A Treatise On the Law and the Gospel

Seeing as how the law/gospel distinction is becoming rather a hot topic on my blog, I thought I would direct readers to John Colquhoun’s magnificent treatise on the subject. Right at the get-go, he says this: “Every passage of sacred Scripture is either law or gospel, or is capable of being referred either to the one or to the other” (p. xxv). So much for the idea of law/gospel distinction being only Lutheran. Here is an entire treatise proving it. He goes on to say, maybe even more tellingly, “If they blend the law with the gospel or, which is the same thing, works with faith, especially in the affair of justification, they will thereby obscure the glory of redeeming grace and prevent themselves from attaining joy and peace in believing” (xxvi). This is a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) minister who lived from 1748-1827, and was heavily influenced by the Marrow Theology, and the writings of Thomas Boston.


  1. GLW Johnson said,

    March 31, 2010 at 7:40 am

    I am sure, given time, pduggie will cite Colquhoun to defend the FV or NT Wright or Norman Shepherd…

  2. Lacie said,

    March 31, 2010 at 8:05 am

    “That fair copy of the natural law which had been transcribed into the nature of the first man in his creation was, by the fall, much obliterated; and it continues still to be, in a great degree, defaced and even obliterated in the minds of all His unregenerate offspring.” (Soli Deo Gloria, 1999, p. 8)
    At least it can’t be used to defend natural law as an ethical theory for “the public square” and our “cultural” involvement.

  3. Andy said,

    March 31, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Taking Colquhoun’s absolutizing of law/gospel distinction, how would one categorize 1 John 3:23, “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” If “every passage” is either law or gospel then what does one do with a verse such as this. Perhaps I making it too difficult but this distinction seems difficult with verses such as this.

  4. David deJong said,

    March 31, 2010 at 9:06 am

    GLW Johnson: Do you ever say anything substantial? That’s a serious question. Your comments invariably are two-liner throwaways that express a combination of shock/disbelief that pduggie (in this case) could actually argue for such crazy positions. You show no real effort at seriously attempting to dialogue or seriously attempting to understand objections that are being raised.

  5. GLW Johnson said,

    March 31, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Gee, DJ, given the claims that pduggie has been making, I thought that my comment was incrediblly substantive. But the FV peanut gallery obviously doesn’t.

  6. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Actually, David, Gary Johnson has said many substantial things on GreenBaggins. You have to follow the discussions to find this to be the case.

    Thanks, Lane for drawing our attention to this helpful book. I am not aware of many Reformed scholars that take an exception to the law/gospel distinction.

  7. GLW Johnson said,

    March 31, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Thank you SW.

  8. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 9:48 am

    By the way, I appreciated your book that you authored with my seminary prof. Fowler White. It is entitled, Whatever Happened to the Reformation. A timely subject considering the FV non-sense.

  9. GLW Johnson said,

    March 31, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Huh, there are parts of that book-one in particular- that I now regret.

  10. Chris Donato said,

    March 31, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Stephen Welch, but surely the only option isn’t simply a matter of “taking exceptions” to the law/gospel distinction? One also has to avoid the other extreme—categorizing everything in Scripture as either law or gospel. Which of our Reformed forebears (prior to later puritan English non-conformists) did that?

  11. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Oh, I would be a rich man, Gary if I went back and had to retract everything I have said or wrote and I am not an author of a book :-)

  12. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Chris, I do not believe that the law and gospel are to be taken as an exception in Reformed circles, at least if one is to be ordained to the ministry. The Westminster Confession of Faith shows a distinction between the two. The distinction was made by the reformers, particularly Calvin & Luther. Theodore Beza believed that ignorance of this distinction is what leads to abuses and corruptions in the church. I do agree with Lane that the law and gospel is found in all of Scripture because it is these two that help us rightly understand the Scriptures. This is not an extreme position. We have to understand the division or else we do fall into error. Which of our Reformed forebearers did what? Understood this distinction? All of the ones that wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith understood this distinction as important. That is an important thing to note. Without this distinction we fall into legalism or antinomianism. Certainly Dr. Sproul would hold this position.

  13. Chris Donato said,

    March 31, 2010 at 11:40 am

    What I meant was, can everything in the Bible be placed in either of these two categories? I’m not saying the distinction wasn’t (thankfully) made by our forebears; I’m wondering if it was always as procrustean as it sometimes sounds when coming from certain Reformed folk. Doesn’t this more extreme tendency potentially produce oversimplified and arid doctrine?

  14. jeffhutchinson said,

    March 31, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    (David, I’ve sent you an email offline.)

    (Woops. Our church email has been having “issues” for a couple of weeks, and now it isn’t sending the email for some reason. Sorry about that.)

  15. tim prussic said,

    March 31, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Chris, the radicalization of the law/gospel distinction (LGD) is very similar to the radicalization of the two-kingdoms (TK) view. Do we find the LGD and TK ideas in Reformed history? Absolutely and thankfully! The current handlers of these doctrines, however, PUSH them way further than did their forebearers. When someone like you ask a clear and thoughtful question (like, say, #11), the response is too often a slew of quotations from the forebearers regarding the LGD or TK ideas *generally*, followed by the indictment that if you don’t follow the current handlers’ extensions of those ideas, that you’ve departed from Orthodoxy. This is (in my experience) standard operating procedure at both Heidelblog and Old Life Theological Society.

    In any event, that’s my experience

  16. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Oh, I see what you are asking, Chris. I was not clear on your question. Yes, certainly we see a clear distinction between law and gospel, but as far as the placing every passage in Scripture into a category of law or gospel that may be a different matter. Chapter seven sections five and six of the Westminster Confession states that the covenant of grace is administered differently in the time of the law and the time of the gospel. It does lay out and explain the division between the two. It would be beneficial to look at Shaw’s explanation of this chapter. I am not sure that what Lane is talking about is an extreme position. I will let him address that. Why do you call this extreme, if you agree in the distinction?

  17. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Tim, I was not advocating a radical view of law and gospel, simply one that the Westminster Divines believed and expressed in the confession. Perhaps you can be more specific in what you have in mind as to an extreme. There is certainly a different understanding of this among Lutherans, but I am not sure if this was Luther’s view. Most Lutherans would reject a third use of the law.

  18. March 31, 2010 at 2:58 pm


    “This difference between the Lutherans and the Reformed arises out of the dialectical relationship of law and gospel in Lutheranism as opposed to the simple distinction of law and gospel within the one foedus gratiae held among the Reformed.”

    Has Richard Muller now denied sola fide? If not, then why have I supposedly denied it, since I am saying nothing other than this?

  19. tim prussic said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    SW, the LGD is biblical and necessary in reality. Further, it’s in the text (*some* texts are clearly oriented law-ward and *some* gospel-ward) and it’s also in the person (as Pr. Wilson had demonstrated). The radical part (and I don’t know where you stand on these issues, so I’m not accusing you) is the absolutizing of the LGD in hermeneutics (EVERY text is either law or gospel) or elevating the hermeneutics in toto the level of gospel faithfulness (if one denies the LGD in hermeneutics, he’s denying the gospel). The absolutizing is a very real problem right now; I’ve run across it enough to recognize it, and that is the radicalization I have in mind most.

  20. tim prussic said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    HEY WILSON, that Muller guy works at Calvin. Are you SURE you want to hitch your wagon to that horse? Don’t you already have enough problems? :)

  21. greenbaggins said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    If someone does not allow the LGD to be in the text, then faith is turned into Golawspel. How can it be otherwise? I happily acknowledge there are difficult passages to assign to one or the other. That is not the point (I’m addressing Tim in particular here). The point I have brought up with regard to Wilson is not whether the entire Scripture has to be rigidly separated into law or gospel, but whether the distinction is in the passages having to do with justification. I am not making the denial of sola fide the inevitable result of denying a rigid law/gospel distinction regarding every text of the Bible. I am making the denial of sola fide the result of denying that any texts, especially those regarding justification, can be divided into law/gospel. I am getting the feeling here that all of WSC’s distinctives are being imputed to me (pardon the pun), and that I am now Scott Clark’s puppet. I greatly respect Scott, and think him much maligned by the FV faction, but my argument is not being addressed by anyone yet, as far as I can see.

  22. tim prussic said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Pr. Lane, by “in the text” do you mean in our hermeneutics? The Bible doesn’t demand that, in order to be justified, we view this text this way and that one that way. It demands that we cast aside everything and cling to Christ alone by faith alone. That’s a thing in reality not a thing in the text. Now, the concept behind the LGD, as relates to justification, is quite a necessary thing. Distinguishing the free offer of the gospel from any demands of the law and what we can do is crucial. Once again, that’s the concept applied to the person in reality, not to this or that text of Scripture.

    Have I begun to address your argument? I’m not trying to be obtuse (it just comes naturally).

  23. Tom Wenger said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:27 pm


    Here are a few examples that span time and the various strains within the Reformed tradition. There’s a lot more from Calvin, Ursinus, à Brakel, and Twisse, but these are a good sampling I think. You’ll find nothing radical about them; just vintage Reformed distinctives. But they appear radical to those who are not well versed in our tradition.

    William Perkins
    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…. 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 Law is, therefore, first in order of teaching; then comes the gospel. [William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 54.]

    [T]he consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness. For since, as we have elsewhere shown, the law leaves no one righteous, either it excludes us from all hope of justification or we ought to be freed from it, and in such a way, indeed, that no account is taken of works. For he who thinks that in order to obtain righteousness he ought to bring some trifle of works is incapable of determining their measure and limit but makes himself debtor to the whole law. Removing, then, mention of law, and laying aside all consideration of works, we should, when justification is being discussed, embrace God’s mercy alone, turn our attention from ourselves, and look only to Christ. For there the question is not how we may become righteous but how, being unrighteous and unworthy, we may be reckoned righteous. If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law.

    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 [our] righteousness. [Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.18]

    Theodore Beza
    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. [Theodor Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (East Sussex, UK: Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992) 4.22. ]

    J. Gresham Machen
    A new and more powerful proclamation of law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skillful in relieving men of their burdens… ‘Making Christ Master’ in the life, putting into practice ‘the principles of Christ’ by one’s own efforts-these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one’s obedience to God’s commands. [J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 141-142]

    Louis Berkhof
    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.

  24. GLW Johnson said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Would you be willing to have the FV assessed by Muller’s work?

  25. greenbaggins said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    By the LGD, I am referring to whether a text is law or gospel, CoW or CoG, not merely in our interpretation, but whether it in fact is law or gospel.

    It comes to a focus in our definition of faith. If we interpret the definition of faith to be both law and gospel, then we are saved not by grace alone, but by grace and law. But if the Scripture says that faith is not of the law in justification, or it says that the law is not of faith in justification, which the Scripture does say, then we mix the categories of law and gospel in the text to our peril.

  26. pduggie said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    What hermeneutical rule will we use to determine if it is law or gospel? Simply if it is an imperative or an indicative? I hope not.

  27. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Thanks, Lane for explaining this further. I understand your explanation and do not see that it is a radical departure as what some think. I do not subscribe to everything Scott Clark believes, but he is solid and has done a great service to the church in exposing the FV. Perhaps a few may be imputing the WS/Cal. distinctives to you, but that is not my intent.

  28. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Paul, I think Lane has already explained his position.

  29. pduggie said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    I like how Dennison et al handle it. Sometimes the expression is expressed absolutely, but the contrast is actually relative

    “However, our exegetical argument is that Paul is fundamentally interpreting Lev. 18:5 correctly and that Lev. 18:5 in its original context (insofar as it was administered to believing Israelites) was grounded in individual redemptive grace. As a result, the actual practice of Lev. 18:5 by believing Israelites were dependent on their faith in that redemptive grace and presupposes both grace and faith. This suggests that Paul (insofar as he was contrasting the new covenant to the faith of Israel) is only making a relative contrast between the grace administered through the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant”

    “For example, since Paul must have recognized the grace of redemption in Lev. 18:5, it follows that when he said “the law is not of faith” (insofar as he was contrasting the actual administration of the old covenant to Israel with the new covenant), he was not saying the law is completely devoid of faith in God’s redemptive promises, as WSCal implies. To interpret Paul this way would put him at odds with Leviticus. Instead, we suggest that he means to contrast the greater faith of the new age to the beggarly faith of the old. This contrast is found later in Gal. 3 when Paul states: “when faith came.” Does this mean that faith did not exist at all before Christ’s coming? Certainly not. Instead, by making this statement, Paul simply highlights the greater faith and grace that has come in the new covenant. However, when Paul looks through the formal curse on regenerate Israel to the actual curse on the unregenerate whole world, his words should be taken in their full antithetical force, the law is not of faith in God’s redemptive promises in any sense. For here the law is tied, not to the Mosaic covenant, but to the covenant of works with Adam”

    Emphasis added.

  30. pduggie said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    @28, actually he said the question bothered him and was concerned him that an answer in the imperative might confuse people.

    maybe that was a “yes”?

  31. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 31, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Paul, what is your point? I am not following you at all.

  32. tim prussic said,

    March 31, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Pastor Lane, I don’t think your comment (#25) helps me understand you any better. I think you are confusing two things: the text of Scripture and the actual justification of a sinner.

    You say that “the Scripture says that faith is not of the law in justification, or it says that the law is not of faith in justification, which the Scripture does say, then we mix the categories of law and gospel in the text to our peril.”

    So, regarding justification, “faith” is not of this set of law-verses but that set? How are you wrapping up the justification of a sinner in the division of text of Scripture? Does not “faith not of the law and the law not of faith” have to do with an actual person either seeking to be right with God in his own merits or in those of the Mediator? What does that have to do with calling this text law and that gospel? Again, you’re mixing up (at least) how you designate various texts of Scripture or (at most) that actual identity of those texts of Scripture with the actual sinner coming to faith… I just don’t get it. What am I missing?

  33. greenbaggins said,

    March 31, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Tim, try my recent post for more clarification on this issue.

  34. pduggie said,

    March 31, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    My point is that the Decalogue (law) gets pulled into the covenant of grace in the very least as a rule of life for the believer. Lane says he wants to determine “whether a text is law or gospel, CoW or CoG, not merely in our interpretation, but whether it in fact is law or gospel.”

    The text of the Decalogue can be used in the CoW, or in the CoG. we have to interpret it. It isn’t “law” as some uninterpreted fact.

    Lane has set himself what seems to me an impossible task. The same text can be both. If he’s just going to declare that all imperatives are law IN THE COVENANT OF WORKS sense (which is how he said he wants to define law) he’s going to mess up.

  35. Kris Kord said,

    April 1, 2010 at 12:53 am

    The distinction between Law and Gospel in Scripture cannot be denied. Yet it is not a hard and fast hermeneutic.

    In relation to how a person can obtain reconciliation to God, the only use of the Law is to show us that we are incapable of the obedience that would be required to please Him. Trusting in the perfect obedience, and substitutionary atonement of Christ alone is where the sinner is compelled to turn.

    In relation to our progressive sanctification, the Law becomes a straight path and narrow way to conformity to Christ. The believer is compelled to trust in Christ for grace to become more like his Master.

    In relation to our comprehension of the nature of God, the Law reveals His justice, goodness, and holiness to us in tangible terms. The wise man is gripped with a sense of fear and wonder at His glory.

    There are so many biblical uses for the Law; to confine it to a strict distinction from the Gospel does injustice to God’s perfect Word. It relegates the use of the Law to evangelism alone, leaving no purpose for it in the life of the believer. Eventually such a dichotomy will lead to antinomianism.

    Remember that despite the very necessary distinction between the Law and the Gospel, the Law is also a part of the Gospel in at least two ways.

    First, in Christ’s active obedience to it, which is imputed to us through faith. If Christ had not fulfilled the Law, only half of our salvation would have been accomplished. In this way the Law becomes an important means of expressing the good news of salvation through faith in Christ alone.

    Second, in our personal sanctification, wherein we become conformed Christ, who is the very embodiment of the Law. Our imperfect obedience to the commands of scripture does not in any way commend us to God, and therefore it does not nullify the Gospel. In point of fact, it is part of how the promises of the Gospel are fulfilled in us.

  36. curate said,

    April 1, 2010 at 1:07 am

    May I suggest that both Lane and Doug define for us what they mean by law and gospel? Perhaps Lane could spell out what Paul means by law when he excludes law from justification. Does Paul mean each and every possible command, including the command to believe and be baptised?

    What is the law that the Gentiles neither have nor need for justification?
    What is the law that they do have, that is written on their hearts?
    What is the law that only the Jews have/had?
    Why is believing obedience to a law, but excluded from the law in justification?
    Are sacraments included under the heading of law?

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