The Law/Gospel Distinction in Old Holland

Our Reasonable Faith One thing I’ve mentioned quite a bit here over the last five years is how the law/gospel distinction is part of the veins and sinews of historic Reformed theology.  More narrowly, the law/gospel distinction is also part of the Dutch Reformed theological tradition.  Here’s a great later example of this by Herman Bavinck, found on pages 410-411 of Our Reasonable Faith which was first published in Dutch in 1909 (called Magnalia Dei).

“Law and gospel are the two component parts of the Word of God.  The two are distinguished from each other but they are never separated.  They accompany each other throughout Scripture, from the beginning to the end…. [The terms law and gospel designate] two entirely different covenants.  The law really belongs to the so-called covenant of works which was concluded with the first man and which promised him eternal life in the way of perfect obedience.  But the gospel is the proclamation of the covenant of grace which was made known for the first time after the fall of man, and which gives him eternal life by grace, through faith in Christ.”

“The covenant of grace is, however, not the discarding or annihilating, but rather the fulfilling, of the covenant of works.  The difference between the two is mainly that in our stead Christ fulfills the requirements which God by reason of the covenant of works can bring to bear on us.  Hence it is that the covenant of grace, although in itself is pure grace, can from the very beginning put the law of the covenant of works in its service, unite itself with that law, and by the Spirit of Christ bring it into fulfillment in the believers.  The law keeps its place in the covenant of grace, not in order that we by keeping it should try to earn eternal life, for the law cannot do this because of the weakness of the flesh, but, in the first place, in order that through it we should come to know our sin, our guilt, our misery, and our helplessness, and struck down and stripped by the consciousness of guilt, should take refuge in the grace of God in Christ (Rom 7.7 and Gal 3.24), and, in the second place, in order that we, having died and been raised with Christ, should walk in newness of life and so fulfill the righteousness of the law (Rom 6.4 and 8.4).”

“There is no room in Christianity for antinomianism, for despising or violating the law.  Law and gospel should go together, as in the Scriptures, so also in preaching and teaching, in doctrine and in life.  They are both indispensable and real constituent parts of the one complete word of God.”

“All the same, identifying the two is as bad as separating them.  Nomism, which makes of the gospel a new law, is in error no less than antinomiansim.  Law and gospel differ from each other not in degree but in kind.  They differ as demand and gift differ, as commandment and promise, and as question and offer differ.  It is true that the law as well as the gospel comprises the will of God, and that it is holy, wise, good, and spiritual, but it has become impotent by reason of sin, does not justify but rather aggravates sin, and provokes wrath, doom, and death.  And over against this stands the gospel which has nothing but grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, and eternal life.  What the law demands of us is given us in the gospel for nothing.”

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith.

rev. shane lems

2 Replies to “The Law/Gospel Distinction in Old Holland”

  1. What is the background of all this ‘hating’ on those who make a sharp distinction between law and gospel? I am really not understanding why so many people are against it and WSC.


  2. Trent: I suppose it’s a big discussion… The main thing to note is that a law/gospel distinction is indeed a big part of historic Reformed theology. That’s my main point here.


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