The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction

Back in June, I noted that the section on the law/gospel distinction in the book A Puritan Theology was lacking and incomplete (see my review here).  In other words, the authors failed to give a summarized and systematic description of what the Puritans taught on the law/gospel distinction.  So what did the Puritans teach about the law/gospel distinction?  Generally speaking, the Puritans agreed with and taught the Reformed distinction and often discussed it in terms of the covenant of works/covenant of grace distinction.  More could be said on this for sure (i.e. how the Puritans also taught the third use of the law); below are just a few examples.

“[The law] enforced itself upon the conscience with threats and with terror; but now the Gospel comes otherwise, with beseechings and love (Rom 12:1)….  The law urges obedience upon pain of eternal death (Deut. 27:14-26; Gal. 3:10), and enforces its demands by terror, but the Gospel by sweetness and love; all terror is gone.”  Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p.44.

“The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel.  For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently….  Both the law and the gospel must be preached; the law to give birth to repentance and the gospel to lead to faith.  But they must be preached in their proper order, first the law to bring repentance and then the gospel to work faith and forgiveness – never the other way around.  William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, p. 52, 100).

“It will prove a special help to know distinctly the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, between Moses and Christ.  Moses, without any mercy, breaks all bruised reeds, and quenches all smoking flax.  For the law requires personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience from the heart, and that under a most terrible curse, but gives no strength.  …[However,] Christ comes with blessing after blessing, even upon those whom Moses had cursed, and with healing balm for those wounds which Moses had made.  …God knows we have nothing of ourselves, therefore in the covenant of grace he requires no more than he gives, but gives what he requires, and accepts what he gives….”  Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, p. 36-37.

“Let us labor by faith to get into the second covenant of grace, and then the curse of the first covenant will be taken away by Christ.  If we once get to be heirs of the covenant of grace, we are in a better state than before.  Adam stood on his own legs, and therefore he fell; we stand in the strength of Christ.  Under the first covenant, the justice of God, as an avenger of blood, pursues us; but if we get into the second covenant, we are in the city of refuge, we are safe, and the justice of God is pacified towards us.  Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, p. 132.

Thomas Boston, commenting on Edward Fisher’s distinction between the law and the gospel (the covenant of works and the covenant of grace), put it this way:

“The holy Scripture states it as the difference betwixt the law and the gospel, that the former is the ministration of condemnation and death, the latter, the ministration of righteousness and life (2 Cor. 3:6-9).

Finally, here’s Walter Marshall:

“The difference between the law and the gospel does not at all consist in this, that the one requires perfect doing; the other, only sincere doing – but in this, that the one requires doing, the other, not doing, but believing for life and salvation.  Their terms are different, not only in degree, but in their whole nature” Walter Marshall, Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p.42.

There are other examples of similar language in other Puritans.  In summary, most of the Puritans taught that the law, as a covenant of works, demands perfect obedience, condemns, and shows sin, but does not save, convey grace and strength, or give life.  They also taught that the gospel in the covenant of grace does not demand perfect obedience nor does it condemn.  Rather, it saves, gives life in Christ, and comforts.  Lastly, the Puritans also said that the law must be preached in its fullness to convict of sin; then the gospel must be preached to show that the remedy for sin is not by works, but by faith alone in Christ alone.

shane lems
hammond, wi

7 thoughts on “The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction”

  1. Yes, some Puritans were much more adamant on the Law/Gospel distinction than others. But folks like Samuel Rutherford and Samuel Crooke would have taken a “softer” view of the distinction. For example, in what administration does God call for sincere but imperfect obedience: law or gospel? On a hard distinction, this concept does not seem to exist at all: God either requires absolute perfection, or he requires faith in Christ. But on that reading, in what sense can believers be said to keep the law at all? I think Mark Jones is right to point out that Deuteronomy 30:11-14–and many of the Psalms–suggest that God’s law is something that God’s people are capable of obeying.


    1. Thank you for this reply. I’m not as adamant about a hard distinction. I won’t say anything else, given what you wrote is better than what my attempt would be, other than Psalm 119 is one of my favorite parts of Scripture.


      1. Thanks for the notes, guys. Don’t forget also that the Puritans generally had a healthy view of the 3rd use of the law – that is, as a guide for Christian thankfulness and gratitude.


    2. God’s law is something that God’s people are capable of obeying? Really? Isn’t that precisely the issue?


      1. Yes, I think that is a central point of debate. In the narrow sense, of course no one can obey God’s law perfectly. But in the broad sense, yes, the Spirit of Christ enables believers to do what the law requires (WCF 19.7). That is why the psalmists so often speak of having kept God’s law (cf. Ps. 18:20-24), even while confessing that they do not obey it perfectly (cf. Ps. 41:4; 119:176).


  2. Are there any Puritans that did not hold to the third use of the law? I personally don’t hold to the third use, most arguments for using it as a guide, in my opinion, are very weak.

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