Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Word of God as Law and Gospel (Part 1)

I've been thinking the past few months about the word of God as law and gospel. Particularly, I've thought about it in the content of my own preaching. For the next several posts I would like to explore the law-gospel distinction in preaching. Today, I found a section in Michael Horton's excellent The Christian Faith to be helpful. In Ch. 3 of his text, Horton writes about "The Word of God as Law and Gospel:
Paul tells us that the law speaks “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” It can bring no justification; rather, “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Ro 3:19–20). “But now,” he adds, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (vv. 21–22). Here the apostle uses “law” in two distinct senses: God’s moral commands, which leave everyone condemned, and the Law and the Prophets as Scripture (i.e., the Old Testament).
Similarly, the Protestant Reformers sharply opposed law and gospel when it came to the covenantal principle by which one is justified, while affirming the unity of the Old and New Testaments in terms of promise and fulfillment. Both Testaments include both commands and promises. When we speak of the distinction between law and gospel, therefore, we are referring to different illocutionary stances that run throughout all of the Scriptures—everything in both Testaments that is in the form of either an obligatory command or a saving promise in Christ. “Hence,” wrote Luther, “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the law and the gospel, him we place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”
Calvin and his Reformed colleagues and theological heirs underscored this point as well. Wilhelm Niesel observes, “Reformed theology recognizes the contrast between law and gospel, in a way similar to Lutheranism. We read in the Second Helvetic Confession: ‘The gospel is indeed opposed to the law. For the law works wrath and pronounces a curse, whereas the gospel preaches grace and blessing.’ ” Ursinus, chief author of the Heidelberg Catechism, called it “the chief division of Holy Scripture,” and Beza insisted in his catechism that “ignorance of this distinction is one of the causes of the many abuses in the church” throughout history. The great Elizabethan Puritan William Perkins taught that it was the first principle for preachers to learn in interpreting and applying passages.86 More recently, Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof have observed the significance of this distinction for the whole Christian system of faith and practice. J. Van Bruggen adds more recently, “The [Heidelberg] Catechism, thus, mentions the gospel and deliberately does not speak of ‘the Word of God,’ because the law does not work faith. The law (law and gospel are the two parts of the Word which may be distinguished) judges; it does not call a person to God and does not work trust in him. The gospel does that.”
From these two illocutionary stances assumed by the one Word of God as covenant canon—the stance of command and that of promise—the Word issues stipulations (things to be done) and tells the historical narrative of God’s deliverance (things to be believed). The law functions differently, depending on the covenant in which it is operative. In a covenant of works (a law-covenant), law prescribes what is to be performed, personally and perfectly, on penalty of death. “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.” In a covenant of grace, law has no power to condemn, since its stipulations have been fulfilled (personally and perfectly) and its penalties for violation have been borne in our place by our covenant head, Jesus Christ. As sacramental Word, the law kills, and through the work of the Spirit the gospel makes alive (2 Co 3:6–11). Of course, the law also guides, as the gospel also instructs. However, it must first cut off all hope of life by our personal obedience. Hence, the Reformation churches affirmed a threefold use of the law: (1) to arraign us before God’s judgment and prove the world guilty; (2) to remind all people, even non-Christians, of their obligations to the moral law written on their conscience, and (3) to guide believers in the way of gratitude.
Once again the emphasis on God’s Word as performative speech is highlighted. Not only proposing things to be believed and done, God in his Word actually himself brings about what is threatened in the law and what is promised in the gospel. Hardly an imposition of systematic categories on the biblical text, this crucial distinction is explicitly evident in the difference between the imperative and indicative moods in the Greek language. The law’s imperatives tell us what must be done; the gospel’s indicatives tell us what God has done.
In the Reformed tradition, the law-gospel distinction was interpreted within the historical context of distinct covenants in history. The covenant of creation (also called the covenant of works or law) was based on the personal performance of all righteousness by the covenant servant. The covenant of grace is based on the fulfillment of all righteousness by our representative head and is dispensed to the covenant people through faith in him. There is still law in the covenant of grace. However, it is no longer able to condemn believers, but directs them in lives of gratitude for God’s mercy in Christ.
--Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 136–139.