The Law/Gospel Distinction in Reformed Theology

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 Volumes

This is a re-post from October, 2009.

I’ve posted on this before, but it is something that needs to be said more than a few times: the law/gospel distinction is right there in the fabric of historic Reformed theology.  Though some people don’t like it, won’t teach it, and think it is Lutheran, it is undeniable that a clear law/gospel distinction is a classic Reformed teaching (Note: this is neither an OT/NT distinction nor a genre distinction, such as “law and prophets.”  This is an indicative/imperative distinction, a command/promise distinction.)  Here are a few examples.

Zacharius Ursinus (d. 1583), one author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said the most basic division of the Catechism is “the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures” (p. 2 of his Commentary on the Catechism).  In fact, the Catechism is divided this way because Scripture is: “The law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein” (ibid.).   Ursinus continues, discussing in four points how there is “a very great difference” between the law and gospel (pp 104-5).  Ursinus says it is the duty of the church and pastor to very clearly distinguish between the law and the gospel (p. 288 & 572).  This means, I might add, that a good Reformation theologian is not going to muddy the waters by saying the whole Bible is law and the whole Bible is gospel, or that the law is good news, or that the gospel is law.

Casper Olevian (d. 1587) – a co-author of the Catechism – sounded exactly the same.  In a catechism he wrote (A Firm Foundation), Q/A 10 is all about the law/gospel distinction.  “What is the difference between the law and the gospel?”  Olevian answers by stating the law is the commands of God that we must perfectly keep or be cursed forever; it demands but doesn’t give ability (p. 9).  In the gospel, however “God does not demand but rather offers and gives us the righteousness that the law requires” (p. 10).  In the gospel, God – by grace through faith and not by law/works – grants a person forgiveness and righteousness in Christ (see also Q/A 8-9).

Moving out of Heidelberg to another Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin (d. 1687) talks about the difference between law and gospel very clearly in his Institutes, II.12.iii.vi.  The law, he says, commands and demands but does not give; the gospel is about salvation by a free gift, not legal obedience (See also II.12.iii.xvii and II.12.vii.xv).  Click here for more from Turretin.

Puritan Matthew Poole (d. 1679) said the exact same things as the above.  The law, he wrote, “only showed man his duty…but gave no strength or help by which he should do them; only cursing man….”  The gospel, however, “is the revelation of the Divine will, as to grace and mercy, as to remission of sin, and eternal life” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, 2 Cor. 3.7-10).

Another Puritan, Thomas Watson (d. 1686), said the same: “the moral law requires obedience, but gives no strength… but the gospel gives strength; it bestows faith on the elect… (The Ten Commandments, 14).  The moral law “is a glass to show us our sins (ibid.). [Here is a fascinating law/gospel distinction by the Westminster Divines which had rightly to do with the covenant of works/grace discussion.]

The Canons of Dort (1618-19) also echo this use of the law (III/IV.5): “For man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue, because, although it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt, yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and, indeed, weakened as it is by the flesh, leaves the offender under the curse.”  This is the Reformed confessional way to speak, following the HC “sin” section (LD 2-4).

On the German Reformed side of things, Otto Thelemann (19th century) echoes the above.  “The law teaches what we ought to be and what we should render to God; but it does not impart the strength to offer God what is due Him, nor does it indicate the way by which we might attain this ability.  On the other hand, the Gospel teaches in what way we may become such persons as the law demands.  … The law is a letter which killeth, and is a ministration of death.  The gospel is a ministration of life” (p. 60-61 in An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism).

More could be added – many more.  Here’s one final one from John Colquhoun, in A Treatise on the Law and Gospel.  Colquhoun says what Ursinus said:

If then a man cannot distinguish aright between the law and the gospel, he cannot rightly understand so much as a single article of divine truth.  If he does not have spiritual and just apprehensions of the holy law, he cannot have spiritual and transforming discoveries of the glorious gospel; and, on the other hand, if his view of the gospel is erroneous, his notions of the law cannot be right.”

To sum it up, it needs to be clear that this use of the law – the pedagogical use – was stressed in both Reformed and Lutheran circles (i.e. the sharp law/gospel distinction had to do with justification sola fide).  Also, it is true that the Reformed also had a “normative” use of the law, as is evident in the third part of the Heidelberg, the guide for Christian gratitude (the law as guide had to do with sanctification).  One can even find Lutherans who spoke of the normative use, though he/they didn’t stress it as much as the pedagogical.  [For a review on the Reformed scholastic three uses of the law, see an earlier post.]

The law/gospel distinction in Reformed theology also has everything to do with the covenant of works/grace distinction.  Furthermore, this use of the law highlighted above has much to do with “saint and sinner at the same time.”  If one abandons the law/gospel distinction,  typically the doctrine of the covenants gets muddled and the “saint/sinner same time” teaching is weakened as well and everything becomes a sort of equivocal porridge.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI