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 toward 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 nevertheless 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 misunderstanding of language?”
Oh, my. This is just so huge. The law-gospel conversation has been going on for two thousand years 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 thoughts, not a solution to every issue they are facing. And there may be a few thoughts they haven’t had, and so if the Holy Spirit would be pleased to take these few thoughts and just stir them into all their biblical reflections and all their reading, I would be happy with that outcome.
Gospel in the Old Testament
In the New Testament, the word law is used in several 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.
“The Pentateuch preached justification by faith — preached the gospel — and pointed to Christ when it did it.”
Let me give you an example of how I would talk. If I should say that 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 — includes Genesis, which contains the Abrahamic covenant where Paul says God says that Abraham was justified by faith (see Genesis 12, 15; Romans 4:1–3). And Paul uses that text to illustrate the gospel in Galatians 3:8: “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: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). 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 afterward, 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 clarify what law you are talking about. Do you mean the Pentateuch and its message, or do you mean the specificities of the commandment of the Mosaic covenant which, coming 430 years later, doesn’t annul the covenant made with Abraham and is used by Paul to illustrate the gospel?
Justified by Faith
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 Sailhamer 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, embedded in the Mosaic law given at Sinai is 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:
Galatians 3:10, “It is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
James 2:10, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
All or Nothing
So embedded in the Mosaic law is this principle that this is 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 distinguishes that principle from the gospel because the gospel says, “Okay, 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.”
Obey the Law?
So that leaves just one more question to answer in this little bitty podcast: Well, what do you do with the commandments then? That is probably what he is wrestling with — the use of the commandments for the Christian. And I would say the commandments can never 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 toward pleasing God and bringing us one hundred percent into his favor.
And I will end with Romans 7:6, this key verse that I love so much that I try to live in each day:
Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive [so we die to the law and are no longer under the law; we are no longer its slaves] so that we serve [Oh, yes, there is a serving!] in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.
“For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). 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.