Law, Gospel, and Gataker

Editor's Note: Find previous entries in this series at the end of this article. 

In this article, we will look at one key reason the law/gospel hermeneutic is problematic, and then another reason in a subsequent article. 

The law/gospel hermeneutic is problematic because it separates what Scripture joins together. There is, of course, a difference between command and promise, but Scripture doesn’t separate or oppose them in the way that the law/gospel hermeneutic does.[1] As we noted in a previous article, the gospel in a narrow sense isn’t opposed to the gospel in a broad sense. Christ’s “done” does not mean that we have nothing to “do” for salvation. 

According to Westminster divine Thomas Gataker, the Scriptures teach on the one hand that Jesus is the “only purchaser and procurer of our justification and salvation” and on the other hand that

“ and repentance, and self-deniall, and new obedience are necessarily required in the Gospel, as conditions to be performed by all those, that will have part and interest in Christ or look for salvation; and that none shall without these ever attain to that salvation so deerly purchased by Christ.”

The gospel or the covenant of grace cannot be limited to an unconditional promise of salvation, and then set in opposition to any and all conditional promises of salvation. To do so, according to some Westminster divines, is to make a short cut to heaven and to preach a “honey-Gospel.”

At this point, some argue that faith is the only condition of the gospel. Salvation, and not merely justification, is by faith alone. Thus, the only thing that we need to do in order to be saved is to believe. The gospel includes faith and only faith, and that is set in opposition to everything else that we might need to do for salvation, which would be considered law.

The problem with this view, as Gataker points out, is that “although unto justification nothing but faith is required…yet there is more than faith required unto salvation.” As previously mentioned, new obedience (i.e. evangelical obedience) is necessary for salvation.

We see this to be the case in Romans 8:13, where the apostle Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” According to the law/gospel hermeneutic, is this verse law or gospel?  Since it is requiring us to put sin to death in order to live, then it must be law. But, as Gataker rightly notes, it can’t be law because “no Law ever promised life unto mortification of the flesh.” The law promises life to perfect obedience and not to justified sinners who are imperfectly putting sin to death by the Spirit. Thus, Romans 8:13 is not law but “pure Gospel, and life even upon such terms propounded free grace (Gataker).” 

The law/gospel hermeneutic, therefore doesn’t fit with Scripture or make sense of passages such as Romans 8:13, because it separates what Scripture joins together. In Scripture, the gospel says “done” and “do.” It says, “live and do this,” and “do this and live.”[2] It is unconditional and conditional. It has indicatives and imperatives.

Previous Posts in This Series:

  1. Law and Gospel
  2. Law and Gospel (and Hermeneutics)

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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[1] Anthony Burgess wrote: “It's true, if we take Law and Gospel in this strict difference, as some Divines doe, that all the Precepts, wheresoever they are, must be under the Law, and all the Promises be reduced to the Gospel, whether in Old or New Testament; in which sense Divines then say, Lex jubet, & Gratia juvat; the Law commands, and Grace helps; and, Lex imperat, the Law commands, and Fides impetrat, Faith obtaineth; then the Law can have no sanction by Promise: But where can this be shewed in Scripture? When we speake of the sanction of the Law by Promise, we take it as in the administration of it by Moses, which was Evangelicall; not as it was given to Adam, with a Promise of Eternall life upon perfect obedience: for the Apostle Paul's propositions, To him that worketh, the reward is reckoned of debt; and, the doers of the Law are justified, were never verificable, but in the state of innocency.”

Here is Ernest Kevan’s paraphrase of the above paragraph: “If, however, Law and Gospel be taken in such an artificial way as to say that all commandments, wherever they are found, must belong to the Law, and all promises, whether found in the Old or New Testament, must be attributed to the Gospel, then the Law can have no sanction by promise. But no such arbitrary definition can be shown in Scripture, for the Law is always an instrument of grace, and its demands have the sanction of merciful promises,” Moral Law, 7-8.

[2] For more on this see this previous article:

Patrick Ramsey