The Distinction between Law and Gospel in Reformed Faith and Practice

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

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.

First, many who say this have not really understood the point. Some seem to think it means that the law is bad and the gospel is good, but this misunderstands the position. No less than the Reformed has Lutheranism affirmed God's law. Furthermore, both traditions hold that the law is good not only in exposing our guilt so we will flee to Christ (the "first use"), but also in its third use (guiding believers). In fact, this "third use" was first advanced by Luther's associate Philip Melanchthon and is affirmed in the Book of Concord. The law and the gospel are not opposed in the abstract (as if God's command could be inherently opposed to his promise), but in the concrete situation of our condemnation in which the question arises as to how we can be right with God.

Second, many who say this have not observed the numerous references to this distinction, which is accepted as a standard rule of thumb in our circles. Calvin, Beza, Knox, and Cranmer all affirmed it. Calvin says that his critics "still do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal. 3:11-12]….[N]ot even spiritual works come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith." It is the chief mistake of the medieval scholastics "who mingle their concoctions" to "interpret the grace of God not as the imputation of free righteousness but as the Spirit helping in the pursuit of holiness." (2)

In his Reformed Symbolics, Wilhelm Niesel observes, "Reformed theology recognises the contrast between Law and Gospel, in a way similar to Lutheranism. We read in the Second Helvetic Confession: 'The Gospel is indeed opposed to the Law. For the Law works wrath and pronounces a curse, whereas the Gospel preaches grace and blessing.'" (3)

As early as the first page of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus (the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism) states:

The doctrine of the church is the entire and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and gospel concerning the true God, together with his will, works, and worship….The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures….Therefore, the law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein…for the law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ, constraining us to fly to him, and showing us what that righteousness is, which he has wrought out, and now offers unto us. But the gospel, professedly, treats of the person, office, and benefits of Christ. Therefore we have, in the law and gospel, the whole of the Scriptures comprehending the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation….The law prescribes and enjoins what is to be done, and forbids what ought to be avoided: whilst the gospel announces the free remission of sin, through and for the sake of Christ….The law is known from nature; the gospel is divinely revealed….The law promises life upon the condition of perfect obedience; the gospel, on the condition of faith in Christ and the commencement of new obedience. (4)

Peter van Mastricht recognized that a failure to distinguish law and gospel, or the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, leads inevitably to treating the gospel as a "new law" and a denial of Christ's all-sufficient salvation. (5) In his Pearl of Christian Comfort, the formative Dutch minister Petrus Dathenus takes as its main thesis that its interlocutor did not know how to properly distinguish law and gospel because of the preaching she evidently had to endure. (6)

The continental Reformed theologians during and immediately following the Reformation period were unanimous in this respect, and the significant structural place they give to law and gospel in their systems is evident even as recently as Louis Berkhof's opening to his Systematic Theology in the section, "The Word of God as a Means of Grace." (7) J. Van Bruggen adds more recently, "The [Heidelberg] Catechism, thus, mentions the gospel and deliberately does not speak of 'the Word of God,' because the Law does not work faith. The Law (Law and gospel are the two parts of the Word which may be distinguished) judges; it does not call a person to God and does not work trust in him. The gospel does that." (8)

Reformed theology in Britain followed the same course. The law-gospel distinction is carefully developed by the early Scottish theologian Robert Rollock. (9) According to William Perkins, father of Elizabethan Puritanism, "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….The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel." (10) Even believers need to hear the Bible preached and applied with a clear view of this distinction. "Our sanctification is partial as yet. In order that the remnants of sin may be destroyed we must always begin with meditation on the law, and with a sense of our sin, in order to be brought to rest in the gospel." (11)

The law-gospel distinction is enshrined in the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace as it is taught in the Westminster Standards. (12) It is replete in the sermons and theological treatises of Episcopal Puritans such as Perkins, Richard Sibbes, and Archbishop Ussher; Presbyterian Puritans such as Thomas Cartwright and Thomas Watson; and Independents such as John Owen and Thomas Goodwin. In commenting on Hebrews 12:18-24, John Owen contrasts Sinai and Zion in terms of law and gospel. The moral law is still obligatory for believers, Samuel Petto observes; however, "they take it not from the hand of Moses, in its terror and rigour, but from the hand of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed from the curse of it." (13)

In his Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, J. Colquhoun (1748-1827) noted in his introduction, "Every passage of sacred Scripture is either law or gospel, or is capable of being referred either to the one or to the other." (14) In fact, he warns critics, "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." (15)

Jumping ahead to the nineteenth century, we encounter the same emphasis across a broad spectrum. We find it throughout the work of Bishop Ryle, and Scottish Presbyterian James Buchanan recalled the distinction as he challenged trends in his own day:

If [one's] conscience has really been quickened by the power of God's Word and Spirit, it cannot be pacified but by the simple faith of Christ. The power of God's law is such that nothing else can meet it but the power of Christ's Gospel. A sense of God's wrath in the conscience can only be allayed by a view of God's reconciliation in the cross. Man's inventions, man's instrumentality, man's authority, are nothing in such a case, and have no power; they may palliate, but they cannot cure the agony of a wounded spirit, –they may perplex, they cannot pacify a troubled conscience. None but CHRIST, beheld by the eye of faith, in the glory of his divine majesty, the tenderness of his human sympathies, the fullness of his gospel offices, the perfection of his finished work, the efficacy of his one atonement and constant intercession, the greatness of his Almighty power, and the riches and freeness of his grace. None but CHRIST, and Christ without any other, can bind up the broken-hearted, and give liberty to the captive soul. (16)

Charles Spurgeon, a Calvinistic Baptist, said,

There cannot be a greater difference in the world between two things than there is between law and grace. And yet, strange to say, while the things are diametrically opposed and essentially different from each other, the human mind is so depraved, and the intellect, even when blessed by the Spirit, has become so turned aside from right judgment, that one of the most difficult things in the world is to discriminate properly between law and grace. He who knows the difference, and always recollects it–the essential difference between law and grace–has grasped the marrow of divinity. He is not far from understanding the gospel theme in all its ramifications, its outlets, and its branches, who can properly tell the difference between law and grace. There is always in a science some part which is very simple and easy when we have learned it, but which, in the commencement, stands like a high threshold before the porch. Now, the first difficulty in striving to learn the gospel is this, between law and grace there is a difference plain enough to every Christian, and especially to every enlightened and instructed one; but still, when most enlightened and instructed, there is always a tendency in us to confound the two things. They are as opposite as light and darkness, and can no more agree than fire and water; yet man will be perpetually striving to make a compound of them–often ignorantly, and sometimes willfully. They seek to blend the two, when God has positively put them asunder. (17)

Closer to our own time, Westminster Theological Seminary's John Murray warned, "In the degree to which error is entertained at this point, in the same degree is our conception of the gospel perverted….What was the question that aroused the apostle [Paul] to such passionate zeal and holy indignation, indignation that has its kinship with the imprecatory utterances of the Old Testament? In a word it was the relation of law and gospel." (18)

As I point out in my article "Rightly Dividing the Word: Negotiating Continuity and Discontinuity" (see page 15), the art of distinguishing law and gospel does not mean simply dividing every sermon into a "law" section and a "gospel" section. Nor does it eliminate the importance of the third use of law as the way of gratitude. It simply means that every time we preach, hear, or read God's Word, we recall that God not only tells us what to do but announces to us what he has done for us in his Son.

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.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, September 1st 2010

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