The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction

One thing I always appreciate about the Puritans is the fact that they make the proper distinction between the law and the gospel.  From Thomas Watson to John Bunyan to William Perkins, the Puritans did not mix the law with the gospel or the gospel with the law.  I got to thinking about this again recently when looking over the chapter on the law and the gospel in A Puritan Theology.  As I noted before, this is one of the weaker chapters in an otherwise helpful book.  I’ve written extensively on the law/gospel distinction here before, but I thought it would be beneficial to give a few more examples of how the Puritans distinguished between the law and the gospel.  First, here are a few quotes from Thomas Goodwin:

“The law was a dead letter, and though it shewed us the will of God, yet it changed us not into the image of it; but the gospel reveals the glorious image of Jesus Christ to true believers, and changeth them into the same image, yet so as by degrees, from one degree of glory to another, this glorious image being perfected by little and little, till we come to the full stature of Christ” (Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863), 218).

“Now what is the gospel? Truly it is nothing else (take it strictly in the special sense and meaning of it) but that doctrine which holds forth the grace of God justifying, pardoning, and saving sinners, and which holds forth Jesus Christ made righteousness to us. Now then, this gospel it is called in a peculiar respect ‘the word of faith;’ and for what respect but this? because it is a special object of a special faith which God saveth us by. The apostle, in Rom. 10:8, speaking of the gospel in distinction from the law, and from all else in the Scripture, saith, ‘This is the word of faith which we preach….’” (Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 8 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 286.)

Here’s Thomas Boston:

That which I aim at, and intend therein, is to show unto myself, and others that shall read it, 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 (two) reasons:

  1. 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 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.
  2. Secondly, Because if we know right how to distinguish betwixt them, the knowledge thereof will afford us 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.)

I like how Goodwin explained the power of the gospel and how Boston listed the benefits of knowing how to distinguish between the two.  Indeed, as the author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus, said,

“…The law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein” (Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 2.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
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

Support For Those Weak In Faith

The Works of Thomas Brooks, 6 Volume Set In one section of his book, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, Thomas Brooks gives some biblical examples of what it means to be weak in faith: those weak in faith have a fair amount of worldliness in their hearts, they fret and worry excessively about troubles and trials, they often think more of their sin than God’s grace, and they often judge their spiritual condition by feelings rather than facts (among other things).  Brooks followed up this section with another great section we can properly call, “Support for Those Weak in Faith.”  Brooks gives twelve “supports”; I’ll list a few of them (edited for length) below:

1) The weakest Christians have as much as interest and propriety in Christ as the strongest saints in the world.  Weak saints are as much united to Christ, as much justified by Christ, as much reconciled by Christ, and as much pardoned by Christ as the strongest saints.  A soul weak in grace has as much interest in the Lord as the strongest saint has, even though the weak saint might not have the skill to improve upon that interest.

2) The Lord will not cast away weak saints because of the weakness that clings to their persons or services.  Christ looks more upon Peter’s sorrow than his sin, more upon his tears than upon his oaths.  The Lord will not cast away weak saints for their great unbelief, for there is a little faith in them.  He will not throw them away for that hypocrisy that is in them because of that little sincerity that is in them.  He will not cast away weak saints for that pride that is in them, because of those rays of humility that shine in them.  We would not throw a little gold away because there is a great deal of dross in it, neither will God throw his people away though there is a great deal of weakness in them.  The Lord Jesus has as great and as large and interest in the weakest saints as he has in the strongest.

3) The Lord will graciously preserve and strengthen those weak graces that are in his weak saints.  Though your graces be as a spark of fire in the midst of an ocean of corruption, yet the Lord will preserve and blow up that spark of fire into a flame.  It was the priest’s office in the time of the law to keep the fire in the sanctuary from going out; it is the office of our Lord Jesus – as he is our high priest, head, husband, and mediator – to blow up that heavenly fire that he has kindled in our souls.  A bruised reed he will not break, nor quench the smoking flax (Mt. 12:27).

4) Weak Christians do not stand before God in their own righteousness, but in the perfect, spotless, and matchless righteousness of Christ.  Weak hearts are prone to be troubled and discouraged when they consider the sin that is in them and when they consider the imperfections clinging to their good deeds.  Then they are ready to say, ‘We will one day perish because of the strength of our lusts or the defects of our good deeds!’  Remember this, however, that weak Christians stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ, so God owns them and looks upon them as his people wrapped up in his royal robe (Jer. 23.6, 1 Cor. 1.30).  Though weak saints have nothing of their own, yet in Christ they have all, for in him is all fullness (Col. 1.19).

5) Weak Christians have a share in Christ; they are firmly united to him.  Christ shares with them in their human nature.  Christ shares with them in their afflictions.  Christ shares with them in their suffering and persecution.  Christ shares with them in all their temptations.  Weak saints share with Christ in his image, in his Spirit, his grace, his victory, his honor, and his glory (Eph. 2.6, John 14.2, 3, Rev. 3.21).

Practical theology indeed!  If a Christian is weak in faith, he should not delight in this fact nor should he despair, because the gospel is still the gospel for those who have even a little faith.  Or, in other words, the strength of our faith does not save us; the strength of our Savior does!

Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ in Thomas Brooks, Works III.60-75.

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

A Pastor’s Prayer (Valley of Vision)

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions Here’s an excellent pastor’s prayer (slightly edited) from the Valley of Vision:

“O my Lord,
Let not my ministry be approved only by men,
or merely win the esteem and affections of people…
Save me from self-opinion and self-seeking;
Make my every sermon a means of grace to myself,
and help me to experience the power of thy dying love,
For thy blood is balm, thy presence bliss, thy smile heaven,
and thy cross the place where truth and mercy meet.

Look upon the doubts and discourages of my ministry,
and keep me from self-importance;
I beg pardon for my many sins, omissions, infirmities,
as a man, as a minister;
Command thy blessing on my weak, unworthy labors
and on the message of salvation given.

When I preach to others
Let not my words be merely elegant and masterly
My reasoning polished and refined
My performance powerless and tasteless,
But may I exalt thee and humble sinners.”

Valley of Vision, p 184.

rev. shane lems
hammond, wi

A Soft Critique of “A Puritan Theology”

A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life There are many parts of A Puritan Theology that are simply outstanding (which I’ve mentioned before here on the blog).  As a whole, this book is a great resource that serves as an extended intro to the theology of the Puritans.  However, as I’ve been reading sections of it, I do have some concerns.  Before explaining, I want to note that it is very difficult to write and edit a book like this – over 900 pages of theology summarizing the Puritans is a tough task.  Nobody could write this book in a way that would satisfy everyone.  So the following critiques are “soft” critiques.

My first general critique is that though the book is structured like a systematic theology (ST) book, it really isn’t one.  I was expecting the book to be an objective summary of what the Puritans taught on each head of doctrine, but sometimes the authors use one Puritan to talk about a doctrine rather than give a general consensus.  Other times the authors don’t follow the traditional ST outline.  This isn’t a big deal in itself, but I believe the book would be even better if it was more objectively ST.

My second general critique is related to the first.  There are two specific chapters which troubled me: the chapter on the covenant of works and the chapter on the law/gospel distinction.  The chapter on the covenant of works was poorly organized.  Rather than discuss the covenant of works systematically like Watson, Turretin, Boston, and Witsius (etc.), the authors seemed to be all over the place.  In this chapter you won’t find a traditional outline (covenant parties, promises, conditions, penalties, etc.).  Rather, the authors spend time talking about Adam’s faith, the ‘grace’ in the covenant of works, and whether Adam was made ‘in’ a covenant or ‘for’ a covenant.  If my count is correct, Witsius was only mentioned once in this chapter – in a footnote.  I could be wrong here, but it seemed to me like the authors were using the Puritans to interact with some present day covenant theology discussions.  There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but I would rather have learned what the Puritans said about the classic systematic definition of the covenant of works.

The chapter on “The Puritans on the Law and Gospel” was disappointing because it really didn’t give a full summary of the Puritan’s views on the law/gospel distinction.  The authors didn’t even define the law/gospel distinction.  In fact, the law/gospel distinction wasn’t really even mentioned aside from a note that the Reformed theologians differed from the Lutherans on this point (which is only partially true).  The chapter was more about antinomianism and how the Puritans were against it.  Again, it seemed like this discussion had more to do with the current antinomian debate than a summary of the Puritan’s law/gospel teaching.  I would have liked to see quotes and explanations of men like Perkins, Boston, and Bolton – and how they clearly distinguished the law and the gospel.  In fact, Perkins, Boston, and Bolton aren’t even mentioned in this chapter; it is simply incomplete.

Again, I realize writing a book like this is incredibly difficult.  The authors should be heartily commended for their work on A Puritan Theology – a book which will no doubt benefit many who read it.  However, it isn’t without flaws, some of the outlines and points made are debatable, and we would do well to use this book to help us read the Puritans themselves.  As the authors rightly note, when we read the Puritans they drive us back to the word of God, and the God of the word (cf. A Puritan Theology, p. 26).

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).

shane lems
hammond, wi

The Precious Promises of God

Chapter 26 of A Puritan Theology is a wonderful resource on believing, applying, and praying God’s covenant promises.  The chapter is broken down into two main sections: the right understanding of God’s promises and the right use of these promises.  In other words, we should know God’s gospel promises and we should rightly apply them to our Christian life.  Here are a few edited and summarized quotes that are quite helpful and edifying.

“The promises are the grounds of our hope, the objects of our faith, and the rule of prayer.”

“A divine promise declares God’s goodwill, purpose, and intention toward sinners.  It reveals what the Lord will do on our behalf; not what he hopes to do or will attempt to perform, but what he has already committed and bound himself to accomplish for us.”

“A promise of God is both the ground of present comfort and the expectation of future blessings.”

“The root of divine promises is the sovereign goodness of God by which he purposes and engages himself to do good to sinners, not because of any merit in them, but out of free grace, since even the condition required (faith, repentance, or the like) is itself of God (2 Tim. 2:25; Acts 13:48; John 6:44-45, 65).”

“Some of God’s promises offer encouragement (Is. 40:31), some give comfort (1 Cor. 10:13), some bring rewards (Ps. 84:11), and some bring privileges (John 1:12).”

“God’s promises are precious because he is the author who gave them and Christ is the one who purchased them.  They are precious in the free manner in which they are given and in the great and inestimable profit that flows from them.  They are also precious because they promise eternal glory and virtue, and because through them we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).”

Indeed, knowing, believing, and living according to God’s gospel promises makes the Christian life sweet even in and through the bitterness we all encounter.  It is good for us to memorize the “promise” verses in Scripture to help us find strength when we’re weary, hope when we’re downcast, courage when we face danger, and joy when trials come.  After all, each promise of God finds its yes and amen in Jesus, the one who died and rose again to save sinners – the one who is coming again to take his people home.  But based on his promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell (1 Pet. 2:13 HCSB).

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).

shane lems

The Grounds of Perseverance

Chapter 38 of A Puritan Theology is titled, “The Puritans on Perseverance of the Saints.”  In this chapter the authors list four grounds or foundations of the perseverance of the saints as taught by the Puritans.  To state it as a question: “What are the grounds of the perseverance of the saints?” (I’ve edited the following to keep it brief – though I do recommend the entire section.)

Ground One: The Father’s electing love.  The Puritans stressed that our perseverance in faith is based on God’s preservation of us in grace.  Watson said, ‘It is not your holding God, but his holding us, that preserves us.  When a boat is tied to a rock, it is secure; so, when we are fast tied to the Rock of Ages, we are impregnable.’

Ground Two: Christ’s merit and intercession.  The Puritans said our union with Christ cannot be dissolved.  Christ will not let his people be sundered from him, any more than a head will willingly be cut off from its body or a husband from his wife.  The Puritans taught that the merit or value of the sacrifice Christ made at the cross guarantees that for those whom he died will be eternally saved.  The Puritans also viewed the intercessory work of Christ as our high priest as integral to the believer’s perseverance in faith.

Ground Three: The indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Richard Sibbes said, “There are none that hold out but those that have the Spirit of God to be their teacher and persuader.”  The ground of perseverance is closely connected with the Word of God which abides in us, for the Word of God and the Spirit of God are always closely connected.  Owen wrote, “…The Father gives the elect in to the hands of Christ to be redeemed; having redeemed them, in due time they are called by the Spirit, and marked for God, and so give up themselves to the hands of the Father.”

Ground Four: The Covenant of Grace.  The agreement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity is intimately connected with God’s covenant mercies to us because in the covenant God revealed the order of the cooperative work of the Trinity through the incarnate Mediator.  The covenant promises that God will be faithful to his people, and he will ensure their faithfulness to him.  True believers may be assured that they will have heaven because they already have the Lord as their covenant God, and that is the essence of heaven on earth.

Standing upon these four grounds, the Puritans said, the Christian’s hope is solid, substantial, and certain.

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 607ff.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi