Preaching and Distinguishing Law and Gospel

In one section of this most excellent pastoral resource, The Christian Ministry, Charles Bridges (d. 1869) explains how important it is for pastors to rightly distinguish between – and preach – the law and the gospel.  I have to say up front that this is one of the most helpful discussions I’ve read when it comes to the topic of preaching the law and gospel.  It’s like a longer version of Z. Ursinus’ similar section in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Bridges, along with many other Reformed theologians, affirmed this statement: “Qui scit bene distinguere inter Legum et Evangelium, Deo gratias agat, et sciat se esse Theologum.” (“He that knows how to distinguish well be­tween the law and the gospel, let him thank/bless God, and know that he then deserves the name of a divine.”)

What is the difference between the law and the gospel?  Here are a few things Bridges notes.

“The law, partially at least (as in the case of the heathens) is discoverable by the light of nature, whereas the gospel is ‘the hidden mystery of God,’ which could only be known by the light of revelation.  We find, therefore, man in his natural state partially acquainted with the law, but wholly unacquainted with the gospel.”

“They also differ in the power of their sanction.  …Command is the characteristic of the law, promise and encouragement is the characteristic of the gospel.  In the one case, obedience is required on the penalty of death; in the other case it is encouraged by the promise of life.  A promise is indeed attached to the obedience of the law, but placed beyond our reach, upon terms far more difficult than those of Adam’s covenant [the Covenant of Works] – as he was given sufficient strength for perfect obedience, while we are entirely helpless for the lowest spiritual requirements.  The gospel on the other hand gives the promise freely, in order to obedience, as the principle and motive of it.”

“The law condemns, and cannot justify a sinner; the gospel justifies and cannot condemn the sinner that believes in Jesus.  In the law, God appears in terrible threatenings of eternal death; in the gospel, he manifests himself in gracious promises of life eternal.  The law is a sound of terror to convict sinners; the gospel is a joyful sound, ‘good tidings of great joy.’”

Later Bridges writes,

“The whole discussion will remind us of the importance of accurately distinguishing in our ministry between the law and the gospel, ‘that we, through the misunderstanding of the Scriptures, do not take the law for the gospel, nor the gospel for the law, but skillfully discern and distinguish the voice of one from the voice of the other.”

For those of you who are pastors, I strongly recommend reading this entire section of The Christian Ministry (actually, I recommend the whole book!).  My above quotes are just edited tips of the iceberg – Bridges’ explanation of the law/gospel distinction in the pastoral ministry is profound, helpful, and encouraging.  He sheds some great light on the Reformation distinction between the law and the gospel, and the necessity of properly distinguishing the two.  Indeed, if a preacher cannot distinguish between the law and the gospel, let him stay out of the pulpit!

Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983), chapter 3, section 2. 

shane lems

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