When you confuse the law and the gospel you get the theological error known as the “golawspel” (Kim Riddlebarger’s term). I want to encourage you to “just say no” to this confusion. The law-gospel distinction is a hot topic on a few blogs, and since I mentioned this in my catechetical sermon this past Lord’s Day, I thought I would share a few thoughts, and allow for Zacharias Ursinus to chime in as well.
To begin with, I preached on Lord’s Day 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Questions 16-18 deal with the question, “Why does Jesus satisfy God’s justice as our only mediator?” The answer is because he meets three qualifications: He is true man, righteous man, and true God. He had to be all three in order to be our mediator and deliver us from our sins and misery. Question 19 then asks, “From where do you know this?” i.e. “From where do you know your mediator?” It is a question that parallels question 3, “From where do you know your misery?” The catechism tells us in question 3 that we know our misery “from the law of God.” Here in question 19 the catechism tells us that we know our mediator “from the Holy Gospel.” The parallel nature of these two questions popped out at me for the first time. I was pretty excited about the alliteration of misery and mediator as a mnemonic device as well.
Now I had always known that the law-gospel distinction was built into our catechism (guilt, grace gratitude=law, gospel, law), but I never realized just how explicit it was. Then I checked out Ursinus’ commentary on Lord’s Day 6 and he makes it even more explicit. Ursinus himself, one of the chief authors of the catechism, makes the connection between questions 3 and 19 when he says,
“This question corresponds with the third question of the Catechism, where it is asked: Whence knowest thou thy misery? Out of the law of God. So it is here asked: Whence knowest thou thy deliverance? Out of the gospel. Having, therefore, spoken of the Mediator, we must now speak of the doctrine which reveals, describes, and offers him unto us–which doctrine is the Gospel.”
I don’t see how anyone can say that the law-gospel distinction is solely a Lutheran concept and absent from Reformed theology. The distinction between the law and the gospel is built into the structure of our Reformed catechism. Ursinus, one of its primary authors, even says it’s there. He then goes on for a few pages explaining the gospel. One thing of note is when he says, “The gospel is, therefore, the doctrine which the Son of God, our Mediator, revealed from heaven in Paradise, immediately after the fall” (p. 101). Notice, the gospel wasn’t published before the fall, but after.
Ursinus then comes to the question, “In What Does the Gospel Differ From the Law?” Here is what Ursinus has to say:
1. In the revelations which they contain; or, as it respects the manner in which the revelation peculiar to each is made known. The law was engraven upon the heart of man in his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given. “The Gentiles have the work of the law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15).” The gospel is not know naturally, but is divinely revealed to the Church alone through Christ, the Mediator. For no creature could have seen or hoped for that mitigation of the law concerning the satisfaction for our sins through another, if the Son of God had not revealed it.
2. In the kind of doctrine, or subject peculiar to each. The law teaches us what we ought to be, and what God requires of us, but it does not give us the ability to perform it, nor does it point out the way by which we may avoid what is forbidden. But the gospel teaches us in what manner we may be made such as the law requires: for it offers unto us the promise of grace, by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith, and that in such a way as if it were properly ours, teaching us that we are just before God, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The law says, “Pay what thou owest.” “Do this, and live” (Matt. 18:28; Luke 10:28). The gospel says, “Only believe” (Mark 5:36).
3. In the promises. The law promises life to those who are righteous in themselves, or on the condition of righteousness, and perfect obedience. “He that doeth them, shall live in them.” “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Lev. 18:5; Matt. 19:17). The gospel, on the other hand, promises life to those who are justified by faith in Christ, or on the condition of the righteousness of Christ, applied unto us by faith. The law and the gospel are, however, not opposed to each other in these respects: for although the law requires us to keep the commandments if we would enter into life, yet it does not exclude us from life if another perform these things for us.
4. They differ in their effects. The law, without the gospel, is the letter which killeth, and is the ministration of death: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “The law worketh wrath; and the letter killeth” (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 2Cor. 3:6). The outward preaching, and simple knowledge of what ought to be done, is known through the letter: for it declares our duty, and that righteousness which God requires; and, whilst it neither gives us the ability to perform it, nor points out the way through which it may be attained, it finds fault with, and condemns our righteousness. But the gospel is the ministration of life, and of the Spirit, that is, it has the operations of the Spirit united with it, and quickens those that are dead in sin, because it is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and life in the elect. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). (pp. 104-5).
I think Ursinus makes things pretty clear on what the difference between the law and the gospel is.
However, before I conclude this post I just want to say a few clarification points. Although we speak of the law as showing us our misery, this isn’t meant to encourage us to have a negative view of the law. I know that some critics of the law-gospel distinction have said that we at Westminster West only speak of the law in negative terms. Perhaps we have given this impression, but we don’t mean to. The law is indeed good (Rom. 7:7, 13; Gal. 3:21-22). How can it not be good? It is a reflection of God’s holiness and perfection. To say something bad about the law is to say something bad about God. The law is not bad. We are bad. But it is precisely because we are bad and that there is nothing good in us whereby we might attain the righteousness that we need to be saved, that we need to highlight the difference between the law and the gospel. If we don’t then we are in danger of losing the gospel and our only hope of salvation.
Secondly, there are various ways in which theologians have used the terms “law” and “gospel.” We must be patient with one another and be clear on which way we are using these terms. When we speak of the law-gospel distinction we are speaking of the difference between two ways of inheriting eternal life, works vs. faith (cf. Phil. 3:9). Hopefully we can all at least agree that one is saved by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). For more on how the terms law and gospel are used in different contexts see this post: The 411 on the LGD.
Finally, we don’t only speak of the law as showing us our misery. The law does more than just show us our misery. The Reformed have always spoken of three uses of the law. The first use is it’s “pedagogical” use. It is a tutor which leads us to Christ. The first use of the law is what is in mind in the law-gospel distinction. The second use is its “civil” use. In it’s civil use, the law serves to restrain sin in society. The third use of the law is what we call it’s “normative” use. That is to say that it is the norm of the Christian life. It is our rule of love. It no longer threatens us with its curses because Jesus bore our curse (Gal. 3:10-14). Therefore, as Christians, we no longer hear the law as a terrifying thunder outside of us. We are being transformed now from the inside out and the law has become our inner disposition of love for God and neighbor. This is why our Heidelberg Catechism contains the 10 commandments in the gratitude section of the catechism. More specifically the structure of our catechism is guilt-grace-gratitude=law (1st use)-grace-law (3rd use).
I hope this clears a few things up for a few of you reading this. My prayer is that we might find greater unity on this topic and preach unequivocally the good news of the gospel, for God’s glory, the comfort of His people, and the salvation of the lost. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16).