(This is a paper I wrote for a class at Westminster Seminary California. The research and citations of this paper are largely based off of Dr. Scott Clark's work on the Law-Gospel distinction in the book Covenant, Justification, And Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California.)
In today’s contemporary mainline and evangelical churches one finds a large dose of moralism and legalism. This legalism is without Christ and is just preaching steps of self-help so that people can feel good about themselves. If these churches preached from the word of God in a way that makes sinners need the cross of Christ and produce fruits from their gratitude then they would escape their error of legalism and positive thinking preaching. This is why preaching is so important for Christ’s church. If one does not know how to preach correctly and biblically then he will cause much error and confusion in the flock of God. One of the ways to avoid such an error is preaching the law and the gospel correctly. In this paper I plan to define, defend, give examples of and apply the Reformed and Lutheran use of the law and gospel distinction in New Covenant preaching. I plan on doing this by first giving a definition of the law and gospel and defending these definitions biblically. Furthermore, the antithesis between law and gospel shall be defined and argued for textually. Then I will give two examples of how the law and the gospel were preached by the Apostles. Lastly, I shall give an application of the different uses of law and the gospel in preaching to the New Covenant community.
Defining Law and Gospel
In this section I will define law and gospel as they are used theologically in the Reformed and Lutheran tradition so that we may have an understanding by what I mean when I use these terms, which will help me to avoid equivocation.
The Law in the Reformed/Lutheran systematic theology
This paragraph seeks to explore the meaning of the law in the Reformed/Lutheran tradition. The law is a principle that refers to anything that God commands of us. Moreover, anything that is in God’s revelation that is in the imperative mood is law . In other words anything that requires us to perform a given action or not to perform a given action is law. According to the Westminster confession of faith the law requires “perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience” (WCF 7.2; WLC 20, 93). In are fallen state this standard is impossible to fulfill and this led Martin Luther to say this of the law:
“Law is a word of destruction, a word of wrath, a word of sadness, a word of grief, a voice of the judge and the defendant, a word of restlessness, a word of curse…Through the law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away. And we ourselves cannot take it away .”
The reason why Luther speaks so negatively of the law is because of its standard of perfection that we as creatures that are dead in our sin have to fulfill perfectly. This seems impossible and thus the law as viewed in this context only causes the despair that Luther speaks of above. Another important element about the law is that it is revealed in nature to unbelievers so that all men are condemned before God . The law is for believers a standard to live by once they have been justified by faith, since the law is intrinsically holy and is a reflection of God’s holy character . Lastly, the law ultimately brings God glory . Thus, there are many complex elements of the law, but for clarity sake they can be categorized into three uses in the new covenant.
The Three uses of the Law in the New Covenant
There are three ways that the law is used correctly in the new covenant . The first use of the law is called the pedagogical use of the law . This use of the law exposes our sin as utterly sinful and condemns us before a Holy God. Moreover, this use of the law drives us to Christ because it makes us realize how much we need him to save us from our sin . The second use of the law is called the civil use of the law . This use of law applies to unbelievers as well because unbelievers have the certain aspects of the law in their heart. This makes the unbeliever “think twice” about doing something morally outrageous because of the penal sanctions in the city of man The third use of the law is called the normative use . This use of the law is the “norm” for the believer who has been justified by faith. In other words, this use of the law gives us guidelines for sanctification . This use of the law is only for the believer because the curse and condemnation of the law is removed and the believer feels gratitude because of this and wants to produce good works . These are three uses of the law, but since this is a paper on preaching the law and the gospel we are only going to be concerned with the pedagogical use and the normative use.
The Gospel in Reformed and Lutheran Systematic Theology
This paragraph seeks to explore the meaning of the gospel in the Reformed/Lutheran tradition. The Gospel in a principle in the scriptures that refers to anything that God has accomplished for us. The Gospel is only in special revelation and it is usually in the indicative mood, that is to say it refers to things that have been already done for us . The Gospel is about believing and it is by this believing that we are able to obtain the merits of Christ. As Theodore Beza put it concerning the Gospel “We call Gospel the Good News, which, from the beginning, and by his grace and mercy alone, God has announced to his Church: those who, by faith, embrace Jesus Christ shall partake of eternal life in him (Rom. 3:21, 22; John 6:40) .” As Beza points out in this quotation, the Gospel is made up of the grace and mercy of God which he uses as faith as the instrument to partake in eternal life. Luther himself describes the Gospel as:
“gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace. It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace .”
In this quotation Luther seems to see the gospel as primarily something that is wonderful to hear preached and the content of that preaching is the Son of God and that the salvation that is given to us is not based on our merit whatsoever. The Gospel is a promise that came to actuality by Christ’s passive and active obedience that is transferred to us by the sole instrument of faith through grace. The Gospel is us with empty hands before a Holy God as he fills our hands with a free gift of imputed righteousness. Thus, the Gospel has many elements to it, but a central one is that it is a gift that is given to us by someone else’s work and merit; Jesus Christ’s merit.
Arand, Charles P., and Joel D. Biermann. Ap 2007. Why the two kinds of righteousness? Concordia Journal. 33 (2):123.
Bruce, F.F. Commentary on The Book of The Acts. Grand Rapids, Michigan, WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1973.
Clark, Scott. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry New Jersey, P&R Publishing: 2007.
Horton,Michael. (Fall 2002). Law, gospel, and covenant: reassessing some emerging antitheses. Westminster Theological Journal. 64(2), 279-287.
Horton, Michael. God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology Grand Rapid, Baker Books: 2006.
Karlberg, M. W. (Spr 1981). Justification in redemptive history. Westminster Theological Journal. 43(2),
Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company: 1996.
A note to the reader: This is part 1 but the bibliography is for all three parts of my paper.