Distinguishing The Law From The Gospel
At the time of the Reformation and in the sixteenth and seventeenth century confessional Protestant Churches placed great emphasis upon distinguishing the Law from the Gospel. “Though some people don’t like it, won’t teach it, and think it is Lutheran, it is undeniable that a sharp law/gospel distinction is a classic Reformed teaching (Note: this is neither an OT/NT distinction nor a genre distinction, such as “law and prophets.” This is an indicative/imperative distinction, a command/promise distinction.)” This same distinction is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism and other reformed confessions and creeds.
The Heidelberg Catechism
The author’s of the Heidelberg Catechism used the law gospel distinction as the primary organizing principle of the catechism.
In question and answer 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we read.
Question: What Must You Know To Live And Die In The Joy Of This Comfort?
Answer: Three Things:
First, how great my sin and misery are;
Second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery;
Third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
The three parts of this answer summarize the corresponding sections of the catechism. For example the first part of the catechism on “Man’s Misery” begins with question and answer 3.
Question: How Do You Come To Know Your Misery?
Answer: The Law of God tells me.
In question and answer 4 we learn that God’s law is equated with the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
So clearly, the Heidelberg Catechism equates God’s law with an imperative, a command.
In the second section of the catechism dealing with God’s “Man’s Deliverance”, in question and answers 12-85 the focus is on the gospel, the indicative. The second section of the Catechism begins by focusing on God’s justice and how God’s justice is satisfied by the mediation of Christ. The last section of the catechism focuses on “Man’s Gratitude” and how God’s law continues to be a rule for Christian living and our service to the Lord. This is very important to our discussion, because it proves that the most basic category within the Heidelberg catechism is the law/gospel distinction. The catechism uses the law/gospel distinction as an organizing principle. This is consistent with what Ursinus, the primary author of the catechism teaches in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.
Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism
In Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, he teaches that the Law and the Gospel are the most basic parts of the doctrine of the Church.
Ursinus teaching on the Law and the Gospel, page 2 in his commentary.
WHAT ARE THE PARTS OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH, AND IN WHAT DO THEY DIFFER FROM EACH OTHER?
The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures. The Law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the Mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith. This division of the doctrine of the church is established by these plain and forcible arguments.
- The whole doctrine comprised in the sacred writings, is either concerning the nature of God, his will, his works, or sin, which is the proper work of men and devils. But all these subjects are fully set forth and taught, either in the law, or in the gospel, or in both. Therefore, the law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the Holy Scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein.
- Christ himself makes this division of the doctrine which he will have preached in his name, when he says, “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name” (Luke 24:46, 47). But this embraces the entire substance of the law and the gospel. [Everything that is demanded through the law, is provided through the gospel.]
- The writings of the prophets and apostles, comprise the Old and New Testament, or covenant between God and man. It is, therefore, necessary that the principle parts of the covenant should be contained and explained in these writings, and that they should declare what God promises and grants unto us, viz: his favor, remission of sins, righteousness, and eternal life; and also what he, in return, requires from us: which is faith and obedience. These, now, are the things which are taught in the law and gospel.
- Christ is the substance and ground of the entire Scriptures. But the doctrine contained in the law and gospel is necessary to lead us to a knowledge of Christ and his benefits: for the law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ, constraining us to fly to him, and showing us what that righteousness is, which he has wrought out, and now offers unto us. But the gospel, professedly, treats of the person, office, and benefits of Christ. Therefore we have, in the law and the gospel, the whole of the Scriptures, comprehending the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation.
The principle DIFFERENCES between these two parts of the doctrine of the church, consist in these three things:
- a) In the subject, or general character of the doctrine, peculiar to each. The law prescribes and enjoins what is to be done, and forbids what ought to be avoided: Whilst the gospel announces the free remission of sin, through and for the sake of Christ.
- b) In the manner of the revelation peculiar to each. The law is known from nature; the gospel is divinely revealed.
- c) In the promises which they make to man. The law promises life upon condition of perfect obedience; the gospel, on the condition of faith in Christ and the commencement of new obedience.
“Ursinus says it is the duty of the church and pastor to very clearly distinguish between the law and the gospel (p. 288 & 572). This means, I might add, that a good Reformation theologian is not going to muddy the waters by saying the whole Bible is law and the whole Bible is gospel, or that the law is good news, or that the gospel is law.”
Four Differences between the Law & the Gospel
(The Works of Richard Greenham, published 1612, page 88)
Is there such difference between the Law and the Gospel? Yes the Law differeth from the Gospel in four things.
- First the Law reveals sin, rebukes us for it, and leaves us in it: But the Gospel doth reveal unto us Remission of sins, bringeth us to Christ, and frees us from the punishment belonging to sin.
- The Law commandeth to do good, and gives no strength: but the Gospel inableth us to do good, the Holy Ghost writes the law in our hearts, & assures us of the promise.
- The Law is the ministry of wrath, condemnation and death; but the Gospel is the ministry of grace, justification, and life.
- In many points the Law may be conceived by reason; but the Gospel in all points is far above the reach of man’s reason.
Wherein do they agree?
They agree in this, that they are both from God, and they declare one kind of righteousness though they differ in offering it unto us.
What is that one kind of righteousness?
It is the perfect love of God and of our neighbor.
What follows from this?
The law pronounces all the faithful righteous.
How does the Law pronounce them righteous?
Because, in Christ they have all that the Law demands.
But they remain transgressors of the Law?
They are transgressors in themselves, and yet righteous in Christ, and in their inward man they love righteousness and hate sin.
What then are the faithful in this life?
They are justified and pure in Christ, and yet they fight against sin.
Now that we have been introduced to the law/gospel distinction as a confessional category, we will test this distinction against the teaching of the Bible.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
NKJ Galatians 3:10 ¶ For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” 11 But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” 12 Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), 14 that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
NKJ Romans 3:19 ¶ Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 ¶ But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;
Union with Adam or Christ
NKJ Romans 5:19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. 20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
NKJ Romans 6:12 ¶ Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
Romans 7:1-6 Married either to the Law or to Christ. The only way to be freed from the law is by death, not unlike the law of marriage. If your marriage partner dies then you are no longer bound to the law of marriage. Likewise, when we are united to Christ we die because we are crucified with Christ; as a result we are no longer bound to the legal demands of the law. Having been freed from the law we are now bound to Christ. Once the sinner has been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, born again and justified by truth faith, the sinner is not only delivered from the guilt of sin, but they are also delivered from the bondage of sin. In other words, the sinner, is no longer under the legal demands of God’s law—do this and be blessed, do this and live. The believer is now under grace, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). By making a distinction between law and grace, the apostle is actually making a distinction between law and gospel. The benefits of being under grace include all the benefits secured for the believer by Jesus Christ through his perfect obedience and his mediation (the gospel).
I conclude this lesson with a statement from Theodore Beza (1534-1605), in his catechism written while Calvin was still alive, said:
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 other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)
 Blog, the Reformed Reader, “The Law/Gospel Distinction: A Staple in Reformed Theology”, Shane Lems; 2012
 Blog, the Reformed Reader, “The Law/Gospel Distinction: A Staple in Reformed Theology”, Shane Lems; 2012