By Ernest Reisinger
Why is the subject of “law and gospel” important? Let me state six reasons:
- Because there is no point of divine truth upon which ministers and Christians make greater mistakes than upon the proper relationship which exists between the law and the gospel.
- Because there can be no true evangelical holiness, either in heart or life, except it proceed from faith working by love; and no true faith, either of the law or the gospel, unless the leading distinction between the one and the other are spiritually discerned. The law and the gospel are set before us in the Bible as one undivided system of truth, yet an unchangeable line of distinction is drawn between them. There is also an inseparable connection and relationship. Unfortunately, some see the difference between them but not the relationship; however, the man who knows the relative position of the law and the gospel has the keys of the situation in understanding the Bible and its doctrine.
- Because a proper understanding between the law and the gospel is the mark of a minister who rightly divides the word of truth. Charles Bridges summed up this mark of a true minister: “The mark of a minister `approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed’, is, that he `rightly divides the word of truth.’ This implies a full and direct application of the gospel to the mass of his unconverted hearers, combines with a body of spiritual instruction to the several classes of Christians. His system will be marked by Scriptural symmetry and comprehensiveness. It will embrace the whole revelation of God, in its doctrinal instructions, experimental privileges and practical results. This revelation is divided into two parts–the Law and the Gospel–essentially distinct from each other; though so intimately connected, that no accurate knowledge of either can be obtained without the other….” (The Christian Ministry, [London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967], p. 222).
The law, like Christ, has always been crucified between two thieves–Antinomianism on the one side and Legalism on the other side. The antinomian sees no relationship between the law and the gospel except that of being free. The legalist fails to understand that vital distinction between the two.
Some preach the law instead of the gospel. Some modify them and preach neither the law nor the gospel. Some think the law is the gospel, and some think the gospel is the law; those who hold these views are not clear on either.
But others ask, Has not the law been fully abrogated by the coming of Christ into the world? Would you bring us under that heavy yoke of bondage which none has ever been able to bear? Does not the New Testament expressly declare that we are not under the law but under grace? That Christ was made under the law to free His people therefrom? Is not an attempt to over-awe men’s conscience by the authority of the Decalogue a legalistic imposition, altogether at variance with that Christian liberty which the Savior has brought in by His obedience unto death? We answer: so far from the law being abolished by the coming of Christ into this world, He Himself emphatically stated “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets [or the enforcers thereof]. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law, till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17, 18). True, the Christian is not under the law as a covenant of works nor as a ministration of condemnation, but he is under it as a rule of life and an objective standard of righteousness for all people for all times. This makes it important.
- Because the power of a holy life needs to be accompanied by instruction in the pattern of it. In what does sanctified behavior consist? It consists in pleasing God. What is it that pleases God? The doing of His will. Where is His will to be discerned? In His holy law. The law, then, is the Christian’s rule of life, and the believer finds that he delights in the law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:22). The Christian is not lawless but “under the law to Christ”, a phrase from Paul which would be more accurately rendered “in the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). Sin is lawlessness, and salvation is the bringing of the lawless one into his true relation to God, within the blessedness of His holy law. The law of Moses is not other than the law of Christ; it is an objective standard just as Christ is our pattern.
- Because the Ten Commandments were uniquely honored by God, founded in love, and are obeyed out of affection for the One who provided redemption. A. W. Pink, writing about the uniqueness of the Ten Commandments, said, “Their uniqueness appears first in that this revelation of God at Sinai–which was to serve for all coming ages as the grand expression of his holiness and the summation of man’s duty–was attended with such awe-inspiring phenomena that the very manner of their publication plainly showed that God Himself assigned to the Decalogue peculiar importance. The Ten Commandments were uttered by God in an audible voice, with the fearful adjuncts of clouds and darkness, thunders and lightenings and the sound of a trumpet, and they were the only parts of Divine Revelation so spoken–none of the ceremonial or civil precepts were thus distinguished. Those Ten Words, and they alone, were written by the finger of God upon tables of stone, and they alone were deposited in the holy ark for safe keeping. Thus, in the unique honor conferred upon the Decalogue itself we nay perceive its paramount importance in the Divine government.” (The Ten Commandments, ([Swengel Pennsylvania: Reiner Publications 1961], p.5).
- Because there is a need for a fixed, objective, moral standard. The moral law carries permanent validity since it is an objective standard uniquely sanctioned by God and goes straight to the root of our moral problems. It lays its finger on the church’s deepest need in evangelism as well as in the Christian life: sanctification. The Ten Commandments are desperately needed not only in the church but also in society. We live in a lawless age at the end of the twentieth century; lawlessness reigns in the home, in the church, in the school, and in the land. The Scriptures tell us that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The Ten Commandments are the only true standard of righteousness.
Tragically, Christians have contributed to our society’s moral decline by removing the Ten Commandments from their instruction. The law restrains sin. Without the moral law this world would be a field of blood, as is evidenced in place where there is no regard for God’s commands. The puritan, Samuel Bolton, in The True Bounds of Christian Freedom ([London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964], p. 79), said:
Blessed be God that there is this fear upon the spirits of wicked men; otherwise we could not well live in the world. One man would be a devil to another. Every man would be a Cain to his brother, an Amon to his sister, an Absolom to his father, a Saul to himself, a Judas to his master; for what one does, all men would do, were it not for a restraint upon their spirits.
Not only the wicked, but also followers of God need an objective, fixed, yes, an absolute standard of right and wrong. A devotional life cannot exist without regard to morality. We cannot separate devotion from duty. After all, what constitutes a devout person? Someone who is seeking to do the will of God, someone who is instructed in sanctified behavior. And in what does sanctified behavior consist? In doing the will of God. And where do we find the will of God in respect to morality? In the only true standard summarizing the moral law–the Ten Commandments.
This subject, law and gospel, is in the highest degree, important and edifying, both to saints and to sinners. To know it experimentally, is to “be wise unto salvation;” and to live habitually under the influence of it, is to be at once holy and happy. To have spiritual and distinct views of it, is the way to be kept from verging toward self-righteousness, on the one hand, and licentiousness, on the other; and to be enabled to assert, the absolute freeness of sovereign grace, and at the same time, the sacred interests of true holiness. Without an experimental knowledge, and an unfeigned faith, of the law and the gospel, a man can neither venerate the authority of the one, nor esteem the grace of the other.
The law and the gospel, are the principal parts of Divine Revelation; or rather, they are the center, the sum, and the substance, of the whole. Every passage of sacred Scripture, is either law or gospel; or is capable of being referred, either to the one or to the other. Even the Histories of the Old and New Testaments, so far as the agency of man is introduced, are but narratives of facts, done in conformity, or in opposition, to the moral law, and done in the belief, or disbelief, of the gospel. The ordinances of the ceremonial law, given to the ancient Israelites, were, for the most part, grafted on the Second and Fourth Commandments of the moral law; and in their typical reference, were an obscure revelation of the gospel. The precepts of the judicial law, are all reducible to commandments of the moral law, and especially, to those of the second table. All threatenings, whether in the Old or in the New Testament, are threatenings either of the law, or of the gospel; and in every promise, is a promise either of the one, or of the other. Every prophecy of Scripture, is a declaration of things obscure, or future, connected either with the law or the gospel, or with both. And there is not, in the sacred Volume, one admonition, or reproof, or exhortation, but what refers, either to the law or the gospel, or to both. If then, a man cannot distinguish aright, between the law and the gospel; he cannot rightly understand, so much as a single article of Divine truth. If he does not have spiritual and just apprehensions of the holy law, he cannot have spiritual and transforming discoveries of the glorious gospel; and, on the other hand, if his views of the gospel, be erroneous or wrong, his notions of the law, cannot be right.
Besides, if the speculative knowledge, of the law and the gospel, be superficial and indistinct, they will often be in danger of mingling the one with the other and they will, in a greater degree than can be conceived, retard their progress in holiness, as well as in peace and comfort. But on the contrary, if they can distinguish well, between the law and the gospel, they will thereby, under the illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit, be able, to discern the glory of the whole scheme of redemption; to reconcile all passages of Scripture which appear contrary to each other; to try doctrines whether they are of God; to calm their own consciences in seasons of mental trouble; and to advance resolutely in evangelical holiness and spiritual consolation.
It is important to consider the difference between the law and the gospel as well as the agreement between them. The establishment of the law by the gospel, or the subservience of the gospel to the authority and honor of the law must be addressed. The believer’s privilege of being dead to the law as a covenant of works, with a necessary consequence of it is very important. To emphasize this importance of the law (Ten Commandments) I will call three credible witnesses.
The Testimony of Three Witnesses
Consider the attitudes expressed by three of God’s choice spokesmen regarding His law:
- David, a man after God’s own heart–the sweet singer of Israel. “Make me to go in thy path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight” (Ps. 119:35). “Indignation has taken hold of me Because of the wicked, who forsake Your law.” (Ps. 119:53). “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). “I hate the double-minded, But I love Your law” (Ps. 119:113). “It is time for You to act, O LORD, For they have regarded Your law as void” (Ps. 119:126).
- Our Lord’s chief apostle–Paul. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31 ). “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man” (Rom. 7:22). “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24).
- Our Lord Himself. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Mt. 5:17, 18,).
We often hear the expression, “Be like Jesus.” What was He like? He was perfect. How do we know? We must have a perfect standard by which to judge and that perfect standard is the perfect law of God (Ps. 19:7).
The Testimony of the Whole Bible
The importance of this subject is seen in that the whole Bible is either law or gospel–or law and gospel related. For example:
- The history of the Old and New Testaments, as far as man is concerned, is nothing more than narratives of lives lived in conformity or opposition to the moral law, or lived in belief or unbelief of the gospel.
- All the threatenings of the Old and New Testaments are threatenings either of the law or of the gospel. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
- Every prophecy of Scripture is a declaration of things obscure and future and is connected with either law or gospel.
- Every promise is a promise related to either the law or the gospel, or both.
- Every good admonition, reproof, or exhortation is with reference to the law or the gospel, or both.
Thus the law and the gospel are the center, the sum, and the substance of the whole Bible. How important then is it properly to relate and distinguish the two? The closer we get to a clear view of the difference between the law and the gospel, and the connection between them as they serve to establish each other, the more we will understand the Holy Scriptures and thus the will and mind of God, and the more useful we will be in His service.
Two Kinds of Knowledge
Another indication of the importance of the law is that it reveals the two kinds of knowledge that are necessary for salvation:
- The law reveals the character of God. God’s law comes from His nature. The nature of God determines what is right, and the will of God imposes that standard upon all His creatures as a moral obligation. Since his will flows from His nature, and the law is perfect (Ps. 19:7), the law reflects the perfection of his nature.
Man is not answerable to an abstract law, but to God. Behind the law is the Lawgiver. Therefore, to find fault with the law is to find fault with the Lawgiver. The law is not the arbitrary edicts of a capricious despot, but the wise, holy loving precepts of one who is jealous for His glory and for the good of His people.
Christ was perfect. How do we know? He kept the law perfectly–He was the law personified. Christ perfectly manifests the Father : “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).
- The law reveals the condition of man. To walk up to someone and say, “All have sinned” does not bring conviction unless that person knows what sin is. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The knowledge of sin as violation of God’s law brings conviction.
The Law and Evangelism
Similarly, the importance of the law is seen in a subject that is dear to the heart of every true preacher and every true Christian–evangelism.
In days gone by, children learned the commandments before they learned John 3:16, because only then did John 3:16 make any sense. Likewise, John Elliot’s first translation work among the Indians was not of John 3:16 but of the Ten Commandments, and his first sermon was on the commandments. Did John Elliot think the Indians would be saved by the Ten Commandments? Of course not, but the commandments would show them why they needed to be saved–they were law-breakers, and they needed a law-keeper to be their substitute.
John Paton, a great Presbyterian missionary to the New Hebrides, first taught the commandments. Why? People will never be properly interested in a relationship with the Redeemer until they see the terrible breach in their relationship to the Creator. The commandments are the moral mandate of the Creator to creatures. The sharp needle of the law makes way for the scarlet thread of the gospel. The law is indispensable in biblical, God-centered evangelism.
Run and work the law commands
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
A sweeter sound the gospel brings;
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
- The whole Bible is law and gospel, and the two are so vitally related to each other that an accurate knowledge of either cannot be obtained without the other.
- The law reveals the character of God and the condition of man. These two kinds of knowledge are absolutely necessary for salvation. (See, for example, the first chapter in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.)
- The law is essential to true biblical evangelism because by the law is the knowledge of sin. It was the law that was effective in Paul’s conversion: “I would not have known sin except through the law” (Rom. 7:7).
- The law is the only biblical rule and direction for obedience–that is, a sanctified life. In what does sanctified behavior consist? Doing the will of God. What is the will of God in respect to morality? The moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments.
- The law is one of three truths of the Bible that stand or fall together: (1) the law of God, (2) the cross of Christ, (3) the righteous judgment of almighty God.
First, if there is no law there is no sin because sin is the transgression of the law (The Ten Commandments).
Second, if there is no cross there is no hope for poor sinners–no forgiveness of sin.
Third, if there is no righteous judgment of almighty God who cares about sin or a Savior. These three truths stand or fall together.
The following statement by J. Gresham Machen, the principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary will emphasize the importance of the place of the law.
A new and more powerful proclamation of that law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace/ Pray God that the high view may again prevail. (What is Faith?, [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust], pp. 141-142).
Preacher, preach the moral law; and parents, teach your children the Ten Commandments.