Friday, December 14, 2007

The Law and the Gospel

Hey Ben (and all), tell me what you think of this.

There are basically three positions on the distinction bewtween the law and the gospel: (1) antinomianism, (2) legalism, and (3) law-gospel balance.

These three categories are not completely distinct, but are the main points along a continuum of beliefs. There are intermediate and overlapping views, but these three will provide us with a good sense of the issues at stake. Obviously my outlining of these categories is biased toward what I think “balanced” means; so, the reader will have to judge whether or not I’m right.

The law-gospel distinction relates both to justification and sanctification, and the errors at the extremes (antinomianism and legalism) are the result of mixing and confusing justification and sanctification.

ANTINOMIANISM: The law is bad and the gospel is good.
Antinomianism teaches that there is a radical separation between the law and the gospel in both justification and sanctification. According to Antinomianism, the gospel is that we are under no obligation whatsoever, and that it is in fact wrong, to obey the law for our sanctification. Antinomians believe that all of God’s commands are law, and the law serves only to kill us and show us our need of Christ. We must renounce the way of the law and embrace the way of the gospel. The gospel shows us that Christ's work alone pleases God and that no Christian good works are pleasing to God. Therefore, God simply requires that we believe (passively and restingly) in what Christ has already done for us. Pure antinomianism teaches that genuinely saved people can live their whole lives without doing any good works. In this way Antinomianism takes the truth about justification and wrongly applies it to sanctification, mixing two things that should not be mixed.

Historically, this position became most prominent after the Reformation and found favor among some of the extreme Lutherans and Radical Reformers. Contemporarily, old school “no Lordship” Dispensationalism held to this school of thought.

LEGALISM: The law is the gospel.
Legalism teaches that we are obligated to keep the law for both our justification and sanctification. To the degree that we are sanctified (doing good works in faith and love), God declares us “not guilty” and “righteous,” but to the degree that we are unsanctified, God views us as guilty. On this perspective, the law is not at all too hard for us to keep for justification. Faith and good works are often understood as two ways of talking about the same thing, both of which are aspects of the obedience that is necessary to be constituted legally righteous before God. Legalism often speaks of God’s "graciously" giving the law and making us able to keep it, but it doesn’t speak much of a Substitute law-keeper who keeps the law on behalf of others. Legalism takes the truth that we must do good works for sanctification and wrongly applies it to justification, thus confusing the two.

Historically, post-Trent Roman Catholicism, some deviant forms of Arminianism, and those who held to Richard Baxter’s Neonomianism have been advocates of this view. Today, legalism is gaining ground again in various academic expressions of dynamic justification through the teachings of Daniel Fuller, Norman Shepherd, and advocates of the New Perspectives on Paul.

LAW-GOSPEL BALANCE: The proper law-gospel distinction.
While antinomianism applies principles of justification to sanctification and legalism applies principles of sanctification to justification, the balanced position sees the proper distinction between justification and sanctification. The balanced view teaches that there is a sharp law-gospel distinction in justification, but a gospel-law continuum in sanctification.

Justification. The law requires perfect obedience for justification (to be declared righteous before God the judge and to have a right and title to eternal life), such that nothing short of absolute holiness can make a man “just” in God’s sight (Gal 5:3). After the fall, justification by works is impossible because we are all sinners (Rom 3:23); therefore, the law serves only to kill us and show us that we fall far short of God’s glory (Rom 7:7). Personal law-keeping is thus utterly excluded from justification. But, the Gospel teaches that Christ has kept the law in full for His people both by enduring its curse and by meriting its blessing on behalf of all who believe in Him (Rom 3:23-26; 5:12-21). The “law” shuts us up to condemnation and out of justification by works (Gal 3:10-14), but the “gospel” teaches that Christ has kept the law for us, asks us to renounce all good works for our justification, and entreats us to trust in Christ in order to be robed in His perfect law-keeping (His righteousness) for our justification (Rom 4:5-8). This is the proper law-gospel contrast in justification.

Sanctification. The gospel not only reveals the way to be justified, it also reveals how to be sanctified, which is no less important. Christ’s redemptive work not only makes us just, it also makes us holy (Rom 6:12-14). It frees us from both the condemnation and the power of sin. Jesus Christ points all justified people to the law as a rule of walking (Rom 13:8-10) that must be obeyed out of love for Christ (Jn 14:15), gratitude for what He has done and will do (1 Jn 4:17-21), and for our own good (Deut 10:12-13). The law is good and holy and is God’s gracious gift to the believer, which should be cherished, esteemed, enjoyed, reverenced, studied, and diligently and meticulously obeyed (Rom 7:12; Ezra 7:6, 10). Justification frees the believer to obey the law and to continue in obedience even though we sin. What Christ has done wins our hearts (justification) and moves us to obedience for our own joy and for God’s glory (sanctification), but not for our justification. This is the proper gospel-law continuum in sanctification.

Historically, the sons and daughters of the Reformation embraced this balanced view. Though Luther made some extreme statements, if you read him carefully, you'll discover that he understood the balance. Calvin and the Calvinists all held a balanced perspective on the law and the gospel. Our Baptist forefathers also understood well the law-gospel distinction. Caleb Evans (1737-1791) wrote, “When I was only a youth, I beheld with admiration my father in the pulpit and was delighted with the heavenly sounds which flowed from his lips. Hearing the aweful terrors of the law and the astonishing grace of the gospel, I was brought into the very dust before the throne of a holy God, and enabled to magnify the riches of free grace.” During John Ryland Jr’s (1753-1825) funeral sermon, the preacher said, “Pelagian pride and Antinomian licentiousness; the first of which he detested as an insult on the grace of the gospel; the last on the majesty and authority of the law.” In Ryland’s last printed sermon, he wrote, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law [justification], not from the blessing of the law [sanctification]. For surely, it is a blessed thing to have a certain standard of duty, a directory to show us how we ought to walk and please God.”

Legalism and antinomianism are both reductionistic in their approach to law and gospel. Antinomianism denies the proper role of the law in sanctification. Legalism denies the proper role of the gospel in justification.

Both antinomianism and legalism produce ungodliness, while only the proper law-gospel balance consistently yields the holiness without which none will see the Lord. Antinomianism creates a permissive attitude, while legalism creates either pride (not holiness) or defeatism (surrender to unholiness because of repeated failure).

There is a sense in which legalism is antinomian and antinomianism is legalistic. Legalism is antinomian because it invariably diminishes the absoluteness of the law and makes it easy enough to keep. Antinomianism is legalistic because though it throws off God’s law it makes every man a law unto himself and a slave to his own passions.


  1. e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t explanation, Tom. Thank you. I heard this all the other day, but definitely didn't absorb it fully until reading it. I am not much of an auditory learner.

    I see myself and other professing believers tripping and falling into the two extremes and have to commend you for appearing (outwardly) consistent in your profession of a healthy balance of law and gospel in your own life and preaching. You cannot be happy in Jesus any other way than to think and live thinking rightly about your justification and sanctification. Thanks for your counsel and ministry to me and the rest of the body.

  2. I'm right there with you brother. Remaining sins of idolatrous legalism and idolatrous antinomianism run deep within my heart. May the Lord give us grace to fight the fight of faith in Christ together. Thank you for your kind words of encouragement. You are a blessing, brother.

  3. does the law-gospel balance necessarily lead to sabatarianism? Confusion abounds.

  4. Why would you say that the law-gospel balance necessarily leads to sabbatarianism based on the above?

  5. I don't believe these principles necessarily lead to sabbatarianism. This is about the relationship between the law and the gospel with respect to justification and sanctification. Whether or not you're a sabbatarian depends on how you define the content of "the law." In classic Puritan covenant theology, the Decalogue composed the law. However, one could hold to everything I've said above without affirming that the law includes a 1 in 7 rest/worship (sabbath) day.