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LAW & GOSPEL IN PRESBYTERIANISM
The Reformed Doctrine Stated & Briefly Vindicated from Scripture

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004

THE REFORMED VIEW ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL PRESBYTERIAN DOCTRINE

The contrast between Law and Gospel is often treated as if it were a uniquely Lutheran idea, but Reformed doctrine also uses such a formulation. In fact, the distinction is important to understanding both Covenant theology and the essence of Christian catholicity. Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith is “Of God’s Covenant with Man.” It points out that originally, before sin, God made a covenant promising eschatological life upon condition of perfect and perpetual obedience. However, once Adam and Eve sinned, God did not destroy them as they deserved. Rather,

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

This second covenant, the covenant of grace, includes both the period of the Mosaic Law as well as the present age of the Gospel.

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

VI. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

The difference between Law and Gospel then is that of promise and fulfillment, type and substance, and partial and completeness. This is not all that controversial nor unique to the Reformed heritage. However, the difference between Law and Gospel is also that between ethnic exclusiveness and cosmopolitan inclusiveness, or between sectionalism and catholicity.

In order to keep in mind how the Westminster Confession differs from Dispensationalism, Lutheranism, and other views, notice that the difference between Law and Gospel is never portrayed as the difference between works and grace–between earning salvation and being given salvation. The Westminster Confession, following Scripture, is quite clear that the Mosaic Administration was a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace. The Law administration given by Moses never expected anyone to perfectly and personally obey God. What good would it do to make such a covenant with sinners? No, God’s covenant with Moses was grace from start to finish. To be sure, there is more grace manifested in the Gospel age (John 1.17), but that doesn’t change the fact that the Mosaic economy was the same “in substance” as the Church age. It is as true of the Law as it is of the Gospel that, “God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer” (Shorter Catechism 20).

Notice also that the distinction between Law and Gospel is, if we insist on making these separate categories, more about what we call ecclesiology rather than soteriology–more about the doctrine of the Church than the doctrine of salvation. Indeed, we don’t find much made of the distinction in the chapters on soteriology. But when we get to Chapter XXV, “Of the Church,” we read:

II. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

III. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

The Law-Gospel distinction is explicitly invoked here in the chapter on the doctrine of the Church and we are told that the Gospel, in contrast to the law, means a new catholicity. Now all nations are welcome into covenant and Church. There is no distinction between circumcised and uncircumcised. Notice that the description in Paragraph 3 of the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” refers back to paragraph 6 of the chapter on the covenant where the ordinances of the Church are spelled out.

This ecclesiological definition of the Law-Gospel distinction is also reinforced by the Book of Church Order:

1-3 The members of this visible Church catholic are all those persons in every nation, together with their children, who make profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and promise submission to His laws.

2-1 The Visible Church before the law, under the law, and now under the Gospel, is one and the same and consists of all those who make profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, together with their children.

Here, not only is the ecclesiological context prominant, but the BCO clearly states we are not without laws that we as Christians in the new Covenant are supposed to obey. Having been saved by grace, Christians must trust and obey. The definition of a Church member is two-fold: he professes faith and promises submission to God’s laws.

To sum up then, according to the Presbyterian understanding of the Bible, catholicity is important. It was a hope of the Law which could not be realized until Christ came and ushered in the administration of the Gospel. With the Gospel all nations were and are to be welcomed into the Church on equal footing. Until that time, believing Gentiles were second-class citizens in the Kingdom. Furthermore, having been saved by grace, God’s people are to be obedient and thus continue in the Church “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

What About the Republication of the Covenant of Works?
Since there has been some attempt to reformulate orthodoxy along different lines than that of the Confession, perhaps some more needs to be said. In some cases this new formulation regarding the covenant of works and the covenant of grace has become regarded as so essential that any other belief is outside of Christianity. This would not only fail to be catholic in regard to other denominations (including Lutheranism, for what it is worth) but it would actually expell the majority of the Reformation heritage.

The Westminster Confession and catechisms never say nor imply that the Ten Commandments are a (re)publication of the Covenant of Works. Rather, they clearly and consistently state that the Ten Commandments were part of the administration of the Covenant of Grace.

It is true that the Ten Commandments reveal the moral law, and it is true that Adam and Eve in the Covenant of works were supposed to be perpetually and perfectly obedient to that moral law (which was in no way burdensome or difficult since they were created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness). It is also true that the moral law reveals sin and every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse.

But a republication of the covenant of works would mean that we are under obligation to be perfectly and perpetually obedient in order to inherit glory. That simply is not true. God gave the decalogue to sinners, having saved them from Egypt by his own covenantal mercy and with the promise of continual forgiveness of sins. To claim that one might inherit life by keeping the moral law perfectly is to adopt the pelagian idea that we are not from conception, already guilty and corrupt in God’s site. The Mosaic law is not a pelagian covenant. It presupposes the fall and the grace of God.

Thus again we read in Chapter Seven of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

VI. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

Both the age of the Mosaic Law and the Gospel age are administrations of the one Covenant of Grace.

Consider also Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God”:

VI. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.

VII. Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.

The reason why believers are not under the moral law “as a covenant of works” is because they are under “the covenant of Grace” just like all the Old Testament believers were. The proper uses of the Law of God “sweetly comply” with the grace of the Gospel.

If one wishes to doubt the meaning of the Westminster Assembly, consider Q&A 101 of the Larger Catechism:

Q101: What is the preface to the ten commandments?
A101: The preface to the ten commandments is contained in these words, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivers us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments. (emphasis added).

God did not enter into a covenant of works with Israel any more than he does with believers today. On the contrary, he saves us by grace so that we are put in covenant with Him and are thus bound “to keep all his commandments.”

In case this is not clear enough, the conditions for salvation are the same in both the case of Law and Gospel. Both administrations belong not to the covenant of works, but to the covenant of Grace, wherein God “offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.” Thus, when describing “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?” (153), the Westminster Larger Catechism has no problem taking the answer from both the New Testament and the Old:

That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ [1], and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation [2].
1. Acts 16:30-31; 20:21; Matt. 3:7-8; Luke 13:3, 5; John 3:16, 18
2. Prov. 2:1-5; 8:33-36

The Westminster Divines are following the mainstream Reformed tradition in explicating faith as including or unfolding in repentance and discipleship. Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism said much the same thing.

There is but one covenant because the principal conditions, which are called the substance of the covenant, are the same before and since the incarnation of Christ; for in each testament God promises to those that repent and believe, the remission of sins; whilst men bind themselves, on the other hand, to exercise faith in God, and to repent of their sins (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 99).

CONSIDERING SCRIPTURE

The Scriptural case for the Presbyterian position on Law and Gospel would require voluminous argumentation with those representing other positions. Here are a few brief points about three of Paul’s letters. Hopefully, this can provoke thought and clarification.

A Brief Look At Ephesians
It is not at all surpising that the Westminster Confession appeals to Ephesians 2.15-19 to prove that grace is “to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles” in the Gospel administration. Paul there explicitly says that the work of Christ united Jew and Gentile in one new man. He then goes on in chapter 3 to say that newness of the Gospel lies in precisely this fact: that Jew and Gentile are now one people of God by faith alone.

It is true that the Gospel as a report is, as defined by content, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus (First Corinthians 15.1ff). But the Gospel is also that administration that results from hearing and believing the story. Thus, the Gospel economy, as opposed to the Law economy, is the state of affairs in which “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (3.6).

I have preached on this passage in more detail, but in this brief consideration I will simply point out that the gospel-mystery is the Gospel itself. Paul claims he is a “prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (3.1) and goes on to speak of the heretofor unknown mystery made known to him by revelation. He later reiterates these terms in a slightly different order. He asks for prayer that he might boldly proclaim “the mystery of the Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains (6.28, 29). In Galatians, Paul uses virtually identical language to explain his commission to preach the Gospel, speaking of when God “was pleased to reveal His Son to me” (1.15) as the time when he received both his commission and the content of the Gospel (1.12 in context). Consider also Colossians 1.24-29:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Obviously the message which brings suffering upon the Apostle Paul is the Gospel. “Him we proclaim” says Paul, referring to Christ. But Christ is proclaimed with special reference to the Gentiles. “Christ in you” should almost certainly be read as “Christ among you Gentiles.” Paul’s Gospel is that Jew and Gentile alike are members of Christ and both are on equal footing in the Gospel administration.

A Brief Look at Galatians
In Augustine’s pastoral opposition to the Donatists, he made it clear that the very nature of the Gospel was at stake and he used Paul’s letter to the Galatians to prove it. He wrote to his friend Generosus:

Since you were pleased to acquaint us with the letter sent to you by a Donatist presbyter, although, with the spirit of a true Catholic, you regarded it with contempt, nevertheless, to aid you in seeking his welfare if his folly be not incurable, we beg you to forward to him the following reply. He wrote that an angel had enjoined him to declare to you the episcopal succession of the Christianity of your town; to you, forsooth, who hold the Christianity not of your own town only, nor of Africa only, but of the whole world, the Christianity which has been published, and is now published to all nations. This proves that they think it a small matter that they themselves are not ashamed of being cut off, and are taking no measures, while they may, to be engrafted anew; they are not content unless they do their utmost to cut others off, and bring them to share their own fate, as withered branches fit for the flames. Wherefore, even if you had yourself been visited by that angel whom he affirms to have appeared to him — a statement which we regard as a cunning fiction; and if the angel had said to you the very words which he, on the warrant of the alleged command, repeated to you — even in that case it would have been your duty to remember the words of the apostle: “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” For to you it was proclaimed by the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, that His “gospel shall be preached unto all nations, and then shall the end come.” To you it has moreover been proclaimed by the writings of the prophets and of the apostles, that the promises were given to Abraham and to his seed, which is Christ? when God said unto him: “In thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed.” Having then such promises, if an angel from heaven were to say to thee, “Let go the Christianity of the whole earth, and cling to the faction of Donatus, the episcopal succession of which is set forth in a letter of their bishop in your town,” he ought to be accursed in your estimation; because he would be endeavouring to cut you off from the whole Church, and thrust you into a small party, and make you forfeit your interest in the promises of God.

While Augustine directly quotes Galatians 1.8 and 3.16, the quotation of Genesis 15 is also anchored in Galatians as well: And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” As Augustine understands it, reducing the Church to a small sect within it is a different Gospel because the content of the Gospel preached to Abraham was a promise of redemption to all nations. The Gospel, in a significant sense, simply is the declaration that all nations are to be blessed in Christ.

Defining the Gospel as the blessing going to all nations alike without any nation having a special covenantal privilege corresponds rather precisely to Paul’s statements in Ephesians and Colossians.

This is in fact precisely Paul’s point in Galatians in his contrast between the promise to Abraham versus the Mosaic Law (3.15-18). The promise to Abraham was for a single seed, a single family (c.f. 3.29). But the Law, while necessary because of trangressions, did not allow a single family, but created divisions. The fact that God is one proved that the Law had to be temporary until the one seed could be found in Christ (v. 20; compare Romans 3.29, 30).

For a more comprehensive look at Galatians, Derrick Olliff’s excellent essay (though you may want to read his essay on the Gospel, first). For a brief overview of why attempts to make Galatians support a different sort of Law-Gospel distinction fail to deal with what the letter actually says, take a look at Tim Gallant’s “What Saint Paul Should Have Said.”

A Brief Look at Romans
Paul’s defines his Gospel as a report on the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 1.2-4). But he soon branches out to discuss the Gospel as administration,

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1.14-16).

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Romans 2.6-11).

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.(Romans 3.27-30).

Paul goes on to point out in chapter 4 that Abraham was counted as righteous before God as a God-fearing Gentile rather than as a circumcised Jew,

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” (Romans 4.16, 17a).

While I don’t have the space or time here to write a comprehensive commentary on Romans, it is obvious that Paul considers unity in Christ between believing Jew and believing Gentile to be a hallmark of the Gospel age as opposed to the previous administration. As in Galatians he argues from the nature of God’s promises to Abraham and the oneness of God himself to show that the divisions in the Law must be temporary. God always intended a single covenant family.

Copyright © 2004



One Response to “Law and Gospel in Presbyterianism”

  1. 1
    Theodore A. Jones Says:

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 FYI a law was added to the law after Jesus’ crucifixion.

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