Distinct but Inseparable Series, No. 2
“Law and Gospel”
August 19, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We have begun a new series of Lord’s Day morning sermons on famous pairs of biblical truth whose relationship to one another is often confused and so continues to be controversial. They belong to a large set of biblical doctrines and existential realities that the wiser sort of Christian theologians has taught us can be and must be distinguished from one another – each being given its own distinct definition – but must never be separated from one another. Classic examples are, of course, the unity of God and the triple personality of God, or the deity of Jesus Christ and his authentic humanity. Different things to be sure, but essential to hold together in harmony. Last Lord’s Day we took up the first such pair: historia salutis, the once for all accomplishment of the Lord Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection, and ordo salutis, the outworking of salvation in a person’s own time and space; his or her new birth, justification, sanctification, and so on. They are definitely two different things, two different sets of events, events that happen in different ways at different times; but, as two horizons of the same salvation, they absolutely depend upon one another. Without the one the other cannot be understood. They must be given their separate definitions and explanations, they must be described in ways peculiar to each, they must certainly be distinguished from one another; but, they must never be separated. They must neither be confused nor separated. This morning we move on to another famous such pair: law and gospel. I have chosen to read this one among the many texts I might have read because it places law and gospel side by side in an illuminating way.
v.8 Taking these verses together then, notice what is said about the law and the gospel. The law was powerless to deliver us from the power of sin and so God did that by his Son’s death on the cross. It is by Christ alone that the requirements of the law are met both on our behalf and in our lives, for now that we are in Christ we are no longer subject to condemnation and now that we are in Christ we walk or live in the way of God’s commandments, the very thing we did not do and could not do before we had faith in Jesus. Unbelievers will not and cannot submit to God’s law, but Christians will. As the British novelist, W.H. Auden put it, describing human beings as they are in themselves: “We would rather be ruined than changed.” But Christians, now free from the condemnation of the law, willingly submit to its demands. Indeed, as Augustine put it, “Grace is given that the law might be fulfilled.” Or as Ralph Erskine put it in his Gospel Sonnets:
To run and work the law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But better news the gospel brings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
The law can both condemn us for our failure to obey its precepts and can direct our steps once we are willing to obey its precepts, but it cannot itself change us from being unwilling to willing, unable to able. So far Romans 8.
Now if you were a Lutheran, you would hear much more about law and gospel than do Reformed Christians. Lutherans have been taught to think about everything in the Christian life in terms of law and gospel. But Reformed Christians have also thought long and hard about both the law and the gospel. And one must think hard about these things because there is a good bit of biblical data to sort through. What, for example, are we to do with Paul’s statement in Romans 6:14? There he says to his Christian readers: “…you are not under law but under grace”? That statement has been interpreted in many ways. Some have said that Paul means that we no longer have to obey the Ten Commandments; the rules of life have been changed. Christians are no longer under the authority of the law; they have a new authority. Others have thought that he means that whereas in the ancient epoch religion had a legal, if not legalistic strain, this has now been done away with and Christians have been set free to live strictly according to the principle of love.
The problem with such suggestions is that they are very difficult to square with many other things that Paul says. For example, in his exposition of justification by faith earlier in Romans, the Apostle is careful to remove any misconception regarding the law of God. In Romans 3:31 he writes: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” In 7:12 he assures his readers that there is nothing wrong with the law of God. Indeed “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” A few verses later he reminds them that the law is “spiritual.” It doesn’t belong to the realm of the flesh, of the fallen human nature, and of death; but to the realm of God and life. Later, in Paul’s ethical instruction, in 13:8-10, he repeats some of the Ten Commandments and their summary, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as the obligations to which every Christian remains subject. And here in Romans 8 it is precisely the requirements of the law that are now to be met in the Christian’s life. And throughout Romans Paul refers to the law as God’s law, God’s will for human life. Throughout the New Testament the law of God remains the transcript of that life that Christians are to live, indeed, that life that Christ saved them to live. As Paul tartly put it in 1 Corinthians: “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision but keeping the commandments of God.”
When Paul writes in Romans 6 that Christians are no longer under the law but are under grace the most likely understanding of his remark is that believers in Jesus are no longer under the condemnation of the law because they now live under God’s favor, the very point he makes in Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” [Cranfield, ICC, vol. I, 319-320]
Still, that is hardly all that needs to be said. Law and gospel are not the same thing. In fact, though both the law and the gospel come from God and have his authority behind them, they are two essentially different revelations of his will. Both have God as their author, both are concerned with the same perfect righteousness, both are addressed to human beings, but the law is an expression of God’s holiness while the gospel is an expression of God’s grace; the law demands perfect righteousness while the gospel actually grants that righteousness to human beings. The law demands but cannot grant; the gospel grants what the law demands. Because of universal human sin the law can only condemn people; but the gospel acquits them and liberates them from the law’s condemning power.
The two things are definitely and obviously not the same. The law is the sum of God’s commandments, his orders for our life. The law tells us what we are to do; how we are to live. It includes both the promise of reward for obedience and the promise of punishment for disobedience. That much is clear. And there is a great deal of law in the Bible, both OT and NT alike. The Law of Moses is a considerable body of legislation governing virtually every dimension of human life. It is summarized in the Ten Commandments, but, counting up all the commandments, as the Jewish rabbis were careful to do, they found not Ten but 613!
There is, of course, also a great deal of commentary on the law and the commandments of the law in the Bible, explaining what the law requires in greater detail; we find that commentary throughout the Bible but perhaps most famously in the Lord Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Too many evangelical Christians have been taught to think that the moral requirements of the law have been relaxed in the new epoch. Think again. Read the Sermon on the Mount again; there is no relaxation of moral standards there! The commandments are as exacting in the new as they were in the old. Christians often forget that Jesus was a legislator as Moses was. He too laid down laws for his people to obey, he too added promises of reward for obedience and threats of punishment for disobedience.
The distinction between law and gospel is even more complicated than what I have just said. Some have argued that the law has no grace in it and the gospel has no law in it. Some Lutheran and some Reformed theologians have argued in that way. For them the distinction between law and gospel must be absolute: the law only making demands, the gospel only making promises and offering gifts. But that does not seem to be what the Bible actually says. Indeed, in some of the Ten Commandments there are promises: God’s mercy in the second commandment and long life in the fifth. And there are demands in the gospel. One must believe, and one must repent if he or she is to receive Christ’s salvation. In fact, on several occasions in the New Testament we are told to obey the gospel of God. There are demands in the gospel and promises in the law.
Perhaps by now you are beginning to see why Christians through the ages have had such different opinions about precisely what the relationship between law and gospel actually is. But some things seem very clear.
First, the law, because it exposes our sin, is a servant of the gospel.
Now the law of God has other uses to be sure. Because it is not only written in the Bible but inscribed on every human heart, at least in a general way, it serves to depress human wickedness; to keep it in bounds. It does this more or less depending, of course, on the state of the conscience of a culture or society. This is what we ought to be worried about in our time. As our culture more and more rejects the very notion of moral absolutes, of there being a law of God, a transcendent morality derived from the creator of heaven and earth, we must expect that increasingly cruel, selfish, and debauched behavior will be defended as good and right. The famous Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was a man who was ahead of his time in denying the existence of transcendent morality. His notion of fidelity to the Constitution was to expedite the popular will. As he put it, “If my fellow citizens want to go to hell, I will help them. It’s my job.” His view was unsurprising precisely because he denied that the law of God was written on the human heart. In fact, he said he saw “no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or to a grain of sand.” [Cited in Buckley Jr., Happy Days, 267] We can at least be grateful that his views, however fashionable in polite society nowadays, do not represent the thinking of most people. When they do, there will be hell to pay.
But that is the law’s function for mankind as a whole: to make all human beings aware of God’s fundamental standards of right and wrong, as all human beings are, to one degree or another. But more than that the law is the servant of the gospel, the good news, the message that God has intervened to save sinners by the death and resurrection of his Son. And how does it serve the gospel? By convincing people that they need salvation, that they must have God’s forgiveness or else! Paul, remember, said that this is exactly what the law did in his own case. He recollected, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law.” We know this from our own observation of life and, indeed, our observation of ourselves. Human beings are past masters of denial. They indulge galactically dishonest illusions about themselves and they will continue to do so unless and until the law of God comes home to their hearts. It was so in Paul’s case. Paul thought he was a good man, good enough for God, until the law taught him that in fact he was a bad man, not remotely good enough to expect to be acquitted in the searching judgment of God.
This function of the law is what Paul is describing in Galatians 3:23-24 when he says that the law was our guardian, or, as the NIV has it, the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ. As Joseph Hart has it in one of his hymns,
What comfort can a Savior bring
To those who never felt their woe?
People come to Christ because they have come to believe that they need him and his salvation. The law serves to convince them of that need. The gospel is a message of deliverance. Deliverance from what? Deliverance from sin and from the guilt of sin. What sin? The sin that is mankind’s disobedience to the will of God as that will is expressed in his law. As Paul reminded the Galatians:
“Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law to do them.”
Since we have all failed to obey the law, comprehensively, repeatedly, and defiantly failed to obey God’s commandments, we are subject to the curse, the punishments that are meticulously described in the Bible, punishments that begin in this world and continue in still greater measure in the next. The Bible and the Lord Jesus in the Bible takes it for granted that men are bad, that they are sinners, and that they are liable to the punishments found for disobedience in the law itself. The gospel is a message suited to the desperate need of desperately bad people. Most people, however, don’t think of themselves as desperately bad. They don’t even think of themselves as mildly bad. Or they don’t until they honestly face the requirements of God’s law, until they measure themselves not by other human beings but by unchanging standards of the law of God. It is at that point that their self-confidence, their ridiculous self-congratulation evaporates, and moral realism sets in.
The law cannot solve the problem created by our disobedience to it. It has no power to change our hearts and certainly no power to extend forgiveness. It demands obedience and threatens punishment for disobedience. I can’t solve the problem of our disobedience, but it can reveal it. That is what the law does, and all the law can do.
The gospel, on the other hand, brings deliverance both from the guilt of sin – our liability to be punished for our sins – and from the power by which sin controls our thoughts, words, and deeds. Christ endured the punishment the law required for our sins and so satisfied the law’s demand for the punishment of sinners – a demand that originated in the justice and holiness of God himself – and by his resurrection inaugurated on behalf of all who trust in him a new kind of life, a life of obedience to the law, a life of righteousness, of moral goodness. If sin is the violation of the law of God, righteousness is obedience to that same law. The gospel brings both forgiveness and a righteous way of life. Indeed, the Christian loves the law of God because it teaches him how to live in that way that pleases and honors the Lord. It is for this reason that you find such positive views of the law of God in the Bible. “Oh how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day.” The law can’t save us. We can’t hope to obey it well enough to meet the requirements of God’s justice; not with hearts like ours; not with a record of disobedience as lengthy as ours. But once we have been saved by the grace of God and the work of Christ, the law points us in the right direction and reveals to us how our Savior and our heavenly Father would have us live.
So, it is easy enough to see that the law is not the same thing as the gospel: demand is one thing, invitation is another; obligation is not the same thing as gift. On the other hand, it is also obvious that the two are inseparable, deeply and importantly related to one another. It is the law – and our failure to keep it – that makes the gospel necessary. It is the law that determines the very nature of the gospel: Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law for us by dying on the cross. The new life he gives us is a life of obedience to the law. It is the law that teaches us our need of Christ and it is Christ who teaches us that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Back and forth it goes between law and gospel. The law won’t save us, but we are saved to keep the law. The gospel solves our problems with the law but draws us back to the law as a guide for our daily living.
It is this intimate connection between law and gospel, the fact that there is so much law and so much gospel in the Bible, and the fact that they intersect in different ways that has often caused problems. Martin Luther famously said that in his time, if he taught in a sermon that salvation consisted not in our works or life, but in the gift of God, some men took occasion thence to be slow to good works and to live a dishonest life. And if they preached of a godly and honest life, others did by and by attempt to build ladders to heaven.” [From The Marrow of Modern Divinity in Works of Thomas Boston, vol. 7, 236]
Some of this misunderstanding is because of the proud, selfish, and sinful tendencies of the human heart. We are either inclined to believe that we can be good enough for God – most people in the world think that, after all – or that if God is gracious he should be willing to take us as we are, whether or not we do his will. But some of it is because the Bible talks so frequently both about God’s free gift of eternal life and about the necessity of our obedience and of God’s promise to reward it. As I said, there is plenty of law in the Bible as there is plenty of gospel and the Bible does not always explain how each of them relates to the other. There is a host of texts that say in one form of words or another what we read in Isaiah 55:1:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Or what we read in Romans 3:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…to be received by faith.”
Or what we find in the preaching of the apostles in the New Testament.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved and your house.”
But, at the same time, wherever you look in the Bible you find as well, the requirement of obedience to the law of God. The same preachers who shouted from the housetops, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved,” also preached that people “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” [Acts 26:20] It was the Lord Jesus himself, near the beginning of his ministry who said,
”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
At the very end of his ministry he taught that on the Day of Judgment he would separate the sheep from the goats, the saved from the lost, according to whether they fulfilled the law of God and loved their neighbor as they loved themselves. And at the end of the New Testament he said to the churches of Asia Minor:
“And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” [Rev. 2:23]
All through the Bible we hear that our obedience to the law will not save us. And all through the Bible we hear that without obedience we will not be saved. All through the Bible we hear that salvation is all of grace; that it cannot be earned and is not earned, but is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast. And all through the Bible we read that God requires obedience of his people or he will reject them and leave them to themselves. What are we to do with this? How are we to hold law and gospel – different as they are, with different powers and different purposes – how are we to hold these so different things together?
Well in this way. I want you all to be free grace people to the backbone. I want us all to love the grace and mercy of God, to rejoice in a salvation we could never have obtained by our own effort but has been given to us as a free gift. I want us all to be “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your house” people. “Come to the waters” people. “Lord be merciful to me a sinner” people and all of that to the backbone! Let no one take our crown in proclaiming the free grace and the loving mercy of God toward sinners such as ourselves and the fact that whosoever will may come and receive God’s salvation. The law of God with its demands that we have not met and cannot meet has taught us how desperately every human being depends upon the grace of God!
But, I also want us all to be people who know that God’s salvation is designed and intended to make us people who love the law of God and who love to obey it. Obedience to God’s law is the proof that we have been saved by the grace of God. That obedience to God’s law is the way to love God in return for his love for us, is the way to honor our Savior who died that we might live righteously; that obedience to the law is the way for us to enter into that life for which we were made and for which we were saved, the life that is truly good, the life that is worthy to be called LIFE! What is that life but a life of obedience to the commandments of God? I want us to be people who hunger and thirst for righteousness in our daily lives and love God’s law precisely because it shows us so clearly what righteousness really is.
I don’t want us to be one thing or the other, but both things all the time: law people and gospel people, believing people and obeying people at the same time. Sinners confessing our helplessness before the law of God and our entire trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ for our salvation and lovers of God and Christ for whom obedience to the Law of God is our chosen way of life. We can distinguish between law and gospel easily enough, but in our hearts, by God’s grace, we must be weaving them tightly together into a fabric becoming more beautiful by the day.