The Distinction between Law and Gospel
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:10-14, ESV)
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Galatians 3:21-22, ESV)
One of the most glorious and comforting truths of the gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ is that Christ has kept God’s law on behalf of His people. As the “Second” or “Last Adam” (Romans 5:12-21; First Corinthians 15:42-49, especially v. 45), the Lord Jesus Christ rendered both prescriptive and penal obedience to the law on our behalf. Unlike the first Adam, who failed the probationary test in the Garden of Eden and gave in to the serpent’s temptation, thereby breaking the creational covenant of works and plunging mankind (whom He represented as the original covenant head and representative of mankind) into an estate of sin and misery; Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the last Adam, maintained His integrity when tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and perfectly obeyed God’s moral law throughout His earthly pilgrimage, thereby keeping the covenant of works and meriting on behalf of those whom He represented (the elect) that perfect righteousness which is necessary to serve as their title to the glorious eschatological life of the new heavens and new earth. This is what is meant by Christ’s prescriptive obedience.
But there was also a penalty to be paid for the sins of God’s people. We are born fallen in Adam, and because of our covenant solidarity with Adam in the creational covenant of works, we are therefore born covenant breakers in Adam. We are by (fallen) nature and (apart from grace) by choice sinners, rebels against our holy Creator, transgressors of God’s holy law. The law pronounces God’s curse upon all who do not continue to observe all the things written in the Book of the Law. (God’s law does not allow for selective or partial obedience. It requires complete, perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience from the heart. It is all or nothing! You either keep God’s law perfectly, or you break God’s law completely, at least by implication.) The ultimate curse that God’s law requires of covenant breakers is damnation. Jesus Christ underwent the penal sanction of damnation required by the covenant of works on behalf of all those whom the Father had given to Him (John 6:37). By dying on the cross as our Sinbearer and Substitute, Christ rendered penal obedience to God’s law by taking the curse of the law upon Himself in our place, thereby freeing us from the curse of the law so that we might receive the blessings of free grace and salvation! Christ, the eternal Son of God Incarnate, was damned in our place on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we might be freed from the eternal damnation in hell we deserve for our sins, and so that we might receive the gift of eternal life! Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God, took our sin-debt upon Himself on the cross and paid that debt in full by His sacrifical suffering, that we might receive full and free forgiveness and everlasting life as a free gift of sheer, sovereign grace! “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (Second Corinthians 5:21, ESV) It was because of Christ’s prescriptive and penal obedience to the requirements of the creational covenant of works, as revealed in the law of God, that He is able to offer life and salvation through the gospel by the covenant of grace. “Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant (i.e., by the covenant of works in Adam), the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.3; see Gal. 3:21; Rom. 3:20-21; Rom. 8:3; Gen. 3:15; Jn. 3:16; Rom. 10:6, 9: Rev. 22:17; Acts 13:48; Ezek. 36:26-27; Jn. 6:37, 44-45; 1 Cor. 12:3)
When we understand and grasp this biblical covenant theology, with its distinction between the creational covenant of works in Adam and the new-creational covenant of grace in Jesus Christ, we should also be led to see the legitimate distinction between Law and Gospel. Both Law and Gospel come from God. Both are meant to work together in sweet harmony and mutually to support one another. But while we cannot (must not!) separate Law and Gospel, at the same time we must distinguish the two.
The Law says, “Do this and you shall live.” The Gospel says, “Live, and you shall do this.” The Law reveals our duty toward God and man, calling us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Gospel is an announcement of good news, not about what we are to do for God, but what God has done for us in Christ in order to redeem us from our sins. The Law slays, damns and curses us, not because it is evil (on the contrary, God’s Law is good, holy and just! – Romans 7:12), but because we are evil, and the Law exposes our evil, thereby exposing us to the righteous wrath and curse of God. On the other hand, the Gospel pardons, forgives, justifies, heals, restores, comforts, for it proclaims God’s free grace in Jesus Christ to ungodly sinners like us who deserve nothing but His wrath.
Few errors are more serious (and potentially damning) as confusing Law and Gospel. Few truths are more important to maintaining the purity and integrity of the biblical gospel than the biblical distinction between Law and Gospel. The Law is bad news, for it exposes me as a sinner who deserves God’s curse. The Gospel is good news, for it freely offers me life and salvation by Jesus Christ, who obeyed the Law (both prescriptively and penally) on behalf of all sinners who come to believe (trust) in Him alone for salvation. This distinction is not merely a “Lutheran” emphasis (as some supposedly contemporary Reformed “pro-nomians” spuriously claim); it is a Biblical emphasis, and historically it is also an emphasis in historic Reformed theology. Let us by no means separate Law and Gospel (in antinomian fashion); but at the same time let us be careful to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel, lest we fall into legalism and end up perverting the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8, ESV)