Mike writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I have been over the last few years moving away from Calvinistic Reformed Piety among the so called New-Calvinists towards a more Lutheran ‘Law-Gospel distinction’ and a ‘less obligation to third use of the Law’ view of the Christian life. Although the differences are subtle there are never the less differences. My assurance is more consistent and more joyful, so much so I almost feel like I’m deceived into cheap grace. I am part of a Calvinist Reformed Church and there are subtle tensions beginning on this very subject. Am I moving in a wrong direction? And is there no difference at all just a miss understanding of language?”
Oh, my. This is just so huge. The law gospel conversation has been going on for a thousand years and 2000 and involves huge and complex issues. So here is the way I have thought about answering this. I just want to say a few things that are a contribution to people’s thought, not a solution to every issue they are facing. And maybe a few thoughts they haven’t had and so if the Holy Spirit would be pleased to just take these few thoughts and just stir them in to all their biblical reflections and all their reading, I would be happy with that outcome.
In the New Testament the word law is used in several ways, numerous ways. It refers to the Old Testament. It refers to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. It refers to the covenant at Sinai, the Mosaic covenant and the commandments there. It refers to the principle of authority. It refers to a summary statement of God’s demand for perfect obedience, et cetera. So it will be very confusing if we speak of a law gospel distinction without making clear what we mean by law when we say it. And I think lots of confusion happens when people just constantly say: Law, law, law, law and don’t define what they mean by law.
Let me give you an example of how I would talk. If I should say there is a clear distinction between law and gospel in the Bible, then what I would be meaning by law at that moment is not the first five books of Moses. Now why is that? Because the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible include Genesis which contains the Abrahamic covenant where Paul says God says that Abraham was justified by faith. And Paul uses that text to illustrate the gospel in Galatians three. The Scripture, it says, the Scripture, Genesis 12, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith preached the gospel. There it is. So the Pentateuch is preaching the gospel in Genesis 12. If in you shall all the families be blessed. So the Pentateuch preached justification by faith, preached the gospel and pointed to Christ when it did it.
And then Galatians 3:17 says: The law which came 430 years later does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God. So now you have got within the law, the law. And so you have got to distinguish between what are you talking about law? Do you mean the Pentateuch and its message or do you mean the specificities of the commandment of the Mosaic covenant which come in 430 years later doesn’t annul the covenant made with Abraham and is used by Paul to illustrate the gospel?
So the law in the sense of the Pentateuch or the whole Old Testament teaches that the law, in the sense of the commandments given at Sinai is not the path of justification. I think John Sillhammer used to say the Pentateuch is the Galatians of the Old Testament. In other words, the Pentateuch goes to battle against the Mosaic covenant as the means by which we move into a right standing with God. It cannot be done. So there is no law gospel distinction if by law you mean the Pentateuch. They are both preaching the same message and they are both distinguishing the gospel from something about the Mosaic covenant.
Now what is that? Maybe we should go there. It seems, then, like embedded in the Mosaic law given at Sinai is a principle, an ultimate principle that if you seek to be justified by commandment keeping you must be perfect in keeping them or fall back on the provision of an animal sacrifice pointing to the final sacrifice. So Galatians 3:10: “It is written, cursed be everyone who does not abide in all things written in the book of the law to do them.” Or James: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable to all.” So embedded in the Mosaic law is this principle that this isn’t all or nothing, folks. If you want to be circumcised, you have got to keep the whole law. If you want to be justified, that is come into a right standing with God through law keeping, rule keeping, commandment keeping, then you have got to keep it all. And nobody can do it. And that is what brings that principle into distinction to the gospel, because the gospel says: Ok, you can’t do it. Christ has done it for you. Christ has borne your punishment for not doing it. Christ has provided your perfection which you can’t measure up to and so we have a gospel and the gospel is different from the principle of law, that is the demand for commandment keeping perfection to get right with God. That is simply not what the gospel is. The gospel declares Christ has done that. He has finished that. He has provided that. And now the way into justification, the way into a right standing with God is by faith in this redeemer, faith in this substitute.
So that leaves just one more question to do in this little bitty podcast: Well, what do you do with the commandments then? And ... because that is probably what he is wrestling with is the use of the commandments for the Christian. And I would say the commandments never can make God to be for us. He is already for us in Christ. By trusting Christ we are in Christ so that no commandment keeping can make us acceptable to God. We are acceptable in Christ which puts commandment keeping at a lower level. The way to live the Christian life is not by focusing on commandments. They can help discern the path of love, but the key to living the Christian life is now very different than a focus on commandment keeping towards pleasing God and bringing us 100 percent into his favor. And the key verse that I love so much that I try to live in each day is Romans 7:6 and I will end with this. “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, to die to the law and are no longer under the law. We are no longer its slaves so that we may serve”—oh, yes, there is a serving—“in the new way of the spirit, not the old way of the letter. The letter kills. The spirit gives life.”
So that is what we are aiming at. And I don’t know whether that touches where this question was coming from, but those are the kinds of thoughts that I wrestle with and where I am right now in my thinking.
Thank you for those thoughts Pastor John. And thank you for listening to the podcast. Please continue to email the hardest questions you can think of to us at askpastorjohn AT desiringgod DOT org. Visit us online at desiringgod DOT org to find thousands of books, articles, sermons, and other resources from John Piper all free of charge. … I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening.