The Law/Gospel Distinction (Beza/Horton)

Justification: Two-Volume Set (New Studies in Dogmatics) Horton, Michael ; Michael Allen, Swain, Scott R. cover image

In 1558 Theodore Beza (John Calvin’s successor in Geneva) wrote “Confession De Foi Du Chretien” (The Christian Faith). The following is an excerpt on Beza’s description of the law/gospel distinction taken from his book:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law”, the other the “Gospel”. For, all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings.  What we call Law (when it is distinguished from Gospel and is taken for one of the two parts of the Word) is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts. However, so that we may have a more exact knowledge, it was written by God on two Tables and is briefly comprehended in ten commandments. In these He sets out for us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to His majesty and our neighbors. This on contrasting terms: either perpetual life, if we perfectly keep the Law without omitting a single point, or eternal death, if we do not completely fulfill the contents of each commandment (Deu_30:15 – Deu_30:20; Jam_2:10).  What we call the Gospel (“Good News”) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Mat_16:17; Joh_1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom_3:20 – Rom_3:22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1Co_1:30).

Here’s how Michael Horton commented on Beza’s words:

Beza goes on to warn, ‘We must pay great attention to these things. For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupts Christianity.’ Why is this? People always turn the law into something easy and the gospel into something difficult, as if the gospel were ‘nothing other than a second Law, more perfect than the first.’ Beza then devotes a great deal of space to distinguishing the law form the gospel. The law is in us by nature; the gospel is ‘from above.’ ‘Having carefully understood this distinction of the two parts of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, it is easy to understand how and to what end the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the one and the other in the Church.’ We do not know our sinfulness. ‘This is why God begins with the preaching of the Law,’ and after discussing this point more fully, he concludes, ‘There then is the first use of the preaching of the Law.’ But ‘after the Law comes the Gospel’ in preaching. The ‘third use’ Beza discusses under the heading, ‘The other fruit of the preaching of the Law, once the preaching of the Gospel has effectually done its work,’ and he argues that because the believer’s relation to the law has changed, it simply directs instead of inspiring fear and doubt.

Michael Horton, Justification Volume 1, p. 294-5.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015