Most know William Tyndale (1484-1536) as one of the most important figures in translating the Scriptures for the English-speaking world. But rarely discussed are his deep, pastoral concerns that all who read those Scriptures must understand the distinction between the law and the gospel. In fact, Tyndale saw this as so crucial that he wrote a lengthy Prologue for his new translation that focused on unpacking the importance of this distinction. Knowing that many of his readers would be handling the Scriptures themselves for the first time, Tyndale's Prologue is an impassioned plea for them to understand the roles of the law and the gospel before they read the Bible so that they will divide it rightly from the very beginning. As he says at the outset:
Nevertheless, seeing that it hath pleased God to send unto our Englishmen…the scripture in their mother tongue, considering that there be in every place false teachers and blind leaders; that ye should be deceived of no man, I supposed it very necessary to prepare this Pathway into the scripture for you, that ye might walk surely, and ever know the true from the false: and, above all, to put you in remembrance of certain points, which are, that ye well understand what these words mean; the Old Testament; the New Testament; the law, the gospel; Moses, Christ; nature, grace; working and believing; deeds and faith; lest we ascribe to the one that which belongeth to the other, and make of Christ Moses; of the gospel, the law; despise grace, and rob faith.
Tyndale was so adamant about the importance of this understanding that at the conclusion of the work he stated:
These things, I say, to know, is to have all the scripture unlocked and opened before thee; so that if thou wilt go in, and read, thou canst not but understand. And in these things to be ignorant, is to have all the scripture locked up; so that the more thou readest it, the blinder thou art, and the more contrariety thou findest in it, and the more tangled art thou therein….Herewith, reader, be committed unto the grace of our Savior Jesus; unto whom, and God our Father through him, be praise for ever and for ever. Amen.
As he unfolds his explanation he demonstrates an insightful grasp of redemptive history and couples it with such practical pastoral teaching, it is hard to believe this piece is not read and discussed more often. The Prologue, which scholars think is Tyndale's first original work, was written no later than 1525, and such an early date makes it all the more intriguing. Tyndale later republished it in 1532, with a few minor revisions, as A Pathway into the Holy Scripture. The brief portions quoted here are from that work.
Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word; and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man's heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy: as when David had killed Goliath the giant, came glad tidings unto the Jews, that their fearful and cruel enemy was slain, and they delivered out of all danger: for gladness whereof, they sung, danced, and were joyful. In like manner is the Evangelion of God (which we call gospel; and the New Testament) joyful tidings; and, as some say, a good hearing published by the apostles throughout all the world, of Christ the right David; how that he hath fought with sin, with death, and the devil, and overcome them: whereby all men that were in bondage to sin, wounded with death, overcome of the devil, are, without their own merits or deservings, loosed, justified, restored to life and saved, brought to liberty and reconciled unto the favor of God, and set at one with him again: which tidings as many as believe laud, praise, and thank God; are glad, sing and dance for joy….
"The law" (saith the gospel of John in the first chapter) "was given by Moses: but grace and verity by Jesus Christ." The law (whose minister is Moses) was given to bring us unto the knowledge of ourselves, that we might thereby feel and perceive what we are, of nature. The law condemneth us and all our deeds; and is called of Paul (in 2 Corinthians 3) the ministration of death. For it killeth our consciences, and driveth us to desperation; inasmuch as it requireth of us that which is impossible for our nature to do. It requireth of us the deeds of an whole man. It requireth perfect love, from the low bottom and ground of the heart, as well in all things which we suffer, as in the things which we do. But, saith John in the same place, "grace and verity is given us in Christ:" so that, when the law hath passed upon us, and condemned us to death (which is his nature to do), then we have in Christ grace, that is to say, favor, promises of life, of mercy, of pardon, freely, by the merits of Christ; and in Christ have we verity and truth, in that God for his sake fulfilleth all his promises to them that believe.
Therefore is the Gospel the ministration of life. Paul calleth it, in the fore-rehearsed place of the 2 Corinthians 3 the ministration of the Spirit and of righteousness. In the gospel, when we believe the promises, we receive the spirit of life; and are justified, in the blood of Christ, from all things whereof the law condemned us. And we receive love unto the law, and power to fulfill it, and grow therein daily. Of Christ it is written, in the fore-rehearsed John 1. This is he of whose abundance, or fullness, all we have received grace for grace, or favor for favor. That is to say, For the favor that God hath to his Son Christ, he giveth unto us his favor and good-will, and all gifts of his grace, as a father to his sons. As affirmeth Paul, saying, "Which loved us in his Beloved before the creation of the world." So that Christ bringeth the love of God unto us, and not our own holy works. Christ is made Lord over all, and is called in scripture God's mercy-stool: whosoever therefore flieth to Christ, can neither hear nor receive of God any other thing save mercy.
In the Old Testament are many promises, which are nothing else but the Evangelion or gospel, to save those that believed them from the vengeance of the law. And in the New Testament is oft made mention of the law, to condemn them which believe not the promises. Moreover, the law and the gospel may never be separate: for the gospel and promises serve but for troubled consciences, which are brought to desperation, and feel the pains of hell and death under the law, and are in captivity and bondage under the law. In all my deeds I must have the law before me, to condemn mine imperfectness. For all that I do (be I never so perfect) is yet damnable sin, when it is compared to the law, which requireth the ground and bottom of mine heart. I must therefore have always the law in my sight, that I may be meek in the spirit, and give God all the laud and praise, ascribing to him all righteousness, and to myself all unrighteousness and sin. I must also have the promises before mine eyes, that I despair not; in which promises I see the mercy, favor, and good-will of God upon me in the blood of his Son Christ, which hath made satisfaction for mine imperfectness, and fulfilled for me that which I could not do….
The right Christian man consenteth to the law that it is righteous, and justifieth God in the law; for he affirmeth that God is righteous and just, which is author of the law. He believeth the promises of God; and justifieth God, judging him true, and believing that he will fulfill his promises. With the law he condemneth himself, and all his deeds, and giveth all the praise to God. He believeth the promises, and ascribeth all truth to God: thus, everywhere, justifieth he God, and praiseth God….
For when the evangelion is preached, the Spirit of God entereth into them which God hath ordained and appointed unto eternal life; and openeth their inward eyes, and worketh such belief in them. When the woful consciences feel and taste how sweet a thing the bitter death of Christ is, and how merciful and loving God is, through Christ's purchasing and merits; they begin to love again, and to consent to the law of God, how that it is good and ought so to be, and that God is righteous which made it; and desire to fulfill the law, even as a sick man desireth to be whole, and are an hungered [sic] and thirst after more righteousness, and after more strength, to fulfill the law more perfectly. And in all that they do, or omit and leave undone, they seek God's honor and his will with meekness, ever condemning the imperfectness of their deeds by the law.
In this article, the author has quoted from William Tyndale, "A Pathway into the Holy Scriptures," in Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848).