Law and Gospel (and Hermeneutics)

Editor's note: This is part 2 in this series. Read part 1 here

The law/gospel distinction is sometimes used to distinguish between the commands and promises in the Scriptures. Anthony Burgess noted that “some Divines” taught that the law is every command and the gospel is every promise found throughout the Old and New Testaments. In other words, if a verse requires us to do something, it is a law, and if a verse promises us something, it is gospel. It doesn’t matter where the verse is found in Scripture or who says it; a command is law and a promise is gospel. Thus, Moses proclaims the gospel and Jesus the law. 

This use of the law/gospel distinction is often referred to as the law/gospel hermeneutic, because it is believed that it is a necessary component to interpret Scripture correctly.  Ministers and laymen alike need to understand if a passage is law or gospel, because it is extremely important not to confuse them. If a passage is law, then you need to treat it as such and not understand it or preach it as if it were part of the gospel, and vice versa. 

Contemporary popular explanations of this hermeneutic employ a number of simple phrases to distinguish between the law and the gospel. The law says “do,” the gospel says “done.” The law is conditional, the gospel is unconditional. The law is in the imperative mood, the gospel is in the indicative mood. The law requires perfection, the gospel announces salvation. The law convicts, the gospel comforts. The law kills, the gospel gives life.        

Take, for example, the greatest commandment in Scripture, which is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt. 22:37). According to the law/gospel hermeneutic this verse, which is clearly law, requires us to love God with our whole being perfectly. It says, “do.” But sinners don’t “do.” They don’t love God perfectly. This verse, therefore, condemns them. An example of a gospel passage is 1 Corinthians 15:3, which says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. This verse is in the indicative mood. It tells us what Christ has done for us. Consequently, it comforts.

The law/gospel hermeneutic needs to be distinguished from the first law/gospel distinction we noted as depicting the two ways of justification; and both in turn must be distinguished from the Reformed distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Confusion and misunderstanding will occur if we equate them or if we equivocate, however unwittingly. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to confuse them, because they are in some ways closely related.

The law/gospel hermeneutic is not the same thing as the law/gospel distinction in terms of justification. Both define the law and the gospel in the strict sense; the difference is that the law/gospel hermeneutic uses the strict definitions for every command and promise in Scripture, and not just with reference to justification. This means that every command or requirement is primarily interpreted in terms of the pedagogical use of the law, that is, to show us our sin and to drive us to the gospel, which tells us that Christ has kept the law for us.

The law/gospel hermeneutic is also not the same thing as the Reformed distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. They are similar in that, like the law, the covenant of works promises life on condition of perfect and personal obedience; and like the gospel, the covenant of grace includes promises/statements/announcements concerning Jesus and his saving work, as well as justification by faith alone. But they sharply differ in that, unlike the gospel, the covenant of grace includes commands, conditions, and sanctions. In other words, the covenant of grace is the gospel in the broad sense and not in the narrow sense, which is how it is used in the law/gospel hermeneutic.

One way, however, to bridge the gap between the law/gospel hermeneutic and the covenant of works/grace paradigm is to argue that the covenant of grace is all promise, with no conditions or requirements. John Saltmarsh (d. 1647), for example, said that the new covenant is all promise and equated it with the gospel in opposition to a covenant with conditions. Others will allow for faith as the only condition of the covenant. Either way, the covenant of grace is essentially equated with the gospel in the narrow sense, which brings it closer to the law/gospel hermeneutic. Geerhardus Vos has noted that the distinctively Lutheran view of the covenant “comes out in the fact that nothing but faith was recognized as the condition of the covenant,” whereas “Reformed theologians also add to this, without hesitation, new obedience, and say that justification is by faith alone but that the covenant is much broader.”

Although “some Divines” embraced the law/gospel hermeneutic, we will look at why it is problematic in the next two articles. 

Previous Posts in This Series:

  1. Law and Gospel

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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