I remember being quite confused for a long time by the question that titles this article. I remember being further confused by statements made by Protestant Reformed authors, such as the following: “In fact, Scripture makes clear that the law is gospel, for it has the power to convert the soul, to make wise the simple, and to enlighten the eyes.”1 And, “The law is gospel. If anyone doubts it, let him readand .”2 And, “For Calvin and Calvinism, with regard to the elect believer law is an aspect of gospel.”3 How can this be? The law requires perfect obedience for us to be justified, an obedience of which we are not capable. That is not good news! On the other hand, the gospel proclaims that Christ’s perfect obedience (not our own obedience to the law) justifies us. That is good news! So how can an orthodox theologian say the law is the gospel? They are opposites!
My confusion became great concern when it became clear to me that the Federal Vision collapses the law into the gospel. This movement teaches that the Scriptures require our obedience to the law in addition to Christ’s obedience to the law in order for God’s people to be justified. According to this heresy, the law is the gospel, and our obedience to the law is part of the good news by which we are justified.
Carrying out the requirement of our Church Order, Article 68, which requires that Protestant Reformed ministers “shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism…” helped me gain some clarity here. In fulfilling that calling, I was helped by seeing that, biblically and confessionally, there is more than one use of the term “law,” and there is more than one use of the term “gospel.” In this article I treat the two uses of the term “gospel.” In the next, I hope to treat the uses of the term “law.”
There is both a narrow use and a broad use of the term “gospel” in the Bible and in the confessions. Narrowly defined, the gospel is the good news, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (). It is what Paul declares in ,
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you…how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.4
This is the most frequent way we use the term “gospel,” as it is the most frequent way the Bible uses it.5 Thinking of the gospel this way, the church can speak of the “bad news” that I have to know from the Bible before I can know the “good news” from the Bible: that I am a sinner who has not met the righteous requirements of God’s law and am liable to be punished for it.
This is the way the Heidelberg Catechism uses the term “gospel” in Lord’s Day 6 (Q&A 16-19). Here the Catechism brings out into the open for the first time our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. This God-given being who is very man, very God, and perfectly righteous, is the only one who can reconcile us to God. But since we cannot see or hear this Jesus, for He came to earth 2,000 years ago, the Catechism asks the question, how do I know about Him and what He has done to be our Mediator? The Catechism answers, “From the holy gospel.”
The “holy gospel” here is not another word for the Bible. Rather, it is a reference to the narrowly defined good news of Christ come to redeem His people from sin. Two things prove this. First, the Catechism goes on to speak of that gospel as that which
God Himself first revealed in Paradise [before the Bible was written, but now recorded in the Bible]; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by His only begotten Son.
These are all references to a specific part of God’s revelation, that part which is known narrowly as the “gospel.” God revealed this gospel of the coming Mediator before the Bible was written. Thus, “the holy gospel” cannot be all the contents of the Bible itself. Later, and now fully, God places the revelation of that same gospel in the Bible for us. The Catechism is certainly also making that point, but it does not merely state, “I know this from the Bible.” Rather, it says, “I know this from the gospel, repeatedly proclaimed to us now in the Bible.” The gospel here is not all the teachings of the Bible, but something specific and limited that the Bible now contains.
Second, the Catechism is making a careful law/gospel distinction as it moves from knowing our misery to knowing our salvation. The Catechism had asked in Lord’s Day 3, “Whence knowest thou thy misery?” It answered, “Out of the law of God.”6 Now it asks in Lord’s Day 6, in identical language, “Whence knowest thou this?” (the Mediator, salvation, the opposite of misery). And it answers, “Out of the holy gospel.” Both the law and the gospel, conceived in this narrow and limited sense, are contained in the Bible, but there is a strict distinction between the two in the comparison between Lord’s Day 3 and Lord’s Day 6. This is vitally important to maintain and to be clear about. Justification by grace alone apart from works of the law depends upon it.: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” In this sense, to answer our question, no, the law is not part of the gospel.
Much like the term “regeneration” though, there is not only a narrow use, but also a broad use of the term “gospel.” This is the use of the term in such passages as, “In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” Here the “gospel” (same Greek word as above) is broad. It is not limited to the message that Jesus has come to atone for sin, but includes eschatology, even the judgment of the ungodly by Christ. Or, again, in :
For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.
Here “sound doctrine” including sound doctrine about the law, its meaning and use, is included in “the glorious gospel.” This is not the main use of the term “gospel” in the New Testament, but it is a distinctive and particular use.
The Canons of Dordt use the term “gospel” in this broad sense in Article 14 of the Fifth Head of Doctrine:
And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments.
Homer C. Hoeksema notes in his commentary on the Canons that the Latin original adopted by the Synod of Dordt has “gospel” a second time, and not “His Word” as in our English translation. Hoeksema gives this translation of the original:
Moreover, even as it hath pleased God to begin this his own work of grace in us through the preaching of the gospel, thus through the hearing, reading, meditation, exhortations, threatenings, promises of the gospel, and also through the use of the sacraments, he preserves, continues, and perfects it.”7
Hence, the article communicates that in this broad sense, the preaching of all the Word of God (including the threatenings and exhortations of that Word) is part of the preaching of the gospel. All the Word of God is in this sense “good news” for us, and must be preached as such. By the preaching of all the Word of God, God preserves us. Hoeksema draws out the point:
For that Word, whether it exhorts or threatens or promises, is always the Word of God’s grace to His people…. Always His Word is a Word of grace to His own, and always He is graciously inclined toward His people, even in the so-called threatenings of the gospel.”8
This broad use of the term is highlighted by the fact that in our English translation “Word” was used in place of “gospel,” obviously in an attempt to clarify the meaning.
In this broad sense of the term “gospel,” to answer our question, yes, the law is part of the gospel. Yes, the law is gospel. The whole Word of God is in this sense good news to us, even the law that exhorts and threatens us. For God’s people, the threatenings come in grace. They are, as Hoeksema puts it, “pedagogical” for them.9 In addition, the law comes to God’s own who have been delivered from the bondage of Egypt. God says to them, “I am the Lord Thy God, love Me for what I have done for you.” Our relationship to the law has changed. In its “third use” it becomes the way of our Father, the good rules of life in Father’s house. Through this law we learn ever more deeply our sin, run ever more earnestly to Christ, and pray ever more fervently to be conformed to the image of His dear Son (Lord’s Day 44, Q&A 115).
So, is the law part of the gospel? I have come to the conclusion that the answer is, “Yes, and No. It depends on what you mean by ‘the gospel.’”
Next time, “Is the gospel part of the law?”
1 Herman Hanko, Contending for the Faith (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2010), 177.
2 Hanko, 263.
3 David J. Engelsma, The Reformed Faith of John Calvin (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2009), 263. Note that these quotes do not do justice in themselves to the full explanation of the authors, of course, and must be read in context.
4 Where the apostle states the heart of the gospel as the matter he delivered to the Corinthians that was literally (“first of all”), “of first importance,” that is, the central message.
5 Look up the word “gospel” and you will see. For example,, , etc.
6 The sharp reader will anticipate the next article by seeing that there is a different use of the word law here in LD 3 from what is used in what I quoted above from LD 6.
7 Homer C. Hoeksema, The Voice of our Fathers (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980, 2013), 755 (emphasis added).
8 Hoeksema, 762-63.
9 Read his comments carefully and you will see “pedagogical” does not just mean in the sense of the first use of the law, but also in the sense of the third use of the law.