Theology 101: Law and Gospel

In sitting down to write this post, I’m beginning to realize that “Theology 101′ is something of a misnomer. In the first place, basic classes tend to shy away from controversial topics, at least in theory. If I actually taught a class with that title, I’d probably work through the Apostle’s Creed or something else with which (for the most part) all Christians would agree. Maybe I’ll do that someday, but it’s not what I’m thinking about right now. What’s more, the title implies a sort of authoritative seat of judgment, from which I proclaim disconnected theological truths. As I’ve said before, if you came to listen at my feet as I made such proclamations, we would both be fools.

However, there are certain theological convictions I have arrived at which are extremely important for how I approach God and His Word. As I’ve been thinking a lot about them, I’d love the opportunity to put them in writing and help explain and explore their impact. The kingdom of God is one such topic; the way we understand the distinction of law and gospel is another. So with that clarified, I’d like to offer some thoughts on this oft-debated topic.

Normally, in a post such as this one, I would start with a definition of the two terms under consideration. What is law? What is the gospel? However, thanks to the diversity within the Christian tradition about these answers, I want to do something different. I’d like to start by establishing a biblical tension, and then try to sort out what the two words mean in light of the way they play off of each other.

On the one hand, there are places in Scripture (especially Paul) where law is cast in what seems to be a negative light. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law.” (Gal 3:13) The law, Paul insists, cannot save us, for “by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal 2:16) Indeed, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” (Rom 3:20-21) Paul goes so far as to say to believers that “you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:14)

At this point, it is little wonder that some perceive Paul as hating the law. However, he himself expresses a sense that the law is also good. “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom 7:12) While the law of sin is at work in His body, Paul contrasts this with the law of God: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being…” (Rom 7:22) Many would cite Paul’s proclamation of the “law of love” as a denial of the law, but for Paul, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom 13:8 ESV) This is picking up on a broader biblical theme. We should not miss that when Jesus gives the first and second greatest commandments, while He is making a radical statement about how God’s people should live, He is doing so by quoting Mosaic law. On top of all this, while we don’t find such refrains in Paul, is hardly seems likely that he would wholly reject the testimony of Scripture to the beauty of God’s law (go read Psalm 119 and tell me it’s not about the law being good).

So the obvious question: is Paul just confused? If you read the way many Christians today talk about this issue, you would think so. One way or another, he’s getting it wrong. However, I think there’s something deeper going on here. Aid might be found by looking at another of Paul’s statements: “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” (Gal 3:21) Did you catch that? “If a law had been given that could give life” – implying that it hadn’t, but that people were using it that way. Paul is not writing in these passages about law and gospel as things in themselves, which is why I refrained from a definition up front. Rather, he is writing about how people use them – their function. Notice the way Paul clarifies in his negative statements: “under” the law. “Works” of the law. He is not attacking the first five books of the bible. Rather, he is attacking the way those in his day are using them.

For the two of you who keep up on New Testament debates, you know that the nature of this abuse is hotly contested. Is it self-righteous legalism, or ethnic exclusivism? While my (meager) thoughts on this topic might make another blog post, I don’t think it really matters to the point at hand. One way or another, there were those using the law to get into God’s people. They thought that, by keeping some or all of what Moses commanded, they would be declared righteous by God. On this point, Paul protests. This wasn’t how it started – after all, Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:9-13). Neither is it how the story ends. Rather, it is the saving work of Christ which gets us in. It is on the basis of this work that we are declared righteous.

It is at this point that the Bible’s positive statements about law come in. The fact that there is an abusive way to use the law in no way minimizes its right use. Indeed, the insistence by Jesus and the apostles that the law is fulfilled in love is meant to show us just such a use. It is not meant to somehow lessen the force of the law, but rather to show the proper motive for keeping it. When we experience the transformative power of the gospel, when we are set free from the law of sin and death, we can sing (as David did) of the excellence of God’s law. The problem comes when we try to switch the two.

In other words, we are not to use the law as a bartering chip, holding it up and asking the salesperson to exchange it for eternal life. Rather, we as Christians are to use it as a travel guide to God’s kingdom. At book stores, I sometimes find myself thumbing through such guides to far-away places. I would be a fool if I thought that guide was a pass to get into the country in question – imagine how crazy it would be if I showed up at the airport or customs waving it around and saying “Look, I have Backpacking Australia, now let me in!” The ticket is obtained elsewhere. However, once the plane sets down and I stroll out into Sydney, I’ll be glad I have it in my pack.

One last thought: this take on the law means that Paul’s statements above are not really talking about law and gospel at all, but rather about you and me. His question is not, as theologians are wont to ask, whether the two are intrinsically bad or good. Rather, he is asking us how we are using them. If we are not believers, we like Paul should hate the law. It shows us that God requires a manner of life which we simply cannot muster up on our own. However, there’s a real sense in which, as unbelievers, we hate the gospel more. We recognize that the law condemns us, but at least it gratifies us with a set of rules we can follow rather than a free love which we cannot earn or deserve. In the same way, believers must love the gospel. We cannot hold up the law as our reason for getting into the kingdom, because to do so would be to deny the work of Christ. However, when we learn to cast ourselves on the salvation that is in Jesus, we are enabled to use the law rightly – not as a means to obtain life, but as a way to live it.

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