Law and Gospel

The law/gospel distinction is a well-known and an important theological distinction in Protestant and Reformed circles. Unfortunately, a lot of confusion exists surrounding it, in part because further distinctions are not always properly made. And these further distinctions are necessary because the terms “law” and “gospel” are used in more than one sense both in Scripture and in theology. Law can refer to the Mosaic Covenant, any divine command, the covenant of works, the rule of life, and the covenant of grace in the Old Testament. Gospel can refer to the covenant of grace in the New Testament, divine promises, the news of what Jesus has done, and enabling grace. Confusion and mistakes will occur if we engage in equivocation, or if we make improper contrasts between law and gospel, or if our understanding of any of the varied meanings is incorrect, or if we dogmatically restrict the meaning of law and gospel. I will try and sort through some of the confusion surrounding this important distinction with the help of Anthony Burgess’ book A Vindication of the Moral Law and the Covenants.

Sometimes the law/gospel distinction is used to distinguish between the two ways of justification.  This is similar but not identical to the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace because the covenant of grace is broader than justification. It is also akin to what Anthony Burgess calls “the Law strictly taken” and “the Gospel strictly taken.” The law promises eternal life on the basis of exact and perfect obedience, whereas the gospel promises eternal life on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work to all who are united to Christ by faith. The distinction between the law and the gospel in this sense is stark and absolute. The law is justification by works, which is how Adam would have obtained eternal life, and the gospel is justification by faith in Christ, which is the only way sinners are able to receive eternal life. 

This is probably the most common understanding of the law/gospel distinction and it is the one that captures a key doctrine of the Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone (Sola Fide). Burgess rightly noted that we “overthrow this grand and maine difference” between the law and the gospel strictly considered, when we embrace any form of justification by works as do “the Papist, Arminian, Socinian, and others.” We aren’t justified by our works or partly by our works. It doesn’t matter if the works are perfect or imperfect, Spirit-empowered or in our own strength, moral or ceremonial; they do not have a role in justification. We are justified by faith apart from works. The law and the gospel (in this sense) must not be confused or, as Burgess says, “made one.” 

The law/gospel distinction may also be used to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is one way the Westminster Confession of Faith uses these two terms. Chapter 7.3 says that the covenant of grace “was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel.” Chapter 20.1 distinguishes between “believers under the Gospel” and “believers under the law” and chapter 25.2 distinguishes between the visible church “under the Gospel” and “under the law.” In each case, the Westminster divines are using the law and gospel to refer to the covenant of grace before and after the coming of Christ. The law, therefore, is the covenant of grace in the Old Testament and the gospel is the covenant of grace in the New Testament. The difference between the law and the gospel in this sense, at least according the Westminster Standards, is relative (not absolute,) and administrative or “accidentall” (not substantial).

This particular use of the law/gospel distinction is comparable to Burgess’ distinction between “the Law and the Gospel taken in a larger sense.” The law in the broad refers to the Mosaic law as it was an administration of the one covenant of grace and thus it includes the “whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and the promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it.” The gospel in the broad sense “signifieth the whole doctrine, that the Apostles were to preach [Mark 1:1; 16:15],” and includes the commands to repent, believe and pursue holiness, as well as threatenings to those who do not obey the commands of the gospel. The difference(s) between the law and the gospel in this sense is the difference(s) between the covenant of grace in the Old Testament (especially with respect to Mosaic covenant) and the covenant of grace in the New Testament. There are disagreements, not to mention much confusion, over the relationship between Moses and the New Testament. According to Burgess, the Lutherans consider the Mosaic covenant to be a covenant of works and thus take the contrast between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant to be the same as the law and the gospel in terms of justification. Similarly, John Stott (1921-2011) said that the Mosaic covenant and the Abrahamic/new covenant represented “two different principles.” He stated that “God’s dealings with Moses were in the category of ‘law,’ commandments,’ and ‘works’” and that God’s dealings with Abraham and those of us in the new covenant “were in the category of ‘promise,’ ‘grace,’ and ‘faith.’” Burgess, and the Westminster Standards, however, do not espouse this view of the relationship between the Mosaic and Abrahamic/new covenants, and consider the differences to be relative and accidental. The law and the gospel in this sense refer to the same covenant of grace and are only to be contrasted in terms of their administration (for more on this, see my previous article, "One Covenant of Grace?").

Unfortunately, when people adopt the Lutheran view or one that is similar to it, they will tend to think that people who view the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of grace are confusing the law and the gospel. If the Mosaic covenant is a works covenant (in any sense) then its demand for obedience cannot be the same as the demand for obedience in the new covenant. And to believe that they are is to turn the gospel into law and to compromise the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. We have discussed two different uses of the law/gospel distinction. The adoption of the second use as articulated by the Westminster Standards and Anthony Burgess does not in any way undermine or deny the first use. Indeed, to argue that it does is itself a misunderstanding of the law and the gospel. 

Lord willing, we will look at two more uses of the law/gospel distinction in the next article.

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.

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Patrick Ramsey