Bavinck’s “Sharp” Law/Gospel Contrast

Here’s Herman Bavinck (d. 1921) on the law/gospel distinction.  No doubt Ursinus, Boston, Turretin, and Watson would put their stamp of approval on this.  Note: right before this section Bavinck criticizes the Papacy for making the gospel into a second law and “erasing” the “Pauline antithesis of law and gospel” (even the modern RC catechism uses similar language – cf. Part III, ch III, Art. 1).

“While, on the one hand, the Reformers held on to the unity of the covenant of grace in its two dispensations against the Anabaptists, on the other hand they also perceived the sharp contrast between law and gospel and thereby again restored the peculiar character of the Christian religion as a religion of grace.  Although in a broad sense the terms ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ can indeed be used to denote the old and the new dispensation of the covenant of grace, in their actual significance they definitely describe two essentially different revelations of divine will.”

“Also the law is the will of God; holy, wise, good, and spiritual; giving life to those who maintain it, but because of sin it has been made powerless, it fails to justify, it only stimulates covetousness, increases sin, arouses wrath, kills, curses, and condemns.  Over against it stands the gospel of Christ, the euangellion, which contains nothing less than the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, which comes to us from God, has Christ as its content, and conveys nothing other than grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, freedom, life, and so forth.”

“In these texts [Bavinck cites around 20 in the above paragraphs] law and gospel are contrasted as demand and gift, as command and promise, as sin and grace, as sickness and healing, as death and life.  Although they agree in that both have God as author, both speak of one and the same perfect righteousness, and both are addressed to human beings to bring them to eternal life, they nevertheless differ in that the law proceeds from God’s holiness, the gospel from God’s grace; the law is known from nature, the gospel only from special revelation; the law demands perfect righteousness, but the gospel grants it; the law leads people to eternal life by works, and the gospel produces good works from the riches of eternal life granted in faith; the law presently condemns people, and the gospel acquits them; the law addresses itself to all people, and the gospel only to those who live within its hearing; and so forth.”

This is [Dutch] Reformed theology at its best.  Maybe we could call this the Holland Hermeneutic.

Quotes taken from volume IV of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, p. 452-3.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

9 Replies to “Bavinck’s “Sharp” Law/Gospel Contrast”

  1. Bavinck is my hero.

    Does he describe the third use of the law in that section of volume IV?

    I’ll have to go take a look-see.


    1. Yes Brad, there and quite a few places elsewhere.

      Another key thing to remember is that most of the time Bavinck uses the term “Law and Gospel” in other writings of his, this (the above quotes) is how to interpret it. I found “law and gospel” mentioned often in Bavinck’s “Saved by Grace” especially in the context of the preached Word.



  2. There is no “antithesis” between Law and Gospel for Paul; that’s the great error in the Law-Gospel-Distinction. The “Law” Paul was concerned about was the Mosaic Law, not a covenant of works type philosophy. The Mosaic Law never promised eternal life, and that’s Paul’s fundamental point(!), thus there cannot be an ‘either-or’ or ‘antithesis’. The righteousness the Law offers is an earthly righteousness and no more, and that type of righteousness doesn’t save – in fact Paul called that earthly righteousness dung compared to the divine righteousness that comes only through Christ (Phil 3:9-11).


  3. Fascinating to see a Reformed author maintain a law-gospel distinction in nearly (if not precisely) the same way that a Lutheran such as C. F. W. Walther did in his treatise on Law & Gospel.


  4. Great distinction. I attend a Christian Reformed Church. The type of “the gospel is the new law” mentality isn’t part of my church, nor the Dutch Reformed tradition. I’m glad to be home!


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