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The Distinction between Law and Gospel in Reformed Faith and Practice

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The power of God's law is such that nothing else can meet it but the power of Christ's Gospel.

There is no "rightly dividing the Word of truth" if we confuse law and gospel. Both are essential--neither can be ignored and both are distinct. Commands and promises not only teach different things, they do different things. I agree with Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor in Geneva, who said that "ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity." (1) In recent years, though, I have heard some people say that this is just a Lutheran axiom.

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1 [ Back ] Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992), 41ff.
2 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 3.11.14-15.
3 [ Back ] Wilhelm Niesel, Reformed Symbolics: A Comparison of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism, trans. David Lewis (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962), 217
4 [ Back ] Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, from the 1852 Second American Edition), 1-3.
5 [ Back ] Cited by Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Ernst Bizer, trans. G. T. Thomson (London: Wakeman Great Reprints, from 1950 edition), 290.
6 [ Back ] Petrus Dathenus, The Pearl of Christian Comfort (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Press, 1986, reprint).
7 [ Back ] Louis Berkhof, "The Law and the Gospel in the Word of God," Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 112: "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 the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ. And each one of these two parts has its own proper function in the economy of grace."
8 [ Back ] J. Van Bruggen, Annotations on the Heidelberg Catechism (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1998), 170.
9 [ Back ] Robert Rollock, "A Treatise of Our Effectual Calling and of Certain Common-Places of Theology Contained Under It," in Select Works of Robert Rollock, ed. William M. Gunn, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Woodrow Society, 1849), especially chapter 2.
10 [ Back ] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 54.
11 [ Back ] Perkins, 60.
12 [ Back ] Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. VII: "The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. Man, by his Fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe."
13 [ Back ] Samuel Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace (Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Tentmaker Publications, 2008, reprint), 72.
14 [ Back ] J. Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999, reprint), xxv.
15 [ Back ] Colquhoun, xxvi.
16 [ Back ] James Buchanan, On "The Tracts for the Times" (Edinburgh: John Johnstone (London: R. Groombridge, 1843), 102.
17 [ Back ] C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit. Sermon preached 2 March 1856, available online:
18 [ Back ] John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, reprint 1991), 181.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Rightly Dividing the Word" Sept./Oct. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 5 Page number(s): 12-14

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