The Law/Gospel Distinction: A Big Help in Understanding Scripture (Boston)

The Marrow of Modern Divinty by [Fisher, Edward]

Why did Thomas Boston (d. 1732) strongly endorse “The Marrow of Modern Divinity” and write study notes for it? Because he wanted Christians to understand the biblical and practical aspects of the law/gospel distinction. Here’s Boston in his own words:

That which I aim at, and intend therein, is to show unto myself, and others that shall read it [The Marrow], 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 reasons:

First, 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, p. 31, 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.

Secondly, Because if we know right how to distinguish betwixt them, the knowledge thereof will afford ns 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.

Indeed, the law/gospel distinction is not only biblical and helpful for understanding Scripture rightly, it is also very practical for Christian living!

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

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The Law Says… The Gospel Says…

In his 19th century book, The Christian Ministry, Charles Bridges takes some time to explain the necessity of preaching the law and the gospel rightly.  He talks clearly about a law/gospel distinction as well as the third use of the law (the law as a guide of gratitude).  At one point, he quotes Scottish reformer, Patrick Hamilton (d. 1528), who wrote Loci Communes Theogogici (also known as “Patrick’s Places”).  Here are a few excerpts from Hamilton on the law/gospel distinction.

The Law shows us,
Our sin.
Our condemnation,
Is the word of ire.
Is the word of despair.
Is the word of displeasure.

The Gospel shows us,
A remedy for it.
Our redemption,
Is the word of grace.
Is the word of comfort.
Is the word of peace.

The Law says,
Pay thy debt.
Thou art a sinner desperate.
And thou shalt die.

The Gospel says,
Christ hath paid it.
Thy sins are forgiven thee.
Be of good comfort, thou shalt be saved.

The Law says,
Make amends for thy sin.
The Father of Heaven is angry with thee.
Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction?
Thou art bound and obliged unto me, to the devil, and to hell.

The Gospel says,
    Christ hath made it for thee.
Christ hath pacified him with his blood.
Christ is thy righteousness, thy goodness, and satisfaction.
Christ hath delivered thee from them all.

– Patrick Hamilton –

rev. shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

The Law/Gospel Distinction in Scotland

John Colquhoun (d. 1827) was a minister in the Church of Scotland for 46 years.  Colquhoun was influenced by Thomas Boston and ended up writing quite a few books on theological topics like the covenant of grace, the covenant of works, repentance, and faith.  Below is a selection from his Treatise on the Law and the Gospel (published in 1816).

“By ‘the law’ here is meant the moral law as a covenant of works, and by ‘the gospel’ is meant the gospel in its strict and proper sense.”

“To know the difference so as to be able to distinguish aright between the law and the gospel is of the utmost importance to the faith, holiness, and comfort of every true Christian.  If he does not know the difference between the law and the gospel he will be apt, especially in the affair of justification, to confound the one with the other.  The consequence will be that in his painful experience, bondage will be mixed with liberty of spirit, fear with hope, sorrow with joy, and death with life.  If he cannot so distinguish the gospel from the law as to expect all his salvation from the grace of the gospel, and nothing of it from the works of the law, he will easily be induced to connect his own works with the righteousness of Jesus Christ in the affair of justification.”

“This was the error of the Judaizing teachers in the churches of Galatia.  They mingled the law with the gospel in the business of justification, and thereby they so corrupted the gospel as to alter the very nature of it and make it another gospel.”

Next time I’ll give a summary of Colquhoun’s law/gospel distinction in various points.  The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, 141.

rev shane lems