In my previous article (May 15, 2018), I asked and gave what I believe is the biblical and confessional answer to the question, “Is the law part of the gospel?” We saw that there are two ways the Bible uses the word “gospel,” and that the answer to the above question depends on understanding what way we use the word “gospel.” In this article I ask, “Is the gospel part of the law?” The answer to this question depends in large part on what one means by “law.”
Just as there is a broad use and a narrow use of the term “gospel” in the Bible, so there is a broad use and a narrow use of the term “law” in Scripture.1 In the broad sense the term is used to refer to the Torah2 (the books of Moses, namely, Genesis through Deuteronomy) or even at times to refer to the entire Old Testament with its commands, its promises, and its types. In the narrow sense “law” is used to refer to what God requires of His people whether in the Old Testament or in the New, whether under civil, ceremonial, and/or moral laws. The term “law” is used in the Bible to refer to the commanding revelation of God, “Do this!” The content of that command is essentially “love me!” but is expressed in different ways in the Old and New Testaments. Calvin calls this narrow use of the term, “the bare law in a narrow sense.”3
Law in the narrow sense
This “bare law in the narrow sense” is used very clearly in the Bible, usually in contrast to the gospel in a narrow sense.4 Perhaps the most clear example is: “And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.”5 Here, the law is defined as what man must do to live before God. Only if he does what the law requires will he live. Because man cannot do what is required, the effect of the law upon him in this sense is only curse. On the other hand, the gospel in this text is that Christ has redeemed His people from this curse that comes from the law’s requirements.
This same “do this” use of the term “law” is found in:
What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone.
In this text the issue is righteousness. The Israelites who sought righteousness by obedience to the law never achieved it. But the Gentiles who sought it by faith in Christ did, for Christ alone attained to the law’s requirement of righteousness, imputing that righteousness to his children by faith.
The Reformed confessions use the term “law” in this “bare and narrow sense” as well. Lord’s Day 2 (Q&A 3) of the Catechism asks, “Whence knowest thou thy misery?” It answers, “Out of the law of God.” It then asks, “What doth the law of God require of us?” Here the Catechism is speaking of the law in the narrow sense. It defines the law as that which God “requires” of us. This term shows up again in Lord’s Day 4 (Q&A 9) in reference to the law: “Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law that which he cannot perform?” The law here is meant in this narrow sense: God’s requirements, His “do this.” The Canons of Dordt also use “law” in this sense in Heads III/IV, Articles 5 and 6, where they make a distinction between the law in the narrow sense and the gospel.
Art. 5 In the same light are we to consider the law of the decalogue, delivered by God to His peculiar people the Jews, by the hands of Moses. For though it discovers the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet as it neither points out a remedy, nor imparts strength to extricate him from misery, and thus, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.
Art. 6 What therefore neither the light of nature, nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it hath pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old, as under the New Testament.
When used in this sense in both Scripture and the confessions, no, the gospel is not part of the law.
Law in the broad sense
The Bible also uses the word “law” in a broad sense. In these cases, the Bible refers to the entire Old Testament, sometimes with focus on the first five books of the Old Testament.—“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John….” Obviously, the Lord is referring here not merely to the requirements of the Old Testament, for He speaks of the “prophesies” in the law. In addition, in the word “law” is used this broad way. 6 “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” Here, the “law” from which Jesus quotes is a Psalm. The Psalms are not even part of the Torah, thus indicating that “law” was sometimes used to refer to any revelation in the Old Testament.7 Helpfully, the Scriptures in a few places bring both the narrow and broad uses together in one sentence. , is one such place: “But now the righteousness of God without the law [narrow use] is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; [broad use].” The gospel that requires no obedience to the law to be justified is revealed in the law. 8
This broad use of the term “law” is found in the Reformed confessions as well. In the Belgic Confession, Article 25, speaking of the falling away of the ceremonial law, the Confession states, “In the meantime, we still use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets to confirm to us in the doctrine of the gospel….” The testimonies the article speaks of are found “in the law and the prophets.” The Confession is using the biblical phrase “law and prophets” to refer to the Old Testament. That is, the “law” not merely as God’s requirements, but as the first five books of the Bible, and the “prophets” as the other books of the Old Testament.
In this broad sense, to answer our question, absolutely, the gospel is part of the law. The Reformers maintained the unity of the Old and New Testaments in part for this very reason.9 The difference between the Old and New Testaments is not that the Old Testament only contained the law and the New Testament only the gospel. Rather, the difference is that in the Old Testament the gospel was less fully revealed and in the New Testament it is more fully revealed. And, in the Old Testament more specific case laws were added because the people of God were in the time of types and shadows and were constituted as a civil society, whereas in the New Testament neither of those two is the case.10 The Decalogue is still in force, but is applied by Christ Himself and His apostles in ways that reckon with the Lord’s coming. In the Old Testament (sometimes called the time of the law) there is both law and gospel. In the New Testament (sometimes called the time of the gospel) there is both law and gospel.
The law and God’s covenant
Seeing that, we learn what holds all of these distinctions together. The Old and New Testaments are the old and new administrations of the covenant. It is the covenant that holds law and gospel together. The distinctions we have made in these two articles must be made. To fail to distinguish law and gospel in their narrow senses is to open the church to the dangers of Pelagianism. At the same time, to take the narrow distinction between law and gospel in justification, and to exaggerate it when it is outside the theological area of justification, is to open the church to the dangers of antinomianism.11
God’s covenant with His people is an unconditional covenant of grace. Thus, the law in its narrow sense cannot be the means by which we enter or remain in that covenant. Only the gospel in the narrow sense, received by faith, is that means. At the same time, God’s covenant unconditionally established and maintained with His elect in Christ is established and maintained as a relationship. Though never dependent upon us, it is a relationship in which we live with our Father and relate to Him. It is a bond in which He calls us to walk with Him in gratitude, just as an earthly father calls his earthly children to the same. The gospel of that covenant in its broad sense includes the law in its narrow sense. As out of gratitude I obey the commands of my earthly father and in that way experience the closeness of the relationship (not as though I earned it, never as the legal basis for it, for I obey out of grace), so too the child of God with His heavenly Father.
Keeping the distinctions and the definitions of the terms (law and gospel) properly in view, this covenant holds everything together, so that for God’s elect,12everything in the end is grace, even the law in its narrow sense.13 In every administration of God’s covenant, law and gospel are distinguished but not separated. They are held together beautifully as part of God’s gracious covenant to His people.
In light of this understanding of these distinctions, as well as of the unity of law and gospel in God’s covenant, Protestant Reformed writers and preachers have made statements such as, “The law is gospel. If anyone doubts it, let him read Psalm 19 and Psalm 119.”14 Calvin says glorious things about the law as a unique gift of grace to God’s people and even a “special grace” to them.15 Bavinck reminds us of how to preach the law as part of the covenant in Reformed churches:
Christians…delight in the law in their inmost being () and meditate on it day and night ( ). For that reason that law must always be proclaimed in the church in the context of the gospel. Both law and gospel, the whole Word, the full counsel of God, are the content of preaching. Accordingly among the Reformed the law occupies a much larger place in the doctrine of gratitude than in that of misery.
However, in my judgment, we would do well especially in this day and age of the Federal Vision to explain what we mean when we make statements like “the law is the gospel” or “the law is part of the gospel,” very carefully. And, with Calvin, to say in almost the same breath how the law is also not the gospel.16 The apostle sets the example of doing both,: “Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” Here, there is a law-gospel distinction in the narrow sense—all are under sin because we cannot attain to the law, that the promise of the gospel might be given to those who believe. But at the same time, this truth is placed in the setting of the covenant purposes of God to His elect. Thus, he says, “Is the law against the promises (gospel) of God? God forbid!” This is the beauty of the covenant of grace!
1 Calvin makes this distinction as I describe it here. Among other places one of the most clear and concise is in the Institutes, (Battles ed.), 2.9.4. “Hence, also, we refute those who always erroneously compare the law with the gospel by contrasting the merit of works with the free imputation of righteousness. This is indeed a contrast not at all to be rejected [here using law and gospel in the narrow sense]. For Paul often means by the term “law” the rule of righteous living…giving us no hope of life unless we completely obey him, and adding on the other hand a curse if we deviate in the slightest degree…. But the gospel did not so supplant the entire law as to bring forward a different way of salvation. Rather it confirmed and satisfied whatever the law [broad sense here, as the whole message of the Old Testament] had promised, and gave substance to the shadows. When Christ says, “The Law and the prophets were until John,” he does not subject the patriarchs to the curse that the slaves of the law cannot escape…. Hence Paul, calling the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation for every believer,” presently adds, “The Law [in the broad sense, Old Testament especially the Torah] and the Prophets bear witness to it.” In addition, see M. Horton’s evaluation of Calvin, https://wscal.edu/resource-center/calvin-on-law-and-gospel. Further, see J. Hesselink’s evaluation of Calvin on this score in Calvin’s Concept of the Law (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publ, 1992), 157-158. H. Bavinck’s explanation of the whole Word of God as law, gospel, and power centers on the distinction as understood here. See his Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 448-455. This is also the main distinction made in T. Schreiner’s explanation of the biblical use of the term “law,” in his recent book, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2010), 19-23. Other distinctions concerning the law can and ought to be made. Reformed writers, based on Scripture as I will show, made this distinction, in my judgment, the main one. Understanding it will help with all the other distinctions made about law.
2 The main Hebrew word for law.
3 Institutes, 2.7.2. Calvin also refers to the broad and narrow sense of the term “gospel” spoken of in the previous article. You can find that especially in the first paragraph in 2.9.2.
4 Bavinck: “God uses his word to make his will known in the area of morality and spirituality, and it must be differentiated as law and gospel” (450). Consider these also: “The Reformers… perceived the sharp contrast between law and gospel and thereby again restored the peculiar character of the Christian religion as a religion of grace” (453). “This antithesis between the law and the gospel was again understood by the Reformation” (454). “They (the law and the gospel in this narrow sense) differ especially in content: the law demands that humans work out their own righteousness, and the gospel invites them…to accept the righteousness of Christ” (454).
5 This is also the teaching of.
6 Calvin, Institutes, 2.11.10, “The three latter comparisons to which we have referred are of the law and the gospel. In them the law is signified by the name Old Testament….” Bavinck, vol. 4, “Now to the extent that the Old and New Testament dispensations of the covenant of grace can be described—following Scripture and in terms of the most salient difference between them—with the terms ‘law,’ and ‘gospel…’” (452). “Although in a broad sense the terms law and gospel can indeed be used to denote the old and new dispensation of the covenant of grace…” (453).
7 This is because though the gospel was there in the Old Testament, the Old Testament was dominated by the giving of the civil, ceremonial, and moral law.
8 Many more examples could be given of the use of the term in the broad sense,, , etc. I am not in this article going to get into the debate surrounding the way Paul uses the term “law” in every specific instance in his epistles. Orthodox men have disagreed over individual instances. Paul’s uses mainly fall under the broad or narrow sense as I describe them here. The only exceptions are a few places where, playing on the term “law,” he uses that term to refer to “principle” ( , etc.). I make this significant comment, however, on the use of the term in Paul. It is vital to note that often in the epistles of Paul he uses the term “law” in a broad sense (to refer to the Old Testament or the Torah) but has in mind exclusively the commanding aspects of the Old Testament or the Torah. Thus, it appears, at first, he is using the term in the broad sense, but truly he is still using it in the narrow sense of “do this.” An example of this is ff. Paul speaks of being “under the law.” He is thinking of the Old Testament, as the next verses make clear. But as the beginning of the chapter makes clear, he is thinking of the Old Testament laws as laws. That is, as commandments that acted as a tutor to lead us to Christ, and thus no different from the Decalogue that remains as that law for us. The reason why it is vital to understand that Paul is still thinking of law as “do this” in such instances is that the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision do not. They say Paul’s only concern is to do away with the Old Testament laws as a means to justification. The laws were the tutor to Christ, not the commands of the New Testament lived out of faith. Hence, they conclude, those laws obeyed by regenerated people may play a part in their justification.
9 See Calvin, Institutes, 2.10.
10 Thus the civil and ceremonial laws fall away while the principles behind them, which principles include the commands of the Decalogue, still stand.
11 Bavinck (vol. 4): “In the Christian church this antithesis between law and gospel was even exacerbated and made irreconcilable… by antinomianism in its various forms…. On the other hand, this antithesis between law and gospel was weakened and cancelled out by nomism in its various forms…” (451).
12 It is important to keep in mind the intended audience of the law here. In the covenant, the law speaks to elect and, at some point, regenerate people. That makes all the difference in the world. (See Bavinck, vol. 4, 455.)
13 And in all three of the law’s uses in that narrow sense (Calvin speaks of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd uses of the law in its narrow sense in Institutes, 2.7.6-13). For the elect it is in the end grace to us in all three ways.
14 Hanko, Contending for the Faith, 263.
15 Commentary on Psalm 19:7
16 Cf. Calvin in his comments on, “These different ways in which the law may be viewed, easily show us the manner of reconciling these passages of Paul and David, which seem at first view to be at variance. The design of Paul is to show what the law can do for us, taken by itself; that is to say, what it can do for us when, without the promise of grace, it strictly and rigorously exacts from us the duty which we owe to God; but David, in praising it as he here does, speaks of the whole doctrine of the law, which includes also the gospel, and, therefore, under the law he comprehends Christ.”