Understanding the Law and the Gospel

by | Posted May 29th at 4:31am

My interest in theology is Spirit-driven, believing that Christ leads us into all truth. I acknowledge Him mapping my itinerary in the Word, moving me to clearer doctrinal discernment, with respect for those teachers who have inspired me thus far.

Yet often, when one expands on the law of God in relation to the gospel, there is a fear exhibited by the brethren of Antinomianism (the displacement of the law with the gospel). For this reason, I want to clarify my beliefs once and for all. As a Sabbatarian, which honours the fourth commandment, it is paramount.

If a man cannot distinguish between the law and the gospel, he can never understand any penetration depth of divine truth. If we cannot appreciate the holy law as meant to convict us of sin, and guide us to believe Christ, we cannot have spiritual transformation discoverable in the gospel in the face of Christ. If our view of the gospel is wrong, it often is because the law of God is misunderstood.

That which the precept of the law requires as a duty, the promise of the gospel, offers hope to meet the duty. Whatever commands the place of duty occupies in the law, the place of privilege is experienced in obedience to the call of the gospel. Duties required in the law, call for the insight of grace as it widens faith, articulated in the language of the gospel.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (see Exodus 6:6; 20:2; 13:3; 15:13,16; 29:46) set the preface to the ten commandments as the rule of life to the faithful Israel of God, the children of Abraham, now offered to the true church among all nations. (Galatians 3:26, 29) The giving of the law at Sinai with this offering of Himself as redeemer is repeated many times in scripture!

According to the obedience of the redeemed of the Lord to the precepts of his law – the obedience is founded upon the recognition and respect of the articulator of the law, — Yahweh, Israel’s God, and redeemer.

In the laws of our redeeming God is the profound teaching in relation to his law, by which he would reform his people after many years of slavery. (Galatians 3:23-24) The offer to redeem his children and reform them in accord with his law was a type of his new covenant gospel, which he expressed and repeated to enforce our obedience to every commandment of his law as we enter and accept our duty bound to his privileged deliverance from sin in Christ.

Let us consider the law in the light of this privilege of the gospel’s offer of redemption in Christ, with help from my brother, the Puritan John Calhoun, as tightly edited herein to our current colloquium. Among my many studies on law and grace, John Calhoun excels. 1

The law is God’s curriculum that he uses to teach us the primary covenantal progressive guidance that the Holy Spirit still uses to convincingly lead us into the confession of sin and full redemptive atonement and reconciliation with Himself when we observe Christ’s righteousness as he forgives and covers us with His love witnessed in the gospel.

Every passage of scripture is divine revelation, either by administration of law or of the gospel — different in some respects but in agreement by their mutual use of leading and calling his children unto himself.

If our knowledge of the law and the gospel is superficial and indistinct, we will be in danger of mingling one with the other, potentially misunderstanding both legalism and libertarianism, both antithetical to God’s love. Luther, in his commentary on the epistle to the Galatians noted, such an indistinct understanding “doth more mischief than man’s reason can conceive”.

If we blend the law with the gospel, mixing our good works with our faith to earn unmerited salvation, we may miss the fact that we are redeemed from the condemnation of the law, which we are now freed to respect, especially in the understanding of justification.

In the adherence to a lifestyle hoping for sanctification, we must allow the Spirit to work his good pleasure within us, rejoicing in and not obscuring Christ’s glory of redeeming grace, and obtain the joy and peace of his deliverance to the freedom from fear and penalty of the law to the reverence of his moral ethics found in the same law. If you can praise God when you read the Decalogue in Exodus chapter 20 or rejoice when you read Psalm chapter 119, you will understand this peace.

The self-accusatory carnal mind may blind one to the inestimable value of believing in Christ’s substitutionary death in our stead. Without the righteousness of Christ understood as imputed to us by faith, we wear the blindfold of legalism, which retards our progress in the peace and joy of aiming forward to the responsible reformation of trusting his working holiness within, from which good works follow as led by him (Proverbs 3:6; Matthew 6:33).

Conversely, if we can distinguish clearly between the covenant of law and the new covenant of the gospel and yet comprehend both being of grace, we will then come under the illuminating influences of the great light of the Holy Spirit urging us to obey our glorious Lord in all things, even as obedience pertains to His commandments which reveals our sin and our constant need of our Sovereign Lord Christ.

The understanding that the moral law of God is necessary to discern the glory of the whole progressive covenantal scheme of redemptive grace, reconciling all passages of law and grace in scripture which to some may appear contrary to each other – the gospel calming our consciences inspiring us to advance in sanctification toward holiness, which is the opposite of transgression of law (1 John 3:4; Romans 5:20).

As stated in the Decalogue, the law is summarized in the two primary royal laws to love God and our neighbour (Exodus 26:33; Matthew 22:40) — shared by Moses and later in the gospel restated by Jesus. It helps to view Christ properly as our creator (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16), the lawgiver at Sinai, and future judge and articulator of law (1 Corinthians 10:3; Romans 14:10).

In the Trinitarian form of His son Jesus, our Saviour-Redeemer, Yahweh, saved Israel from Egypt and further us from the world (. He advocates the same divine law yet expands the more formally articulated moral laws of the Ten Commandments, understood by those led by the Spirit in mutual synchronicity with the gospel when we are freed from the law’s penalty when we submit to Christ as Lord. The scripture attests that our salvation preceded human life on earth: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1: 3-6 ESV)

The moral law signifies God’s declared will, directing and obliging humanity to do what pleases Him and to abstain from what displeases Him.

The harmony of the law and the gospel indicates their mutual subservience to one another for securing and advancing the honour of each other, in subordination to the glory of the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as displayed in the person and work of Christ, our Redeemer.

The law was initially presented as a covenant of works, but now, without the rituals of sacrifice finalized in Christ, is an ethical rule of life, which demands of sinners only that which is offered and promised in the gospel within which everything is freely promised and offered to them, which the moral law, in any of its forms, requires.

The gospel presents to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ, who met every demand of the law in its old covenant form, amending it to the status of the new covenant by grace with his blood (Hebrews 8:22; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Romans 3:25; Galatians 2:16). Jesus magnified the law via the gospel making the law honourable, holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12), while it offers and promises the infinite fullness of Christ, by whom Christians may be regenerated and sanctified by faith, enabled to yield obedience to the law as a rule of life as we progress in our relation to Christ in ongoing sanctification, being conformed to his image (Romans 8:29).

The gospel reveals and offers Christ’s righteousness to satisfy the law as a covenant; moreover, it promises and offers strength to obey the law as a rule. Via the Holy Spirit, written in all the divine promises of scripture, the gospel supplies the grace and strength necessary for the acceptable performance of every obedience that the law as a rule of life requires of believers (1 Peter 1:4).

Christ, as our sinless substitute, redeems a man or woman from the due penalty of disobeying God’s law, meeting the requirement of death in our stead, thereby presenting the good news of redemption, the assurance of our peace so that we may accept his substitute righteousness on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:25).

The righteousness which the law as a covenant demands, the gospel affords, being imputed to believers (Philippians 3:9), as the only merits for the offence, being death; offering a continuum in holiness of heart and life, which the law as a rule requires, which the gospel promises and having accepted Christ is obtained (Romans 8:4). Thus, it is clear that the law and the gospel agree together as they mutually serve each other even now as sinners come to realize their need of a Saviour.

How does the law, as a covenant of works agree with the gospel? We cannot cordially believe the gospel without apprehending the need for obedience to the law (Romans 3:23-24). Nor can we yield obedience to the law unless we, by believing the gospel, are equipped by the Holy Spirit and scripture to fathom obedience to the law as a progressive state in the gospel (Romans 8:4). Although entirely distinct from each other, law and grace have no separate agenda, no interfering partisan interest to serve (Romans 3:31).

The principles of the law and the promises of the gospel harmoniously reflect the highest honour in each covenantal period (Galatians 3:21).

The law requires from the sinner perfect human righteousness, which the gospel affords to it— a righteousness which is perfect because it is divine (Romans 10:4; 2 Peter 1;1; Galatians 2:21; Philippians 1:1; Romans 5:21; Romans 3:22; Philippians 3:9; Romans 8:10; 1 Corinthians 1:30).

The grace revealed and offered in the gospel supplies a powerful motive and new disposition to “remember and turn to the Lord.” While the law commands penitential sorrow, the gospel’s grace promised by the Spirit inspires heartfelt sorrow and repentance (John 16:8- 9).

The law directs our mind to acquire all the grace offered in the gospel, while the gospel offers the precious blood of Christ all the requirements of the law (Romans 8:4). The law requires perfect and perpetual obedience as the condition of eternal life; whereas the gospel admits and asserts the necessity of such obedience by affording it to the believing sinner via the great and precious promises engaged by the Spirit in obedience (1 Peter 1:16; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 Corinthians 10:13). The condemnation of the law with its terrors of judgment, under the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit, serve, to show a convinced sinner his extreme need of the salvation which is presented to him in the gospel.

The law condemns all who reject the gospel, and the gospel, on the other, is antithetical to all who finally transgress the law (1 John 3:4). The terrors of the law frighten and impel convinced sinners to accept the offer of the atonement of Jesus Christ; with the redeeming love manifested in the gospel.

With its commanding and condemning power, the law is in harmony with the gospel as the law leads the sinner indirectly to Christ. The law is our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ so that we might be taught our absolute need of him; the gospel presents Christ as the end of the old covenant of works whereby man sought to keep the law, offering us accountability for an imputed righteousness, never achievable before Christ’s redemption (Galatians 2:21; Hebrews 7:19; Romans 10:4).

The law magnifies the grace of the gospel by showing the sinner his need for justification and salvation by that grace, and the grace of the gospel establishes and magnifies the law. While the precepts and penalties of the law serve as a guard to the gospel, the doctrines, promises, and offers of the gospel serve to support the authority and honourable respect of the law (Romans 8:4).

The threatening of the law and the mercy revealed in the promises of the gospel meet and are bound together in Him. The righteousness manifested in the law and the peace proclaimed in the gospel, offering the righteousness of Christ, do in him embrace each other. “Mercy and judgment kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

While the law is an infallible witness, sinners acknowledge that they indeed have no righteousness of their own, under which the offers and calls of the gospel are addressed to them (John 14:6; 6:37). The gospel exhibits in the wonderful person and work of Christ, the highest proofs of the infinite authority, and perpetual stability of the law whose demands Christ met on the cross. (John 19:30).

The righteousness of Christ offered believers the fulfilment of the law: the glory of the gospel on behalf of sinners, offering a proprietary surety of righteousness commanded in the law (1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; Romans 3:25; Romans 8:4).

We are invited in the gospel to accept the gift of it and to present it by the hand of faith to be freed from the curse of the law, which is eternal death. In answer to its high demand, Christ’s infinite satisfaction for sin and His perfect obedience as the condition of eternal life is now presented to the Father as our righteousness, which he imputes (or covers us with). Thus, the law as it is the covenant of works is fulfilled in Christ in harmony with the gospel. Christ’s atonement on our behalf is advocated on our behalf before the Father. Christ, as our High Priest in heaven before God, ministers on our behalf (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 6:19; 7:25).

When the law as a covenant presses a man forward or shuts him up to the faith of the gospel, the gospel urges and draws him back to the law as a rule. The law is his schoolmaster to teach him his need for the gospel’s grace; this grace will have his heart and his life regulated by no rule but the law (Romans 7:7-13; 1 John 2:1).

If the law commands believers, the grace of the gospel gently teaches them to love and to practice universal holiness. What the law, as a rule of life, binds us to perform, the grace of the gospel constrains and enables us to do via the Spirit in obedience (1 Peter 1:3- 5).

The commands of the law reprove believers for going wrong (Hebrews 12:10), and the promises of the gospel, so far as they are embraced, secure their walking in the right way (Ephesians 4:13, 24). The former shows them the extreme folly of backsliding; the latter is the means of healing their backslidings and restoring their souls.

The gospel or word of Christ, dwells only in those who have the law of Christ, put into their minds, and written in their hearts (1 Corinthians 3:16; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 3:16,19; Psalm 51:10). The law cannot be inscribed on the heart, without the gospel, nor the gospel, without the law. Just as they are found together in the same Divine revelation, they dwell together harmoniously in the same believing soul. So great is the harmony between them that they can reside nowhere separate from each other.

While the precepts of the law show the redeemed how very grateful and thankful they should be for redeeming grace, the grace of Christ in the gospel produces praise with adoring gratitude. The law enjoins and encourages believers to receive daily by faith more and more of the grace of the gospel, qualifying them for more spiritual and lively obedience to its principles. The gospel supplies them with every motive preparative to seek this assistance, encouragement unto obedience.

The law reveals the believer’s duty, while the gospel is the focus of duty. It is by the almighty influence of the gospel, in the hand of the Holy Spirit, that the law is inscribed on the hearts of believers, and it is in consequence of having the law written on their hearts that they desire and trust in Christ for the blessings promised in the gospel.

The law enjoins the habit and exercise of faith; the gospel presents Christ, the glorious object of faith.

The law requires believers to love God with all their hearts, but it is the gospel only that presents God in such a view as to become an object of love to a sinner, namely, as the Father is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.

The law enjoins mourning for sin: the gospel presents Christ as wounded for our transgressions, who, when believers view with the eye of faith, mourn for him as for an only son and are in bitterness for him as for a firstborn.

The law commands them to worship Yahweh – the Father- as their God; the gospel discloses to them both the object and the way of acceptable worship of Him through Christ.

The law is a transcript of all God’s moral perfections representative of His character, and so likewise is the gospel and the representative man, Jesus Christ, the express image of the Father. The law is the image of Yahweh’s holiness, justice, and mercy, as revealed by Christ in the gospel, and, as such, is “holy, just, and good.”

All who are renewed after Christ’s image, in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, do evidence this renovation of heart by delighting in his law and by loving and admiring his gospel; by rejoicing greatly in the imputed righteousness, which, the demands of his law as a covenant are all answered, and in salvation by sovereign grace, in which, the promises of his gospel, are all performed.

If a man has attained a saving and experimental knowledge of the gospel, he will undoubtedly evidence it by obedience of heart and life to the law in the hand of Christ as a rule of duty. A man can never perform holy obedience to the law so long as he remains ignorant of the gospel, but when he begins spiritually to discern the truth of the doctrine of redeeming grace, he will then move to begin to perform spiritual and sincere obedience, to the law of Christ as a rule as led by the Spirit of Christ.

The legalist expects happiness for his duties, but the true believer enjoys it in them, and the less he expects for them, the more he enjoys in them. The more he believes the gospel with application and trusts cordially in the Lord Jesus for salvation, the more his “faith works by love,” and the more he appreciates communion with Christ.

Because the law and the gospel harmoniously agree, believers need to be cautious so that they do not set the two in hostile opposition to one another. The opposite is true; one believer ought not to accuse another of being an Antinomian (the displacement of the law with the gospel) simply because he expounds the grace of the gospel’s purpose to be elevated in the means of obeying the gospel via revealing the empowerment of the Holy Spirit’s application of loving God and his neighbour as a fine summary of the law, as revealed by Christ to Moses at Sinai and later to us.

Clear and just views, especially of the agreement between the law and the gospel, under the influences of the Spirit of truth, promote a holy and cheerful frame of mind. Under such a view, you will be able to guard against setting the law in opposition to the gospel.

1 Colquhoun, John. A Treatise on the Law and Gospel,1890.


Article posted by Glen R. Jackman, founder of GraceProclaimed.org

Glen has optimized his eldership role to teach the full scope of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ without boundaries.
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