/ preaching / Kyle Borg

Preaching Law and Gospel

I was sitting across the table from my pastor when he asked what I thought the weakest part of his preaching was. As someone who is prone to a critical spirit I was hesitant to answer. But, at his prodding, I gave my opinion: “I think the weakest part of your preaching is that you’re scared to tell Christians what they need to do.” He responded by saying: “That’s a very fair observation.” He went on to admit that he’d rather tell people what Christ did for them than tell them what they need to do for Christ.

It’s a short anecdote but it illustrates what is often a perceived tension in preaching — the distinction between law and gospel. This distinction is important in Reformed theology. In his excellent book Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions, Dutch theologian Herman Witsius helpfully defined the “strictest notion” of both words. He wrote: “The law signifies that part of the Divine word which consists in precepts and prohibitions, with the promise of conferring a reward upon them who obey, and threatenings of punishment to the disobedient.” He went on to say: “The gospel signifies the doctrine of grace, and of the fullest salvation in Christ Jesus, to be received by elect sinners by faith.” According to these narrow definitions we might say that law is command and gospel is promise.

The distinction between law and gospel finds its way into many questions — not the least of which is pulpit ministry. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once famously quipped that preaching the gospel faithfully will likely get you accused of being antinomian — that is, anti-law. But the reciprocal is true too. Faithfully preaching the law can get you accused of being moralistic or, what is sometimes called neonomian — making the gospel a new law. Neonomianism and antinomianism are significant threats to the truth of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, those who pervert grace to lawlessness are designated for condemnation (Jude 4, and Matthew 7:23, Titus 2:14, 2 Peter 3:17, and 1 John 3:4), and on the other hand those who undermine grace by works are also under a curse (Galatians 3:10, see also 2:16 and Romans 3:20, 28).

How should law and gospel relate in preaching? One simple answer might be to say that the law should be used to show us our need for Jesus — the law is preached in order to make hearers desire the promise of the gospel. To borrow the expression of the Apostle, that is a lawful use of the law. After all, this same Apostle said: “I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7).

But this simple formula — preaching the law to preach the gospel — isn’t the only way that law and gospel should relate in the pulpit. Here, Herman Witsius is a great guide as he lays down several things that aid an understanding of preaching law and gospel.

First, while it’s true that law and gospel can be defined strictly, it’s also biblically true that they can be defined more broadly. Witsius says “all who are acquainted with theology” recognize a more extensive definition. Sometimes the word law “contains the whole system of the doctrine of salvation,” (see e.g. Isiah 2:3), and sometimes gospel “signifies all that doctrine which Christ and the Apostles delivered, in which are comprehended both commandments, and prohibitions, and upbraidings, and threatenings.” For example, Witsius understood when Christ said: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15, and Matthew 28:20, see also 2 Thessalonians 1:8), that gospel here includes the promises and commands of Jesus.

Second, Witsius says the law narrowly defined can be set in a context where it “is subservient to some divine covenant.” Reformed theology understands that God has chosen to relate to us by means of covenant — a relationship established by a promise. There are two divine covenants, namely the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Witsius wrote: “[The law] served the covenant of works of old: and still it serves the covenant of grace.” Obedience to the law became the condition of what was promised in the covenant of works – do this and live, a covenant broken by our first parent's sin. God's redemptive way of relating to his people is through the covenant of grace in which the law still has an important place.

Third, in the covenant of grace the law has a certain relationship to the surety, Jesus Christ. Rightly, Witisus says: “The law in all its rigor, both as to its preceptive part, and as to its penal sanction, is the condition of that covenant which took place between God and the surety.” In other words, Christ is bound to perfect obedience to the law, and also had to endure the law’s punishment due to sin. From this angle we can appreciate the gospel in its narrow sense. Witsius wrote:

But if we take the word gospel in a strict sense, as it is the form of the testament of grace, which consists of mere promises, or the absolute exhibition of salvation in Christ, then it properly prescribes nothing as duty, it requires nothing, it commands nothing, no not so much as to believe, trust, hope in the Lord, and the like. But it relates, declares, and signifies to us, what God in Christ promises, what he willeth, and is about to do.

However, when we think of God’s relationship to his people in the covenant of grace, the law has a different role — but still as a servant to the gospel. Witsius continued by explaining the relationship the law has to those in the covenant of grace. For example, “by the cooperation of the Spirit of grace [the law] divests a man of all confidence in his own virtue and righteousness” and so leads him to Christ “exhibited in the gospel.” He also says “[the law] enters into the promises of the covenant, among which that is not the least, which respects the writing of the law in the hearts of the elect.” Additionally, the law is a “delineation of inward and outward goodness, and an example of that holiness which God approves, and which we ought to follow.” And finally “obedience to [the law] conduces very much to the glory of God, and to the edification of our neighbor, and to procure many advantages to ourselves.”

From this angle we can appreciate the gospel in its broader sense. Witsius wrote:

If by the gospel we understand the whole body of that doctrine which was preached by Christ and the Apostles, there is no doubt but that whatever belongs to any duty, is not only repeated, but also more clearly delivered in the gospel, and with stronger exhortations, than was ever done by Moses and the prophets. And so far that part of evangelical doctrine, may be called the command of Christ, the law of Christ, and the perfect law of liberty.

For Witsius, this isn’t theological subtly to be shut up in ivory towers. Where the rubber meets the road is understanding how these ideas relate to preaching: how do we preach the saving grace of the gospel while also giving place and use to the holy law of God? Narrowly, the gospel needs to be preached in all the riches of divine grace mediated through Jesus Christ. But broadly, it's also to be preached in all Jesus teaches and commands. While prudence may require particular emphasis here and there, nevertheless it would be an "imprudent judge of matters" to only proclaim the law or "for a remarkable space of time, soothe the ears with allurements of the gospel only." These two should always go together. Witsius concludes:

And thus both law and gospel should be preached in the highest point of perfection, under the evangelical economy; so that by the gospel nothing may be detracted from the obligation of the law, in as far as it enjoins holiness becoming God; not by the law anything in the least derogated from the superabundant grace of the gospel […] The declaration of faith, and the exciting to the study of holiness ought to be always so conjoined, that the one never be torn from the other.