The Law and Gospel in New Covenant Preaching in Acts
If the law/gospel distinction is truly biblical and something we ought to preach then we should be able to find at least some form of it in the preaching of the Apostles. In this section we will look at two sections in the book of Acts that will support the preaching of the law and the gospel distinction in apostolic preaching.
The Law and Gospel in Acts 2:36-39
In the sermon in Acts 2:36-39 the Apostle Peter preaches the law and gospel. Peter starts out with the preaching of the law to his audience by condemning them for the cause of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as he says in verse in 36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." What I mean by Peter preaching the law in this verse is that he using their sinfulness as a means of conviction so that they can be driven to Christ (the first use of the law). The first use of the law is evident from what is in the next in verse 37: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s preaching that they had crucified the Lord has caused them to be convicted by their sin of rebellion against the anointed one. When they were convicted in heart for what they had done it produced in them a need to be saved from their sin. This is made evident by their need to ask the question to Peter and the other apostles: "Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter responds to this question with the answer of the Gospel in verses 38-39:
And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
There are three elements of the gospel that are emphasized in this statement. First, Peter tells them to be baptized in name of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Notice that Peter does not teach that fulfilling the law as a means by which they receive the forgiveness of sins. He just says that they just have to be baptized and repent, which these two actions can only occur if one has faith in Christ. Second, says that they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This means that the Holy Spirit that is given to us is a gift or in Greek a dw/ron, which means that it is not based on our doing but rather on God who has grace. As Paul says concerning a dw/ron, in Ephesians 2:8 “kai. tou/to ouvk evx u`mw/n( qeou/ to. dw/ron\” Paul says that a gift is excluded from being based on anything pertaining to us. That is to say that it is not based on anything intrinsic on us but rather extrinsically on free graciousness outside of us. Thus, the gift of the Holy Spirit is pure gospel in its orientation because it is not based on obedience to the law. Lastly, Peter speaks to believers as having a promise to them and their children and to all those who are far off. This is referring to the “promise” in the Old Testament to Abraham, David and Noah that is of the covenant of grace (13:15; 17:7; Gal. 3:16; Ps. 18:50; 89:34; 132:11) that is now inherited by new covenant believers. As Paul points out elsewhere the promise has an antithetical relationship to the law and doing (Gal. 3:18). In Short, Peter communicates the Gospel in three different ways after he presents to his audience their condemnation through the first use of the law. There is other passages in Acts that also strongly suggest that Law and Gospel was conveyed in apostolic preaching.
The Law and Gospel in Acts 4:10-12
When Peter was preaching before the Jewish council in Acts 4:10-12 he preached the law in its first use and the gospel. Peter starts out by condemning them with the law with the egregious sin of murdering and rejecting Jesus Christ (4:10-11). Because Peter knows the sins they have committed specifically he does not have to preach the law in a general sense (in the general imperatival mood) so as to make one conscience of their own sin, but rather he tells the council the sin they have committed. Then he stress that there is no other way in which people are saved except through Jesus Christ, as Peter says in verse 12: And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." In this section Peter uses the condemnation of the law as a mean to point to salvation in Christ alone. Thus, it is clear from these sermons in Acts that the Law/Gospel distinction was preached by Apostles in the New Covenant.
Application to Preaching the Law and Gospel in the New Covenant
Now that we have established a firm theological foundation for the Law and Gospel in new covenant preaching we ought now to apply it to our preaching.
Preaching the first use of the Law and the Gospel
The law as preached in its first use is supposed to make the subjects we are preaching at to want the Gospel desperately. The law is to ct7ome first in preaching because without the law we would not even know why we would need the Gospel (Rom. 7:7) Furthermore, the more law we preach before we preach the Gospel the more the subjects realize how much they need the Gospel of grace (5:20). Furthermore, the preaching of the law can even increase transgression on those who do not take hold of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just like the Mosaic Law increased transgression to drive us redemptive historically to the fulfillment of the promise: Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:20). The preaching of the Gospel may sound like a license to sin, but this is a natural reaction when people initially hear the first use of the law and the preaching of the Gospel. Michael Horton notes concerning the Gospel in Romans 6:1:“Paul asks in Romans 6:1, “”what shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”” If the preaching of the gospel we have heard leads us to wonder whether we can dispense with the law altogether, then it has been correctly heard .” The Gospel is so antithetical in our preaching to the first use of the law that it should make one prima facie wonder whether we should just entirely abolish any type of commandments at all that are taught in the Bible. When we preach the first use of the law to our subjects this produces an enormous amount of guilt, but when we preach the Gospel to believing subjects they feel the grace of God in their life. This guilt and grace paradigm is essential for understanding the struggles in the believer’s life as well as the flow in the history of redemption.
It is the minister’s obligation to preach in some form the first use of the law and the gospel from the text or texts in which his sermon is based on. Paul as an Apostle and minister of the Gospel preached the entire counsel of God (Acts 20:27). At the same time Paul preached Christ and him crucified and desired to know nothing else but this fact (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2). Moreover, it seems with these two statements in scripture in mind that Paul preached the whole counsel of God and that he preached Christ Crucified suggests that each section of the word of God he preached in, he preached Christ through it. Furthermore, the reason why Christ came and died in the first place was because of sin which is exposed by the law (Rom. 7:7). In addition, the only way for the preaching of “Christ and him crucified” to make sense in history of redemption is if we know that we are sinful and in need of such a savior. The way we know we are sinful and we need such a savior is exposed through the preaching of the first use of the law. Lastly, speaking of the Savior Jesus Christ and him crucified is the core teaching of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-11). This is why the minister of the Gospel is obligated to preach the Law (in its first use) and the Gospel.
After the Gospel Preaching and the Third use of the Law
Once the minister preaches the Gospel the believer has gratitude toward God for saving him from his sins then the minister ought to employ the third use of the law. As defined previously this use of the law is the normative use of the commandments in scripture for Christian sanctification. This use helps to be the guide or aim for works of gratitude toward God. In preaching the first use of the law in conjunction with the Gospel may seem prima facie like the law the ought to be done away with entirely for the believers, but this is not so because the believer still need a guide by which to produce works of gratitude in sanctification (Eph. 2:10). If we are left with the first use of the law in preaching then we cannot make sense out of passages that ask us to observe the law like Romans 3:31: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” This verse ought to be understood as upholding the law in its third use for Christian sanctification . In light of the strong reason for Christians to uphold the law of God as aim of the sanctification the preacher ought to exhort believers in his congregation to have fruits of spirit as Paul does in Galatians 5:16. Paul also goes on to describe what the works of the flesh are and what the works of the spirit are (Gal. 5:19-24), likewise the preacher of the new covenant should preach what actions are fruits of the Spirit and which works are of the flesh, the world, and the devil. Moreover, the preacher should take the commandments in scripture and apply it to the believer’s circumstance so that they can walk according to the Spirit. By the believers circumstances I mean the time, place, and culture in which the preacher and his congregation are imbedded in. Thus, the third use of the law should be preached and applied to the believers so that they may walk according to the Spirit so that they can produce fruits.
The Law and the Gospel is an important distinction for the Protestant Reformation as well as an important distinction for the modern day preacher of the New Covenant. As we have seen from our study to reject the law/gospel distinction is not only unbiblical, but it also does not make any sense. The law without the Gospel is legalism and despair. However, the gospel without the law is just as worse because there is no reason for the gospel without the law to expose sin. We have also seen that the Apostle Peter gave us examples of how to preach the law and the gospel. Lastly, we have seen that the Law can serve as guide to those who have been crucified with Christ and want to produce fruits of sanctification. Thus, the Law and Gospel is a essential distinction for any preacher of the New Covenant.
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