What is the Reformed view of Law/Gospel?

Discussion in 'Covenant Theology' started by JohnOwen007, May 20, 2008.

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  1. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Well I'm currently completing a PhD on basically this topic of the gospel and the law / gospel distinction in reformed thought (with a focus on John Owen). So you can read all about it soon ... :graduate:

    Frame's conclusions don't have much to do with the FV In my humble opinion. Rather he is rightly noting that there is a difference to how the Lutherans and Reformed construe the law / gospel distinction.

    To be sure certain reformed theologians (e.g. Richard Greenham) had a Lutheran law / gospel distinction. But on the whole there was a basic difference, particularly with the rise of federal theology.


    Law = commands (imperative)
    Gospel = promise (indicative)


    Law = covenant of works ("do then and live" - commands and then promise)
    Gospel = covenant of grace ("live and then do this" - promise and then commands)

    One crux is whether the gospel contains commands. For example, does the gospel call us to repentance? For Lutherans no, for the Reformed yes. But it is a repentance that arises from being justified (not to be justified).

    The gospel commands repentance out of reconciliation with Christ. But my actual repentance is not the gospel.

    However, Frame perhaps is incorrect in this: even if the Reformed tradition defines the law / gospel distinction differently to Lutheranism, let us be sure of one thing: there is a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel in both traditions. (I perhaps wonder if this is what the WSC guys are attempting to communicate, but at times they sound a little Lutheran--particularly when they use the language of "imperative vs indicative").

    God bless brother.
  2. mvpol

    mvpol Puritan Board Freshman

    In response to the claim that "The sharp distinction between law and gospel is becoming popular in Reformed [circles]..." Dr. Clark has posted a plethera of quotes from actual reformers (i.e. Calvin and Ursinus) that pretty much proves the opposite.

    On Law and Gospel in Cov't Theology

  3. Casey

    Casey Puritan Board Junior

    The word "law" is used in different ways in the Scriptures. The WCF even admits that grace (aka, the covenant of grace) was administered through the law ("law" in the broad sense):
  4. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    ... and Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Zachary Ursinus, William Perkins, William Pemble, John Davenant, John Owen, ...

    Why are we even debating this? The Scriptures (which rule our tradition) are crystal clear:

    To accuse this of being FV is not helpful.

    Every blessing.
  5. R. Scott Clark

    R. Scott Clark Puritan Board Senior


    How many times have I noted here and in articles that the word "gospel" is used in the NT to refer broadly to the entire Christian message but that doesn't eliminate the narrow or strict sense of the word.

    This is a false choice. The word law is used in a broad and narrow sense also. It can mean "a divine command" and it can refer simply to revelation.

    If we don't keep this stuff straight you fellows will be fighting off the next wave of whatever the FV calls itself in a few years.

    Part of what gave rise to the FV was the "Reformed v the Lutherans" (on justification and L/G) rhetoric common among Reformed folk.

    I'm not saying that we cannot make any distinctions between the confessional Lutheran approach to L/G and the Reformed approach to it but those distinctions have to made very carefully.

    As to John Frame, he's never identified himself completely with the FV but he's also described as "stupid" (in a foreword that he later sort of retracted) who says that Norm Shepherd's doctrine of justification is not the gospel.

    As to Rutherford, yes, I've read some of Rutherford. Did I miss a particular citation I'm to have read?

    As to Ursinus:

    Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) on the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism.

  6. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    Last year we had a discussion along these same lines, and I quoted from Rutherford's "Spiritual Antichrist" to the effect that the distinction you are making was regarded as Antinomian. http://www.puritanboard.com/f77/believe-law-gospel-18589/.
  7. R. Scott Clark

    R. Scott Clark Puritan Board Senior

    Okay, I re-read your post. I'll take a look at Rutherford. I'm buried now with student papers and booked with writing assignments through August (and a new course) and now a discussion with Bruce McCormack.

    Are we talking past each other?

    You're telling me that Rutherford said that there's no hermeneutical distinction between "law" ("do!") and "gospel" ("done for you")?

    As I've said, there's no doubt that "repent" is part of the Christian message broadly considered, the evidence that the Reformed distinguished between the indicative and imperative is overwhelming.

    If making that distinction makes me antinomian, well, then I'm an antinomian but it's a silly definition of antinomian.


  8. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    Dr. Clark,
    It seems to be your view that either we accept your view of law and gospel or we might as well go ahead and embrace FV and/or go back to Rome?

    Am I reading you correctly?

    Last edited: May 24, 2008
  9. Stephen

    Stephen Puritan Board Junior

    Scott Clark has a great chapter on the law/gospel in his book Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. On page 340 he rejects the idea that the distinction is Lutheran and not Reformed. If you take the time to read his book it is apparent that the FV does reject the Reformed understanding of the law/gospel hermeneutic. I found this chapter to be very helpful.
  10. R. Scott Clark

    R. Scott Clark Puritan Board Senior

    No, I'm expecting us to agree with the Reformed confessions and to read them in the light of the context in which they were written. I've compiled (with the help of several others over the years) dozens of quotations from Reformed theologians from various periods illustrating the Reformed distinction between law and gospel and it gets ignored. I've written at length on this issue, in print, and people seem to demand that I reproduce it all here from my keyboard on command.

    The material is in print. Read it.

    Agree with Clark? No. Agree with the Reformed churches. That's what I'm trying to do.

    Frame's essay. I've read it. Frame thinks the l/g distinction is some boutique view that can be segregated to a certain segment of the Reformed community. That's historically and confessionally impossible.

    I want to know why on earth anyone thinks his essay is remotely interesting or helpful.

  11. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dear Dr Clark,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply amidst marking papers. I'm doing exactly the same thing at the moment--it's driving me crazy seeing that pile of essays not getting smaller as quickly as I'd like ...

    Just so you know from where I'm coming:

    [1] I'm not sympathetic in any way to the FV. Thankfully, it doesn't exist where I live here in Australia.

    [2] Norm Shepherd's understanding of justification (in my mind) is very muddled, and guaranteed to be a pastoral disaster. I have seen his teaching mess with sincere people's heads.

    [3] I once held to a very Lutheran understanding of the law / gospel distinction, and was horrified with some things that John Owen said. It was then I decided to do a dissertation on the topic to demolish Owen ... and the in the process I was won over to Owen.

    [4] Moreover, I'm not saying there isn't a sharp law / gospel distinction in the reformed tradition (like Frame). However, I am saying it's fundamentally different to the Lutheran tradition. The basic difference (as affirmed by Ursinus) is that the call to new life (repentance) is in the gospel.

    To put this whole discussion in a nutshell: in the reformed tradition, the gospel actually presents the law but only in it's third use--without the condemnation attached for not keeping it fully. That to me is magnificent news!!

    I personally struggle to find any narrow versus broad understanding of the gospel both in the NT and in the reformed tradition; it is in the Formula of Concord. If I understand the point of our disagreement, you wish not to place a call to repentance in (your posited) "narrow" understanding of the gospel but are happy to place it in the "broad" understanding of the gospel.

    As I see it, both in the NT and in the mature reformed tradition, all usages of the gospel refer to same thing (namely the covenant of grace, as is explicit in your Ursinus' quotations). However, (and as Owen notes) we can present that same gospel in a summary or expanded form. For example, we can preach the gospel without mentioning repentance (say 1 Cor. 15:3-4). But, when we unpack this summary message the call to repentance (and faith) arises from the heart of this gospel, not least the double grace of justification and sanctification offered in it.

    You are concerned that including the call to repentance (and new life) takes us back to the pre-reformation church. I struggle to agree with this. (How could it when this is what Zwingli, Calvin, Bullinger, ... Owen and others believed?). This is because:

    [1] The gospel presents the law in it's third use.

    [2] The believer's actual repentance and faith is not the gospel, even though they are commanded in the gospel. We must distinguish between the commands of the gospel and our actual doing of them. The latter is not the gospel, it's our works. (That's why I don't think feeding the poor is the gospel, however it is the sort of thing the gospel produces). What we do is not the gospel (otherwise we'd be justified by works) but if our lives don't change, it's a sign we have not embraced the gospel (with its double offer of justification and sanctification).

    I'm anxious to clarify this because of the history of the Lutheran tradition itself (and my own experience). Lutheranism was (and is) particularly susceptible to dead orthodoxy precisely because of it's excessive focus on "done" with little if any mention of the new life. To be sure, justification is more significant than the new life (so Calvin and Romans 5:9-10), but in Lutheranism the latter tends to be forgotten altogether.

    In short, the gospel is: Christ is saviour (hence the demand of faith) and Lord (hence the demand for new life).

    God bless you Dr Clark.
  12. MOSES

    MOSES Puritan Board Freshman

    Hope nobody minds :2cents: coming from an amatuer

    Does not the gospel establish the Law?

    For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law...Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. Romans 3:28,31
    Is the distinction between Law and Gospel as sharp as some presume or teach?

    How about the conclusion to a paper. Should the conclusion be distinct (or contrary) to the body of the paper, or should it strengthen and "fulfill" it?
  13. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member


    Is it not the case that when Peter presents the Gospel both in Acts 2 and 3 that "repent and turn" is at the fore of his presentation in the looming shadow of the announcement of the Gospel. There is a real storm cloud of judgment looming in the News that the Son of God was put to death on the Cross at the hands of lawless men who prefer a murderer.

    But God, who is rich in mercy, prepared that instrument of the Curse before the foundation of the world to be the place of blessing. Believe upon Him!

    The Cross itself is almost like the Law in one sense that it can be a place of great wrath for those that reject the announcement of Christ's suffering or the place of blessing for those that rest in His finished work.

    Why do we have to choose to make the Gospel announcement one or the other?
  14. turmeric

    turmeric Megerator

    At risk of sounding like a heretic, that's how I've always understood Ps. 119, which may be why it puzzles me so much! What does he mean by "law" then?
  15. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member


    I think Psalm 119 is speaking of the third use of the Law. I don't know how portions of it (verse 97) would make sense if we insist on a Law=Do! in all cases. It seems to me there is a profound difference between when the Scriptures say "Do or Cursed will you be..." and "Therefore, in view of God's mercy...." Both are imperatives but are both really the same thing?
  16. DMcFadden

    DMcFadden Puritanboard Commissioner


    Thanks! I almost cross posted to remind Meg of the "third use of the law" which Calvin called the "principal use of the law."
  17. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    My name is Greg Bahnsen, and I approve this message. :)

  18. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    He held the distinction of law and gospel, but he did not define the distinction as "do" and "done;" nor has any writer from the reformed tradition. This distinction makes a mockery of an important phrase which is clearly maintained by all reformed teachers, namely, "evangelical obedience." On the basis of your formulation of law and gospel such a phrase would be a contradiction in terms; and yet it constantly appears in reformed theological teaching when expressing the nature of Christian action and effort as that which flows from gratitude for what God has done for the believer in Christ, so that such obedience is regarded as flowing from the gospel in distinction from legal obedience or that which is offered in service to the law.

    In a later post you speak of following the reformed Confessions. The Westminster Confession quite clearly states that there are things to be observed for salvation, 1:7. The Shorter Catechism answer 85 speaks of faith and repentance as things which God requires to escape His wrath and curse. The Confession and Catechisms describe faith and repentance as saving and evangelical graces in distinction from non-saving and legal requirements. The Confession affirms of "good works, done in obedience to God's commandments," that they are "fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith," and that they "adorn the profession of the gospel" (16:2). The Larger Catechism answer 32 explicitly states that faith is the condition which interests one in the covenant of grace, and that all other saving graces and all holy obedience is the "way which He hath appointed them to salvation," and that the Holy Spirit's enabling of the believer to do these things is a manifestation of the grace of God in the second covenant.

    It is quite evident that your law-gospel formula of "do" and "done" is not merely extra-confessional but contra-confessional, and one which requires reformulation in order to conform to reformed confessional standards. I have no doubt that there is a genuine sense in which "do" and "done" correctly describe the law-gospel distinction, namely, when applied in the more narrow context of covenant "conditions." Herein it is undoubtedly true that the grace of God fulfils all conditions; regrettably, though, you broaden its use so as to relegate all conditions to "law" and divine fulfilments to "gospel" -- which is a virtual denial of the outward administration of the covenant, and therefore to be classified as unreformed as equally as the FV with its denial of the inward and unconditional promise of that covenant.
  19. R. Scott Clark

    R. Scott Clark Puritan Board Senior

    What the Law and Gospel Have in Common

    Joshua Lim posted some stuff from CJPM on his blog.

    Law and gospel do not denote absolutely separate parts of Scripture. Moses and Jesus both preached law and gospel. This is why Reformed theologians consistently quoted Jesus’s response to the lawyer in Luke 10:28–”do this and live”–as the prototypical example of law. One could just as easily cite the prologue to the Decalogue (Exod 20:2) as the prototypical example of the gospel word: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The question is not so much where these words occur in the canon, but the mood (imperative or indicative) with which they speak and the conditions attached to their promises.

    As Wollebius noted, both the law and the gospel urge obedience using promises and curses. They differ in their “proper material” (propria material). That is, the stuff of gospel is not stuff of law. The law is about our “doing” (facienda), and the gospel is about our “believing” (credenda).
    It is not that the law is strict and the gospel is lax. Rather both law and gospel require “perfect obedience.” The law demands it of us, and the gospel announces that Christ has accomplished it.

    Both words are directed at sinners, but, again, with different consequences and conditions or instruments.

    Both moods glorify God, and both seek to foster Christian virtue in believers. The law, however, is powerless to justify or sanctify; only the gospel achieves those ends. For the unregenerate, law and gospel are antithetical. To believers, however, for whom Christ has satisfied the righteous requirements of the law, the law is “subordinate” to the gospel. In other words, the gospel is the power of life and sanctity, and the law serves to structure Christian sanctity.

    - R. Scott Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry (ed. R. Scott Clark, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company), 349-50.
  20. Casey

    Casey Puritan Board Junior

    For those who hold to/agree with the WSC view of the law/gospel distinction, do you essentially agree with the Lutheran view, or are there places you differ? For example, (1) do you agree with or take issue with the Lutheran symbols on this distinction? And (2) do you basically hold to what C.F.W. Walther says in his lectures/book The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel?
  21. Casey

    Casey Puritan Board Junior

    But, according to the WCF, "do this and live" is not law per se, it's the covenant of works. The law itself has no promise of life attached to it; there is a "reward" only in the context of covenant:
    WCF 7.1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

    WCF 19.1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.​
    Sure, we can speak of law generally as an imperative/"do", but as soon as life is attached as a promise for obedience, then it's no longer law in the strict sense, at least, if we're going to be confessional.
  22. Poimen

    Poimen Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Calvin, Institutes, 2.9.4

    Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism

  23. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Here is John Brown of Haddington.

    Dr. Clark, is this amenable to your point of view? I see the distinction between the gospel considered largely or narrowly; I see the law defined as whatever requires; I see the gospel defined as offers or promises through Christ. Is this what you are driving at?

    Marty and Mr. Winzer, do you think that on this point John Brown is a good representative of confessional orthodoxy?
  24. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    A very good representative. Note what the gospel does -- besides setting forth Christ as perfectly fulfilling the law, it also strengthens and encourages us to obey the law as a rule. That is something the gospel enables the believer to do. Hence gospel is not all "done."
  25. Archlute

    Archlute Puritan Board Senior

    If the Gospel is defined as the finished work of Christ then you are wrong. It is complete. That is why it is good news. I don't see why we continue to have this discussion, or why some ministers seem to love mixing the law back in with the Gospel in some sort of "reformed" self-flagellation. It seems to be the basic problem of trying to shove a discussion of sanctification back where it doesn't belong. Personally, if you want to call that anti-nomianism, then there are those such as myself who will have no problem at all with tossing the terminology of neo-nomian right back the other way.

    For what it's worth, I wouldn't consider John Brown of Haddington to be an outstanding representative of anything (no offense meant, Ruben). There are better theologians and better exegetes than he on just about every subject imaginable. Just look at how he misuses Rom. 3:20 as a prooftext in his catechism answer. That verse says nothing about improving grace by law, nor about inducing a dread fear in those who reject it; it has everything to say about a clear law/Gospel distinction. Just a quick sampling of his use of Luke 2:14 or 1 Cor. 9:14 is enough to establish that he has some questionable and unhelpful exegetical procedures in place. Saying that Brown is an outstanding example of theological and exegetical reflection is like trying compare Matthew Henry's work with Ridderbos on John's Gospel, or with Motyer on Isaiah (my apologies if that hurts anybody's feelings).
  26. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    The "gospel" described here is all impetration and has no point of application. This evidences that it is not the gospel of the apostles and reformers, because both insisted that redemption has been accomplished and must be applied. In the gospel is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith, Rom. 1:17; and now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested ... even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe, Rom. 3:21, 22. Without the condition of faith to interest sinners in the Saviour's work there is no real conversion but a mere cosmic reconciliation. If calling faith a gospel condition is reformed self-flagellation, then I will gladly choose it rather than fall for an unreformed self-deception.
  27. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dear Ruben,

    Thanks for your question, it's a good one:

    With Matthew I agree that this is an excellent example of the reformed tradition.

    [1] The distinction between the "strict" and "largely" gospel is in agreement with the tradition. We find it in writers such as Junius, Polanus, Pemble etc., even through to John Gill.

    [2] Brown's presentation of the "strict" gospel is consonant with the tradition:

    Here we see it's not simply a matter of "done" but what God will do both for and in believers. This then includes the call to repentance and new life. It is on this point that Matthew and I differ with Dr. Clark.

    [3] The law / gospel distinction was considerably clarified in the Antinomian controversy in England from the 1620s (or so) till the late 1640s. Here we find Antinomian authors, particularly John Eaton and Robert Towne, appealing to Luther's distinction between "do" and "done". For example, Towne says:

    The Puritans responded by explaining that the law / gospel distinction was:
    law: do and live (not simply "do")
    gospel: live and do (not simply "done")

    However, this point was clarified by the reformed divines prior to the Antinomian controversy. For example, in a work of direct response to the Formula of Concord, Jerome Zanchi explained that the gospel demands three things: faith, repentance, and a sanctified life (De Religione Christiana Fides ch. 13).

    [4] A personal note: I struggle with the tradition when it speaks of the gospel "largely" understood for all doctrine. I can't find a use of the word in the NT to fit this. The verse John Brown appeals to, 1 Corinthians 9:14, doesn't (it seems to me) mean this, nor do the other verses frequently used such as Rom. 2:16 and Mark 1:1-2.

    Every blessing Ruben.
  28. Casey

    Casey Puritan Board Junior

    Does the good news include our sanctification, perseverance, and glorification? Or is the Gospel only about justification? How is it mixing in law to say that we aren't fully sanctified yet, or that the application of Christ's work is still being worked out? How can you equate that with "self-flagellation"? I thought the Reformed understanding of the gospel includes the twin graces of justification and sanctification? Sanctification is just as much an application of Christ's work as justification, right? And so how can you say that this is in any sense neo-nomian?
    WCF 14.2. . . . But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

    WCF 19.7. 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.​
  29. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    You are right Bahnsen could agree with the post! However, the post doesn't mention the great point of contention: the third use of the law for new covenant believers: what is abrogated and what is not? I won't address this question because it will open a pandora's box and a :worms:!

    Blessings CT.
  30. Archlute

    Archlute Puritan Board Senior

    I'm not sure what you are getting at. I did not deny that faith was the instrument by which the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the Gospel.
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