Monday, January 4, 2016

Thoughts on the Law-Gospel Antithesis...

A few things to keep in mind going into the new year... The law, as Paul says, is spiritual (Rom. 7:14). Yet nonetheless, that spiritual law can only direct and tell us our duty while also condemning us for our failures. It provides us no power to obey, thus no way to avoid condemnation. We lack the power or true goodness in ourselves for the required perfect obedience because by nature we are sinners. This is true before regeneration as well as after (WCF 16.5). Lacking the righteousness of the law, we are in need of another righteousness, one not conditioned on our law-keeping.

Looking at John 1:17, the apostle writes, "The law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17) It is the gospel which supplies to sinners what the law demands and cannot itself give. Salvation offered to the OT saints was obtained in the promise of righteousness through faith given to Abraham by God, not through their obedience to the law given under Moses. God, when forgiving the Israelites again and again, did so for the sake of his promise to Abraham not the law given to Moses. The law under Moses served to remind the Jews of their duty and sin, their condemnation under the law, and the need for forgiveness and righteousness.

The law-gospel antithesis operated and existed in the OT. Under the covenant given through Moses one of the purposes of the law was to bring a despair to the Jews because of their sin and so drive them to look to the promised mercy of God in Christ. Under Moses that covenant of grace mercy was not given through law-commands (though they attended it), but,
it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation... (WCF 7.5)
All these types and promises lacked in themselves the actual grace to be communicated, but rather pointed to Christ, the substance of the gospel promise. The moral law as found in the Ten Commandments as well as the ceremonial laws were not given in order to remove sin and impart righteousness.

The same law-gospel antithesis exists in the NT. 
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe... (Romans 3:21-22)

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
 Dr. Michael Horton writes in The Christian Faith"The law’s imperatives tell us what must be done; the gospel’s indicatives tell us what God has done..." And,
"The promises of the law depend upon the condition of works,” Calvin notes, “while the gospel promises are free and dependent solely upon God’s mercy.” 

[*condition of works - do this and live **God's mercy - believe and live]

John Calvin expands on the doctrine,
For this reason, the promises offered in the law would all be null and ineffectual, did not God in his goodness send the gospel to our aid, since the condition on which they depend, and under which only they are to be performed--viz. the fulfillment of the law, will never be accomplished [i.e. by us]. Still, however the aid which the Lord gives consists not in leaving part of justification to be obtained by works, and in supplying part out of his indulgence, but in giving us Christ as in himself alone the fulfillment of righteousness. For the Apostle, after premising that he and the other Jews, aware that "a man is not justified by the works of the law," had "believed in Jesus Christ," adds as the reason, not that they might be assisted to make up the sum of righteousness by faith in Christ, but that they "might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law," (Gal. 2:16). If believers withdraw from the law to faith, that in the latter they may find the justification which they see is not in the former, they certainly disclaim justification by the law. Therefore, whoso will, let him amplify the rewards which are said to await the observer of the law, provided he at the same time understand, that owing to our depravity, we derive no benefit from them until we have obtained another righteousness by faith. Thus David after making mention of the reward which the Lord has prepared for his servants (Ps. 25 almost throughout), immediately descends to an acknowledgment of sins, by which the reward is made void. In Psalm 19, also, he loudly extols the benefits of the law; but immediately exclaims, "Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults," (Ps. 19:12). This passage perfectly accords with the former, when, after saying, "the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies," he adds, "For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity: for it is great," (Ps. 25:10, 11). Thus, too, we ought to acknowledge that the favor of God is offered to us in the law, provided by our works we can deserve it; but that it never actually reaches us through any such desert. Institutes 3.17.2  [emphasis and bracketed comment added]
"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17)


  1. Accusations of antinomianism against those of who give priority to imputation of Christ's death do not prove the reality of our being against the law. To say that only Christ's death could or has satisfied the law is to properly fear God. Legalists always turn out to be antinomians. To think that one can produce “sanctification” and other blessings by something God enables us by grace to do (in addition to what God has done in Christ) is to not yet fear God as the Holy One whose law demands perfection.

    Martin Luther’s cautions in the Heidelberg Disputations need to be heard!

    The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.

    Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really for good and God’s glory.

    The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they are not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.

    To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.

  2. Romans 6:14 does not say, For sin shall not be your master, because the Holy Spirit has changed you so that you cannot habitually sin, but only occasionally and always with repentance. Romans 6:14 says, “For sin shall not by your master, because you are not under law but under grace.”

    Christ died as the punishment for all the sins of all the elect. Christ also died to purchase every blessing God gives to all the elect, including the presence of the Holy Spirit and our believing the gospel. It is not our believing which frees the elect from the guilt of sin. What’s definitive is being legally joined by God to Christ’s death. Christ is no longer under the law. Those joined to Christ are no longer under the law.

    Bavinck—” The gospel, which really makes no demands and lays down no conditions, nevertheless comes to us in the form of a commandment, admonishing us to faith and repentance. The gospel covenant is pure grace, and nothing else, and EXCLUDES ALL WORKS. It gives what it demands, and fulfills what it prescribes. The Gospel is sheer good tidings, not demand but promise, not duty but gift.”

  3. In defiance of human failure, God gives grace to the utterly unworthy idol worshipers of Gentile cities around the Mediterranean. Because grace erupts, cause-less, in the event of Jesus' death and resurrection, it can therefore be given to anyone ....No preparation is necessary, and no conditions must be met before the gift of Christ may be received.

    A modern dictionary defines "gift" as something delivered to a recipient "gratuitously, for nothing." Yet, according to John Barclay's new book Paul and the Gift, It is Paul—not intuition or common sense or objective, timeless instinct—who is almost single-handedly responsible for making it seem obvious to most of us in the modern West that God's grace excludes human working.

    For many 1st-century readers, God upheld his fidelity to Israel by distributing his grace to those who are worthy of it. For them this did not make God's grace any less gracious. To define grace otherwise—to say that God gives it in disregard for the worth of its beneficiaries—they thought would be to open the door to moral chaos and anarchy, to snip the thread that links human pursuit of virtue with the deep structures of creation and providence.

    It was not "Lutheran theology" but Paul who undermined human religion's quest to climb its way into divine favor. Opposing the "Judaizers" of his day, Paul in the 1st century anticipated Martin Luther's struggles against a petty and fastidious medieval Catholicism in the 16th.

    Barclay grants that Luther mistakenly thought that Paul's target in his Galatians epistle was self-reliant boasting (if that were the burning issue, "it is hard to see why Paul would discount both circumcision and uncircumcision").

    Over against the "new perspective," Barclay understands Paul to be unleashing a "bizarre," even "dangerous" definition of grace . For Paul, grace is incongruous—it is a gift that does not "fit" or "match" the worth of those to whom God gives it. In defiance of human achievement, God gives grace to a supposedly successful but actually bankrupt person like Paul (the acme of Paul's human "achievement" had actually set him against God's church).




    John Barclay—Gifts, like trade or pay, involve reciprocity— in all these spheres, there is a common structure of quid pro quo. What distinguishes the sphere of gift is not that it is “unilateral,” but that it expresses a social bond, a mutual recognition of the value of the person. The gift invites a personal, enduring, and reciprocal relationship—an ethos very often signaled by the use of the term charis (grace).

    John Barclay— Luther did not “rediscover” grace (which was near the center of practically every form of medieval theology), nor did he simply reinvigorate the Augustinian tradition. As an isolated slogan, sola gratia tells us far too little about its precise Lutheran configuration. What is distinctive in Luther is not only the relentlessly Christological reference of grace, but also its permanent state of incongruity. On these grounds, believers live perpetually from a reality outside of themselves, a status of divine favor enjoyed only in and from Christ. Their agency does not need to be re-attributed to the agency of grace, because their works are non-instrumental, and are performed in faith, that is, from the security of a salvation already granted. On the same grounds, gift-giving is stripped of the instrumental reciprocity that had been basic to its rationale. In this sense, Luther did not just reform the church. He offered a new theological definition of gift.

  5. The real point of the law-gospel antithesis is not conflict between the two things. It is non-identity. The law is not the gospel. The gospel is not the law. The gospel, however, is about Christ’s satisfaction of God’s law for God’s elect. Though law and gospel are not the same thing, they are not opposed because they never claim to have the same function.

    Law says what God demands. Gospel says how Christ satisfied that demand for the elect. The law never offered life off probation: only one sin would put Adam and his seed under its curse, and no matter how many acts of obedience to the law, the law could never promise the life of the age to come.

    The law-gospel antithesis does NOT understand Romans 10:4 in terms of abrogation. The “end of the law” is Christ completing all that the law demanded, so that there is no remainder left for the Spirit enabled Christian to do. The gospel says DONE. The gospel does not say “to be done by the life of Christ in the elect”.

  6. David VanDrunen, ISRAEL’S RECAPITULATION OF ADAM’S PROBATION UNDER THE LAW OF MOSES, WTJ 73 (2011): 316---- "A number of recent Reformed commentators acknowledge that Paul is sharply contrasting faith and works of the law in these and parallel passages, yet deny that the Mosaic law itself can be contrasted with faith (in this sense adopting a similar conclusion to many New Perspective advocates). These Reformed commentators believe that when Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 or refers otherwise to the law so as to contrast it with faith he thinks not of the Mosaic law itself but of the law as misinterpreted in a legalistic way by his Jewish contemporaries.

    DVD--In my judgment this line of interpretation should also be rejected.37 That Paul dealt with people whom he judged to have misinterpreted the purposes of the Mosaic law is unquestionable, but that the law itself stood in contrast to faith, at least in certain respects, was Paul’s own view. That Paul would concede the interpretation of Leviticus 18:5 to legalistic Judaizers both in Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 (where he introduces his quote by saying, “Moses writes” about the righteousness of the law) is farfetched. Furthermore, in Gal 3:19 Paul asks a rhetorical question, understandable in light of the contrast of law and faith in previous verses: “Why then the law?” His explanation in 3:19-4:7 is that God’s own purpose in giving the Mosaic law was to keep his people imprisoned under sin for a time, a condition from which Christ released those who believe in him.

    DVD--In this same section of Galatians Paul speaks of Christ himself being “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (4:4-5), which must be speaking of the Mosaic law in the light of preceding verses. As Israel was under the Mosaic law so Christ came under the Mosaic law. Yet Paul could hardly have been asserting that Christ, whom he says elsewhere “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), lived under a subjective misinterpretation of the law. Both Christ and the Israelites came “under the law” in an objective sense that reflected God’s own purposes in giving it—but where the Israelites failed Christ prevailed.