Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Only Lutheran? Part 1

The short answer is that the Law/Gospel distinction is found in many important Reformed writers. One can certainly argue that the Three Forms of Unity are based on this distinction, in pointing out (in the HC, for instance) misery (which we find out by the law), salvation (pointed out to us by the Gospel), and gratitude (the Law/Gospel distinction does NOT eliminate the third use of the law, contrary to what some might think). Here are some quotations that clearly indicate that the Law/Gospel distinction is Reformed.

First up, Ursinus, one of the two authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (concerning question 2, which lays out the structure of the HC):

This question contains the statement and division of the whole catechism and at the same time accordes with the division of the Scriptures into the Law and Gospel. (Commentary on the Catechism, p. 20)

Hence it is manifest that we must commence with the preaching of the law, after the example of the Prophets and Apostles, that men may thus be cast down from the conceit of their own righteousness, and may obtain a knowledge of themselves, and be led to true repentance. Unless this be done, men will become, through the preaching of grace, more careless and obstinate, and pearls will be cast before swine to be trodden under foot. (Commentary, pg. 21)

Next up, Turretin, in speaking of the covenant of grace:

(In talking of Galatians 4:24) “He disputes against the false apostles who confounded the law and the gospel.” (IET II, p. 236)

There is not the same opposition throughout between the Old and New Testaments as there is between the law and the gospel. The opposition of the law and the gospel (in as far as they are taken properly and strictly for the covenant of works and of grace and are considered in their absolute being) is contrary. They are opposed as the letter killing and the Spirit quickening; as Hagar gendering to bondage and Sarah gendering to freedom, although the law more broadly taken and in its relative being is subordinated to the gospel. (IET II, pp. 236-237).

W.G.T. Shedd (in the third edition), p. 824 quotes approvingly (“the following excellent statement of the law and the gospel as means of grace”) the Lutheran Formula of Concord article 5 (for which, see Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, volume 3, pp. 126-130, which is followed, interestingly enough, by an exposition of the third use of the law, article 6; the Lutherans did NOT deny the third use of the law!).

Johannes Vos, in his commentary on the WLC, pp. 235-236:

13. What is the place of the moral law of God in a scriptural program of evangelism? While the word evangelism means “proclamation of the gospel,” we should realize that the gospel is meaningless without the law. Gospel means “good news”: that is, good news of salvation from sin. Sin is the transgression of the law: without conviction of being transgressors of the law, people will feel no need of the gospel; without knowledge of the moral law of God, people will not feel themselves to be transgressors of the law. Therefore no program of evangelism is sound os scriptural which does not emphasize sin as the transgression of God’s moral law. Much present-day “evangelism” has little to say about God’s law, sin, and repentance; instead, the tendency is to speak only about “accepting Christ.” A return to the old emphasis on God’s law is urgently needed. Without it, there cannot be a genuine revival of the Christian faith.

Notice that Vos equates the Law/Gospel distinction with the first use of the law. This means that the WS do indeed teach the Law/Gospel distinction as the first use of the law. Therefore all six forms of unity teach the Law/Gospel distinction. The reason some are uncomfortable with the Law/Gospel distinction is that they feel it does away with the relevance of the law for the Christian. It does no such thing. As we saw even in the Formula of Concord, the Law/Gospel distinction is immediately followed by a discussion of the third use of the law for the believer. Similarly, the treatment of the Ten Commandments in the HC is found in the section on gratitude, NOT in the section on misery, or salvation. Ursinus obviously felt no schizophrenia for arguing in this fashion (see the quotes above). On to other authors in Part 2, which will follow shortly.


  1. thomasgoodwin said,

    October 16, 2008 at 2:08 pm


    I would be interested in your thoughts on how the law-gospel distinction applies in terms of the third-use of the law. Perhaps you’ll get there. I think all Reformed theologians would certainly agree on a sharp law-gospel distinction with regards to the 1st use of the law; it gets a little tricky when we start talking about the third use. Moreover:

    Is the command to “believe” law or gospel? Lutherans argue that it is law!

    Ursinus writes:

    “Objection. There is no precept, or commandment belonging to the gospel, but to the law. The preaching of repentance is a precept. Therefore the preaching of repentance does not belong to the gospel, but to the law.

    Answer. We deny the major, if it is taken generally; for this precept is peculiar to the gospel, which commands us to believe, to embrace the benefits of Christ, and to commence new obedience, or that righteousness which the law requires. If it be objected that the law also commands us to believe in God, we reply that it does this only in general, by requiring us to give credit to all the divine promises, precepts and denunciations, and that with a threatening of punishment, unless we do it. But the gospel commands us expressly and particularly to embrace, by faith, the promise of grace; and also exhorts us by the Holy Spirit, and by the Word, to walk worthy of our heavenly calling. This however it does only in general, not specifying any duty in particular, saying thou shalt do this, or that, but it leaves this to the law; as, on the contrary, it does not say in general, believe all the promises of God, leaving this to the law; but it says in particular, Believe this promise; fly to Christ, and thy sins shall be forgiven thee.”

    I think the application of the law and the gospel are not entirely the same when it comes to the Lutherans and the Reformed. I know that’s a loaded statement and open to the ire of some; but, that’s okay!


  2. Jeff Waddington said,

    October 16, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    A discussion of the commonalities and differences between the Lutheran and Reformed on this would be beneficial.

  3. Benjamin P. Glaser said,

    October 16, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    This should be very interesting. I look forward to hearing some more.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    October 16, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Yeah, Mark, that really gets at the issues. I regard the Law/Gospel distinction to refer only to justification and only to the first use of the law. When it comes to the third use, the Law/Gospel distinction doesn’t apply at all. At least, that is how I currently think of it. I agree that the application will be different between Lutherans and the Reformed. However, the basic structure of Law/Gospel is identical (at least for some Lutherans and some Reformed). This is the way Gaffin described it: before I am a Christian, the law is my enemy, driving me away from itself and towards Christ. After I become a Christian, the law is my friend, guiding me in life. In other words, in justification, the law is opposed to the Gospel. In sanctification, the law is the guide for the Christian life.

  5. Lee said,

    October 16, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    I wonder if it would not be better to take a cue from Turretin. Notice his explanation where he states, “in as far as they are taken properly and strictly for the covenant of works and of grace and are considered in their absolute being”. This to me seems to be no mere side point. Rather this looks very fundamental.
    Would it not be less confusing then to say that “we believe in a Covenant of Work-Covenant of Grace distinction” rather than trying to explain that “we believe in a Law-Gospel distinction when it comes to the First Use of the Law, but not at all when it comes to the Third Use of the Law, oh and the Law does also point toward Christ and Grace in types and shadows (see HC #19)”?

  6. E.C. Hock said,

    October 16, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    There are two, or perhaps three, questions from this discussion that are important to clarify and appreciate:

    1. How ought Reformed people to describe the basic law-gospel distinction?
    2. How ought Reformed people to apply this distinction to the understanding
    of the covenant?
    3. How is this distinction in a covenantal framework understood in biblical
    covenants (Noah-Abraham-Moses-David-Christ) and in theological
    covenants (Adam-Moses-Christ)?

  7. thomasgoodwin said,

    October 16, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    If you are interested in how this might play out in terms of covenant theology, a comparison of Luther and Bullinger may be of some interest. While I don’t agree with everything in Lillback’s work on Calvin’s covenant theology, he does highlight the following:

    Luther on Genesis 17

    1. It was a covenant for the Jews only.

    2. It was a temporal covenant that symbolized only material things.

    3. It was ended by Christ’s coming and the end of the Jewish nation.

    4. It was a covenant of law in opposition to the covenant of the coming of Christ.

    5. There were two different covenants in Genesis 17. One was for both Isaac and Ishmael in that both received circumcision, but the other was an unnamed covenant given only to Isaac promising the Savior.

    Bullinger on Genesis 17:

    1. It is a covenant for the church of all the ages.

    2. It is the one eternal covenant of God made with men to save them.

    3. It was continued by Christ’s coming. He fulfilled the symbolism of circumcision by shedding his blood for man’s justification, and by purifying the believer’s heart so that he could keep the covenant’s conditions.

    4. It is a covenant of grace consistent with the covenant of Christ.

    5. There is only one covenant in Genesis 17. Circumcision is a true sacrament of the covenant of grace, equal in meaning with the Supper and baptism.

  8. Jeff Cagle said,

    October 16, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    The argument in Galatians maps to a kind of “3rd use” Law/Gospel distinction.

    Paul is speaking in Galatians to those who are already justified, who have entered into the Covenant by faith. However, they are seeking to be completed through the Law by following its strictures in the power of the flesh (Gal. 3.1-5). Paul seeks to replace this faulty effort with a reliance on the Spirit through faith.

    So we might express a Law/Gospel principle in sanctification like this:

    For those who are Christians, the Law serves to expose sin. The core of my sin nature, which is a lack of love for God and neighbor, is exposed by the righteous commandments of God. If I take that exposure and try to remedy it through my own efforts, I will fail. But if I believe the promise (Gospel) of God, that the righteousness of Christ is mine by the Spirit, then the Spirit changes my heart so that I serve the Law. I think this is what Paul means by “serving in the new way of the Spirit” in Rom. 7.6 and “live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” in Gal. 5.16.

    So the Law itself is not opposed to the Gospel in sanctification; rather, our sinful response to the Law is opposed to the Gospel.

    I think this is what Luther also meant by the distinction between Law and Gospel:

    The law is the Word in which God teaches and tells us what we are to do and not to do, as in the Ten commandments. Now wherever human nature is alone, without the grace of God, the Law cannot be kept, because since Adam’s fall in paradise man is corrupt and has nothing but a wicked desire to sin and in his heart cannot be favorably disposed toward the Law, as we know by our own experience. For there is no one who would not rather have no Law at all, and everyone finds and feels within himself that while it is difficult to be pious and do good, it is easy to be wicked and to do evil. And this difficulty or this unwillingness to do what is good prevents us form keeping God’s Law; for what is kept with dislike, difficulty, and unwillingness, rates before God as not having been kept at all. And so the Law of God convinces us by our experience that we are naturally wicked, disobedient, lovers of sin, and enemies of God’s commandments.


    Later Lutherans, of course, sometimes speak of the Law itself as the problem: “the Law always threatens”, etc. But I wonder whether Luther himself would have agreed.

    Jeff Cagle

  9. Jeff Cagle said,

    October 16, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Re: #6. Wow … Luther the proto-dispensationalist!!!

  10. Joe Brancaleone said,

    October 16, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    As long as I’ve been Reformed the one thing I have never been convinced of, through experience or exegesis, is how the Law suddenly turns from condemning enemy to defanged, friendly guide once we are justified by faith. IF by “guide” we all meant that the Law is nothing more than a description of righteous living, fine. That limited meaning does summarize the few positive statements Paul makes about the Law as such.

    But all too often I get the sense the Law as such is functionally if not formally seen by some or maybe many as a sort of means of sanctification, which is saying a lot more than designating it a description of righteousness. To go that route, deliberately or not, is to contradict the bold highlighted points made by Paul in numerous places about the inability of the Law to produce the very righteousness it demands because of the weakness of the flesh, even in context of walking the Christian life.

  11. Joe Brancaleone said,

    October 16, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    oh yeah, when I am talking about Law I do not mean anything that is divinely commanded, I mean what I believe Paul most often means, the historical revelation of righteous requirements in the Mosaic covenant.

  12. greenbaggins said,

    October 16, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Joe, in the Christian life, it is not the law that gives us the power to obey God. It is rather the Spirit that gives us the power to obey the law.

  13. Matt Holst said,

    October 16, 2008 at 8:45 pm


    I post in some trepidation as I have been going back-and-fore with some friends on this issue for about two years.

    I like Lane’s description of the use of the law in #4 is spot on. I think Luther’s understanding of law, save in the context of justification, was significantly wide of the mark (#6). Moses was not a “jailor” – except for those who tried to be justified by the law. And Paul makes it clear that, post fall, the design of the law was never to justify (Gal 3:21). No, it seems that the giving of the law at Sinai and thus beyond must firmly be part of the covenant of grace – just as the Psalmist states “his delight is in the Law of God, he meditates in them day and night” (Ps 1) and “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul … More to be desired are they than gold, Yea than much fine gold, sweeter also than honey from the comb” (Ps19). Strange for an old covenant Christian to speak of the law in such away is he was jailed by the law.

    Additionally the writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that the covenantal transactions at Sinai were insufficient to make man righteous before God, which after all is the point of stating that there was a works principle at Sinai. He writes that the blood of bulls and goats was not efficacious in the removal of sins (Heb 10:5). If this is the case, the “do this and live” of Lev 18:5, of which much has been made in certain Reformed circles (re:a “works principle” or a “remaking of the covenant of works”), simply could not refer back to a covenant of works / or a works principle. A works principle is a simple equation – “do X and have Y”, because X merits Y (whether graciously arranged or not!). But Hebrews tells us that this equation was not possible due to the ineffective nature of the “do this”. The “do this” was simply not worthy enough (under a works scheme) to secure the prize – life.

    The “do this an live” was an outpouring of faith, that in the law, the sacrifices etc. was the promise of the forgiveness of sins through the shedding of blood. This was not a standby in case Israel failed in the newly inaugurated Covenant of Works, it was at the very heart of God’s redemptive, gracious plan.

    Additionally I think we need to acknowledge the historical context of the law. The moral law and many of the ceremonies did not only function to point to Christ but also to dictate behaviour (sanctification). After all, at Sinai the Jews were entering into a land full of pagans.

    I fear that as many in the Reformed world take an unbiblically negative view of law, we will not only see an increase in anti-nomianism in the church, but also be in great danger of calling “unclean”, that which God has made clean.

    “The Statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.”

    Just some thoughts


  14. Tom Wenger said,

    October 16, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    While I hate making statements like this, I did my historical theology master’s thesis on Calvin’s doctrine of the third use of the law. My argument centered on the fact that many people have missed a nuance to his doctrine which, I believe, could bridge a gap between Lutheran and Reformed interpretations.

    Calvin is accused of waffling on the issue as well as being confused and unable to keep straight his first and third uses. This is because on the one hand, Calvin clearly states that the First Use points the sinner to their need for the grace of the Gospel out of fear of the wrath of God. He is adamant that this use does NOT apply to the Christian any longer because they are the justified, adopted children of God and are no longer under those threats. However, on the other hand, Calvin frequently points believers to their need for the grace of the Gospel as a result of the sin-revealing nature of the Law.

    However, this is not a contradiction in Calvin because his Third Use contains a nuance that permits it to still point the believer to the Gospel without doing so through fear. For Calvin, the Third Use is indeed the highest use because it is the only one which has the believer actually striving to obey it out of a love for God and a desire for His glory. However, the believer does not do this perfectly and the law’s demands still reveal what is lacking before its perfect standard of holiness.

    In Calvin’s scheme the Third Use points believers to the comfort of the Gospel, not of of fear, but instead in the midst of their godly sorrow for their sin. A good example of this in Calvin is his explanation in the Institutes on Christian Freedom. For Calvin, the Christian is free from the threats of the law, but at the same time the law is an absolute necessity in pursuing righteousness:

    “Nor can any man rightly infer from this that the law is superfluous for believers, since it does not stop teaching and exhorting and urging them to good, even though before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences. For, inasmuch as these two things are very different, we must rightly and conscientiously distinguish them. The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness, for we have been called to sanctification. Here it is the function of the law, by warning men of their duty, to arouse them to a zeal for holiness and innocence. But where consciences are worried how to render God favorable, what they will reply, and with what assurance they will stand should they be called to his judgment, there we are not to reckon what the law requires, but Christ alone, who surpasses all perfection of the law, must be set forth as righteousness.” [Inst. 3.19.2]

    This I believe it the essence of the difference between the Lutheran and the Reformed view. Melanchthon is the originator of the term 3rd use, and the concept is clearly throughout the Book of Concord. But the Lutherans apply the 1st use as well to the believer and often speak as though it instills the fear of hell in the believer, while Calvin is adamant that such a fear is improper for the Christian. So both traditions are inundated with the Law/Gospel distinction and both believe that the law points even the Christian to Christ. But the Reformed view, as seen in Calvin and the Heidelberg especially, includes this nuance which permits a Third Use which is not devoid of sin-revealing power and still directs the believer to the glory of the Cross.

  15. David R. said,

    October 17, 2008 at 9:57 am

    The reason why the Law becomes our friend once we are justified is that its fangs only threaten those who are guilty. But for those who have Christ’s righteousness imputed to them, the Law no longer threatens them, but rather assures them of the hope of eternal life. It is on the basis of the Law (now fulfilled by Christ) that we receive the inheritance. That’s a friend I need!

  16. Joseph Minich said,

    October 17, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Tom, excellent points! Would you say, however, that there is still a place in the Reformed tradition for believers to experience fear based upon a consideration of themselves in light of the law, nuda lex? From the standpoint of God’s secure verdict over us in justification, we are never under His judgment as believers. However, Luther seems to emphasize our standing before the law and before Christ from an existential standpoint. That is, when we “consider” ourselves in light of the law, we still experience fear…a fear that continually drives us to Christ. And this consideration of ourselves in such a light, for Luther, is not illegitimate, but a function of our life “between the ages,” to be a little anachronistic. While justification is an ontic fact, there is a hidden quality to it (from the perspective of our experience), a hidden quality which drives us to constantly cast ourselves again and again upon the gospel proclaimed in word and sacrament. In short, I wonder if it would be an overstatement to say that the first use of the law only applies to the unbeliever (again speaking existentially). Perhaps an analogy for this can be found in David’s struggle to understand God’s favor and justice in light of his experiences in this fallen world. The ontological fact of God’s favor and justice never change, but David’s experience and appropriation of them certainly do. And I suppose what I’m suggesting is that this is appropriate. I value your thoughts!

  17. greenbaggins said,

    October 17, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Tom, I actually think Calvin is wrong about fear. 1 Peter 1:17 talks about a reverent fear of offending God that is certainly born out of the law. The problem here is that fear needs to be defined a bit more carefully. A cringing, doubt-inspiring fear wherein we constantly make ourselves to be in the position before conversion is not helpful. If that is Calvin’s target, then I agree with him. However, in terms of fearing to disobey God, and that the first use of the law can still be helpful in driving us continually to Christ (not in the ultimate sense of conversion, but in the daily, lesser sense of needing forgiveness from our Father, who is no longer our Judge), then I agree with the Lutherans.

  18. its.reed said,

    October 17, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Ref. 17″

    Lane, I like to point out to my children the two different types of fear:

    > There is a fear that causes us to run away from God, and
    > There is a fear that causes us to run toward God.

    Only via the gospel believed am I able to hear the law give me reasons to run to God for the help I need in Christ.

  19. E.C. Hock said,

    October 17, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    On #17 – Lane, one may ask on this question: What can fear accomplish that love cannot? What will drive out remaining sin in the Christian more effectively, more law or more gospel? What can law accomplish than the gospel making Jesus our all-in-all cannot? For example, do I cease from sexual sin primarily because the seventh commandment warns me so, or because I have experienced and exercized the compelling love of Christ? The former has a level of fear to stir me, but the latter has a wave of assurance to carry me. I ask whether or not this matter is more about not how we can see continuity in the law, for His law will always be with us, but how confident are we in His gospel to accomplish what no law can do.

    The tension is felt more as we assume we can control or recognize the level of what good a fear of God in the the law will accomplish in us without slipping into false guilt, a withdrawn timidity or being overly mortified by a sensitive conscience. If law is understood and adhered to within the assurance of the gospel, then fear will be interpreted and directed within the unconditional power of love. I think 1 Peter 1-2 has this emphasis in mind.
    We are still tutored in the law under Christ, as a part of being still sanctified between two ages, but that tutorial is more transformational in the manner Tom related in Calvin above. The 3rd use of the law functions as added leverage for the gospel, not something too distinct or independent of the gospel doing a separate work – carrying us by the Spirit to the cross and resurrection hope.

    I think Calvin, if Tom is correct, puts more confidence in the gospel to do this using the law, than let’s say, some Puritans have who, given their context, are more concerned with matching the ethical casuistry of Catholicism which can elevate fear in the failing of it. I mean look at Baxter’s Christian Directory, or the ethics of William Ames in his work on the Conscience. They are perceptive works, no doubt, but may in advertently do more to burden the saint in his daily practice than direct him in his Sabbath rest.

  20. greenbaggins said,

    October 17, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    E.C., how then would you exegete Psalm 119, with its many, many, many declarations of how much he loves the law? If you are right, then there doesn’t really seem to be any reason to love the law. Is it a guide for the Christian life, or isn’t it? You seem to be arguing that there is no place for the law for the Christian. Maybe I have not understood you.

    There is a holy fear that quakes at the warnings of Scripture (the WS talk about this somewhere, but I can’t find it just now). Is Hebrews 6 not supposed to make us fear? Now, granted, the fear that we possess should be the same fear that a child has of disobeying his loving-and-therefore-disciplining father, not the fear that someone has of offending a bully. However, godly fear is neither legalistic, nor opposed to the Gospel. It is the beginning of wisdom, as Proverbs tells us.

  21. Joseph Minich said,

    October 17, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Rev. Lane,

    Would you say that the fear is merely that of child to father? If Hebrews 6 is a warning to believers (as well as Hebrews 10), is there not an element of fear concerning the final judgment as well? Of course, I immediately must qualify this. I am in no way suggesting that Christians should have a “biting their finger-nails when they think about the final judgment” sort of approach to the Christian life. This is where I wonder if (not to be a dead horse) the “over-lap of the ages” helps us here. Even though we are in Christ, we still live in our Adamic existence with all its ramifications, provoking conscience, etc. Might it be said that when we evaluate our situation from the perspective of our experience in the flesh (which is real!), we have fear and insecurity? Paul can say that he doesn’t “evaluate himself” before the final day. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t assured, we assume, but it does mean that he was not presumptuous. From the perspective of our place in Christ, however, and as we focus upon His objective promises…we are assured of His faithfulness to preserve us and of His present favor towards us in justification. The final judgment has been rendered in the present via justification, but it is not yet manifest and declared openly. This interim creates a space of paradoxical comfort and sorrow, security and instability, etc. Somehow, I think we need to be able to say that we both continually fear judgment and continually find our solace in His promises…perhaps not at exactly the same moment…but certainly throughout the trajectory of a Christian life. Maybe it could be called “fear inasmuch as” we are still flesh, but “assurance inasmuch as” He is faithful and we know we are His. Thanks for your thoughts!

  22. its.reed said,

    October 17, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Last two comments:

    That’s exactly the kind of fear I’m talking about brothers.

    I have no fear of judgment in the gospel. Rather I have a fear that grows out of love. It is a fear riddled with the memory of what the Law used to be able to do to us. It is a fear gripped by the horror of dishonoring our Father. It is a fear that causes us to cringe in disgust from the sin our flesh still longs for.

    It is a fear that compels me to run to the only One Who can free me from the sin which so entangles.

    I think part of our problem is that we struggle to think and discuss this idea from the perspective of the gospel – trying to understand fear any differently than the way the World ordinarily understands it is somewhat like trying to get one’s head around what it means for God to be outside time – not onoy do words fail us but also our mental abilities.

  23. greenbaggins said,

    October 17, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Joseph, I agree with Reed. If there is now therefore NO condemnation, then the godly fear of a believer has no reference whatsoever to the final judgment day, since we have already been judged in Christ. The eschatological wrath of God has fallen on Christ, not on us. Instead, we have a godly fear of sinning, since we hate the distance that puts between God and us, even if that distance is not relationship-ending.

  24. October 17, 2008 at 3:24 pm


    Have you read “A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel” by John Colquhoun (1748-1827) which Soli Deo Gloria reprinted? If so, are you going to cover it in this series of posts? Colquhoun takes the classic Scottish “Marrow” position “The law says, ‘Do, any you shall live…’ The gospel says ‘Live, for all is already done…’ The Law is God in a command, but the Gospel is God in Christ, God in a promise.” I.e. he speaks in shorthand of law/gospel as do/done and command/promise with respect to justification. Colquhoun’s chapter on “The Agreement of Law and Gospel” is superb and helpfully covers many of the points raised in this thread.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  25. its.reed said,

    October 17, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Lane – amen! That’s the only power for godly living. Cf., the interesting confluence of Phil 2:12-13. Its not that fear is not a factor in the Christian’s response to the law. The issue is what kind of fear.

  26. E.C. Hock said,

    October 17, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Lane, I hear what you are saying. I think you mak see me words too radically. But first let me ask you this: How would you exegete Psalm 119 in the light of the law’s fulfillment in Christ as compared to a devour believing Jew (son of Abraham) in the temple? Verse 1: “Blessed are those whose way is blame- less, who walk according to the law of the Lord.” Now please all stand up those whose way is blameless according to the law? Please stand up – yes, you too, King David – and all those who walk according to the law. Before one answers the important question you raise, one needs to to think about how Psalm 119 fits into the sweep of redemptive history from promise to fulfillment. Obviously, Jesus is the only “blameless one” who walked according to the law perfectly, satisfying all its moral demands for us. And we, who are in Him, have that benefit bestowed upon us as those justified. So, then, how do we walk now that we are new creations? I am not trying to minimize sacred law, but rather understand what it means to walk in the Spirit as poured out through the gospel. Galatians 1-5 is not contrary to Psalm 119,unless we make it so by seeing the gospel as something we begin with in order to go back to the law, and presume to walk in the law successfully.
    It is only through abiding in the gospel of promise that anyone can love the law with a proper zeal, a zeal that carries us steadily to Christ again and again. In fact, is it not true that when I love Christ, I also love the law (truly love it) since He has fulfilled it and we have all things in him? (More needs to be said here, but time has run out for now….).

  27. E.C. Hock said,

    October 17, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Please, pardon the typos above. I was too much in a hurry.

  28. greenbaggins said,

    October 17, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Donald, I have not read that book, but it sounds perfect to me. Thanks for reminding me of the Marrow men. I’ll have to look into the Marrow book to see if there’s anything helpful there as well. If you wouldn’t mind too much, would you send me a slightly fuller version of your comment with quotations? Then I will insert it into my next post. Email me at pastorlane AT juno DOT com. Thanks

  29. October 17, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    […] Part 1 […]

  30. October 17, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    There’s an chapter on this question devoted to this question in CJPM. See also the extensive collection of quotations from Reformed writers here.

    John Calvin. For Paul often means by the term “law” the rule of righteous living by which God requires of us what is his own, giving us no hope of life unless we completely obey him, and adding on the other hand a curse if we deviate even in the slightest degree. This Paul does when he contends that we are pleasing to God through grace and are accounted righteous through his pardon, because nowhere is found that observance of the law for which the reward has been promised. Paul therefore justly makes contraries of the righteousness of the law and of that of the gospel [Romans 3:21 ff.; Galatians 3:10 ff.; etc.] (Institutes, 2.9.4).

    Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83). Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel? A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

    Caspar Olevian (1536-87). For this reason the distinction between law and Gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith (Ad Romanos Notae, 148; Geneva, 1579).

    Theodore Beza (1534-1605). We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

    William Perkins 1558-1602). The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust,1996, 54-55).

  31. greenbaggins said,

    October 18, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Thanks for those additional quotations, Scott. The last three in particular, I do not have access to. It blows my mind that anyone could claim that the law/Gospel distinction is not Reformed.

  32. October 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    […] law and gospel, reformation, sola fide Lane at Green Baggins has been addressing this. Here’s part 1  andHere’s part 2 . The answer, of course, is no. Here are some […]

  33. Patrick said,

    October 20, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Here is an interesting quote from William Perkins:

    “[Justifying faith] is commanded in the Law of Faith, namely the Gospel…” A Golden Chain, 121.

  34. Tom Wenger said,

    October 20, 2008 at 8:57 pm


    Sorry for posting and then bolting for a few days. Many have raised some good points here and they were points that I anticipated because of the brevity of my post. I’ll try to clear up a couple of things here.

    Calvin most assuredly did believe that there is a place for fear in the life of the believer and thus, Lane, I don’t think that you would be at odds with Calvin’s position at all. And Joseph, there most certainly are plenty of places in Calvin’s corpus where he definitely invites the believer to contemplate what their fate would be apart from the mercy of Christ’s work in order to remind them of its astronomical value.

    In Inst. 3.2.22, Calvin gave one of his most clear discussions of right fear in the life of the believer. Under the rubric of the definitions and properties of faith, he wrote, “There is another kind of ‘fear and trembling’, one that, so far from diminishing the assurance of faith, the more firmly establishes it.” [Inst. 3.2.22] This type of fear occurs when believers, after having taken special care that they do not stand in the same position of unbelief as did “the examples of divine wrath executed upon the ungodly” do then contemplate their inherent sinful misery and “learn to depend wholly upon the Lord, without whom they see themselves more unstable and fleeting than any wind.”[Inst. 3.2.22] Calvin cited Paul’s warning the Corinthians of the fate of the Jews who fell because of unbelief, and argued that in doing so Paul “is not bidding us to waver, as if we were unsure of our steadfastness. Rather, he is merely taking away arrogance and rash overconfidence in our own strength so that after the Jews have been rejected, the Gentiles, received into their place, may not exult more wildly.” [Inst. 3.2.22]
    Calvin several times throughout the discussion took pains to insure that the fear he was defining was not one that aimed to remove from the Christian their assurance. Towards his conclusion he reasserted that right fear was designed to “restrain presumption, which sometimes creeps upon the saints from the vestiges of the flesh, in order that it may not play the wanton in vain confidence.” He then added, “It is another thing so to dishearten the conscience with fear that it cannot rest with full assurance in God’s mercy.” [Inst. 3.2.22]

    However, when it comes specifically to the abiding existence of the first use of the law in the life of the believer, the issue is a bit more narrow. When you consider the commands in scripture, how do they address the Christian? Do they address tem as those who, upon hearing the commands are filled with fear of death and condemnation, or do they address them as the redeemed children of God who love their Father? Calvin would say it is the latter, but that this still includes the revealing of their sin and thus causes sorrow in them that only the Gospel can heal.

    Calvin explained this most succinctly in his 1536 Institutes, which does not deviate in content of theology from his consequent editions:

    “To sum up, the law is an exhortation to believers. This is not something to bind their consciences with a curse, but to shake off sluggishness by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection…Not that the law no longer enjoins believers to do what is right, but only that it is not for them what it formerly was: it may no longer condemn and destroy their consciences by confounding and frightening them with the message of death.” [Inst 1536, 1.33]

    Does this clear up some of the issues raised? If not, I’ll gladly try to clarify more.

  35. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    October 22, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Re #20: Actually, the line about trembling at the threatenings is one of the acts of saving faith in WCF 14.2. So, faith, while it principally receives Christ, also trembles at the threatenings…Hmm–how does that impact the discussion of fear, etc.? If we are united to Christ by saving faith, that saving faith is also still supposed to tremble at the threatenings. That means that those who are united to Christ are still supposed to tremble at the threatenings. That, of course, brings up Phil. 2:12…I think Tom’s erudite exposition of Calvin fits that context well, since Paul enjoins fear and trembling, *because* (gar) God is the one at work within the believer (cf. Calvin’s “taking away…overconfidence in our own strength…”).

    Re #30: That is all quite clear, to be sure. But how does that fit with the goal of preaching Christ from the entire Scriptures? Pick a text, any text. Is it law or gospel? Well, if it is seen properly, without the veil, then it points to Christ (not piecemeal, to be sure–cf. Lane’s summary of Gaffin’s article in “The Hope Fulfilled”–but, of course, we never interpret Scripture that way, but always the Old in light of the New, etc.). “You search the Scriptures, thinking that in them you will find eternal life, but they are those which speak of me.” This is why I actually find Wilson’s placement of the law/gospel distinction in the reader very helpful. To those who are in Christ, every text should turn us to Christ, as it fits in the context of redemptive history. For example, take the decalogue. What should the one who truly trusts in Christ do with it? Should he take it and say “This is what God demands that I do, so I better get to work, and when I fail, work even harder to make up for it, and that way I can earn life”? That is not living by faith! Or should he say “I cannot do this in my own strength, but Christ has completed it perfectly and so the Father receives me as a faithful son and promises His Spirit to labor with me so that some day He will bring me to glory where I will obey perfectly.” On the other had, one who does not trust in Christ, and looks only to his own strength still, looks at “Come unto me all you who are weary…” and says “See, I have to come: what if I don’t?” He works hard at his own belief, and thinks his faith earns the gospel promise of rest in Christ.

    This also makes sense of Rom. 10:5-11. Both Lev. 18:5 and Deut. 30:12-14 are written by Moses. Both of them are part of God’s cov’t with Israel (an administration of the cov’t of grace). So, is God’s cov’t divided? Does Moses contradict himself? The Torah is perceived as a unified whole (cf. Psalm 119). The issue is which part of God’s revelation we latch onto. If we latch onto the commands all by themselves, then the one who does these thing will live by them (actually, he won’t). But if one looks with righteousness of faith, then those things to be done (like the whole summary of the law prior to Deut. 30) are not to be done, but to be received in faith from Christ’s perfect obedience.

  36. October 28, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    […] 28, 2008 at 2:32 pm (Law) Part 1; Part […]

  37. November 20, 2008 at 10:57 am

    […] is also in the text. In the Reformed theologians, I would point to these three articles (part 1, part 2, part 3, and also to Scott Clarks’s posts on the topic) which prove fairly […]

  38. Steve Prost said,

    December 21, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Much good discussion on fear here I just came across, in J. Minnich’s comments especially. However, such bright Reformed minds missing the pith of the matter as usual on this topic. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive for the things done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade men.” says Paul. The Westminster Confession make clear that believers may have to wait “long” for the warranted biblical assurance of salvation, a forgotten doctrine in the Reformed world today, and that long wait for what they saw as a supernatural assurance is something that may not even have anything to do with their sin or lack of fruit as the Confession makes clear. Therefore, why would not this class of Christians rightly who do not have this full warranted biblical assurance… those who have not yet made their calling and election SURE in this fullest sense referred to by our Reformed Puritan fathers… have reason to fear the judgment itself and possibly even not being genuine in their faith until they reach that point as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling and “beat their body and make it their slave so that after preaching to others, they themselves may not be disqualified”. And even after THAT fear is done away with b/c a Christian has come to the point by the extra grace of God of a FULL assurance (which, by the way, is NOT at the essence of faith as our Confession makes clear), there remains an intrinsic fear of God himself that is “pure, enduring forever” in add’n to his magnificent and strong fatherly discipline that is not to be treated lightly. Someday if the Lord tarries, there shall be a fear of God reformation of our theology that “delights in the fear of the Lord” rather than explains it away as not being fear.

  39. August 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    […] Is the Law-Gospel distinction only Lutheran? I believe not. See some of the original sources quoted here, here, and here. Of course, the Law-Gospel distinction only refers to the pedagogical use of the […]

  40. December 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    […] at Green Baggins has been addressing this. Here’s part 1 and part 2 and part 3. The answer, of course, is no. Here are some […]

  41. December 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    The problem with the 3rd use of the law is this: most “Reformed” folks think that the 1st use is no longer in consideration. I would disagree. We need to be constantly reminded that salvation is not based on any idea of obedience or of faithfulness or any idea of a “final vindication” of our faith in the last judgment. That’s basically just the papist view all over again. If works are a consideration in the judgment, then there can be no assurance of salvation. Welcome to Rome.

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