Book Review

"A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel" by John Colquhoun (1748-1827)

Austin Britton
John Colquhoun
Friday, April 30th 2010
May/Jun 2010

If not familiar with law and gospel, one might identify the former with something like People's Court and the latter with a smiling evangelist saying, "God loves you." Fortunately, the nature of the relationship between law and gospel as found in Reformed theology is precisely the subject of John Colquhoun's (pronounced "ka-hoon") recently republished A Treatise on The Law and the Gospel, which–in the humble opinion of this reviewer–might be the most important book that both pastors and laypersons can put on their shelves.

Colquhoun spends the first chapter unpacking God's law as it is written on the hearts of all people in creation, how this law was then given under the form of a covenant of works to Adam, and finally how the law comes as a rule of life in the hand of Christ, the mediator to all true believers. The first chapter lays the foundation of what is then unpacked in the following four chapters, which deal with the law. Without wanting to give a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary, which Joel Beeke provides in the new introduction of this book, I will comment on some of the highlights.

The strength of this book is how Colquhoun connects and discerns his ideas. His sentences are tight and exacting. For instance, in distinguishing how God's natural law and his positive law derive authority, he writes: "The former are 'holy, just and good,' and therefore are commanded, the latter are commanded, and are therefore 'holy, just, and good.'" These types of quotes are characteristic of the book, which is why my copy is marked up quite severely with underlines, highlights, and marginalia.

Of particular note in the first four chapters of the book is Colquhoun's treatment of the law as put forth at Mount Sinai to the Israelites. This has long been an area of disagreement among many in the Reformed community. Colquhoun's voice on this issue is a most useful one, and his contribution should not be overlooked. The first four chapters conclude by discussing the properties and principles of the moral law. Colquhoun shows how the law comes to unbelievers to drive them to the gospel.

The gospel then is defined broadly by Colquhoun as the whole of divine truth, which consists of both law and gospel and is thus gospel in a full sense. Yet, Colquhoun is quick to provide the more narrow definition of the gospel as "good news, glad tidings, or a joyful message." Strictly speaking, the gospel in its narrow definition is, as Dr. J. Gresham Machen put it so well, "a piece of news." Colquhoun then takes pains to show that the gospel is not "repent and believe," which is rather the law in subservience to the gospel. Rather, the gospel is comprised of external promises. The gospel then commands nothing, says Colquhoun, "but it declares to us what God in Christ as a God of grace has done, and what He promises to do for us and in us and by us."

Colquhoun next moves to distinguish between law and gospel in chapters 5, 6, and 7 and then turns around to show their intimate relationship in chapters 8 and 9. The gospel is not the law, nor is the law gospel, but gospel and law are connected to each other. As only Colquhoun writes, "By the harmony of the law and the gospel is meant their mutual subservience to one another, or their admirable fitness for securing and advancing the honor of each other in subordination to the glory of God." The law and the gospel harmonize because "the law, as a covenant of works and a rule of life, demands nothing of sinners but what is offered and promised in the gospel; and in the gospel everything freely promised and offered to them is that which the law, in any of its forms, requires."

This reviewer did find Colquhoun's discussion about the necessity of good works for salvation (not justification) a little too brief, particularly in how the external form of good works can be shared between believers and nonbelievers even though the internal manner and motive is different. Instead of an extended discussion on that matter, however, Colquhoun does have a useful discourse on how to understand the role of rewards in heaven (which he mentions in several chapters). In the opinion of this reviewer, this is an area needing development in Reformed theology and Colquhoun's treatment was a welcome surprise.

In conclusion, this book is well worth the money and also worth a careful read. Although Colquhoun states in the introduction that he is prone to repeat himself, this reviewer found him doing so very purposefully. This serves the reader in that Colquhoun expresses the same thought in a variety of ways before a chapter is over. This displays Colquhoun's mastery of the topic and serves to make one consider this book as a masterpiece on the law and gospel.

Friday, April 30th 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology