Law and Gospel: A Vital Distinction
One of the most vital truths to understand in Christian doctrine is the biblical distinction between law and gospel. Holy Scripture reveals both God’s moral law and God’s good news of salvation in Jesus Christ (the gospel, a word which means “good news”). In Scripture both law and gospel work together in perfect harmony when their relationship to each other is properly, biblically understood. But while law and gospel work together in God’s saving plan, they also must be clearly distinguished. When the biblical line between law and gospel gets blurred, and when the distinction between these two aspects of God’s revelation in Scripture get confused or muddied, then grave error can result, exposing precious souls to spiritual danger and stripping them of the comforts of God’s grace.
Let’s start with a simple definition of terms. In Christian doctrine the term “law,” when used in connection with the term “gospel,” refers to the moral law of God in particular.(1) Where do we find that moral law revealed? In the words of our Shorter Catechism (in answer to Question # 41), “The moral law is summarily comprehended (i.e., ‘summarized’ – GLW) in the Ten Commandments.” The ten commandments, which summarize the moral law of God, are God’s revelation of the duty which we owe to him as our Creator and Lord. The law explains to us what God requires of us, and thus our duty to God. To put it simply, the law reveals what we are to do for God by virtue of the obedience which we owe him as our Creator.
By contrast, the term “gospel” means “good news,” and refers to the “word” or message of salvation from sin which God has graciously provided for sinners through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.(2) While the law teaches us the duty we owe to God, the gospel teaches us what God has done for us in Christ, in spite of the fact that we so miserably fall short of doing our duty as we ought! (That is what grace is all about!) The law tells us what we should do for God. The gospel tells us what God has done for us believers in Christ.
The law serves God’s purposes in a number of ways. First of all, it reveals God’s holy character by revealing his righteous standard of ethics. In this way the law of God can serve as a social restraint upon lawless behavior and social vice. In this way the law can have an ennobling, civilizing influence upon culture and society. But on a more personal level, God’s moral law serves his saving purposes by bringing us sinners to a knowledge of our own sin (Romans 3:20 – “…through the law comes knowledge of sin”; ESV). By showing us God’s moral standards, the law also reveals how far far short we fall from living up to those high and holy standards. In this way the law drives us to despair by showing us that we could never attain a right standing with God by our own works or efforts at law-keeping; and thus it helps to drive us to Christ as our only hope for salvation. In addition, once we come to trust in Christ as he is offered in the gospel, the law continues to show us our daily need for Christ’s ongoing forgiveness, and it acts as an ethical guideline for our sanctification and Christian growth.
The law is not good news to sinners, for the law says “do this and you shall live” (Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:10-12). But the unconverted sinner cannot and will not live up to the standards of the law. The law is designed to kill our pride, our self-righteousness, and all our vain, pitiful attempts at self-atonement and self-justification. It is designed to slay us (spiritually-speaking)! It is designed to drive us away from itself as the source of salvation to the Lord Jesus Christ, the only One who ever kept the law perfectly! But the law does prepare the sinner for the gospel, for the law humbles us sinners and shows us our desperate need for a Savior who alone can atone for our violations of the law and who can provide us with a perfect righteousness made possible by his vicarious law-keeping – a righteousness by which we can be justified (declared righteous) at the judgment bar of the infinitely holy, perfectly righteous God.
The gospel, on the other hand, is good news, for it declares of our salvation that “It is finished!” It reveals to us that “Jesus paid it all!” It provides us with rest for our souls, for it declares that there is nothing more that needs to be done for our salvation, for Jesus bestows upon us believers a complete, perfect, secure salvation.
To confuse the law with the gospel is to turn the good news of free salvation in Christ into the bad news of salvation by works-righteousness. When law and gospel are confused, sinners are either driven to the despair of legalism where they embark upon a never-ending treadmill of trying to earn God’s favor by their works; or they are driven to the opposite extreme of a lawless antinomianism where they lower God’s standards down to the level of their own behavior and use the grace of God as an excuse for their sin.
Let us realize that God has revealed both the law and the gospel in his sacred Word. Both are revealed truths. Both have important things to teach us, and both have a place in God’s saving plan. They must be held together; but they must also be carefully distinguished! Let us heed afresh the words of the Apostle Paul:
“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)
(1) Though sometimes the term “law” as used in Scripture can refer to the entire Mosaic administration, inclusive of the moral, ceremonial and civil legistlation of the old covenant.
(2) Occasionally the New Testament uses the term “gospel” to refer to the Christian message more broadly considered, and not in the more narrow sense of the good news of salvation through Christ. For example, at one point the Apostle Paul describes the truth that Jesus Christ will preside as the Agent of judgment on Judgment Day as an aspect of the “gospel” which he preached (see Romans 2:16). In this article I am using the term “gospel” in its more specific, “positive” sense (such as the way Paul himself uses this same term in First Corinthians 15:3-8).