Theodore Beza wrote that the “ignorance of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupt and still corrupt Christianity.”1 It has been roughly four hundred years and this statement clearly identifies some of my past failures as a preacher. And with great concern, this is also a consistent issue within many Hmong churches. Sadly many Hmong pastors (myself included), have blurred the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. By failing to see the relationship between the Law and Gospel, we neglect to preach the whole counsel of God as commanded in Acts 20:27. The Law and the Gospel make up the Holy Scriptures, and to miss how they interact with one another is to neglect the office of the preacher. More importantly, it does harm to God’s people.
The Law and the Gospel work together; they go hand in hand as they serve the purposes of God in administering the one covenant of grace. And so, in order to preach the whole counsel of God, that is, to preach Christ—the Law and Gospel must be on the lips of the minister.
Preaching needs to convey the distinction and harmony of the Law and Gospel.
I. The Law & Gospel Distinction
What is the Law?
Beza states that the Law is the moral law (i.e., Ten Commandments) written by nature in our hearts (Rom 2:14-15).2 In addition, the Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 93 states:
The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul, and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man: promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.
The Law is God’s moral decree written in our hearts to lead us to obedience. The Law is a perfect reflection of God’s divine character. It directs all mankind to acknowledge God despite one’s suppression of that truth. It instructs all to walk in the ways of holiness and righteousness. It demands a personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience to it. However, this is a demand that we cannot meet. This isn’t an issue with the Law, but with us. In the Old Covenant, Moses enforced obedience to the law, but time and time again the people couldn’t meet its perfect demands. Only Jesus could fulfill the demands of the Law (Matt 5:17).
By nature, the Law is written within us, but the Gospel is not. It is revealed to us from heaven (John 1:13). The Gospel is supernatural knowledge, whereas the Law is general knowledge.3Only through the Gospel is God present with man, yet in the Law, God is far from man. In this way, the Law and the Gospel are opposed to each other.
Law vs. Gospel
The Law demands righteousness, a pure heart and complete obedience.4 Unfortunately, “no man, since the fall, can attain to righteousness and life by the moral law (WLC A.94).” As a result of sin, the law not only demands, it also justly condemns us to death. In this way, the Law is distinct from the Gospel.
The Gospel does not demand righteousness, but it gives righteousness. The Gospel doesn’t bring death, neither does it condemn. Instead, it graciously offers life to those who receive it.
Another distinction is that the Law can only show us our excessive evil. It builds up in our heart, and the guilt and shame make us aware of our condemnation.5 On the other hand, the Gospel removes our guilt and shame. Unlike the Gospel, the Law cannot sanctify and justify the believer.
If a preacher fails to see the distinction between the Law and Gospel, “neither of God’s intentions is carried out.”6 For instance, the Law demands that those who disobey God and continue in sin must be held accountable. However, upon repentance, the Gospel urges us to extend mercy. This is possible given the understanding of the distinctions between the Law and Gospel. Through the Law, we know we are accountable to God. He searches our hearts and convicts us of our disobedience through the Law.
Preachers ought to preach as if the Law was staring at us, observing our every thought, word, and deed. Leaving us helpless before Him. Our very desire should be to escape the judgment and wrath of God and cling to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He alone covers us and takes that judgment and wrath upon himself.
II. The Law & Gospel Distinction in Preaching
Dangers in Preaching Only Law
As I have stated above, there is a stark distinction between the Law and the Gospel. If we’re not careful, we could be preaching the Law as if it were the Gospel. The danger in preaching only the Law is that it is capable of bringing and announcing death. Yes, it does come from God, it does restrain sin, but it does not save. By preaching only the Law, the congregation stands condemned before a holy and righteous God. Without the Gospel, the Law cannot direct the hearer to Christ, and so they remain under their guilt and shame. Yet when the Law and Gospel are effectively preached, the Law sets for the people the standard of righteousness and the Gospel offers the righteousness needed to be reconciled to the Father. The Gospel is supernatural revelation and it must be proclaimed.
Intrinsically known, our natural tendency is to suppress the Law of God. For this reason, the Gospel must be preached and not assumed. Just as Christ taught the Law to people who had access to it for years, so we must also labor in that task. We must refrain from assuming our congregation knows the Law or are conscious of it. After preaching the Law, Jesus offered the Gospel. And although Christ fulfilled the Law he still labored in preaching the Law.8
Dangers in Preaching Only Gospel
Similarly, we must also be cautious not to only preach the Gospel. The Gospel is good news only because there is bad news. This bad news is that all have sinned against God. Romans 3:10 states that “None is righteous, no, no one.” These categories of sin and unrighteousness are embedded within the understanding of the Law. The congregation needs to know why they need to be reconciled to God, and why Jesus’ death was necessary.
Without the preaching of the Law, the congregation will not know the standard of righteousness set before them for their obedience. The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 40 asks, “What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?” The answer is stated as such: “The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law.” The law was first provided, and thus it is necessary to be preached distinctively from the Gospel in order that all who hear it may obey. The Law demands righteousness, and if this is not taught or understood, the righteousness that the Gospel provides will have no significance to them. Understanding the distinctions between the Law and Gospel, and preaching with these distinctions in light of the New Covenant prevents us from delivering a sermon that is non-redemptive and burdensome.
Ministers of God’s Word must seek to “present everyone mature in Christ.”9 True maturity in Christ flourishes when ministers and their congregations are able to understand why obedience to the Law brings condemnation instead of salvation. Transformation happens when the Gospel is taught in light of the Law. The congregation is far from perfect and so they need the Law and Gospel preached in a manner that will sanctify them till the return of Christ.
III. The Law & Gospel Harmony
Law Demands Righteousness
Working side by side, The Law and the Gospel cannot be characterized as only being in opposition to each other because they also work side by side. Through their opposition, they harmoniously work together to fulfill God’s will.10 Despite their many differences, both the Law and the Gospel come from the one true God. Although the Law is no longer a taskmaster over the believer, the Gospel does not abolish the Law, nor does it weaken the Law. Rather, through faith in Jesus Christ the Law is upheld (Rom. 3:31).
Beza argued that “the Law establishes the essence of the Gospel.” We see this in Romans 10:2-4 which reads, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Paul is alluding to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Prior to Christ, righteousness was understood through the Law.
Because of our sin, the Law could never offer righteousness. But Christ, being sinless and perfectly obedient took upon our sin. As a result, our sins were imputed to Christ, and his righteousness imputed to us. In this way, the Gospel offers what the Law could not, but the Gospel doesn’t diminish the Law. The Law demands righteousness, and the Gospel has provided for us a righteousness through Jesus Christ. Calvin goes on to say, “The Law and the promise do not contradict each other except in the matter of justification, for the law justifies a man by the merit of works whereas the promise bestows righteousness freely.”11
Gospel Provides Righteousness
Romans 7:12 states, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” The Law and the Gospel work harmoniously because they are both given by a holy and righteous God. AW Pink states, “the Gospel set before us is no less holy and perfect than that of the Law: no indulging of the flesh is permitted, no self-pleasing tolerated.”12 The Law does not lose its sting of death, it still convicts us of sin because sin is still a present reality for us. Therefore when sin takes root in our lives, the Spirit convicts us of our sins through the written Law upon our hearts. The Spirit then enables us to wage war against our sin because the Gospel has assured for us the new life in Christ.
The Gospel presupposes the Law because it brings the believer to repent of their sins and to walk in righteousness.13 The Law shows us the demands for righteousness, and it points us to Christ who is righteous. The Law, which is written in our hearts, is to drive us to Christ in the Gospel.14
Both the Law and the Gospel set before us the justice of God. Similarly, they both send us to live righteously. Although we are already made righteous in Christ, we are still called to live sanctified lives, where we are enabled more and more to die to sin and live unto righteousness.
Furthermore, Law and Gospel are both integrated into the New Covenant. The Covenant symbolizes the relationship that Christians have with God, and the Law serves as the stipulations that are required for this covenant relationship.15 Because Christ is the mediator of the Old and the New Covenant, the Law and Gospel are harmonized in him. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that Christ was “made under the law.” Christ did not refuse to live under the law, instead, he embraced it. It was his Father’s good and perfect will to have him obey the Law. And he was obedient even unto death.
As God’s instruments of revelation, the Law and the Gospel are perfect. They serve as hermeneutical categories that reveal the righteousness of God. They are both distinct and yet work off one another to bring the whole counsel of God within the New Covenant. Through the Law, people come to see their sinful nature and their need for a savior which is freely offered in the Gospel.
It is good to remember that the Law and the Gospel are not defective, but people are. For this reason, the Law and the Gospel may be perfectly articulated, but it may still fall on deaf ears. Likewise, those whom God has called to minister his Word are not immune to this behavior as well. We may fail at correctly understanding the distinctions and harmony of the Law and Gospel, but this is where the glorious news of Jesus comes in. He is the balance between the Law and the Gospel. VanGemeren states, “He gives a true perspective on the Law by the good news that sin is atoned for and that guilt is removed.”
1 Theodore Beza, Law and the Gospel (The Fig Classic Series, 2013). Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 17.
2 Beza, Law and the Gospel, Kindle: Location 17.
3 Beza, Law and the Gospel, Kindle: Location 19-25.
4 Paul Althaus, “Law and Gospel,” in The Theology of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1966), 256.
5 Beza, Law and the Gospel, Kindle: Location 56.
6 Rick Ritchie “What is the Law Gospel Thing?, in Modern Reformation: Preaching Christ 2, no. 2, (March/April, 1993): 7-11.
7 “Law and Gospel,” Ligonier, , accessed December 5, 2014, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/law-and-gospel/
8 Ritchie “What is the Law Gospel Thing?, in Modern Reformation: Preaching Christ 2, no. 2, (March/April, 1993): 7-11.
9 Dennis Johnson, “Paul’s Theology of Preaching,” in Him We Proclaim (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007) 64.
10 Paul Althaus, “Law and Gospel,” in The Theology of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1966), 256.
11 VanGemeren, “The Non-Thenomic Reformed View,” 53.
12 Arthur Pink, An Exposition of First John: (Kindle): Location 2234
13 Althaus, “Law and Gospel,” in The Theology of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1966), 257.
14 “The Law and Gospel,” Trinity at the Marketplace, accessed December 5, 2014, http://www.trinity-at-the-marketplace.org/printfiles/The%20Law%20and%20The%20Gospel.pdf
15 VanGemeren, “The Non-Thenomic Reformed View,” 46.
16 Beza, Law and the Gospel, Kindle: Location 87.
17 Beza, Law and the Gospel, Kindle: Location 178
18 Sean Norris, “An Introduction to the Law and the Gospel,” Modern Reformation: Rightly Dividing the Word 19, no. 5 (Sept/Oct 2010): 8-11
19 Norris, “An Introduction to the Law and the Gospel,” 8-11