Posts Tagged ‘Law and Gospel’

How important is the concept of the justice of God? Is it possible we emphasize it too much in Reformed circles? What about the relational of filial aspects of God’s character?  Don’t those come to bare against a strict legal/justice understanding of the way God relates to his children?

Of course, all these questions operate under the assumption that God’s justice is somehow at odds with his relational dealings with man. It construct a false dichotomy which is neither right nor safe.  But perhaps one of the most powerful ways to avoid this false-dicotomy is to realize the beauty in Christ’s fulfillment of God’s justice.  Charles Hodge, that great Princeton Theologian, speaks of this glorious truth:

This is the corner-stone, and the whole fabric falls into ruin if that stone be removed. That God cannot pardon sin without a satisfaction to justice, and that He cannot have fellowship with the unholy, are the two great truths which are revealed in the constitution of our nature as well as in the Scriptures, and which are recognized in all forms of religion, human or divine. It is because the demands of justice are met by the work of Christ, that his gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and that it is so unspeakably precious to whose whom the Spirit of God have convinced of sin. – Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:492, cited in The Law is Not of Faith, p. 64.

That this justice is “revealed in the constitution of our nature” is an outstanding statement and a most penetrating observation. It is only then, when the law of God (written on our consciences and in Scripture) comes to bear with its mighty weight upon our souls through the convicting power of the Holy Sprit, that the beauty of God’s justice fulfilled on our behalf breaks upon us. It is only then that the concept of justification begins to mean something to us. It is only then that we are awakened to the beauty of Christ’s suffering upon the cross and no longer want to put confidence in the flesh. It is only then that we can truly worship and glory in Christ.

Accordingly, the chief design of Christ’s satisfaction “is neither to make a moral impression upon the offenders themselves, nor to operate didactically on other intelligent creatures, but to satisfy the demands of justice; so that God can be just in justifying the ungodly.” – D.G. Hart, quoting Charles Hodge, in The Law is Not of Faith, p. 64.

Do we need the concept of God’s justice? Why yes we do. It is absolutely good, true, and beautiful.

And this is why we must boldly preach both the law and the gospel.


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So I’ve been reading Dr. Fesko’s book, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, which has sparked some thoughts regarding the New Perspectives on Paul.

It seems like one of the ideas that is put forward (by the NPP) is that the Second Temple Judaizers weren’t too keen on legalistic righteousness. They would never dream of thinking they could obey the whole Torah, let alone earn meritorious righteousness before God by law keeping. Rather, they merely saw several key laws that served as boundary markers between them and non-Jews.  And although it may be hard to determine exactly what they had in mind (Qumran writings may indicate considerable law-keeping was required), one might be able to boil things down to three major categories: Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary restrictions.

So, as N.T. Wright points out, perfect law keeping was never in view. Besides, there was the whole sacrificial system to deal with sins.  Rather, they wanted to look to certain particular laws or regulations as boundary markers which they could hang their hat on and say, “look, I’m in the community, you gentile Christians aren’t.”

Now, this context actually works — as far as it goes.  It seems reasonable (from reading Paul) that something like this was certainly going on.  But what comes to my mind is how clearly and forcibly Paul refutes this notion of the Jews, not by merely correcting their misidentification of the proper boundary markers (which they certainly got wrong), but by insisting that those who wanted to “keep Torah” were obligated to keep it all! They didn’t think they had to keep the whole law, and Paul slams them for it!

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? (Gal. 3:21)

I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Gal. 5:3 ESV)

This right here, I think, provides a hurdle for the notion that “boundary markers” were all that was in view (at least in the mind of Paul).

And then Paul criticizes the Jews’ duplicity:

For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. (Gal. 6:13)

If “keeping the law” meant merely circumcision, are we to take it (as the NPP would have us) that not even those who were physically circumcised were physically circumcised?

As Andrew Das points out,

When Paul uses the phrase ‘works of the law’ in Gal. 3:10 and cites Deut. 27:26 (in a composite quote drawing on other statements in Deut. 27-30), the Deuteronomy context indicates that Paul has in mind the law in its entirety including even actions done in private.” – Paul, the Law, and the Covenant, quoted in Fesko’s ‘Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, p. 177.

Interestingly, the Apostle James has something similar to say about keeping the law:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (Jas. 2:10, emphasis mine)

Furthermore, most of Romans 2 Paul is trashing any notion that the Jews could hide against certain legalities (e.g. circumcision), in order to distinguish themselves from others before God.

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. (Rom. 2:25-27)

So there is a profound sense in which it wasn’t just about circumcision or keeping kosher that Paul had problems with! It wasn’t that the Jews merely got the wrong boundary markers. Their problem was they didn’t realize that the whole law stood condemning them in the face. And there they were holding on to vestiges of the Mosaic order, as if by these ordinances they would be vindicated. Like grabbing the handrail of a sinking ship, their spiritually blind groping for badges of distinction only added insult to injury.

The point is, even if these were the right boundary markers, they were going about it all wrong. How wrong, one might ask?

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:4)

This was serious error. Indeed, total doctrinal apostasy — Paul laying on them the anathema for denying Christ. And one might wonder: How did they go from incorrect boundary markers to denying Christ? To understand this, we must recognize that there were more than mere socio-eclesial issues that Paul was concerned about. The Judaizers’ problem was one of soteriology as well. Failing to recognize the full weight of the law and its condemnation of all sins (individual and corporate) they failed to see that they were all condemned! They failed to reckon with the idea that even the most meticulous, sabbath-keeping, Hebrew of Hebrews (as Paul identifies himself) stood condemned before the law. They were like, “Huh?” “Me?” “Condemned by the law?” “You gotta be kidding me.” “I’m a Jew.” And Paul responded, “So?” “Do you keep the law perfectly?” “No?” “Then you already stand judged and condemned by the law.  The law can help you no longer. It only helps righteous people. And you’re not righteous.”

But since they had a low view of the law and its total and rigorous requirements, they still wanted to be under the law. One can easily see then why they failed to see the importance of the work of Christ.

The law could never save them. It was never intended to. Even circumcision was meant not merely to separate them from the rest of the world, but also to point them to Christ. But due to their spiritual hardness of heart, he was the very one they denied.

They had the Gospel (even in circumcision) but failed to distinguish it from the law. Thus they couldn’t distinguish the finished work of Christ from their own works of law-keeping. And this is how they had “fallen away from grace.”

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The sacraments. Are they law or are they gospel? Are they something we do, or something that is done for (or upon) us? Calvin talks of the “nature of the sacraments,”

which God so instituted that believers, poor and deprived of all goods, should bring nothing to it but begging. From this it follows that in receiving the sacraments believers do nothing to deserve praise, and that even in this act (which on their part is merely passive) no work can be ascribed to them.

Institutes 4.14.26

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Having spent considerable time and energy over the last weeks and months reading John Calvin, that great Genevan Reformer, I now have the splendid opportunity to study Martin Luther as well.  And oh what a joy! It’s as if someone should’ve said to me: “If you liked Calvin (for all the right reasons, of course, not the wrong ones) well you’re going to love Luther.” And they would’ve been right of course.

The same theological, hermeneutical, homiletical, and pastoral insight which made Calvin such a dear and shining light to many, is there in its brash and bold (and yet foundational) form in Luther. And is it ever encouraging to read.  Indeed I can think of few things as delightful to the soul. However, enough already… Let’s get to some Luther quotes.  From his “What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521).

After explaining how some confuse the Gospel as merely referring to the four first books of the New Testament, Luther wrote:

There is, besides, the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books in which is supposed to be taught what we are to do and in which the works of Christ are pictured to us as nothing but examples. Now where these two erroneous notions remain in the heart, there neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner, and [people] remain as pagan as ever.

The stout German is obviously off to a good start. But one can leave it to the ‘wild boar’ to run a royal rampage across deception and unbelief. He then defines Gospel per se:

Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered–a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, on this way, another that way.

There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ.

He then goes on to show that this same gospel is the one we get in the Old Testament as well:

Thus when Isaiah in chapter fifty-three says how Christ should die for us and bear our sins, he has written the pure gospel. And I assure you, if a person fails to grasp this understanding of the gospel, he will never be able to be illuminated in the Scripture nor will he receive the right foundation.

Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a twofold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 4, “Christ suffered for us, thereby leaving us an example.” Thus when you see how he prays, fasts, helps people, and shows the love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor. However this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you.

In short this mode [of understanding Christ as simply an example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. [emphasis mine] – Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2005). 93-95.

Well, I don’t know how one could ever strike any more deftly at the very vitals and heart-beat of unbelief.  This penetrates to the core of all false teaching and apostasy which teaches us not to believe in Christ as everything for our salvation, but rather someone and something just shy of it.  Some thing (no matter how small or seemingly reasonable) must be left outstanding.  And just as surely one believes this then all one’s glorying in Christ and his cross falls faint to the ground.

And what’s more, the human heart, in its pride, ever resists such a free gift from our Gratuitous Benefactor and Heavenly Father. And as much as we might think we can today find evidence to the contrary, there’s nothing we like less than a free handout — and from God, least of all. It restlessly tugs against such an offer of absolute and unconditional grace. And of course our sinful hearts are joined in a distorted chorus by the world and the devil, ever providing a relentless deluge of resistance.

And yet the Gospel truly is good news… the best in the world…in all creation. May God by his mercy grant us ears to hear, and hearts to understand, how great and marvelous his love is toward us. Amen.

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In light of the recent debates (in the PCA) over our understanding of the forgiveness of sins (and what that means when we say it), it is helpful to read old guys like Caspar Olevian who helped shape our confessional understanding of Reformed doctrine. Reading through ‘Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant‘ I come to what he calls the “forgiveness of sins” (remissio peccatorum). And how does he define it but in terms of justification. He calls it “the greatest question in the entire world” (p. 148). What question?

That is, our righteousness before God, that Christ gave himself for our unrighteousness…. Why did he rescue us? Not because of our merit, but of his grace. This is our consolation, that the Gospel is an infallible testimony to us, that God is not only our creator, but also our Father… (p 148)

It is the greatest question in the world because it is the heart of the Gospel of Christ. Why else is the ministry the gospel (and particularly the preaching thereof) so vitally and urgently important? Olevian comments on Romans 1:16 “The Gospel is the Power of God unto salvation to all who believe:

We speak about the purpose for which God instituted the ministry of the gospel. The purpose is that the Lord might powerfully lead to salvation those who believe, sealing in their hearts the gracious remission of sins and renewing the heart into his image and beginning in them eternal life. (p. 148)

So we see here the “remission of sins” is ‘sealed’ to the believer — as is the ‘renewal’ of the heart. Both (justification and sanctification) come as a fruit of the Gospel and are freely given to us by God, in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit

And what’s more, this gospel must be preached to unbelievers and believers alike: for the conversion of the former, and the strengthening and of the latter. But this “benefit” (which we should read as including forgiveness of sins), as R. Scott Clark points out, “is restricted to those who believe, i.e. those ‘predestined by God’.” (p. 149)

Olevian calls this Gospel the “principal doctrine” of the Scriptures.  And what is this doctrine? “…how sin, the wrath of God, and eternal death, are removed…” He writes, “…the principal life-giving doctrine, by the outpouring of the Spirit of God was, is, and shall be, the promise of the Gospel. (p. 148)

Furthermore, as far as our justification is concerned, Olevian sees this gospel as set in opposition to the law. But he makes clear that this doesn’t mean the gospel wasn’t present in the Old Testament times as well:

Thus the Holy Spirit constantly affirms throughout Paul that the doctrine of the gospel about the forgiveness of sins and eternal life given freely for the sake of the Son to those who believe, is not in any way new. But from the beginning of the world Christ was promised with his gospel. In order that this might be understood the distinction between law and Gospel must be considered. (p. 150)

So we see here that for Olivian, the gospel was about the forgiveness of sins through the justifying work Jesus Christ imputed by faith unto the believer. And, to further stress this point, it wasn’t to the unbeliever that these things were given — but to “those who believe”. Forgiveness and justification go together. And with them come regeneration, sanctification, and ultimetely glorification.

And, brothers and sisters, this is why the Gospel is so awesome (for lack of a better term).  Just as surely as you know (and are convinced) that you are a sinner and have sin in you; and just as surely as you know you’re going to eventually die because of this; you can also be just as assured that Christ is in you; and because of that fact you are also righteous; just as assured that you have everlasting life in you and that will never perish but will surely be raised from the dead. Just as sure! Think about that. This is definitely good news — the best in the world! And it is for all who believe.

And finally, in view of the recent controversies (great and small, near and abroad) over the nature of the Gospel, it’s helpful to read someone like Olivian who tells us that these kind of difficulties aren’t new. They will always follow the church wherever she goes. Why? Because in this world, the powers of darkness and the principalities and rulers of the air won’t stand for the gospel to be proclaimed among the nations. In fact they’re straining all their efforts (whether by schism, heresy, or persecution) to thwart this very process. But should that discourage us? Well, it didn’t disuade men like Olevian.  In his commentary on Romans he would write: “The world…claims I have asserted a new doctrine, but the Gospel is not new.” (p. 147)

May we, too, live with that conviction.

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Below is an excerpt taken from Thomas Chalmers’ The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.

The object of the Gospel is both to pacify the sinner’s conscience, and to purify his heart; and it is of importance to observe, that what mars the one of these objects, mars the other also. The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one; and by the love of what is good, to expel the love of what is evil.

Thus it is, that the freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying is the Gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine according to godliness. This is one of the secrets of the Christian life, that the more a man holds of God as a pensioner, the greater is the payment of service that he renders back again. On the tenure of “Do this and live,” a spirit of fearfulness is sure to enter; and the jealousies of a legal bargain chase away all confidence from the intercourse between God and man; and the creature striving to be square and even with his Creator, is, in fact, pursuing all the while his own selfishness, instead of God’s glory; and with all the conformities which he labours to accomplish, the soul of obedience is not there, the mind is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed under such an economy ever can be. It is only when, as in the Gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance – or, that he can repose in Him, as one friend reposes in another – or, that any liberal and generous understanding can be established betwixt them – the one party rejoicing over the other to do him good – the other finding that the truest gladness of his heart lies in the impulse of a gratitude, by which it is awakened to the charms of a new moral existence.

Salvation by grace – salvation by free grace – salvation not of works, but according to the mercy of God – salvation on such a footing is not more indispensable to the deliverance of our persons from the hand of justice, than it is to the deliverance of our hearts from the chill and the weight of ungodliness. Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel, and we raise a topic of distrust between man and God. We take away from the power of the Gospel to melt and to conciliate. For this purpose, the freer it is, the better it is. That very peculiarity which so many dread as the germ of antinomianism, is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against it. Along with the light of a free Gospel, does there enter the love of the Gospel, which, in proportion as we impair the freeness, we are sure to chase away. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness. To do any work in the best manner, we should make use of the fittest tools for it.

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I’ve been reading from the book Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. One of the chapters written by Dennis Johnson is entitled Simul iustus et peccator: The Role of Justification in Pastoral Counseling. I think these insights are crucial:

Pastoral counseling is, as the older shepherds called it, “the cure of souls,” healing the heart of its deep and complex maladies through the wise application of God’s infection-exposing law and his conscience-cleansing gospel. (p. 399)

Although the assurance that biblical justification imparts may seem, both to legalists and to antinomians, to work at cross-purposes to Scripture’s summons to strenuously pursue holiness, in fact only this assurance can produce a holiness that springs from love for God rather than an exploitation of God for our own ends.  In other words, only when our obedience flows from a justification-secured assurance of the Father’s approval of us for his Son’s sake is our obedience an expression of love for God above all, rather than an attempt to obligate through our efforts. (p. 402)

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