The Law, the Gospel, and the Spirit

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

The law/gospel hermeneutic wrongly separates the Bible's indicatives from its imperatives. That's the first problem that we addressed in our last article. But there's a second problem with this hermeneutic: It tends to denigrate the role of the law in the life of the Christian. 

Since the law is conditional and says "You must do this or else," and the gospel is unconditional and says "It is done for you in Christ," it is sometimes argued that Christians, who are under the gospel, aren’t under any command or law in the sense that they must keep it. This is not to say that Christians won’t keep the law. The gospel saves them so that they will freely and cheerfully obey the Lord.[1] As a result of justification and out of gratitude, true Christians will do what is right; true Christians will do good works, but they don’t obey because they must obey. To borrow the words of Samuel Rutherford, “all duties a matter of courtesie.” Hence, to require Christians to obey God’s commands, especially in relation to salvation, is to confuse the law and the gospel and to place the Christian back under the law.

Thomas Gataker said that in his day, if a minister preached the necessity of putting sin to death for life according to Romans 8:13, he would “not escape the odious and opprobrious brand of a deep and down-right Legalist.” It is certainly true that God in the gospel changes believers so that they freely and cheerfully obey him, and that love for Christ is a powerful motive to obedience. However, the gospel does not free the Christian from the obligatory nature of the law or the necessity of new obedience for salvation. The Westminster Standards correctly teach that the law binds believers to walk accordingly (WCF 19.6), and that “all holy obedience” is the way to salvation (WLC 32).[2]

Another way the law/gospel hermeneutic often denigrates the role of the law is that it denies its role as a means of grace or instrument of sanctification. Although some adherents deny any positive use of the law in the life of the believer, others see it as a rule of life, in the sense that it tells us what we are to do. The law provides structure for the Christian, but it does not motivate or empower the Christian to obey. In either case, it is the gospel, not the law, that is considered a means of grace and an instrument of sanctification. Incidentally, if the gospel, as defined by the law/gospel hermeneutic (unconditional, indicative, etc.)—if that gospel alone provides the motivation and power to obey, then it makes sense, as some have said, that the way to make progress in sanctification is not to make every effort to be holy, but to make every effort to remember and focus on our justification. 

By contrast, Burgess rightly argued that the law is a means of grace, and that the Spirit uses it instrumentally “to quicken up the heart of a beleever unto his duty.” The Psalmist says that God gave life by his precepts, and that the law of the Lord enlightens the eyes and revives the soul (Ps. 119:93; 19:7-8). Moreover, “the whole word of God is an organ and instrument of God’s Spirit for instruction, reformation, and to make a man perfect to every good work.” It is not strictly speaking the law or the gospel that empowers people to obey, but the Spirit of God working with and through the law and the gospel.[3]

This is why both law and gospel are “dead letters,” and both condemn the sinner without the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the law on its own, apart from the reality of the gospel, could not be used as a means or instrument of grace because there would be no salvation to speak of. In other words, the law could not be a means of grace “were it not for the Gospel-promise.” But such a situation does not exist, because “there never was in the Church of God meere pure Law, or meere pure Gospel.”

Consequently, when we contrast the law and the gospel, we need to make sure it is a fair comparison. The law without the Spirit and the gospel with the Spirit is an unfair contrast. Therefore, it is improper to say that the law doesn’t give grace but the gospel does. Both the law and the gospel are means of grace.

In this series, we have looked at three different meanings of the law/gospel distinction:

  • There is the law and gospel in terms of justification. On this understanding, the contrast is absolute and the two must not be confused.
  • There is also the law and gospel in terms of the Old Testament (particularly the Mosaic covenant) and the New Testament. This contrast is not absolute or substantial, and amounts to the difference between the covenant of grace before Christ and the same covenant of grace after Christ.
  • Finally, there is the law/gospel hermeneutic. This understanding of the law/gospel distinction is fundamentally flawed and therefore is best left unused.

Previous Posts in This Series:

  1. Law and Gospel
  2. Law and Gospel (and Hermeneutics)
  3. Law, Gospel, and Gataker

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] John Saltmarsh wrote that the “Law commands… the Gospel perswades rather then commands, and rather by promises.” Free Grace, 148.

[2] For more on the relationship between obedience/good works and salvation see these posts:;;;;

[3] Burgess: “Therefore I cannot well understand that, the Law indeed that sheweth us our duty, but the Gospel, that giveth us grace to do it; for, if you take the Gospel for the Promises preached, how many are there that heare these, that yet receive no benefit by them? and on the other side, if the Law, setting forth our duty, be accompanyed with Gods Spirit, that may instrumentally work in us an ability to our duty; and without the Spirit the Gospel cannot do it.”          

Kevan’s paraphrase: “It is therefore quite superficial to say that the Law shows a man his duty, but the Gospel gives him grace to do it; for how many there are who hear the promises of the Gospel but who nevertheless receive no benefit from them? Conversely, however, if the Law, which sets forth the duty of man, is accompanied by the power of God’s spirit, it may well instrumentally work in man an ability to do it,” Moral Law, 51.

Patrick Ramsey