Understanding Law and Gospel

Over at Reformation21, Carl Trueman assesses a recent blog post by Tullian Tchividjian, calling for “a much needed face-to-face debate” after Tchividjian’s claim that Reformed and evangelical preachers are confusing law and gospel; Michael Kruger provides a helpful response to Tchividjian at his blog, leading to a Kruger-Tchividjian exchange in the comments section. Reading through the posts it seems plain to me that Tchividjian lacks clarity on the relationship of law and gospel–and that his counter-bloggers (Trueman, Kruger, et al) capably and clearly explain the scriptural relationship of the law and the gospel. Others have as well, including:

(1) Herman Witsius (1636-1708): a careful biblical scholar and one of the great Dutch Reformed theologians of the post-Reformation era. Ordained to the ministry in 1658, Witsius actively engaged not only in pulpit and pastoral ministry, but also in the theological, ecclesiastical and social issues of his day. He made significant contributions to the development of covenant theology — gaining respect and lasting appreciation not only on the European continent, but also in Scotland and England.

One of Witsius’ lesser known efforts is a book he wrote to mediate in an English Puritan controversy over neonomianism (legalism) vs. antinomianism (lawlessness). The title of the book, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions, is more apt to produce glazed eyes than spark the interest of the average 21st century reader, pastors and theologians included. But this book is simply excellent. For an older work it is easily readable, and significantly helpful on the relationship of law and gospel. And it’s free on Google Books, translated from the Latin by Thomas Bell, with his footnotes as a bonus.

Who was Thomas Bell? Bell was a Scottish Seceder Presbyterian of the late 18th century. His preface and footnotes to the translation reveal a man consciously steeped in the Marrow theology of Thomas Boston and the Erskines; like his predecessors, Bell sees Witsius’ work as part of a coherent, international, and vibrant stream of evangelical Reformed theology. If you only have time for one chapter of Witsius, check out chapter XVII (17), “In What Manner and Order the Preaching of the Law Should Accompany That of the Gospel.”

(2) As Bell knew well, Witsius’ understanding of the relationship of law and gospel was an influence on Thomas Boston (1676-1732), the Erskines, and the other “Marrow men” of Scotland. Boston’s experience within the Church of Scotland was that law and gospel were being confused: legalism, including a legalistic preparationism, had encroached on the proclamation of the gospel, obscuring the free and full sufficiency of Christ. Facing this challenge, Boston republished Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity(c.1645-1648). In the second part of the work, an exposition of the Ten Commandments, the character Evangelista, the evangelical pastor, explains the place of the law in the life of the Christian to Neophytus (a young Christian):

Evangelista: “Jesus Christ…the Son of God, and your Surety, has, by his active and passive obedience, fully discharged and paid the debt and penalty which the law and justice of God obliged you to pay…[and so you understand that you do not] yield obedience to the law to pay that which you do truly believe is fully paid and discharged already… you do not yield obedience to the law, in the hope of being made just by this obedience, or justified in the sight of God…you are not under the curse of the law… Therefore, whenever you hear or read these words, ‘Cursed is every one who does not continue to do all the things which are written in the book of the law’, and your conscience tells you that you have not, and do not continue in all things, and therefore are accursed…use the occasion by faith to hold tightly to Christ, and say, ‘O law, your curse is not to come into my conscience…my Surety, Jesus Christ, is the One who has continued in all things for me, so that though I am unable to pay the debt and penalty, he has paid it for me.'”

Neophytus: “But sir, though I am a believer, and set free from the curse of the law, yet I suppose I should pursue keeping the law?”

Evangelista: “Yes, you should indeed…[Christ] says…the precepts and prohibitions which I have given you, are the mind and will of my Father, and the eternal and unchangeable rule of righteousness, which is in my heart (Psalm 40:8), and I have promised to write them on the hearts of all those who are mine (Jeremiah 31:33); yes, and I have promised to make all mine give willing obedience to the law (Psalm 110:3); I and my Father do command the law to you, as that rule of obedience by which you are to express your love and thankfulness to us for what we have done for you. And so… “if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And, you are my friend, “if you do whatever I command you.” (John 15:14)

Neophytus: “But, sir, does God in Christ require me to give perfect obedience to all the Ten Commandments, as you’ve expounded them?”

Evangelista: “Yes. For though God in Christ does not require of you, or any true believer, obedience to the law in order to satisfy his justice–for Christ has fully done that already for you; yet he does require that every true believer purposes, desires, and endeavors to do their best to keep all the Ten Commandments perfectly, just as I have expounded them today. Consider what Jesus has said himself: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Neophytus: “But, sir, do you think it is possible, that I, or any other believer, could keep the commandments perfectly, in the way you have expounded them today?”

Evangelista: “O no! both you and I, and every other believer, have, and will have cause to say with the apostle “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” (Philippians 4:12)

Neophytus: “But will God in Christ accept my obedience, if it is not perfect?”

Evangelista: “Yes, Neophytus, you are a justified person, your obedience is not to gain justification…”

The dialogue goes on with Evangelista noting that Neophytus’ pursuit of holy, thankful obedience in Christ is like a child’s pursuit of obedience to his father. He says that while it is imperfect, God accepts it “as a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him… He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14)

Fisher, Witsius, Boston, and others point us to our glorious Savior and King, Jesus Christ, and the perfect revelation of the wisdom of the Triune God for our complete salvation–including both our justification and our sanctification. The Christian is justified in Christ. He is united to Christ. In Christ the Christian has all the grace and strength that he needs to pursue growth in holiness–with joy, gratitude, determination, and a right sadness and sorrow for remaining sin. In Christ he has everything he needs for forgiveness and cleansing from sin: past and present. In Christ he is a child of the Father: tenderly loved and encouraged, and at times disciplined, chastised (Hebrews 12:3-11), and soberly warned (Hebrews 3-4, 12:25-29). The man, woman, or child in Christ loves the law. It is his delight, it is precious–both as it convicts of sin, converting the soul; and as it gives wisdom, joy, enlightenment, truth, and warning. Pursuing law-keeping in Christ is the pursuit of godliness, the pursuit of Christ-likeness. And, through it all, in Christ there is continual ground to come boldly to the throne of grace, including for every sin and failure. In keeping the law there is great reward. (Psalm 19)

“You may assure yourself [as a Christian], that the more obedience you yield unto the Ten Commandments, the more you please your gracious God and loving Father in Christ (1 Samuel 15:22); and the more your conscience witnesses that you please God, the more quiet you will feel it to be, and the more inward peace you will have as the Psalmist says, ‘Great peace have those who love Your law…’ For though faith in the blood of Christ has made your peace with God as a Judge, yet obedience must keep your peace with him as a Father: yes, the more your conscience witnesses that you do that which pleases God, the more encouragement you will have, and the more confidently you will approach God in prayer…”

Quotations edited and abridged from The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 330-333.