The Indicative and Imperative (Machen)

Virgin Birth of Christ

Here’s what J. G. Machen said about the “imitation of Christ” movement just over 100 years ago:

“It seems never to have occurred to the adherents of this religion that there is such a thing as sin, and that sin places an awful gulf between man and God.  But those convictions, though they are unpopular at the present time, are certainly quite central in the Christian religion.  From the beginning Christianity was the religion of the broken heart; it is based upon the conviction that there is an awful gulf between man and God which none but God can bridge.  The Bible tells us how this gulf was bridged; and that means the Bible is a record of facts.”

Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus?  In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair.  We Christians are not interested merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; in a triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains that history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope” 

The last chapter of The Virgin Birth is outstanding (the whole book is, but some of it is a bit dated).  In the final chapter, Machen hammers home the gospel, showing how “imitating Jesus” is not the essence of Christianity because “imitating Jesus” doesn’t necessarily depend upon historical facts.  Nor is “imitating Jesus” the gospel.  Note well the imperative (law) and the “triumphant” indicative (gospel) above. Machen knew the difference and so should we!

The above quote is found in (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ [New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932], 385) (emphasis added).

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

The Two Principal Parts of Scripture (Beza)

Theodore Beza

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.

Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (Lewes, UK: Christian Focus, 1992).

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

Know These Two Things: Law and Gospel

The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by [Marshall, Walter] Here’s a wonderful section of Walter Marshall’s 1692 publication, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification:

The most effectual knowledge for your salvation is to understand these two points: 1) the desperate sinfulness and misery of your own natural condition, and 2) the alone sufficiency of the grace of God in Christ for your salvation, that you may be abased as to the flesh and exalted in Christ alone.

And, for the better understanding these two main points, you should learn how the first Adam was the figure of the second (Rom. 5:14); how sin and death came upon all the natural seed of the first Adam by his disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit, and how righteousness and everlasting life come upon all the spiritual seed of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, by His obedience unto death, even the death of the cross.

You also should learn the true difference between the two covenants, the old and the new, or the law and the gospel: that the former shuts us up under the guilt and power of sin, and the wrath of God and His curse, by its rigorous terms: ‘Do all the commandments, and live; and, cursed are you if you do not do them, and fail in the least point’; the latter opens the gates of righteousness and life to all believers (i.e. the new covenant) by its gracious terms: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and live,’ that is, all your sins shall be forgiven, and holiness and glory shall be given to you freely by His merit and Spirit.

Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Direction 13.1.

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

The Three Uses of the Law (Luther’s Catechism)

Luther's Small Catechism (with Scripture explanation) Here’s a great Reformation treatment on the purposes (or uses) of God’s law.

“What purposes does the Law then serve?”

First, the Law helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world (a curb).

Second, the Law accuses us and shows us our sin (a mirror).

Third, the Law teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to live a God-pleasing life (a guide).  The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel.”

That’s worth committing to memory: the law is a curb, a mirror, and a guide for the Christian to follow by the power of the gospel.  Even young children can understand that!

This Q/A can be found in Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991).  As I’ve mentioned here before, this is a sweet little hardcover book that goes through the basics of the Lutheran side of Reformation theology. Even though I disagree with some aspects of Lutheran theology, this book is a great one to own and read.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Agreement Between the Law and the Gospel

Image 1 In historic Reformed theology, the moral law has a very important place in the life of the Christian.  One use of the law is that it shows us our sin and drives us to Christ (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 3:23-26).  The law is distinguished from the gospel in that it cannot justify, redeem, or provide a remedy for sin like Christ does in the gospel.  As far as justification goes, the Christian is no longer under the law, but grace (Rom. 6:14); the Christian is not in a covenant of works by which he must earn his salvation, but is in the covenant of grace, where salvation is freely given and received by faith alone (WCF 19.6).

However, Christians do not throw the law out just because it cannot justify us or save us.  On the contrary, the law is a delight to the Christian – it is a lamp in his life to tell him what pleases God and what doesn’t (Ps. 119:105, 174).  The law is of “great use to [true believers] …as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly” (WCF 19.6).  In fact, the law (as a mirror of sin and as a guide for the Christian life) sweetly complies with the gospel (WCF 19.7).  In Reformed theology, we distinguish between justification and sanctification, but we do not separate the two; a similar statement might be said of the law and the gospel.  Reformed theology is neither legalistic (we distinguish between the law and the gospel) nor antinomian (we also see agreement between the law and the gospel).

Thomas Watson said it like this in his introduction to the Ten Commandments:

“Though the moral law be not a Christ to justify us, it is a rule to instruct us. …We do not say the moral law is a Christ, but it is a star to lead to Christ.  We do not say that it saves, but sanctifies.  They who will not have the law to rule them, shall have the law to judge them.  …The moral law is the copy of God’s will, our spiritual directory.”

“The moral law requires obedience, but gives no strength (as Pharaoh required brick, but gave no straw), but the gospel gives strength; it bestows faith on the elect, it sweetens the law, it makes us serve God with delight.” …Though the moral law is not our Savior, it is our guide.  Though it is not a ‘foedus’, a covenant of life, yet it is a ‘norma’, a rule of life.” …They who will not have the law to rule them, shall never have the gospel to save them.”

John Colquhoun made these similar statements in his book under the subheading, “The Agreement Between the Law and the Gospel”:

“The law, as a covenant of works and a rule of life, demands nothing of sinners but what is offered and promised in the gospel; and in the gospel everything is freely promised and offered to them which the law, in any of its forms, requires of them.  …While it [the gospel] reveals and offers righteousness to satisfy the law as a covenant, it promises and offers strength to obey the law as a rule. …Thus, in general, the law and the gospel agree together or mutually subserve each other.”

“Whatever the law requires, the gospel, in the most abundant measure, supplies. …The law in the hand of the Spirit renders the grace of the gospel precious and desirable in the eyes of convinced sinners; and this grace, when it is received, makes the law salutary and pleasing to them.  …What the law as a rule of life binds [Christians] to perform, the grace of the gospel constrains and enables them to do so.”

“When a man spiritually discerns and sincerely loves the grace of the gospel, at the same time he sees and loves the holiness of the law.  The consequence will be that he will sincerely and cheerfully obey the law.  …Everyone, then, who knows by experience the boundless grace of the gospel will perform sincere, cheerful, and constant obedience to the law as a rule.”

John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, chapter 8.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond wi

The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction

Back in June, I noted that the section on the law/gospel distinction in the book A Puritan Theology was lacking and incomplete (see my review here).  In other words, the authors failed to give a summarized and systematic description of what the Puritans taught on the law/gospel distinction.  So what did the Puritans teach about the law/gospel distinction?  Generally speaking, the Puritans agreed with and taught the Reformed distinction and often discussed it in terms of the covenant of works/covenant of grace distinction.  More could be said on this for sure (i.e. how the Puritans also taught the third use of the law); below are just a few examples.

“[The law] enforced itself upon the conscience with threats and with terror; but now the Gospel comes otherwise, with beseechings and love (Rom 12:1)….  The law urges obedience upon pain of eternal death (Deut. 27:14-26; Gal. 3:10), and enforces its demands by terror, but the Gospel by sweetness and love; all terror is gone.”  Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p.44.

“The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel.  For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently….  Both the law and the gospel must be preached; the law to give birth to repentance and the gospel to lead to faith.  But they must be preached in their proper order, first the law to bring repentance and then the gospel to work faith and forgiveness – never the other way around.  William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, p. 52, 100).

“It will prove a special help to know distinctly the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, between Moses and Christ.  Moses, without any mercy, breaks all bruised reeds, and quenches all smoking flax.  For the law requires personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience from the heart, and that under a most terrible curse, but gives no strength.  …[However,] Christ comes with blessing after blessing, even upon those whom Moses had cursed, and with healing balm for those wounds which Moses had made.  …God knows we have nothing of ourselves, therefore in the covenant of grace he requires no more than he gives, but gives what he requires, and accepts what he gives….”  Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, p. 36-37.

“Let us labor by faith to get into the second covenant of grace, and then the curse of the first covenant will be taken away by Christ.  If we once get to be heirs of the covenant of grace, we are in a better state than before.  Adam stood on his own legs, and therefore he fell; we stand in the strength of Christ.  Under the first covenant, the justice of God, as an avenger of blood, pursues us; but if we get into the second covenant, we are in the city of refuge, we are safe, and the justice of God is pacified towards us.  Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, p. 132.

Thomas Boston, commenting on Edward Fisher’s distinction between the law and the gospel (the covenant of works and the covenant of grace), put it this way:

“The holy Scripture states it as the difference betwixt the law and the gospel, that the former is the ministration of condemnation and death, the latter, the ministration of righteousness and life (2 Cor. 3:6-9).

Finally, here’s Walter Marshall:

“The difference between the law and the gospel does not at all consist in this, that the one requires perfect doing; the other, only sincere doing – but in this, that the one requires doing, the other, not doing, but believing for life and salvation.  Their terms are different, not only in degree, but in their whole nature” Walter Marshall, Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p.42.

There are other examples of similar language in other Puritans.  In summary, most of the Puritans taught that the law, as a covenant of works, demands perfect obedience, condemns, and shows sin, but does not save, convey grace and strength, or give life.  They also taught that the gospel in the covenant of grace does not demand perfect obedience nor does it condemn.  Rather, it saves, gives life in Christ, and comforts.  Lastly, the Puritans also said that the law must be preached in its fullness to convict of sin; then the gospel must be preached to show that the remedy for sin is not by works, but by faith alone in Christ alone.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Lawful and Unlawful Use of the Law (Newton)

John Newton (d. 1807) wrote a helpful letter which is now called “On the Right Use of the Law.”  It is basically Newton’s theological commentary on 1 Timothy 1:8.  After discussing the law/gospel distinction, natural laws, and moral laws, he gives some ways the law is used lawfully and some ways in which it is used unlawfully.  Here they are in abbreviated form:

1) It is not a lawful use of the law to seek justification and acceptance with God by our obedience to it; because it is not appointed for this end, or capable of answering it in our circumstances.  The very attempt is a daring impeachment of the wisdom of God – for if righteousness could come by the law, then Christ has died in vain (Gal. 2:21; 3:21).  Therefore, such a hope is not only groundless, but sinful; and, when persisted in under the light of the gospel, it is no less than a willful rejection of the grace of God.

2) It is an unlawful use of the law – and abuse both of law and gospel – to pretend that its accomplishment by Christ releases believers from any obligation to it as a rule.  Such an assertion is not only wicked, but absurd and impossible in the highest degree: for the law is founded in the relation between the Creator and the creature, and must unavoidably remain in force so long as that relation subsists.  No true believer can deliberately admit a thought or a wish of being released from his obligation of obedience to God, in whole or in part; this thought is an abhorrence to him.

3) The law is lawfully used as a means of conviction of sin.  For this purpose the law was promulgated at Sinai.  The law entered that sin might abound – not to make men more wicked, though occasionally and by abuse it has that effect, but to make them sensible how wicked they are.  Having God’s law in our hands, we are no longer to form our judgments by the maxims and customs of the world…but are to try every principle, temper, and practice by this standard.

4) We use the law lawfully when we use it as a mirror to behold the glory of God.  We see the perfection of his excellence of the law in his  (Jesus’) life.  God was glorified by his (Christ’s) obedience as a man.  What a perfect character did he exhibit!  Yet it is no other than a transcript of the law.

5) Another lawful use of the law is to consult it as a rule and pattern by which to regulate our spirit and manner of life.  The grace of God, received by faith, will disposed us to obedience in general.  But, through remaining darkness and ignorance, we are much at a loss as to particulars.  We are therefore sent to the law, that we may learn how to walk worthy of God.

6) Finally, we use the law lawfully when we improve it as a test whereby to judge of the exercise of grace.  Believers differ so much from what they once were, and from what many still are, that, without this right use of the law, comparing themselves with their former selves, or with others, they would be prone to think more highly of their attainments than they ought.

In summary, the law is used wrongly in a legalist or antinomian way; it is used rightly when we see God’s perfection and glory in it, when we use it as a rule of gratitude, when we use it to see if our faith is true, and when we use it to keep us humble.  Newton ends the letter like this:

“Clearly to understand the distinction, connection, and harmony between the law and the Gospel, and their mutual subserviency to illustrate and establish each other, is a singular privilege, and a happy means of preserving the soul from being entangled by errors on the right hand or the left.”

John Newton, Works, vol. 1, pages 339-350.

shane lems
hammond, wi