Law and Gospel
Do you know the difference between the law and the gospel? Martin Luther said, “…whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” The law is a deep subject. How you view the law will depend on your theological approach. For example, an old-school dispensationalist will look at the law differently than someone who holds to covenant theology. There are differences in beliefs concerning how much continuity there should be between the Old Testament law and the New Testament and when and how to draw the lines. But one thing we shouldn’t confuse is what the law is and what it can do for you.
William Blackstone said that law “is that rule of action which is prescribed by some superior and which the inferior is bound to obey.” When God gives a law to a people, it’s a command they are obligated to obey. It doesn’t matter why the law exists, if you like it, or even if you understand it. You must obey it, or else face the consequences. The law convicts, commands, and condemns, and guides.
The gospel comes from a Greek word that means “good news” about who Jesus is and what Jesus did. The news about the Son of God, the prophesied Messiah, who came to this world to save His people from their sins through his sacrificial death and resurrection. The gospel is the story of Jesus’s ministry, work, and the fulfillment of those promises. The gospel is the good news of grace and forgiveness.
You know the difference, but do you know the difference? Reading the commandments is not good news to a sinner. Telling someone to go to church and worship the Lord is not good news. That’s the law. Pressing people to greater service, greater giving, and greater love is not the gospel. It’s the law. Telling people to have daily quiet time is not good news. That’s the law.
The law is good, but it’s not good news for sinners who have broken it. The law condemns and has no power to save or sanctify us. Which laws? All of them. The law tells me what is right and wrong. The law shows me how bad I am. The law shows me my need for Christ. The law shows me I’m without hope, and need a Savior. The call to repent and believe is to turn from ourselves unto Jesus. Change our mind about our righteousness, works, and ability to keep the law, and cling to Christ as our righteousness and our all-sufficient, only savior.
In the classic book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher distinguishes between the law and the gospel when he wrote, “The Law says thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shall be damned, but the gospel says, no. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and therefore believe on Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved.”