Olevian on the Law/Gospel Distinction

Caspar Olevian on the Substance of the Covenant Here are two excerpts from Caspar Olevian (d. 1587) on the law/gospel distinction.  They come from his commentaries on Romans and Galatians.

“For this reason the distinction between the law and Gospel is retained.  The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely.  And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins.  On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith.”

“The sum of the Gospel Paul taught is this: we are justified or receive the remission of sins by faith alone in Christ.  It is the Pseudoapostles who confuse circumcision and the merit of works….  It is worth observing how often merit, whether from the sacraments or other works, is confused with faith.  That is another gospel, not of Christ, but rather a perversion of the ground of the gospel itself.”

Great quotes there; they can be found (in English) in chapter six of Scott Clark’s Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant.  If you want an excellent commentary of Olevian’s on the first 24 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism, you’ll need to get A Firm Foundation (though hunt around for a cheaper copy than Amazon’s).  In that commentary Olevian explains the law/gospel distinction in further detail and also shows what it has to do with true comfort in the Christian life.

shane lems

3 Replies to “Olevian on the Law/Gospel Distinction”

  1. Thanks for this post, Shane. For a concise bio of this reformer, go here:


    The Reformers mark a decisive advance over their predecessors *and* successors in their ability to capture the essence, or at least a part of the essence, of “the gospel that Paul taught.”

    But how about the gospel that Jesus taught? How about the gospel found in the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the book of Job? Were they successful in creating a systematic soteriology that does justice to the entire canon?

    I think not, though I think Reformed theology made significant strides in that direction.

    Is it possible in our day and age to have a constructive, open-ended theological discussion? On the one hand, there are those who are wedded to confessional positions in such a way that substantive theological movement is precluded. This is the better safe than sorry approach.

    There are also those, and they are sometimes the same people, for whom theological soteriology is a metaphor for a social or political project the springs of which, whether they realize it or not, are located elsewhere.

    But what if scripture were allowed to judge our theological systems again, to call them into question? What would that look like?

    In that case, we might discuss provocative theses the old fashioned way, a thesis like the following:

    The saints of both the Old and New Covenants, Abraham and all his children, are saved by grace alone through faith alone. This is clear from Genesis 15 on.

    None the less, it remains the case that those who keep the commandments are blessed because they keep them, and bring blessings to others. Whatever we do that is right is possible only because that which is done is wrought in God. And that which is wrought in Him is righteousness in his eyes and will receive a reward.

    On this understanding, the righteousness of God and the righteousness of men have the same content (Psalms 111 and 112). The latter is an extension of the former. The latter, furthermore, is righteousness before God.

    Already in the Old Covenant, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Prophets, p. 201):

    Righteousness goes beyond justice. Justice is strict and exact, giving each person his due. Righteousness implies benevolence, kindness, generosity. Justice is form, a state of equilibrium; righteousness has a substantive associated meaning. Justice may be legal; righteousness is associated with a burning compassion for the oppressed. When you extend a loan to a poor man, “Thou shall not sleep in his pledge; when the sun goes down, you shall restore to him the pledge, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God” (Deut 24:10-13).

    There is no change in the New Covenant.

    Jesus: acts of mercy which are done for our Father in heaven’s eyes, our Father in heaven will reward (Matt 6:1-4).

    Paul: the work of each will become visible; the Day will disclose it; if what was built on the foundation is solid, the builder will receive a reward (1 Cor 3:10-15). What is solid in the New Covenant is righteousness that exceeds that of the Old Covenant, not that which falls short of it.


    1. Thanks for the comments, John.

      As I mentioned in a comment on this blog last week, I don’t think the Reformers foisted their system on the text. The quote above from Olevian mentioned Paul because he was commenting on a Pauline epistle. If you look in his and other Reformers’ (and scholastics’) works, you’ll note they wrestle through their positions using the OT Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles. From Ursinus to Turretin to Bavinck (covering 350 years), if you read carefully, you can’t help but notice they certainly did use every genre and part of scripture as they explained theological categories.

      I don’t think the Reformers were perfect, nor do I think the creeds/confessions are inspired and set in stone. However, I’ve read many thousands of pages of many different Reformation theologians (early, middle, late, modern; primary and secondary sources etc.) and studied them for the past 10 years, so I’m leery of arguments that Reformed theology failed to do a, b, or c. In fact, though I don’t have time to explain it here, Reformed theology as a whole spends much time with the righteousnes discussion you mentioned above.

      Anyway, I’m always grateful for your interaction, even though I’m not a huge fan of detailed blog discussions (since face-to-face is always better, but not always realistic). Thanks again.



  2. I was wondering if you would raise eyebrows in your context if you preached along the lines I outlined. Assuming you consider it a fair systematic soteriology.

    I know it would not have passed muster among my Waldensian colleagues where I went to seminary. If a soteriology does not subordinate emphases in the canon to those emphases of Paul which the Reformation underlined, to the point of suppression of other emphases, it is a soteriology FAIL.

    Suffice it to say that I have my doubts.


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