Chapter 1 Part One: The Law-Gospel Distinction

In the first chapter, Frame attempts to describe what the Escondido Theology is. This chapter is certainly a bit closer to the mark than the bullet points in the Preface. However, as we will see, some of the same caricatures are present.

He argues that WSC does not teach a mere generic Calvinism: “Rather, in addition to standard Calvinism, it teaches an innovative set of doctrines upon which the Reformed tradition has never agreed” (p. 1). A couple of thoughts are in order here. How can this “set of doctrines” be innovative if the Reformed tradition has never agreed upon it? If the Reformed tradition has never agreed upon it, that means that the doctrines in question have been around for at least a while.

The first doctrine he talks about is the law-gospel distinction. This is hardly innovative. And, as these posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) show, it is hardly only Lutheran. The Reformed tradition had more than a sliver of it believing in the law-gospel distinction as a hermeneutical tool.

Frame writes, “The Escondido theologians are offended by the degree to which present day churches neglect justification and focus on other things” (p. 1). I am not sure what Frame means to imply by this sentence. Is he implying that WSC theologians are personally offended by this? Is this intended to be a negative judgment?

Frame goes on to say, “They are also motivated by a desire to oppose what they regard as theological corruptions of the Reformation doctrine, particularly the views of N.T. Wright, Norman Shepherd, and the movement called Federal Vision.” I would be a whole lot more comfortable with this sentence had Frame struck out the words “what they regard as.” These distancing words would seem to imply that Frame does not regard Wright, Shepherd, and the FV to be corruptions of the Reformation doctrine. Also, I would think a more charitable way of phrasing this motivation would be that the WSC theologians are motivated by a desire to defend the truth (are they really motivated by opposition, or are they motivated by the truth?).

Frame, of course, rejects the law-gospel distinction himself. He rejects it in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, and he rejects it here. This paragraph is worth quoting in full, as it contains his arguments against the law-gospel distinction:

It certainly makes sense to say that we must not confuse God’s demands with his promises. Nevertheless, the kind of sharp distinction Luther proposed is not biblical. For one thing, biblical proclamations of gospel include commands, particularly commands to repent and believe (Mark 1:15, Acts 2:28). And God gave his law to Israel in a context of gospel: he had delivered them out of Egypt, and because of this gracious act they should keep his law (Exo. 20:2-17). The law is a gift of God’s grace (Psa. 119:29). Evidently the relation between law and gospel is more complicated than Luther thought (p. 2).

First of all, the commands to believe are usually called evangelical obedience, rather than law-obedience (Thomas Boston would go this direction, for instance). Secondly, if one reads John Colquhoun’s treatise, one realizes that a passage can be law, or gospel, or both. Thirdly, in the Ten Commandments, it is freely acknowledged by law-gospel advocates that the Ten Commandments come in a context of grace. I’m not sure why that would be an impediment to the law-gospel distinction. WSC folks would probably respond by saying that the preface to the Ten Commandments is gospel, and the law is law. Fourthly, as to Psalm 119:29, of course the law is a gift of grace. That does not turn the law into gospel. For the pedagogical use of the law (which use is itself gracious!) drives us to Christ. God gave us the law for several reasons, one of which is to drive us to Christ. It is certainly grace to drive us to Christ. But that is different from saying that the law is itself gospel. Evidently, the relation between law and gospel in the theology of the law-gospel advocates is more complicated than Frame thinks it is.

Frame notes what he thinks are two failures of the WSC theologians: 1. They fail to notice the problems with the law-gospel distinction. 2. They “fail to understand that the law is not only a terrifying set of commands to drive us to Christ, but is also the gentle voice of the Lord, showing his people that the best blessings of this life come from following his will” (p. 2). WSC theologians fail to notice the problems that Frame points out because they are not problems for the law-gospel distinction. Advocates have noted these objections before and answered them. As to the second point, Frame seems to be accusing the WSC theologians of denying the third use of the law. Whether this is an accurate assessment of Frame’s charge here or not, Frame is off the mark. WSC theologians do not deny the third use of the law any more than Lutherans do (there is an entire section in the Augsburg Confession devoted to the third use of the law). Let us be clear on what we do mean and what we do not mean by the law-gospel distinction. The law is opposed to the gospel only in the matter of justification. But think of it as a “good cop-bad cop” situation. The “bad cop” is the law, which makes threats such that the prisoner hears the “good cop” of the gospel and knows that grace is necessary. However, after the prisoner has been freed from the law of sin and death, his relationship to the law changes completely, and the law is now his friend, being a wise guide to the Christian life. Now, the pedagogical use of the law still exists for the Christian, but not in any sort of conflict with the third use of the law. I can’t imagine any WSC theologian having a problem with what I have just written. And it answers all the points raised by Frame on the Law-Gospel distinction. We’ll be spending a bit of time on this chapter, and less time on the succeeding chapters.