the Gospel, creates in us the gift of faith which comes, at the same time, to take hold of an that is necessary for salvation in Jesus Christ; this is what we have shown above.
The other fruit of the preaching of the law, once the preaching of the gospel has effectually done its work
Among the effects that Jesus Christ produces when He dwells in us, we have shown, and this is not the least, that He creates in us a pure heart (Ps. 51:10) to know (Jer. 24:7), to will and to do what is of God (Phil 2:13); previously we were slaves in sin (Rom 6:22), enemies of God (Eph. 2:12), incapable even of thinking anything good (2 Cor. 3:5).
Thus, when our disposition has been changed, the preaching of the Law begins also to change its effect in us, such that instead of terrifying us, it consoles us (1 John 2:17; 2 Pet 1: 10,11); instead of showing us how near our damnation is, it serves us as a guide to teach us the good works (Jer. 31:33; Rom 7:22) in which God has purposed we shall walk (Eph. 2:10); finally, instead of being an unpleasant and unbearable yoke, it becomes pleasant and light to us (Matt 11:30). There remains with us only one regret: that of not being able to obey it perfectly, as we wish to do, on account of the remnant of our corruption which battles against the Spirit (Rom 7:22,23). But all this regret does not drive us to despair, but rather drives us to pray ardently to our Father who strengthens us more and more (Rom 8:23-26). Faith, which is the testimony of the Spirit of God crying in our hearts (Rom 8:15), indeed assures us that the curse of the Law has been blotted out by the blood of Jesus Christ to whom it unites us (Rom 8:1); moreover, the same faith also assures us that the Spirit shall conquer, however long He tarries (Rom 6:14), and even death shall be the means of our victory (John 5:24; 1 Cor. 15:26,54; Heb 2:14). Thus is brought to completion in us, by degrees, the remainder of true repentance, which comes from true conversion; it begins with contrition, or feeling of sin, and progresses by amendment of all that is in the man, visible and invisible (1 Thes. 5:23).
That is also why we conclude that this leads every true penitent to confess his fault before him whom it concerns, that is to say, before those who have been offended, and even before the whole assembly of the Church, if that is necessary. This confession must be accompanied, according to the measure in which this is possible, with restitution and satisfaction towards one’s neighbour, for, without this, repentance can only be feigned and counterfeit. Thus, it is easy to see that we do not reject, but, on the contrary, require as necessary to salvation the true confession which has been ordained of God. Nevertheless, we have no desire to torment consciences by auricular confession (as it is called), which men have invented, in place of true confession and repentance, nor to establish towards God any other satisfaction than the sole satisfaction of Jesus Christ.
The second means which the Holy Spirit uses to enable us to enjoy Jesus Christ, and why the Lord has never been content solely with the preaching of His word.
We have said that the Sacraments are the other means, the other instrument by which the Holy Spirit applies to us all that is necessary for our salvation. But, since by this word is generally understood all the signs by which any sacred and spiritual thing is declared to us, it is necessary, first of an, to limit the meaning of the word.
Therefore, we must understand that our God, who is perfectly merciful, in using our very poor and miserable nature as a means to better manifest His goodness and long suffering, has not been content to simply make known to us and to show us, as it were from a distance, the means by which it has pleased Him to save us. Nevertheless, even in this, He uses incomprehensible gentleness and compassion in informing us of His will through men similar to ourselves (Deut. 18:15; Phil 2:7; 2 Cor. 5:19,20), and, what is more, stammers, so to speak, with us as nurses do with their little children (1 ‘Mess 2:7). But, in addition, to crown His infinite goodness, He has willed to add to the preaching of His Word certain actions which are designed to compel the most uneducated and stubborn in the world to believe more and more that God is not mocking them in offering them eternal life by this most wondrous means — the death of His own Son. Thus, by such signs and actions, all their senses are driven to consent to the doctrine of the Gospel, as if they were already fully enjoying the salvation which is promised to them. In the same way, we see (if it is proper to make a comparison between affairs in the world and the incomprehensible goodness of God) that, when judicially the possession or ownership of something is awarded to us, certain ceremonies and actions will be used in the act of taking possession or in the execution of a warrant, to assure us and to testify to others that such and such belongs to us. Even in our civil affairs, although a lawyer has signed a contract and appended the name of the witnesses, in addition to all this, the seal of the office where the contract was drawn up will be affixed, so as to render the contract more valid and authentic (Rom 4:11).
Thus, from the beginning, our Lord God was not content with announcing to Adam the grace by which He had purposed to save His Church through His Son; He willed to add thereto sacrifices, as living figures of the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to strengthen the faith of the children of God in the redemption which they were awaiting (Heb. 11:4). Then afterwards, renewing this covenant of grace and of mercy to Abraham, He added thereto the Sacrament of circumcision (Gen 17:10,11). Finally, at the time of Moses, He added thereto the Sacrament of the Passover Lamb and many other ceremonies (Ex. 12); these were Sacraments representing to them what Jesus Christ would accomplish in His time, that is to say, all the mystery of their salvation: the Apostle declares this amply in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
But when the time appointed by God arrived, Jesus Christ, by His coming, put an end to all that which had prefigured His coming. He put an end to the shadows and Old Testament Sacraments and brought to the world another greater clarity so that, henceforth, men might worship God with more pure and spiritual service, as approaching more. closely the nature of God who is Spirit (John 4:21-25). However, having still regard to our frail and dull nature, He thought well to add some Sacraments and external signs to the preaching of this eternal Word, to better nourish and support our faith. For, although Jesus Christ has already acquitted us by His death, yet, while we are below, we possess the Heavenly Kingdom only by hope (Rom 8:24; 1 Cor. 13:9); it is needful that we be supported to grow in this and persevere to the end (Eph. 4:15).
Law & Gospel:
Preaching Christ Through a Rightly Divided Word
- by Shane Rosenthal
- © 1998 Reformation Ink
Shane Rosenthal, M.A., Historical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary in CA, is a freelance audio/video editor and producer. He is currently one of the creative producers for the national radio program The White Horse Inn, and webmaster for Reformation Ink. Shane, along with his wife and three children reside in southern California.
As we begin to enter the 21st century I am concerned for the state of American Christianity. Contemporary churches are in my opinion becoming conformed more by the pattern of the world, than by the power of the Word. In the Reformation of the 16th century, the church was defined as an institution in which the Word was rightly preached and the sacraments were rightly administered. Today however, not only is this definition missing, but the office of preaching and the practice of the sacraments have fallen on hard times. Sacraments are practiced so infrequently that they are no longer part of the regular life of the church, and preaching in some cases has become a means to entertain the “audience,” or it has become a political rally, a therapy session, a discourse on Christian or family values, or speculation about the end of the world–all to the neglect of proclaiming the saving message of Christ’s propitiatory death for sinners. In order to make the case that the church is no longer acting in accordance with the historic Protestant definition of what a church should be, this paper will focus on the singular issue of the failure of contemporary preaching, particularly in its neglect of Christ, and of rightly distinguishing law from gospel.
In a letter to Cardinal Sadeleto John Calvin complained that the office of preaching had fallen on hard times. In fact, Calvin writes:
Nay, what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more whimsies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month? For, as sermons were then usually divided, the first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.1
Calvin concludes this section by arguing that the Reformers raised the standard of preaching throughout Europe when they appeared on the scene. What is interesting to me about this quote is how contemporary it sounds. Our day, it seems, is plagued with this pre-Reformation scenario in regards to the content and quality of preaching as well. In many cases one leaves a church service having heard more stories about the life of the pastor than about the life and death of Christ. The chief element that is missing in both Calvin’s day before the Reformation and our day is the sound proclamation of the Word of God with Christ at the center of it all.
In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees that “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (5:39-40). The point that Jesus seems to be making is that he himself is the major subject of the Scriptures. The Pharisees were reading the Bible as an end in itself, but Jesus clearly rebuked them for this, showing them that this way of reading the Bible actually kept them from coming to the truth. Jesus makes a similar point to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27). The disciples were not reading the Scriptures in a Pharisaic or legalistic way; nevertheless, they had neglected to find the message of the messianic deliverer at the heart of it all. But when Jesus preached this sermon about himself the disciples asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). This should be the response of today’s disciples as God’s servants open up the Scriptures each Lord’s Day. But it should be the response of the heart after it has heard wonderful things from the Word concerning the work of Christ on our behalf.
Rightly Dividing the Word
In his second epistle to Timothy, The apostle Paul writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2:15). What the NIV translates here as “correctly handles” was previously in the old King James translated as “rightly dividing.” The greek word underlying each of these translations is ojrqotomouvnta, a present active participle of orqotomew which according to Baur, Arndt and Gingrich is “found elsewhere independently of the NT only in Prov. 3:6; 11:5…and plainly means to “cut a path in a straight direction” or “cut a road across country (that is forested or otherwise difficult to pass through) in a straight direction” so that the traveler may go directly to his destination.2 If this is correct, then the biblical material is the “forest” which the preacher must trek through in advance of the people. He must make the way straight and clear, and he must cut a path that leads to the “promised land” of the faithful, rather than to Egypt or Assyria.
If the promised land, or goal, of Christian preaching is Christ, I believe the means to that end is the hermeneutic of law and gospel. This was the way of reading the Scriptures recovered at the Reformation that sought to correct a number of problems in the way the medieval church communicated salvation. One of the problems the Reformers responded to was that the Roman church had made the gospel too difficult. It was no longer a sweet promise, but it had become a kind of new law. Another problem was that the preaching of the law had become too easy, and was not presented as a sharp, strict and unrelenting barrier to fellowship with God. With the first error, the Reformers feared that Rome was making true Christians despair of their salvation, and with the second error, they feared that Rome was creating Pharisees.
Martin Luther, one of the first to make this distinction at the time of the Reformation, wrote in 1532:
This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines.3
So important was this distinction for Luther, that it separated Christianity from heathenism, and notice that he did not attempt to take credit for coming up with this hermeneutic on his own. He argues that this differentiation is found in the Scriptures themselves. After all, it was not Luther but Paul who wrote, ” But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith” (Rom. 3:21-22). Luther’s point was that if one does not get this understanding down, and thinks that righteousness can somehow be obtained “by” the law, then he is not a Christian. The Christian rests his faith on Christ who fulfilled all righteousness for us, even to the obedience of death on the cross. This righteousness as Paul says, “without the law” is given to us through faith (and if it is through faith apart from the works of the law, then Luther is correct in asserting that it is through faith “alone”).
Luther was not the only Reformer to emphasize this point. Although the law/gospel distinction has survived strongest in the Lutheran theological tradition, a number of Reformed theologians have argued its importance as well. In his Institutes, John Calvin writes:
By the term Law, Paul frequently understands that rule of holy living in which God exacts what is his due, giving no hope of life unless we obey in every respect; and, on the other hand, denouncing a curse for the slightest failure. This Paul does when showing that we are freely accepted of God, and accounted righteous by being pardoned, because that obedience of the Law to which the reward is promised is nowhere to be found. Hence he appropriately represents the righteousness of the Law and the Gospel as opposed to each other. But the Gospel has not succeeded the whole Law in such a sense as to introduce a different method of salvation. It rather confirms the Law, and proves that every thing which it promised is fulfilled. What was shadow, it has made substance…4
Calvin goes so far as to say that the law and the gospel are opposed to one another, but only to a certain extent. The gospel is not a new and unrelated form of salvation, but rather, is the substance of what was previously hinted at in the shadows. The law was strict and severe, but it did point the children of the Abrahamic covenant to the mercy of God. As hymn writer John Newton eloquently put it, “As we ponder grace and justice, let us point to mercy’s store. When through grace in Christ our trust is, justice smiles and asks no more.”5 This “store” of mercy, as Newton calls it, was continually being pointed to throughout the Old Testament period, and stepped out onto front-stage with the coming of Christ. Calvin also points out that the “law gives us no hope unless we obey it in every respect.” Implied in this is the idea that we could possibly put our hope in the law if all was well with us spiritually, but since the fall, no one but Christ has the ability to natively please God. This is why Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Thus, we are in one respect saved by law-keeping, just not our own.
Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza also was also strongly concerned about this issue. In fact, in 1558 Beza wrote , “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.”6 I think Beza makes a good point here. Christianity has alway suffered from abuse and corruption, but a mistake here at the heart of how we read the Bible is of special concern. He went on to say that the entire corpus of the Scriptures could be gathered into either the heading of Law or Gospel.7
There are a number of other great quotes from Reformed theologians on this subject, but in view of the space limitation, I’ll conclude this section with the noteworthy words of an early English reformer named John Bradford, who was martyred in 1555:
He that is ignorant of [the division of the places of the Law and of the Gospel] cannot, though he were a great doctor of divinity, and could rehearse every text of the bible without book, but both be deceived, and deceive others; as the experience hereof (the more pity) hath taught, nay, seduced the whole world….Therefore, I say, take to thee the glass of God’s law; look therein, and thou shalt see thy just damnation, and God’s wrath for sin, which, if thou dreadest, will drive thee not only to an amendment, but also to a sorrow and hatred of thy wickedness, and even to the brim of despair, out of which nothing can bring thee but the glad tidings of Christ, that is, the gospel: for as God’s word doth bind thee, so can nothing but God’s word unbind thee; and until thou comest to this point, thou knowest nothing of Christ.8
In all of these selections from the Reformers, the recurring theme is that the distinction of Law and Gospel is extremely crucial to the life and health of the church, as well as of the individual believer. Without it the church can be corrupted, deceived, abused, and can even cease to be a church. Bradford even makes a more astonishing claim about the importance of Law and Gospel when he says that without it, “thou knowest nothing of Christ.” This is why it is so important in my mind for preachers to have a good understanding of law and gospel. Even if they do desire to preach Christ, often the message will be confused because Christ is presented as a “new law-giver” rather than as our redeemer and friend.
Problems Associated with Confusing Law & Gospel
In Matthew chapter 19, there is the story of the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus and asks “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (19:16). Jesus answers by saying, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” (19:17). This is not the answer we would expect, but we must view Jesus here as preaching a strict view of the law. So when the young man replied, “All these I have kept” (19:20), Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (19:21). Here Jesus is challenging the young man’s claim that he had actually kept the law. If he really loved his neighbor as himself, he wouldn’t have a problem giving his wealth away to the poor. But when he heard these words “he went away sad” (19:22). I have heard a number of sermons that totally misunderstood the basic message of this passage. Some have tried to argue that if the young ruler would have only “surrendered” to Jesus then he would have had a “treasure in heaven.” But this is not the point here at all. Jesus is not trying to get him to “do” something, rather, he is confronting him with the fact that he “can’t do” something. In other words, Jesus is not preaching the gospel here, he is preaching the law. This assertion can be evidenced by looking at the disciples response to Jesus following words, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (19:23-24). When they heard this they asked, “Who then can be saved?” (19:25). In other words, they realized that it was not just a failure to “surrender.” When they heard Jesus’ words and began to despair, not just for the rich man, but also for everyone’s salvation. And Jesus’ answer to the question was not very encouraging: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (19:26). Men cannot save themselves, either by works of the law, or by tears, or by surrender or anything that they do, but salvation is possible with God (as will be proclaimed with the gospel message).
When a preacher confuses this passage by preaching “full surrender” to Jesus, he creates despair in the hearts of many of his parishioners (who say to themselves, “Who then can be saved?”). Scottish theologian Ralph Erskine had some wrote some very interesting lines critiquing this kind of thing in his Poem, “Against A Legal Spirit”:
Christ is not preach’d in truth, but in disguise,
If his bright glory half absconded lies.
When gospel-soldiers, that divide the word,
Scarce brandish any but the legal sword.
Shaping the gospel to an easy law,
They build their tott’ring house with hay and straw;
With legal spade the gospel-field he delves,
Who thus drives sinners in unto themselves;
Halving the truth that should be all reveal’d,
The sweetest part of Christ is oft conceal’d.9
Erskine’s point is that sinners should not be driven in and unto themselves, but to Christ. To be sure, the law must have its place, but Christ must have his place too, and completely, or else you will not be making Christians of your hearers.
I once heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus’ words, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20) were taken to mean that we had to live our lives (as Christians) in a more righteous manner than the Pharisees if we wanted to get to heaven. What is interesting is that the minister was a very grace-conscious conservative Reformed Presbyterian. For this pastor, it was all a matter of grace that we would be able to live this type of life, nevertheless, I feared for the majority of the people in the congregation who thought to themselves, “Do I have any hope of getting to heaven now at all?” Their focus, in my view, was removed from Christ and back to their works as the basis of hope. Again, Erskine is helpful here:
For sins of nature, practice, heart, and way,
Damnation-rent it summons thee to pay.
Yea, not for sin alone, which is thy shame,
But for thy boasted service too, so lame,
The law adjudges thee and hell to meet,
Because thy righteousness is incomplete.
As tow’ring flames burn up the wither’d flags,
So will the fiery law thy filthy rags.
Full help is laid upon thy mighty One.
In him, in him complete salvation dwells;
He’s God the helper, and there is none else.
Fig-leaves won’t hide thee from the fiery show’r,
‘Tis he alone that saves by price and pow’r.10
Erskine’s point was that it is not only our sins that cause us problems, but our righteousness as well, for as Isaiah says, “our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). These “fig leaves” of our own making can never make us acceptable with God. This is why it is a very serious mistake to require any level of righteousness in order to gain access to heaven. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount was not to show “how” we save ourselves, rather, he was pushing us to despair of our own attempts to save ourselves. Yes, our righteousness does have to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, because their righteousness were filthy rags as well (even though they put the most effort into being holy). We need the perfect righteousness of another in order to be acceptable to God. Thus, in hearing a strict and unrelenting message of law, we have been forced once again to flee to the gospel for comfort.
Law & Gospel in Les Miserables
I would like to conclude this article with a terrific illustration of this issue from the world of the theatre. In the 1985 musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, there is a powerful example of the gospel as set against the backdrop of an unforgiving law. Jean Valjean is a man recently released from prison who finds that he cannot get a decent job due to his criminal record. A generous bishop grants him a meal and a warm bed but Valjean abuses the bishop’s kindness and steals his silverware in the middle of the night. When he is captured and returned, the bishop asks him why he left without taking the candlesticks also and dismisses the charges. Free from the threat of another prison sentence and feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, Valjean sings the following verses:
Take an eye for an eye, turn your heart into stone.
This is all I have lived for, this is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back,
Beneath the lash, upon the rack.
Instead he offers me my freedom.
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching but I fall and the night is closing in
As I stare into the void–to the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world–from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now, a new story must begin.11
Valjean knew the law, but he was totally unfamiliar with the sort of kindness shown to him by the bishop. This is the way it is with us and God. The law is with us by nature but the gospel message is totally foreign to us This is why the gospel must be preached to us from the outside, because it is a message that is completely contrary to the world as we know it. Valjean describes this as the world of “an eye for an eye,” and admits that “this is all [he has] known.” So when the bishop preaches to him the good news of mercy and pardon, he is cut to the quick and confesses his sin. But Valjean quickly moves (or should we say, “is moved”) from confession to sincere repentance by determining to live a new life.
It is interesting how the rest of the story contrasts Valjean’s life of gratitude and service to God with that of the police officer Javert’s strict adherence to the law in hunting down Valjean for breaking his parole. His pursuit is not unlike Paul’s Pharisaic zeal in persecuting the church; in trying to exact a legalistic righteousness, he wound up in opposition to God’s redemptive plan. In the same way, Javert expresses this type of view when he sings, “Honest work, just reward, that’s the way to please the Lord.” But this tune of the heart makes him the life-long antagonist of the converted Valjean. It was Paul the apostle, however, who summed it all up well when he wrote:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish (sku/bala), that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil. 3:5-10).
Paul certainly knew what it was like to pursue the law with the utmost zeal. But in his pursuit of the law, he neglected that which the law pointed to all along, i.e., the mercy of God in Christ. Therefore preachers have an important responsibility to clearly present the law of God in its full terror. Without this message the gospel will make little sense (a good example is how a number of churches avoid preaching the law but present Christ as the solution to loneliness). The most important task, however, is to see that the gospel of Christ is presented in all its sweetness and comfort as a solution to the divine curse of the law.
If a minister is preaching pop-psychology, political propaganda, ten steps to a successful marriage, end-time speculations, or family values, all to the neglect of Christ, then that particular church has a significant problem. Christ is the heart of the Scriptures, and he is the heart of Christianity. The sermons throughout the book of Acts bear this out. But as bad as this is, I fear more for the congregants of a church where Christ is the major subject of the sermons but is presented as a new Moses rather than as the comforting deliverer of Zion. In the first context, I view the church more as a gathering at the local Elk’s Lodge. I’ve been to churches like this and in my opinion they are not really churches at all but simply public meetings with religious language. The churches, on the other hand, whose pastors regularly confuse the law with the gospel, represent a much more significant problem. Sincere believers, struggling to understand Christ and the message of salvation, are often, in such places, given stones rather than bread. They are pushed back “in and to themselves” again and again. My prayer is that God would send us laborers for his Kingdom who would come to the place of harvesting with the proper tools.
Those suitors therefore of the bride, who hope
By force to drag her with the legal rope,
Nor use the drawing cord of conqu’ring grace,
Pursue with flaming zeal a fruitless chase;
In vain lame doings urge, with solemn awe,
To bribe the fury of the fiery law:
They shew not Jesus as the way to bliss,
But Judas-like betray him with a kiss
Of boasted works, or mere profession puft,
Law-boasters proving but law-breakers oft.12
1. John Calvin, Selected Works Vol. 1, “Reply by Calvin to Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter,” (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1983), p. 40.
2. Walter Baur, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 584
3. Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), p. 732.
4. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. by Henry Beveridge, (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845; orig. 1536), 2.9.4.
5. John Newton, Works of Newton Vol. 2, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1835), p.367.
6. Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. by James Clark (East Sussex, U.K.: Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992; orig. 1558), p. 40-41 (sect. 4.22).
8. John Bradford, The Writings of John Bradford, “Preface to: The Places of The Law and of the Gospel by Petrus Artopeus” (Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1848; orig. 1548), p. 5.
9. Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine, “Against a Legal Spirit.” (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, p. 84.
9. Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine, “Arguments and Encouragements to Gospel-ministers to avoid a legal strain of doctrine, and endeavor the sinner’s match with Christ by gospel means.” (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, pp. 87-88.
11. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, Les Miserables in Concert at The Royal Albert Hall, (London: First Night Records, 1996; orig. 1985).
12. Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine, (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, p. 93.