Here are two sections of William Gurnall’s discussion of “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15):
The news which the gospel hath in its mouth to tell us poor sinners is good. It speaks promises, and they are significations of some good intended by God for poor sinners. The law, that brings ill news to town. Threatenings are the ‘lingua vernacula legis’ – the native language of the law. It can speak no other language to sinners but denunciations of evil to come upon them, but the gospel smiles on poor sinners, and plains [smooths] the wrinkles that sit on the law’s brow, by proclaiming promises.
1 Timothy 1:15. This bridge which the gospel lays over the gulf of God’s wrath, for poor sinners to pass from their sins into the favor of God here, and into the kingdom of God hereafter, is supported with no other arches than the wisdom, power, mercy, and faithfulness of God….
Here’s a helpful explanation of the law/gospel distinction by Theodore Beza (d. 1564):
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 neighbours. 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 fulfil the contents of each commandment (Deut. 30:15-20; James 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 (Matt 16:17; John 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. 3:20-22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time he renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor 2:4).
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 principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.
One of the wonderful and comforting truths of the Christian faith is the fact that a sinner is justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This truth is full of hope, peace, joy, happiness, and assurance. One aspect of justification is what Scripture teaches about Christ suffering the curse of law-breaking in the place of his people (Gal. 3:13). John Bunyan gave an excellent explanation of how Christ suffered the curse in our stead and completely freed us from it by doing so:
As we are said to suffer with him, so we are said to die, to be dead with him; with him, that is, by the dying of his body. ‘Now, if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’ (Rom 6:8). Wherefore he saith in other places, ‘Brethren, ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ’; for indeed we died then to it by him. To the law that is, the law now has nothing to do with us; for that it has already executed its curse to the full upon us by its slaying of the body of Christ; for the body of Christ was our flesh: upon it also was laid our sin.
The law, too, spent that curse that was due to us upon him, when it condemned, killed, and cast him into the grave. Wherefore, it having thus spent its whole curse upon him as standing in our stead, we are exempted from its curse for ever; we are become dead to it by that body (Rom 7:4). It has done with us as to justifying righteousness. Nor need we fear its damning threats any more; for by the death of this body we are freed from it, and are for ever now coupled to a living Christ.
Romans 5 is a great passage in Scripture that compares and contrasts Adam and Christ. Paul uses legal and covenantal language to explain how Adam was a type of Christ. For example, here’s verse 19: For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (NIV). I appreciate how Herman Bavinck commented on these great truths:
…While it is certainly true that as a human and with reference to himself Christ was subject to the law, it must be emphasized that his incarnation and being human occurred not for himself but for us. Christ never was, and may never be regarded as, a private person, an individual alongside and on the same level as other individuals. He was from the very beginning a public person, the second Adam, the guarantor and head of the elect. As Adam sinned for himself and by this act imposed guilt and death on all those he represented, so Christ, by his righteousness and obedience, acquired forgiveness and life for all his own. Even more, as a human being Christ was certainly subject to the law of God as the rule of life; even believers are never exempted from the law in that sense. But Christ related himself to the law in still a very different way, namely, as the law of the covenant of works. Adam was not only obligated to keep the law but was confronted in the covenant of works with that law as the way to eternal life, a life he did not yet possess. But Christ, in virtue of his union with the divine nature, already had this eternal and blessed life. This life he voluntarily relinquished. He submitted himself to the law of the covenant of works as the way to eternal life for himself and his own.
The obedience that Christ accorded to the law, therefore, was totally voluntary. Not his death alone, as Anselm said, but his entire life was an act of self-denial, a self-offering presented by him as head in the place of his own.
One of my favorite shorter articles on Christian ethics is John Murray’s contribution simply called, “The Christian Ethic.” At one point in this article he discussed how God’s law and love relate in Christian ethics. He gave three specifics: The primacy of love, the priority in love, and the specific nature of the correlation of law and love.
The section I’ll post below made me think of legalism. Legalists are very law-heavy and quick to judge others when it comes to the details of the law. Legalists will quickly condemn Christians, preachers, books, Christian music, and so forth if these things do not measure up to their law-heavy and detailed standards. Legalists are always upset with someone or something and they rarely encourage, help, or share the burden of those who are (in their eyes) inferior. They are quick to complain and condemn, but slow to encourage and help. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say this: the more legalistic a person is, the less he or she truly loves others. The opposite is also true.
Here’s Murray’s discussion of the primacy of love in the law:
Love is primary because only by love can the commandments be fulfilled. Love is emotive, motive, impulsive, and expulsive. It is emotive in that it constrains affection for its object, motive because it is the spring of action, impulsive because it impels to action, expulsive in that it expels what is alien to the interests of its object. We know only too well what a grievous burden is formal compliance with commandments when there is no love. Why is labor so distasteful, why so much heartlessness, and with heartlessness deterioration in quality and the mark of dishonesty on the product? It is because there is no love. Most tragic of all is the evidence of this in the highest of vocations [callings] and the discharge of the most sacred functions. The apostle reminds us: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” [NASB].
Martin Luther’s comments on Galatians 4:3 will make the legalist in us squirm. But they will also help explain what “Christ alone” means for the guilty conscience:
The law does tell me to love the Lord my God, but it does not enable me to do so or to lay hold of Christ.
I do not say this in order that the law should be despised; nor does Paul intend this. It should be held in great esteem. But because Paul here is dealing with justification, he has to speak of the law as something contemptible and odious, for justification is poles apart from the law. We cannot speak contemptuously enough of the law when we are dealing with this matter. When the conscience is in this conflict, therefore, it should think of nothing and know nothing except Christ alone. The law should be completely removed from sight, and the promise of Christ alone embraced. It is easy to say this, but in times of temptation, when the conscience is struggling with God, it is the hardest of all things actually to do. When the law accuses you, terrifies you, reveals to you your sin, threatens your soul with the wrath of God and eternal death, then you need strong faith in Christ, as if there had never been any law or sin, but only Christ, grace, and redemption. You need to be able to say, “Law, I will not listen to you. The time has come for me to be free, and I will not put up with your tyranny any longer.”
In 1935, at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA, John Murray gave an address called, “The Sanctity of the Moral Law.” (“Sanctity” in this context means holiness or sacredness.) In this address Murray talked about the moral law which is summarized in the Ten Commandments. Murray’s lecture is a very helpful discussion of the moral law and its importance for Christians. I appreciate how he ended this address:
“As we recognize the awful sanctity that surrounds the law, we shall certainly be crushed with a sense of our own hell-deserving guilt and hopeless inability. We shall certainly be constrained to cry out, ‘Woe is me for I am undone.’ ‘Surely I am more stupid than any man, and I have not the understanding of a man’ (Is. 6:5; Prov. 30:2). But in that condition there falls upon our ears and into our hearts the sweet news of the gospel, the gospel of a crucified and risen Redeemer and Lord. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us’ (Gal. 3:13). We shall be constrained to come to Calvary.
But when we come to Calvary for the expiation of our guilt and the remission of our sin, it is not to diminish our esteem of that law nor relax our sense of its awful sanctity and binding authority. Oh no! …When we are possessed by the sense of the authority and sanctity of the moral law, we must come to Calvary if any true and living hope is to be engendered within us. But when we rise from our prostration before the Cross, it is not to find the moral law abrogated, but to find it by the grace of God wrought into the very fiber of the new life in Christ Jesus.
If the Cross of Christ does not fulfill in us the passion of righteousness, we have misinterpreted the whole scheme of divine redemption. ‘For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh’ (Rom. 8:3). Is it that the moral law might cease to bind and regulate? Oh no! But ‘that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.’