Penalty of Sin Paid and Life Merited – Machen

j_gresham_machen

‘Well, then, sinner,’ says the law of God, ‘have you paid the penalty which I pronounced upon disobedience?’

‘No,’ says the sinner, ‘I have not paid the penalty myself; but Christ has paid it for me. He was my representative when He died there on the cross. Hence, so far as the penalty is concerned, I am clear.’

‘Well, then, sinner,’ says the law of God, ‘how about the conditions which God has pronounced for the attainment of assured blessedness? Have you stood the test? Have you merited eternal life by perfect obedience during the period of probation?’

‘No,’ says the sinner, ‘I have not merited eternal life by my own perfect obedience. God knows and my own conscience knows that even after I became a Christian I have sinned in thought, word and deed. But although I have not merited eternal life by any obedience of my own, Christ has merited it for me by His perfect obedience. He was not for Himself subject to the law. No obedience was required of Him for Himself, since He was Lord of all. That obedience, then, which He rendered to the law when He was on earth was rendered by Him as my representative. I have no righteousness of my own, but clad in Christ’s perfect righteousness, imputed to me and received by faith alone, I can glory in the fact that so far as I am concerned the probation has been kept and as God is true there awaits me the glorious reward which Christ thus earned for me.’

Such, put in bald, simple form, is the dialogue between every Christian and the law of God. How gloriously complete is the salvation wrought for us by Christ! Christ paid the penalty, and He merited the reward. Those are the two great things that He has done for us.

The Doctrine of the Atonement, J. Gresham Machen

The Law and The Gospel in The Word of God – Louis Berkhof

Berkhof_ST_coverC. THE TWO PARTS OF THE WORD OF GOD CONSIDERED AS A MEANS OF GRACE.

1. THE LAW AND THE GOSPEL IN THE WORD OF GOD. The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies to both Testaments. There is law and gospel in the Old Testament, and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or in the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus. And each one of these two parts has its own proper function in the economy of grace. The law seeks to awaken in the heart of man contrition on account of sin, while the gospel aims at the awakening of saving faith in Jesus Christ. The work of the law is in a sense preparatory to that of the gospel. It deepens the consciousness of sin and thus makes the sinner aware of the need of redemption. Both are subservient to the same end, and both are indispensable parts of the means of grace. This truth has not always been sufficiently recognized. The condemning aspect of the law has sometimes been stressed at the expense of its character as a part of the means of grace. Ever since the days of Marcion there have always been some who saw only contrast between the law and the gospel and proceeded on the assumption that the one excluded the other. They based their opinion in part on the rebuke which Paul administered to Peter (Gal. 2:11-14), and partly on the fact that Paul occasionally draws a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel and evidently regards them as contrasts, II Cor. 3:6-11; Gal. 3:2,3,10-14; cf. also John 1:17.  They lost sight of the fact that Paul also says that the law served as a tutor to lead men to Christ, Gal. 3:24, and that the Epistle to the Hebrews represents the law, not as standing in antithetical relation to the gospel, but rather as the gospel in its preliminary and imperfect state.

Some of the older Reformed theologians represented the law and the gospel as absolute opposites. They thought of the law as embodying all the demands and commandments of Scripture, and of the gospel, as containing no demands whatsoever, but only unconditional promises; and thus excluded from it all requirements. This was partly due to the way in which the two are sometimes contrasted in Scripture, but was also partly the result of a controversy in which they were engaged with the Arminians.  The Arminian view, making salvation dependent on faith and evangelical obedience as works of man, caused them to go to the extreme of saying that the covenant of grace does not require anything on the part of man, does not prescribe any duties, does not demand or command anything, not even faith, trust, and hope in the Lord, and so on,  but merely conveys to man the promises of what God will do for him. Others, however, correctly maintained that even the law of Moses is not devoid of promises, and that the gospel also contains certain demands. They clearly saw that man is not merely passive, when he is introduced into the covenant of grace, but is called upon to accept the covenant actively with all its privileges, though it is God who works in him the ability to meet the requirements. The promises which man appropriates certainly impose upon him certain duties, and among them the duty to obey the law of God as a rule of life, but also carry with them the assurance that God will work in him “both to will and to do.” The consistent Dispensationalists of our day again represent the law and the gospel as absolute opposites. Israel was under the law in the previous dispensation, but the Church of the present dispensation is under the gospel, and as such is free from the law.  This means that the gospel is now the only means of salvation, and that the law does not now serve as such. Members of the Church need not concern themselves about its demands, since Christ has met all its requirements. They seem to forget that, while Christ bore the curse of the law, and met its demands as a condition of the covenant of works, He did not fulfil the law for them as a rule of life, to which man is subject in virtue of his creation, apart from any covenant arrangement.

2. NECESSARY DISTINCTIONS RESPECTING THE LAW AND THE GOSPEL.
a. As was already said in the preceding, the distinction between the law and the gospel is not the same as that between the Old and the New Testament. Neither is it the same as that which present day Dispensationalists make between the dispensation of the law and the dispensation of the gospel. It is contrary to the plain facts of Scripture to say that there is no gospel in the Old Testament, or at least not in that part of the Old Testament that covers the dispensation of the law. There is gospel in the maternal promise, gospel in the ceremonial law, and gospel in many of the Prophets, as Isa. 53 and 54; 55:1-3,6.7; Jer. 31:33,34; Ezek. 36:25-28. In fact, there is a gospel current running through the whole of the Old Testament, which reaches its highest point in the Messianic prophecies. And it is equally contrary to Scripture to say that there is no law in the New Testament, or that the law does not apply in the New Testament dispensation. Jesus taught the permanent validity of the law, Matt. 5:17-19. Paul says that God provided for it that the requirements of the law should be fulfilled in our lives, Rom. 8:4, and holds his readers responsible for keeping the law, Rom. 13:9. James assures his readers that he who transgresses a single commandment of the law (and he mentions some of these), is a transgressor of the law, Jas. 2:8-11. And John defines sin as “lawlessness,” and says that this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments, I John 3:4; 5:3.

b. It is possible to say that in some respects the Christian is free from the law of God.  The Bible does not always speak of the law in the same sense. Sometimes it contemplates this as the immutable expression of the nature and will of God, which applies at all times and under all conditions. But it also refers to it as it functions in the covenant of works, in which the gift of eternal life was conditioned on its fulfilment.  Man failed to meet the condition, thereby also losing the ability to meet it, and is now by nature under a sentence of condemnation. When Paul draws a contrast between the law and the gospel, he is thinking of this aspect of the law, the broken law of the covenant of works, which can no more justify, but can only condemn the sinner. From the law in this particular sense, both as a means for obtaining eternal life and as a condemning power, believers are set free in Christ, since He became a curse for them and also met the demands of the covenant of works in their behalf. The law in that particular sense and the gospel of free grace are mutually exclusive.

c. There is another sense, however, in which the Christian is not free from the law.
The situation is quite different when we think of the law as the expression of man’s natural obligations to his God, the law as it is applied to man even apart from the covenant of works. It is impossible to imagine any condition in which man might be able to claim freedom from the law in that sense. It is pure Antinomianism to maintain that Christ kept the law as a rule of life for His people, so that they need not worry about this any more. The law lays claim, and justly so, on the entire life of man in all its aspects, including his relation to the gospel of Jesus Christ. When God offers man the gospel, the law demands that the latter shall accept this. Some would speak of this as the law in the gospel, but this is hardly correct. The gospel itself consists of promises and is no law; yet there is a demand of the law in connection with the gospel. The law not only demands that we accept the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ, but also that we lead a life of gratitude in harmony with its requirements.

Source: Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof

We Have No Righteousness of Our Own – Calvin on Luke 10:26

John_Calvin_by_HolbeinCommenting on Luke 10:26, Calvin wrote the following:

Luke 10:26 What is written in the law? He receives from Christ a reply different from what he had expected. And, indeed, no other rule of a holy and righteous life was prescribed by Christ than what had been laid down by the Law of Moses; for the perfect love of God and of our neighbors comprehends the utmost perfection of righteousness. Yet it must be observed, that Christ speaks here about obtaining salvation, in agreement with the question which had been put to him; for he does not teach absolutely, as in other passages, how men may arrive at eternal life, but how they ought to live, in order to be accounted righteous in the sight of God. Now it is certain that in the Law there is prescribed to men a rule by which they ought to regulate their life, so as to obtain salvation in the sight of God. That the Law can do nothing else than condemn, and is therefore called the doctrine of death, and is said by Paul to increase transgressions, (Romans 7:13,) arises not from any fault of its doctrine, but because it is impossible for us to perform what it enjoins. Therefore, though no man is justified by the Law yet the Law itself contains the highest righteousness, because it does not falsely hold out salvation to its followers, if any one fully observed all that it commands.72    “S’il s’en trouvoit quelqu’un qui observast entierement ce qu’elle commande;” — “if any one were found who observed entirely what it commands.”  Nor ought we to look upon this as a strange manner of teaching, that God first demands the righteousness of works, and next offers a gratuitous righteousness without works; for it is necessary that men should be convinced of their righteous condemnation, that they may betake themselves to the mercy of God. Accordingly, Paul (Romans 10:5, 6) compares both kinds of righteousness, in order to inform us that the reason why we are freely justified by God is, that we have no righteousness of our own. Now Christ in this reply accommodated himself to the lawyer, and attended to the nature of his question;   for he had inquired not how salvation must be sought, but by what works it must be obtained.

See Luke 10:25-37 in the ESV

See Calvin

Do This, and Thou Shalt Live – Calvin on Luke 10:28

john-calvinCommenting on Luke 10:28: And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” John Calvin wrote the following:

Luke 10:28. Do this, and thou shalt live. I have explained a little before, how this promise agrees with freely bestowed justification by faith; for the reason why God justifies us freely is, not that the Law does not point out perfect righteousness, but because we fail in keeping it, and the reason why it is declared to be impossible for us to obtain life by it is, that it is weak through our flesh, (Romans 8:3.)  So then these two statements are perfectly consistent with each other, that the Law teaches how men may obtain righteousness by works, and yet that no man is justified by works, because the fault lies not in the doctrine of the Law, but in men. It was the intention of Christ, in the meantime, to vindicate himself from the calumny which, he knew, was brought against him by the unlearned and ignorant, that he set aside the Law, so far as it is a perpetual rule of righteousness.

See Luke 10:25-37 in the ESV

See Calvin

Full Obedience, Straight Up

Full_ObedienceI recently visited a mega church for a speech conference and was amazed at some of the mantras on signs. “Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ & Live in Full Obedience to Him.” Yep, that’s right – “Full Obedience.” Just “Do it.” We left a mega church nearly 10 years ago because law and gospel were not clearly distinguished. Messages were simply so ‘law heavy’ and loaded with imperatives that church simply became oppressive. It was essentially ‘try harder’. Sadly, moving into Reformed circles it seems that many are not aware in ‘our’ churches that they also give GoLawspel (a mixing of law and gospel) to their people. The law demands perfect obedience and only Jesus Christ was the One who fully obeyed. Jesus performed obedience in our place and rescues us because of his obedient life, death, and resurrection. Now, because he has gone before us and obeyed on our behalf, we do bear the fruit of a redeemed life, but imperfectly so.

For those of you crushed by the mixing of law and gospel and oppressiveness of sermons loaded with “DO” and rarely “DONE” (what Christ has accomplished for you to rescue and comfort you) the following articles on law and gospel are a good place to begin thinking through these issues.

Then search for a church where the pastor will give you Christ in Word and Sacrament to comfort and nourish you along the way.

Theodore Beza on Law and Gospel

Theodore_Beza4.22 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 divided 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 fulfill 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).

4.23 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.

“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.”

For, in the first place, as we alluded to before (Section 4.22-J.F.), 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.

“…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).”

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, [Section 4.3-J.F.]); 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).

“…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…”

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 (Coloss 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.

“…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…”

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.

4.24 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 as 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 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.

And indeed, the stupidity which has reigned in the world at all times and reigns now more than ever, shows clearly how necessary it is that God begin 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 never given to justify as (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 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).

“The fact is, the Law was never given to justify…”

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; Coloss 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 as 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. There 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).

4.25 The other part of the Word of Cod 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; 2Cor 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 (Coloss l: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 (lPet 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.

Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith*

*From the cover: “This book was primarily written for Beza’s own father, to whom he earnestly desired to present the Gospel in its Scriptural simplicity, praying that the Holy Spirit would seal His Truth upon his dying heart.”

HT: Gospel-Driven blog

Distinguishing Law and Gospel Always Under Attack

The paradigm of distinguishing Law and Gospel is under attack.  The overarching fear seems to be that antinomianism will prevail in the church and practical holiness will not be pursued.  In this brief 3 minute video, Michael Horton, author and professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, defines the Gospel in a narrow sense.  Some accuse this definition of the ‘Gospel’ of being out of accord with the Reformation understanding of the gospel.  It’s claimed he presents a ‘truncated gospel’ and some have called this some form of ‘Modern Day Reformed Thought’.

Here are some quotes from The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, (Escondido, California: den Dulk Foundation, 1990) Vol. 1 on the Gospel in the Narrow Sense https://covenantnurture.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/the-gospel-in-the-narrow-sense-herman-witsius/ These quotes provide evidence that Dr. Horton is completely in accord with the Reformation in his definition of the gospel.  Witsius elsewhere speaks of the 3rd use of the law throughout the Economy of the Covenants.  Michael Horton does the same in his writings and on his program the White Horse Inn.  The difference is Horton is attacked today by those that profess faith in Christ, even from within the Reformed churches.

What do God’s two words of Law and Gospel actually accomplish?  Michael Horton has some very helpful thoughts from his systematic theology, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, p. 755-56.

It is important to recognize while God’s Word is living and active, its  “two words” of law and gospel do different things.  The law kills by revealing our guilt, while the Spirit makes alive by the gospel (2 Co 3:6-18).  By speaking law, God silences and convicts us; by speaking the gospel, God justifies and renews us.  God’s energies, mediated by human language, not only inform us of judgment and grace but judge and save.
                Specifically, the gospel is that part of God’s word that gives life.  While everything that God says is true, useful, and full of impact, not everything that God says is saving.  First Peter 1:23-24 adds, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”  Furthermore, it is not the word in general but the gospel in particular that is credited with this vivifying effect: “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (v. 25).  Similarly, Paul says that “faith comes from hearing… the word of Christ,” and more specifically, “the gospel of peace,” (Ro 10:15, 17).  Salvation is not something that one has to actively pursue, attain, and ascend to grasp, as if it were far away, but is as near as  “the word of faith that we proclaim” (v. 8).  We do not have to bring Christ up from the dead or ascend into heaven to bring him down, since he addresses us directly in his word (vv. 6-9).  The gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Ro 1:16).
                Calvin observes that some parts of God’s Word engender fear and judgment.11 “For although faith believes every word of God, it rests solely on the word of grace or mercy, the promise of God’s fatherly goodwill,” which is realized only in and through Christ.12 “For in God faith seeks life,” says Calvin, “a life that is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and only in a freely given promise.”13 The only safe route, therefore, is to receive the Father through the incarnate Son.  Christ is the saving content of Scripture, the substance of its canonical unity.14 “This, then, is the true knowledge of Christ, if we receive him as he is offered by the Father: namely, clothed with his gospel.  For just as he has been appointed as the goal of our faith, so we cannot take the right road unless the gospel goes before us.”15

11. Calvin, Institutes 3.2.7; 3.2.29.
12. Ibid., 3.2.28-30.
13. Ibid., 3.2.29.
14. Ibid., 1.13.7.
15. Ibid., 3.2.6.

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, p. 755-56 by Michael Horton

Heidelberg is helpful here too.  We get faith from hearing the Gospel preached.

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by 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.

65. Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.

More resources for learning how to distinguish Law and Gospel are available here:

Ursinus on Law and Gospel in Conversion

Primary author of the Heidelberg CatechismThe means or instrumental causes of conversion are the law – the gospel, and again, the doctrine of the law after that of the gospel. For the preaching of the law goes before, preparing and leading us to a knowledge of the gospel: “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20.) Hence, there can be no sorrow for sin without the law. After the sinner has once been led to a knowledge of sin, then the preaching of the gospel follows, encouraging contrite hearts by the assurance of the mercy of God through Christ. Without this preaching there is no faith, and without faith there is no love to God, and hence no conversion to him. After the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of the law again follows, that it may be the rule of our thankfulness and of our life. The law, therefore, precedes, and follows conversion. It precedes that it may lead to a know ledge and sorrow for sin: it follows that it may serve as a rule of life to the converted. It is for this reason that the prophets first charge sin upon the ungodly, threaten punishment, and exhort to repentance; then comfort and promise pardon and forgiveness; and lastly, again exhort and prescribe the duties of piety and godliness. Such was, also, the character of the preaching of John the Baptist. It is in this way, that the preaching of repentance comprehends the law and the gospel, although in effecting conversion each has a part to perform peculiar to itself.  p. 472

Ursinus, Zacharias Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, n.d.)

For more, see http://www.seeking4truth.com/ursinus/zuquestion90.htm

Selections from The Pearl of Christian Comfort by Petrus Dathenus

Pearl of Christian Comfort by Petrus DathenusThe Pearl of Christian Comfort is a dialogue between Petrus Dathenus and Lady Elizabeth de Grave.  It is based upon letters Dathenus wrote to Elizabeth in 1584 that were later collected and published in 1624.  Dathenus is more mature in the Christian faith and in this dialogue graciously explains to Elizabeth how to rightly distinguish between law and gospel and to find comfort in the work of Christ.  Those familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will find many echoes of it throughout this wonderful little book.  My goal is to highlight some quotes from this gem.

To set the context, Elizabeth confesses faith in Christ but finds herself with heaviness of heart due to her failures. “First of all, I feel that I am one of those who knows Gods will but does not do it (Luke 12:47). Therefore I can only expect to be afflicted with many stripes. After all, the Bible says plainly that all those who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law; for not those who hear the law but those who do the law will be justified (Rom. 2:12-13).” p. 5 (See a related post on Romans 2:13 and the Covenant of Works).

Dathenus on Law:

The law is a declaration of the unchangeable will of God. By the threat of eternal damnation it binds everyone to complete and perpetual obedience, to fulfill all that God has commanded in His commandments (Deut. 5:6; 27:26). Wherever either the Old or New Testament teaches that this perfect obedience is required of us, there the law is emphasized and taught (James 2:10; Gal. 3:12). p. 8

All precepts that admonish us and exhort us to perform all that we owe to God and to our neighbor are law. For example, the entire fifth chapter of Matthew, where Jesus says to us, “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause;…whosoever shall say, Thou fool” (Mat. 5:22); “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust” (Mat. 5:28); and all similar statements they are all the law, which demands of us that which we are not able to keep and requires what we are not able to perform. Just to cite another example, where Jesus says, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Mat. 19:17). There He speaks of and prods us with the law; also wherever He requires something similar of us. So also for various reasons Paul, Peter, John, and other apostles have done, in their writings and exhortations. p. 8

While it may seem unfair that the law commands perfect obedience, Dathenus in his counsel wisely directs Elizabeth to consider Adam, being created upright in the Garden.  He writes, “The law had its beginning when God created Adam in His image and implanted His law in Adams heart. The law of God was there then, as the image of God in which Adam was created, made as Paul says, in true righteousness and holiness.”  Elizabeth acknowledges “…Adam was created to rightly know and love his Creator, to obey Him and to do good to his neighbor in love.” Both here are echoing Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 6.

6. Did God create man thus, wicked and perverse?

No, but God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.

Dathenus then draws out the distinction between Adam’s moral ability prior to the fall and our inability in our post fall condition to obey God perfectly as he has commanded.

“God not only gave Adam His law but also the ability and liberty to completely fulfill the law. For Adam, as he was created, was wise, pure, and immortal. Once Adam had fallen from innocence, he became a servant and slave of sin and of the devil. Adam stood before the choice of life and death, and by the exercise of his own free will, he chose death. By this fall Adam not only brought death to himself, but also to all his descendants.” p. 10

When Elizabeth questions the justice of God, Dathenus writes, “Notice that in creating humanity, God gave humans the freedom and ability to keep His law perfectly. How can it be unjust of God to require back from us what He has once granted us?” p. 12

Once Dathenus has laid the initial groundwork of the law, the discussion ensues regarding the Gospel.

Dathenus on Gospel:

The Greek word for gospel denotes joyful good news which causes people to speak and sing joyfully and be glad in heart, just like the good news that came to Israel that David had triumphed over the arrogant Goliath and slain him (1 Sam. 18:6).

Such also is the good news of the gospel that proclaims to us and tells us that God will be gracious to a poor sinner, and will forgive and forget our sins (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12). Yes, for Christs sake (1 Tim. 1:15) God will regard us as holy and righteous (2 Cor. 5:21), out of pure grace, by faith alone, without adding any works (1 Cor. 1:30; Rom. 3:28). p. 17

The Pearl of Christian Comfort by Petrus Dathenus is available through Reformation Heritage Books.

Related Posts:

The Distinction between Law and Gospel in Reformed Faith and Practice by Michael Horton

Petrus Dathenus (1531-1588) – Law and Gospel (Portion of the Full Dialogue) at iustitia aliena

Properly distinguishing Moses and Christ from The Pearl of Christian Comfort at Reformedreader

The Gospel in the Narrow Sense, Herman Witsius

Law & Gospel: Preaching Christ Through a Rightly Divided Word

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.

Preaching Christ
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

Notes:
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).
7. Ibid.
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.

Source: http://web.archive.org/web/20110514021748/http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/srlawgospel.htm