Duty of the Christian: Distinguish Between Law and Gospel

 “To know the difference so as to be able to distinguish aright between the law and the gospel is of the utmost importance to the faith, holiness, and comfort of every true Christian.  It will be impossible otherwise for a man so to believe as to ‘be filled with joy and peace in believing.’  If he does not know the difference between the law and the gospel he will be apt, especially in the affair of justification, to confound the one with the other. …If he cannot so distinguish between the gospel from the law as to expect all his salvation from the grace of the gospel, and nothing of it from the works of the law; he will easily be induced to connect his own works with the righteousness of Jesus Christ in the affair of justification.  This was the great error of the Judaizing teachers in the churches of Galatia.”  John Colquhoun (d. 1827) in A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 141. [Side note: Puritan Matthew Poole said the “seducers,” the dogs in the Philippian church (ch. 3) tried to pervert the church by “mingling the law and the gospel.”]

The authors of the 16th century Heidelberg catechism (well before Colquhoun) were on the same page here.  Olevian discusses the differences in Q/A 9-10 in his Firm Foundation catechism.  Ursinus, in his discussion of the true church and its marks, writes that one mark is “a profession of the true, pure, and rightly understood doctrine of the law and the gospel.”  Further, he notes that the first duty of a Christian minister is “a faithful and correct exposition of the true and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and the gospel, so that the church may be able to understand it.” (See his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 2, 13, 288,  & 572.)

This means we also properly distinguish between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.  Here’s Thomas Boston (d. 1732): “The covenant of works says to the sinner, who is yet without strength, ‘Work, and then ye shall be filled’; but the covenant of grace says to him, ‘Be filled, and then thou must work.'”  See Boston’s note 1 on page 206 of Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Herman Bavinck (early 20th century) worked within this same paradigm: “The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand and fall together” (RD II.579).  Also: “Law and gospel are the two component parts of the Word of God…these terms designate, not two dispensations of one and the same covenant, but two entirely different covenants.  The law really belongs to the so-called covenant of works…but the gospel is the proclamation of the covenant of grace.  What the law demands of us is given us in the gospel for nothing” (Our Reasonable Faith, 410-411).

Going back in Dutch history to 1585, Peter Dathen wrote a dialogue (similar to Edward Fisher’s, listed above) between himself and a Christian torn up by sorrow.  He said, “It seems to me that your sorrow is such a sorrow, and arises out of a great misunderstanding, which is that you do not distinguish between the law and the gospel because you do not rightly know the Lord Jesus. …So please…learn to understand God’s Word better, so that you do not regard Jesus as another Moses.” (The Pearl of Spiritual Comfort, p.2).

So these Reformed and Presbyterian guys from the 16th century to the 20th century agree: it is of utmost importance “to separate the law and the gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated” when it comes to the topic of justification (Fisher, 339).  It will certainly “quiet our own conscience in time of trouble and distress” (Ibid.).

7 Replies to “Duty of the Christian: Distinguish Between Law and Gospel”

    1. Wes – there is some overlap. Colquhoun does, of course, a lot more with covenants.

      Also, C’s is much shorter than W’s. I think W’s is purposefully more pastoral, though C’s does have “application” as well.

      These are just my initial thoughts. Let me know if/when you do a deeper comparison!



  1. Agreed on Dathenus, Wes … that book had such an amazing influence on me. Wow, absolutely incredible stuff!

    Again, great stuff Lems …


    1. Yep, Mark, you got it. In fact, do a search of Walther in the upper right search box – we’ve posted some stuff of him before.



  2. Yes, I’ve read his preaching manual “The Proper Distinction…”. Every reformed pastor should have a copy of this book in his library.


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