You can’t understand Christianity and walk the Christian walk unless you understand the proper distinction between law and gospel.
Briefly defined, “law” is everything God, in the pages of Scripture, tells us we must do. “Gospel,” literally meaning “good news,” is everything God, in the pages of Scripture, tells us that He has done for us. Gospel tells us that the work of saving us is done by God, not us.
Even more briefly: Law is what we must do for God; gospel is everything God has done for us.
[Although the term “law and gospel” was coined by Luther, the concept was affirmed by the other Reformers as being biblical, that is, valid.]
It is gospel, of course, which makes Christianity qualitatively different from other religions. Only Christianity tells of how God gave us Jesus to do what we could never do ourselves, namely make us righteous before God. Other religions, although they speak of God’s (or god’s) blessings on mankind, still require us to do our part if we are to be righteous in God’s sight. Gospel is good news precisely because it tells what has been done for us, not what we still have to do.
[The gospel, of course, does not tell us that we don’t need to do anything to be saved. Indeed we must do something: repent and have faith in Christ. But gospel tells us that we don’t become righteous as a result of doing what the other religions tell us we must do in order to be righteous: giving alms, praying, fasting, practicing religious ritual, going on jihad, etc.]
But gospel is not the whole story. Christianity also requires man to obey. And therefore we have a paradox not present in other religions: God has done the work to save us, entirely apart from our obedience (gospel), and yet we must also obey (law.) It is therefore of utmost importance to resolve the paradox, to reveal it as not a contradiction (which would disprove Christianity), but a truth to be affirmed.
Before resolving the paradox we must acknowledge both of its parts. To downplay law is to commit the error of antinomianism (“anti-law-ism’), which teaches that since we are saved by Christ, the law does not apply to us, and we are free. This is an error because the law does apply to us. When God says “Thou shalt do X,” He means it.
[To be sure, not all of the laws given in Scripture apply to us. Those Old Testament laws given specifically to national Israel—for example, dietary laws and laws for temple sacrifices—no longer apply. We refer here to the enduring moral law revealed in Scripture.]
And to downplay gospel is to fall into the error of legalism, which teaches that anyone who fails to obey the law is not saved. This is also an error. Although one verse cannot prove a major doctrine, this doctrine is true, and let us note for example that Romans 3:28 reads “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
So we must distinguish correctly between law and gospel. And the basic distinction is this: Law and gospel are both valid, but they have different roles. Obeying the law (even if we could do it perfectly, which we can’t) does not save us from God’s wrath. Law has another purpose. And gospel is not a law to be obeyed, it is good news to be received, believed, and proclaimed.
[To be sure, the word “gospel” is sometimes used, even in Scripture, as a shorthand for the basic message of Christianity, a message which includes the need for obedience. We speak here of gospel in the proper and literal sense of “good news.]
Since gospel is the unusual element, it is best understood by contrast with what it is not, and what man is naturally familiar with: law. Law in the general sense is simply an imperative: it’s what you are supposed to do. And Biblical law is what God says you are supposed to do.
The Reformers clarified that Scripture teaches that there are three legitimate uses of the law. Although there is no official order, usually the first use mentioned is to show man that he is a sinner in need of a Savior. For example, Romans 3:20:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Although Romans also teaches that we have an innate sense of right and wrong [Romans 1:18—32], we also need this sense to be confirmed and expanded by the reading of God’s law.
A second use of the law is to serve as the basis of civil law, so that sin may be restrained by the civil authorities. For example, Romans 13: 3,4 reads
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
And note that the authorities cannot be “servant[s] of God” unless they rule in accord with His moral principles.
The final use of the law is to show the Christian how so to behave that he honors God. Although the three uses have no official order, this is commonly called the “third use of the law.” These, then, are the legitimate uses of God’s law
But the law is often used incorrectly. Although gospel is what makes Christianity what it is (not to mention that gospel is the rather important announcement that we are saved from God’s wrath), many parishioners—even many Christians—do not like to hear gospel preached. And many clergy do not like to preach gospel.
Many parishioners don’t like to hear gospel preached because it reminds them that they really are sinners, and that they cannot do anything to save themselves. Most people don’t want to hear that they must rely upon a Savior. They would rather hear that there are things they can do to bless or save themselves. Self-help, especially in America, is regarded as the new gospel.
And therefore most preachers, including a majority of evangelical or even fundamentalist preachers, deliver sermons consisting mostly of law. We have been speaking here of law in the sense of God’s moral law revealed in the Bible, but in the broader sense, “law” is whatever you do, or try to do, in the expectation that it will bring benefit. In this sense, preaching law is wildly popular because it makes the hearer feel as if he can do something to better himself. In the typical evangelical sermon, the gospel message of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ is only alluded to briefly, if at all. The majority of the sermon is spent instructing the parishioners in allegedly biblical principles for financial success, raising better children, having a better sex life, dealing with anger or depression, or a similar secular concern. This is ‘law” of an entirely different kind.
Consider, for example, Robert Morris, pastor of a large church near Dallas, Texas. In his book The Blessed Life, Morris teaches that those who tithe will necessarily be blessed by God, and those who fail to tithe will automatically be cursed. Morris tries to soften the message by not clearly defining the curse that allegedly follows financial disobedience, and he also claims that the desire for a blessing should not be our motivation for giving, but his basic message is clear: God demands a strict minimum of 10%, and He punishes the disobedient. Morris also teaches that the tithe is only one example of a general principle that whenever we receive, we must give the first part to God. And he even hints that God Himself is subject to a sort of law of reciprocity, when he writes (page 32):
God gave Jesus in faith “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). In this sense, Jesus is God’s tithe. God gave Jesus first, in faith, even when we were sinners—even as we were mocking Him and spitting on Him while He was dying.
It is, of course, heretical to speak of God the Father giving us Jesus “in faith.” God does not need faith. If he wants something to happen, He makes it happen.
Returning to the larger point: Instead of teaching the forgiveness of sins and the obtaining of other blessings by repentance and faith in Christ, Morris teaches a dubious spiritual “law” of reciprocity: If you give, you will get. And one big reason why he teaches this is that many parishioners like to hear that they can secure blessings by obeying a law.
Morris pastors an evangelical church and therefore I’m confident that he would defend the need for repentance and faith in Christ for salvation. But most evangelical teachers seem to regard repentance and faith as just the “entrance requirement” for becoming a Christian. Once you are “in the club,” you need to spend most of your time trying to obey law, in their view. We may infer that this is their view because they spend most of their sermons preaching law, and only allude briefly to gospel.
Aside from the fact that most parishioners (and potential parishioners) prefer to hear the preaching of law, many pastors do not like teaching gospel because it is far easier to manipulate parishioners by preaching law. You can attract a much larger crowd by preaching biblical law as if it were tips for living successfully rather than for its correct purpose of showing sinners that they really are sinners who need a Savior.
Let us therefore avoid the errors of those who fail properly to distinguish law and gospel. Law condemns the sinner, but this condemnation prepares him to receive the gospel of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ. And once he has come to Christ, law also shows the sinner how God wants him to live, through the power of the Holy Spirit received by all those who are in Christ.