Where Is the Law/Gospel Distinction?

One aspect of legalism, Roman Catholicism, neo-nomianism, and Federal Vision theology is a denial of the Reformation law/gospel distinction (or a blending of the law/gospel). For example, the Federal Vision Joint Statement from 2007 says, “We deny that law and gospel should be considered as hermeneutics, or treated as such. …The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart.”

Reformation confessions, however, uphold a law/gospel distinction and do not mingle the law and gospel. One clear example is Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, the very catechism he played a major part in writing. He wrote,

“The doctrine of the church consists in two parts: the Law and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures. The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith. …The law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy Scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein. …We have in the law and gospel, the whole of the Scriptures, comprehending the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation” (p. 2-3).

Ursinus even says that the Catechism itself is basically divided into two parts – law and gospel. He recognizes the threefold division of the Catechism (guilt/grace/gratitude), but says there is a more basic division yet:

“…The catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and the gospel. …These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostle’s Creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostle’s Creed that of the gospel” (p. 13).

So in the Heidelberg Catechism, there is a law/gospel distinction. The Catechism doesn’t find the distinction in the human heart, like the Federal Vision Joint Statement; it doesn’t blend or deny the law/gospel distinction like legalists or Roman Catholics.  The Catechism finds the law/gospel distinction in Scripture, and is itself structured accordingly.

In fact, Ursinus goes further by saying one of the duties (#1 on his list) of a minister of the church includes “a faithful and correct exposition of the true and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and the gospel so that the church may be able to understand it” (p. 572).

To paraphrase Holy Scripture, specifically Paul in Galatians 2-3, the law does not give life; obedience does not bring justification; works do not earn the inheritance; the promise does not come by performance. Life, justification, and the inheritance come only by faith in the promise – in Christ alone.  To distinguish the law and gospel is to teach the Scriptures!

The above quotes were taken from Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, n.d.).

Shane Lems

8 Replies to “Where Is the Law/Gospel Distinction?”

  1. NT scholar Scott Hafemann has made it his agenda to wipe out the law-gospel antithesis and thereby deny faith alone. You can see this not only in his NIVAC entry on 2 Cor and other articles of his, but in his published doctoral dissertation on 2 Cor 3 which is one of the clearest passages putting forth the law-gospel contrast. In this he is following Daniel Fuller who tried to deny the contrary principles of the law and the gospel in Gal 3:10ff and Rom 9:30ff. Surprisingly, I’ve mentioned this to NT professors and they just blow it off. In a couple end notes to his book “God of Promise,” Hafemann reveals that his major opponent is a former colleague from Gordon Conwell, MG Kline. T Schreiner and J Piper had also been influenced by D Fuller but I think they have seen the error of his Barthian monocovenantalism through ongoing biblical interpretation. Having said that, if you look at Schreiner on Rom 11 in BECNT, you’ll see that he says we stand by faith and obedience when Paul there is clearly saying we stand in the covenant of grace by faith alone.


  2. Reblogged this on YINKAHDINAY and commented:
    The other day I posted an article on the law/gospel distinction in Reformed theology. I mentioned Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Shane Lems has more details on that.


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