Law & Gospel: Preaching Christ Through a Rightly Divided Word

by Shane Rosenthal

© 1998 Reformation Ink

Shane Rosenthal, M.A., Historical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary in CA, is a freelance audio/video editor and producer. He is currently one of the creative producers for the national radio program The White Horse Inn, and webmaster for Reformation Ink. Shane, along with his wife and three children reside in southern California.


As we begin to enter the 21st century I am concerned for the state of American Christianity. Contemporary churches are in my opinion becoming conformed more by the pattern of the world, than by the power of the Word. In the Reformation of the 16th century, the church was defined as an institution in which the Word was rightly preached and the sacraments were rightly administered. Today however, not only is this definition missing, but the office of preaching and the practice of the sacraments have fallen on hard times. Sacraments are practiced so infrequently that they are no longer part of the regular life of the church, and preaching in some cases has become a means to entertain the “audience,” or it has become a political rally, a therapy session, a discourse on Christian or family values, or speculation about the end of the world–all to the neglect of proclaiming the saving message of Christ’s propitiatory death for sinners. In order to make the case that the church is no longer acting in accordance with the historic Protestant definition of what a church should be, this paper will focus on the singular issue of the failure of contemporary preaching, particularly in its neglect of Christ, and of rightly distinguishing law from gospel.

In a letter to Cardinal Sadeleto John Calvin complained that the office of preaching had fallen on hard times. In fact, Calvin writes:

Nay, what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more whimsies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month? For, as sermons were then usually divided, the first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.1

Calvin concludes this section by arguing that the Reformers raised the standard of preaching throughout Europe when they appeared on the scene. What is interesting to me about this quote is how contemporary it sounds. Our day, it seems, is plagued with this pre-Reformation scenario in regards to the content and quality of preaching as well. In many cases one leaves a church service having heard more stories about the life of the pastor than about the life and death of Christ. The chief element that is missing in both Calvin’s day before the Reformation and our day is the sound proclamation of the Word of God with Christ at the center of it all.

Preaching Christ
In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees that “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (5:39-40). The point that Jesus seems to be making is that he himself is the major subject of the Scriptures. The Pharisees were reading the Bible as an end in itself, but Jesus clearly rebuked them for this, showing them that this way of reading the Bible actually kept them from coming to the truth. Jesus makes a similar point to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27). The disciples were not reading the Scriptures in a Pharisaic or legalistic way; nevertheless, they had neglected to find the message of the messianic deliverer at the heart of it all. But when Jesus preached this sermon about himself the disciples asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). This should be the response of today’s disciples as God’s servants open up the Scriptures each Lord’s Day. But it should be the response of the heart after it has heard wonderful things from the Word concerning the work of Christ on our behalf.

Rightly Dividing the Word
In his second epistle to Timothy, The apostle Paul writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2:15). What the NIV translates here as “correctly handles” was previously in the old King James translated as “rightly dividing.” The greek word underlying each of these translations is ojrqotomouvnta, a present active participle of orqotomew which according to Baur, Arndt and Gingrich is “found elsewhere independently of the NT only in Prov. 3:6; 11:5…and plainly means to “cut a path in a straight direction” or “cut a road across country (that is forested or otherwise difficult to pass through) in a straight direction” so that the traveler may go directly to his destination.2 If this is correct, then the biblical material is the “forest” which the preacher must trek through in advance of the people. He must make the way straight and clear, and he must cut a path that leads to the “promised land” of the faithful, rather than to Egypt or Assyria.

If the promised land, or goal, of Christian preaching is Christ, I believe the means to that end is the hermeneutic of law and gospel. This was the way of reading the Scriptures recovered at the Reformation that sought to correct a number of problems in the way the medieval church communicated salvation. One of the problems the Reformers responded to was that the Roman church had made the gospel too difficult. It was no longer a sweet promise, but it had become a kind of new law. Another problem was that the preaching of the law had become too easy, and was not presented as a sharp, strict and unrelenting barrier to fellowship with God. With the first error, the Reformers feared that Rome was making true Christians despair of their salvation, and with the second error, they feared that Rome was creating Pharisees.

Martin Luther, one of the first to make this distinction at the time of the Reformation, wrote in 1532:

This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines.3

So important was this distinction for Luther, that it separated Christianity from heathenism, and notice that he did not attempt to take credit for coming up with this hermeneutic on his own. He argues that this differentiation is found in the Scriptures themselves. After all, it was not Luther but Paul who wrote, ” But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith” (Rom. 3:21-22). Luther’s point was that if one does not get this understanding down, and thinks that righteousness can somehow be obtained “by” the law, then he is not a Christian. The Christian rests his faith on Christ who fulfilled all righteousness for us, even to the obedience of death on the cross. This righteousness as Paul says, “without the law” is given to us through faith (and if it is through faith apart from the works of the law, then Luther is correct in asserting that it is through faith “alone”).

Luther was not the only Reformer to emphasize this point. Although the law/gospel distinction has survived strongest in the Lutheran theological tradition, a number of Reformed theologians have argued its importance as well. In his Institutes, John Calvin writes:

By the term Law, Paul frequently understands that rule of holy living in which God exacts what is his due, giving no hope of life unless we obey in every respect; and, on the other hand, denouncing a curse for the slightest failure. This Paul does when showing that we are freely accepted of God, and accounted righteous by being pardoned, because that obedience of the Law to which the reward is promised is nowhere to be found. Hence he appropriately represents the righteousness of the Law and the Gospel as opposed to each other. But the Gospel has not succeeded the whole Law in such a sense as to introduce a different method of salvation. It rather confirms the Law, and proves that every thing which it promised is fulfilled. What was shadow, it has made substance…4

Calvin goes so far as to say that the law and the gospel are opposed to one another, but only to a certain extent. The gospel is not a new and unrelated form of salvation, but rather, is the substance of what was previously hinted at in the shadows. The law was strict and severe, but it did point the children of the Abrahamic covenant to the mercy of God. As hymn writer John Newton eloquently put it, “As we ponder grace and justice, let us point to mercy’s store. When through grace in Christ our trust is, justice smiles and asks no more.”5 This “store” of mercy, as Newton calls it, was continually being pointed to throughout the Old Testament period, and stepped out onto front-stage with the coming of Christ. Calvin also points out that the “law gives us no hope unless we obey it in every respect.” Implied in this is the idea that we could possibly put our hope in the law if all was well with us spiritually, but since the fall, no one but Christ has the ability to natively please God. This is why Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Thus, we are in one respect saved by law-keeping, just not our own.

Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza also was also strongly concerned about this issue. In fact, in 1558 Beza wrote , “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.”6 I think Beza makes a good point here. Christianity has alway suffered from abuse and corruption, but a mistake here at the heart of how we read the Bible is of special concern. He went on to say that the entire corpus of the Scriptures could be gathered into either the heading of Law or Gospel.7

There are a number of other great quotes from Reformed theologians on this subject, but in view of the space limitation, I’ll conclude this section with the noteworthy words of an early English reformer named John Bradford, who was martyred in 1555:

He that is ignorant of [the division of the places of the Law and of the Gospel] cannot, though he were a great doctor of divinity, and could rehearse every text of the bible without book, but both be deceived, and deceive others; as the experience hereof (the more pity) hath taught, nay, seduced the whole world….Therefore, I say, take to thee the glass of God’s law; look therein, and thou shalt see thy just damnation, and God’s wrath for sin, which, if thou dreadest, will drive thee not only to an amendment, but also to a sorrow and hatred of thy wickedness, and even to the brim of despair, out of which nothing can bring thee but the glad tidings of Christ, that is, the gospel: for as God’s word doth bind thee, so can nothing but God’s word unbind thee; and until thou comest to this point, thou knowest nothing of Christ.8

In all of these selections from the Reformers, the recurring theme is that the distinction of Law and Gospel is extremely crucial to the life and health of the church, as well as of the individual believer. Without it the church can be corrupted, deceived, abused, and can even cease to be a church. Bradford even makes a more astonishing claim about the importance of Law and Gospel when he says that without it, “thou knowest nothing of Christ.” This is why it is so important in my mind for preachers to have a good understanding of law and gospel. Even if they do desire to preach Christ, often the message will be confused because Christ is presented as a “new law-giver” rather than as our redeemer and friend.

Problems Associated with Confusing Law & Gospel
In Matthew chapter 19, there is the story of the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus and asks “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (19:16). Jesus answers by saying, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” (19:17). This is not the answer we would expect, but we must view Jesus here as preaching a strict view of the law. So when the young man replied, “All these I have kept” (19:20), Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (19:21). Here Jesus is challenging the young man’s claim that he had actually kept the law. If he really loved his neighbor as himself, he wouldn’t have a problem giving his wealth away to the poor. But when he heard these words “he went away sad” (19:22). I have heard a number of sermons that totally misunderstood the basic message of this passage. Some have tried to argue that if the young ruler would have only “surrendered” to Jesus then he would have had a “treasure in heaven.” But this is not the point here at all. Jesus is not trying to get him to “do” something, rather, he is confronting him with the fact that he “can’t do” something. In other words, Jesus is not preaching the gospel here, he is preaching the law. This assertion can be evidenced by looking at the disciples response to Jesus following words, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (19:23-24). When they heard this they asked, “Who then can be saved?” (19:25). In other words, they realized that it was not just a failure to “surrender.” When they heard Jesus’ words and began to despair, not just for the rich man, but also for everyone’s salvation. And Jesus’ answer to the question was not very encouraging: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (19:26). Men cannot save themselves, either by works of the law, or by tears, or by surrender or anything that they do, but salvation is possible with God (as will be proclaimed with the gospel message).

When a preacher confuses this passage by preaching “full surrender” to Jesus, he creates despair in the hearts of many of his parishioners (who say to themselves, “Who then can be saved?”). Scottish theologian Ralph Erskine had some wrote some very interesting lines critiquing this kind of thing in his Poem, “Against A Legal Spirit”:

Christ is not preach’d in truth, but in disguise,
If his bright glory half absconded lies.
When gospel-soldiers, that divide the word,
Scarce brandish any but the legal sword.
Shaping the gospel to an easy law,
They build their tott’ring house with hay and straw;
With legal spade the gospel-field he delves,
Who thus drives sinners in unto themselves;
Halving the truth that should be all reveal’d,
The sweetest part of Christ is oft conceal’d.9

Erskine’s point is that sinners should not be driven in and unto themselves, but to Christ. To be sure, the law must have its place, but Christ must have his place too, and completely, or else you will not be making Christians of your hearers.

I once heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus’ words, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20) were taken to mean that we had to live our lives (as Christians) in a more righteous manner than the Pharisees if we wanted to get to heaven. What is interesting is that the minister was a very grace-conscious conservative Reformed Presbyterian. For this pastor, it was all a matter of grace that we would be able to live this type of life, nevertheless, I feared for the majority of the people in the congregation who thought to themselves, “Do I have any hope of getting to heaven now at all?” Their focus, in my view, was removed from Christ and back to their works as the basis of hope. Again, Erskine is helpful here:

For sins of nature, practice, heart, and way,
Damnation-rent it summons thee to pay.
Yea, not for sin alone, which is thy shame,
But for thy boasted service too, so lame,
The law adjudges thee and hell to meet,
Because thy righteousness is incomplete.
As tow’ring flames burn up the wither’d flags,
So will the fiery law thy filthy rags.
Full help is laid upon thy mighty One.
In him, in him complete salvation dwells;
He’s God the helper, and there is none else.
Fig-leaves won’t hide thee from the fiery show’r,
‘Tis he alone that saves by price and pow’r.10

Erskine’s point was that it is not only our sins that cause us problems, but our righteousness as well, for as Isaiah says, “our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). These “fig leaves” of our own making can never make us acceptable with God. This is why it is a very serious mistake to require any level of righteousness in order to gain access to heaven. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount was not to show “how” we save ourselves, rather, he was pushing us to despair of our own attempts to save ourselves. Yes, our righteousness does have to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, because their righteousness were filthy rags as well (even though they put the most effort into being holy). We need the perfect righteousness of another in order to be acceptable to God. Thus, in hearing a strict and unrelenting message of law, we have been forced once again to flee to the gospel for comfort.

Law & Gospel in Les Miserables
I would like to conclude this article with a terrific illustration of this issue from the world of the theatre. In the 1985 musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, there is a powerful example of the gospel as set against the backdrop of an unforgiving law. Jean Valjean is a man recently released from prison who finds that he cannot get a decent job due to his criminal record. A generous bishop grants him a meal and a warm bed but Valjean abuses the bishop’s kindness and steals his silverware in the middle of the night. When he is captured and returned, the bishop asks him why he left without taking the candlesticks also and dismisses the charges. Free from the threat of another prison sentence and feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, Valjean sings the following verses:

Take an eye for an eye, turn your heart into stone.
This is all I have lived for, this is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back,
Beneath the lash, upon the rack.
Instead he offers me my freedom.

I feel my shame inside me like a knife
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching but I fall and the night is closing in
As I stare into the void–to the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world–from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now, a new story must begin.11

Valjean knew the law, but he was totally unfamiliar with the sort of kindness shown to him by the bishop. This is the way it is with us and God. The law is with us by nature but the gospel message is totally foreign to us This is why the gospel must be preached to us from the outside, because it is a message that is completely contrary to the world as we know it. Valjean describes this as the world of “an eye for an eye,” and admits that “this is all [he has] known.” So when the bishop preaches to him the good news of mercy and pardon, he is cut to the quick and confesses his sin. But Valjean quickly moves (or should we say, “is moved”) from confession to sincere repentance by determining to live a new life.

It is interesting how the rest of the story contrasts Valjean’s life of gratitude and service to God with that of the police officer Javert’s strict adherence to the law in hunting down Valjean for breaking his parole. His pursuit is not unlike Paul’s Pharisaic zeal in persecuting the church; in trying to exact a legalistic righteousness, he wound up in opposition to God’s redemptive plan. In the same way, Javert expresses this type of view when he sings, “Honest work, just reward, that’s the way to please the Lord.” But this tune of the heart makes him the life-long antagonist of the converted Valjean. It was Paul the apostle, however, who summed it all up well when he wrote:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish (sku/bala), that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil. 3:5-10).

Paul certainly knew what it was like to pursue the law with the utmost zeal. But in his pursuit of the law, he neglected that which the law pointed to all along, i.e., the mercy of God in Christ. Therefore preachers have an important responsibility to clearly present the law of God in its full terror. Without this message the gospel will make little sense (a good example is how a number of churches avoid preaching the law but present Christ as the solution to loneliness). The most important task, however, is to see that the gospel of Christ is presented in all its sweetness and comfort as a solution to the divine curse of the law.

If a minister is preaching pop-psychology, political propaganda, ten steps to a successful marriage, end-time speculations, or family values, all to the neglect of Christ, then that particular church has a significant problem. Christ is the heart of the Scriptures, and he is the heart of Christianity. The sermons throughout the book of Acts bear this out. But as bad as this is, I fear more for the congregants of a church where Christ is the major subject of the sermons but is presented as a new Moses rather than as the comforting deliverer of Zion. In the first context, I view the church more as a gathering at the local Elk’s Lodge. I’ve been to churches like this and in my opinion they are not really churches at all but simply public meetings with religious language. The churches, on the other hand, whose pastors regularly confuse the law with the gospel, represent a much more significant problem. Sincere believers, struggling to understand Christ and the message of salvation, are often, in such places, given stones rather than bread. They are pushed back “in and to themselves” again and again. My prayer is that God would send us laborers for his Kingdom who would come to the place of harvesting with the proper tools.

Those suitors therefore of the bride, who hope
By force to drag her with the legal rope,
Nor use the drawing cord of conqu’ring grace,
Pursue with flaming zeal a fruitless chase;
In vain lame doings urge, with solemn awe,
To bribe the fury of the fiery law:
They shew not Jesus as the way to bliss,
But Judas-like betray him with a kiss
Of boasted works, or mere profession puft,
Law-boasters proving but law-breakers oft.12

1. John Calvin, Selected Works Vol. 1, “Reply by Calvin to Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter,” (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1983), p. 40.
2. Walter Baur, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 584
3. Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), p. 732.
4. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. by Henry Beveridge, (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845; orig. 1536), 2.9.4.
5. John Newton, Works of Newton Vol. 2, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1835), p.367.
6. Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. by James Clark (East Sussex, U.K.: Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992; orig. 1558), p. 40-41 (sect. 4.22).
7. Ibid.
8. John Bradford, The Writings of John Bradford, “Preface to: The Places of The Law and of the Gospel by Petrus Artopeus” (Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1848; orig. 1548), p. 5.
9. Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine, “Against a Legal Spirit.” (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, p. 84.
9. Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine, “Arguments and Encouragements to Gospel-ministers to avoid a legal strain of doctrine, and endeavor the sinner’s match with Christ by gospel means.” (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, pp. 87-88.
11. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, Les Miserables in Concert at The Royal Albert Hall, (London: First Night Records, 1996; orig. 1985).
12. Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine, (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, p. 93.

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