Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Only Lutheran? Part 2

This time, we’ll start with some more modern authors and work our way backwards. First off is Danny Hyde, author of a commentary on the Belgic Confession:

When law and gospel are confused, sanctification is motivated by guilt, not gratitude.

What follows is an extensive quotation from Calvin’s Commentaries (Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses 3:199-200) that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Calvin held to the Law/Gospel Distinction:

Further, because Paul seems to abrogate the Law, as if now-a-days it did not concern believers, we must now see how far this is the case…he does not treat of the Law in the abstract, but sets it forth invested with those of its qualities, wherein it is opposed to the Gospel; for, inasmuch as his controversy was with those who interpreted it amiss, he could not help contrasting the Law with the Gospel, as if they were in opposition to each other: not that they were really so, if their respective doctrine be dextrously applied to its proper object, but because such a conflict arose from the absurd mixture, which the false apostles introduced. They asserted that men are justified by the works of the Law, and, if this were admitted, the righteousness of faith was destroyed, and the Gospel fell to the ground. They, moreover, restored the yoke imposed on the ancient people, as if no liberty had been obtained by the blood of Christ. In this discussion it was necessary for Paul to advert only to that which is peculiar to Moses, and distinct from Christ; for although Christ and Moses perfectly accord in the substance of their doctrine, still, when they are compared with each other, it is fitting to distinguish what is peculiar to each.

A few comments are necessary here on Calvin’s language. Firstly, he, as well as practically all other Reformed authors, do not make the covenant of grace totally distinct from the Mosaic economy. He asserts that the doctrine really does agree. However, justification by works of the Law versus justification by faith is completely antithetical. It is in that sense that the Law and the Gospel are distinct. And even there, there is still a distinction between the time of the Law and the time of the Gospel (the Westminster standards make the Law/Gospel a distinction in time in WCF 7.5).

Next up, we have John Owen, in his magisterial treatment of justification by faith alone, in volume 5 of his complete works, which is one of the most important treatments of the doctrine of justification ever written. Here is what he says (pp. 75-76):

The order, relation, and use of the law and the gospel do uncontrollably evince the necessity of this conviction previous unto believing. for that which any man hath first to deal withal, with respect unto his eternal condition, both naturally and by God’s institution, is the law. This is first presented unto the soul with its terms of righteousness and life, and with its curse in case of failure. Without this the gospel cannot be understood, nor the grace of it duly valued. For it is the revelation of God’s way for the relieving the souls of men from the sentence and curse of the law, Rom. 1:17. That was the nature, that was the use and end of the first promise, and of the whole work of God’s grace revealed in all the ensuing promises, or in the whole gospel. Wherefore, the faith which we treat of being evangelical,- that which, in its especial nature and use, not the law but the gospel requireth, that which hath the gospel for its principle, rule, and object,- it is not required of us, cannot be acted by us, but on a supposition of the work and effect of the law in the conviction of sin, by giving the knowledge of it, a sense of its guilt, and the state of the sinner on the account thereof.

Closely related to the work of John Owen is the work of Thomas Goodwin. I do not have the finer, five-volume edition of his works, but rather have the Nichol edition published by Tanski. Mark Jones will not only tell you that the five-volume work is better (since it is not nearly as edited), but I hope he will look up this passage and tell me if anything major has been edited out or changed. This is from the Nichol edition, volume 4, pp. 315-316, in his work A Discourse of the Glory of the Gospel, the beginning of chapter 6:

The next thing that is (in Col. 1:27) attributed to the gospel is, that it is a glorious gospel…He saith that the law is good…but when he comes to speak of the gospel, he calls that glorious…He doth acknowledge that the law had a kind of glory in it…but now I only quote it for this in the general, that the apostle, though he attributeth a glory to the law, yet in comparison of the gospel he makes it no glory.

Goodwin goes on to mention how the gospel is more glorious than the law in their respective promulgations, and in their respective subject matter. This plainly implies a Law/Gospel distinction.

Jonathan Edwards, in his work, Justification By Faith Alone, in volume 19 of the Yale edition, pp. 166-167, plainly affirms the Law/Gospel distinction. First he argues that just because we are sinners does not mean that God somehow lost the right to require absolute perfection of sinful creatures. Otherwise, why would Jesus Christ need to die for our sins? Then, Edwards goes on to argue that we are justified by faith alone apart from works, and what he means is, apart from the law, apart from any and all works of the law. This kind of argumentation is impossible apart from the Law/Gospel distinction. Edwards goes on to demolish the Roman Catholic/proto-NPP position that Paul only excludes ceremonial aspects of the law (pp. 168ff).

John Bunyan has an entire treatise entitled The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded. It is found in volume 1 of the Banner of Truth Works. In his epistle to the reader (p. 493), he says this:

If there be the terror, horror, and severity of the law discovered to a people by the servants of Jesus Christ, though they do not speak of it to the end people should trust to it, by relying on it as it is a covenant of works; but rather that they should be driven further from that covenant, even to embrace the tenders and privileges of the second, yet, poor souls, because they are unacquainted with the natures of these two covenants, or either of them, therefore, say they, ‘Here is nothing but preaching of the law, thundering of the law;’ when, alas, if these two be not held forth-to wit, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, together with the nature of the one and the nature of the other-souls will never be able either to know what they are by nature or what they lie under. Also, neither can they understand what grace is, nor how to come from under the law to meet God in and through that other most glorious covenant, through which and only through which, God can communicate of himself grace, glory, yea, even all the good things of another world…So long as people are ignorant of the nature of the law, and of their being under it-that is, under the curse and condemning power of it, by reason of their sin against it-so long they will be careless, and negligent as to the inquiring after the true knowledge of the gospel.

More to come in Part 3.


  1. E.C. Hock said,

    October 20, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Given that the law/grace distinction is clearly a part of Reformed Theology, again made clear above, how do we think and apply that distinction to, and within, covenantal thinking? I think especially of the new covenant. How does that distinction change and unfold through the covenant as it unfolds progressively through redemptive history? To some extent, there is what we may call a unilateral-bilateral relationship of gospel and law within God’s covenant relationship to us. The covenant of grace predominates, yet there is a component of law within the obligations of grace. There is distinction, yet not a separation. We are saved by grace as described in the covenant of promise leading to Christ, yet this grace produces responsibility in the new obedience. This new obedience includes appreciating the guardrails of moral law and accountability as well as redemptive action through continued applications of, and growth by, the gospel. Even the lawful life we practice is a practice we render with the goals and grace of the gospel always in mind.

  2. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    October 22, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Lane, it seems to me you are equivocating on the distinction. Law/Gospel can be one in the historia salutis, as the difference between the mosaic administration (of the CoG) and the administration of Christ. That seems to be in view with the quote from Goodwin, for example. But this is not the same as the Lutheran law/gospel dichotomy, which is one of interpretive principle, not of redemptive epoch: the law is what requires, the gospel is what promises (e.g., your quote from Turretin in part 1). These two things are not identical. The Law–i.e., the Torah, the Mosaic cov’t–was not identical with law–i.e., the commands–since central to the Mosaic cov’t was the sacrificial system. Note, again, Rom. 10:5-11, where the law/gospel distinction is found by Paul in the Law, i.e., the Mosaic cov’t. So, the Law, as the historic administration under Moses, included both law and gospel (cf. Rom. 3:21), while the Gospel, i.e., the historic administration under Christ, also includes law and gospel (e.g., the Lutheran view of Matt. 5-7 as an impossible standard that drives us to faith in Christ).

    Now, in fact, your Turretin quote from part 1 discusses exactly this. My point is that the Goodwin quote seems to be about the historical distinction, and is therefore not on topic. Not a major argument, just a clarifying point.

  3. Joseph Randall said,

    October 28, 2008 at 1:23 am

    Pastor Lane,
    I’ve read Calvin in his commentaries on Galatians and Romans, and he makes more sense to me there than in the section you cited. What doesn’t make sense to me is Calvin’s comment that what Paul is contrasting with Gospel is a Judaisitc misunderstanding of the law. But Paul does not seem to be doing this at all. In Romans 10 and Galatians 3, he seems to be contrasting the law as God intended (ie the righteousness which Moses spoke of said do and live) with the righteousness of faith. Also, in Galatians, the law that came 430 years ealier was not a Judaistic misunderstanding of the law. I think Stephen Westerholm has proved this exegesis wonderfully in his Perspectives Old and New book. Any thoughts?

    ps here Calvin calls the law a prison!

    Calvin on Galatians 3:23

    23. Before faith came. The question proposed is now more fully defined. He explains at great length the use of the law, and the reason why it was temporal; for otherwise it would have appeared to be always unreasonable that a law should be delivered to the Jews, from which the Gentiles were excluded. If there be but one church consisting of Jews and Gentiles, why is there a diversity in its government? Whence is this new liberty derived, and on what authority does it rest, since the fathers were under subjection to the law? He therefore informs us, that the distinction is such as not to interrupt the union and harmony of the church.
    We must again remind the reader that Paul does not treat exclusively of ceremonies, or of the moral law, but embraces the whole economy by which the Lord governed his people under the Old Testament. It became a subject of dispute whether the form of government instituted by Moses had any influence in obtaining righteousness. Paul compares this law first to a prison, and next to a schoolmaster. Such was the nature of the law, as both comparisons plainly show, that it could not have been in force beyond a certain time.

    In Christ,

  4. October 29, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    […] Part 2 […]

  5. October 28, 2009 at 8:42 am

    […] 2008 by R. Scott Clark Lane 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 […]

  6. August 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    […] 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 law. The […]

  7. January 5, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    […] Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Only Lutheran? Part 2 […]

  8. January 5, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    […] Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Only Lutheran? Part 2 […]

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