The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction

One thing I always appreciate about the Puritans is the fact that they make the proper distinction between the law and the gospel.  From Thomas Watson to John Bunyan to William Perkins, the Puritans did not mix the law with the gospel or the gospel with the law.  I got to thinking about this again recently when looking over the chapter on the law and the gospel in A Puritan Theology.  As I noted before, this is one of the weaker chapters in an otherwise helpful book.  I’ve written extensively on the law/gospel distinction here before, but I thought it would be beneficial to give a few more examples of how the Puritans distinguished between the law and the gospel.  First, here are a few quotes from Thomas Goodwin:

“The law was a dead letter, and though it shewed us the will of God, yet it changed us not into the image of it; but the gospel reveals the glorious image of Jesus Christ to true believers, and changeth them into the same image, yet so as by degrees, from one degree of glory to another, this glorious image being perfected by little and little, till we come to the full stature of Christ” (Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863), 218).

“Now what is the gospel? Truly it is nothing else (take it strictly in the special sense and meaning of it) but that doctrine which holds forth the grace of God justifying, pardoning, and saving sinners, and which holds forth Jesus Christ made righteousness to us. Now then, this gospel it is called in a peculiar respect ‘the word of faith;’ and for what respect but this? because it is a special object of a special faith which God saveth us by. The apostle, in Rom. 10:8, speaking of the gospel in distinction from the law, and from all else in the Scripture, saith, ‘This is the word of faith which we preach….’” (Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 8 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 286.)

Here’s Thomas Boston:

That which I aim at, and intend therein, is to show unto myself, and others that shall read it, the difference betwixt the Law and the Gospel — a point, as I conceive, very needful for us to be well instructed in, and that for these (two) reasons:

  1. Because, if we be ignorant thereof, we shall be very apt to mix and mingle them together, and so to confound the one with the other; which, as Luther on the Galatians truly says, “doth more mischief than man’s reason can conceive;” and therefore he doth advise all Christians, in the case of justification, to separate the Law and the Gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated.
  2. Secondly, Because if we know right how to distinguish betwixt them, the knowledge thereof will afford us no small light towards the true understanding of the Scripture, and will help us to reconcile all such places, both in the Old and New Testament, as seem to be repugnant; yea, and it will help us to judge aright of cases of conscience, and quiet our own conscience in time of trouble and distress; yea, and we shall thereby be enabled to try the truth and falsehood of all doctrines…”  (Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Explication of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 7 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 459.)

I like how Goodwin explained the power of the gospel and how Boston listed the benefits of knowing how to distinguish between the two.  Indeed, as the author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus, said,

“…The law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein” (Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 2.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

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One comment on “The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction

  1. blund says:

    This is so important! I’m not as convinced that the Puritans as a group were always as clear on Law and Gospel, so I might throw a qualifiers in your first sentence. But correcting the record in A Puritan Theology is so necessary. Great point and great quotes Shane!

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