The legal-eschatological religion is not the gospel. It is not Christianity, which is the history and doctrine of the religion of Jesus the Messiah, who is God the Son incarnate for sinners, obedient in their place, crucified, dead, and buried for them and raised for their justification. It is an eschatological religion but not the sort that claims to change the world right now.
2017 is a “Reformation Year.” It is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and an opportunity to remember the Reformation basics. One of those is the distinction between law and gospel. One of the five most basic distinctions Luther recovered for us is the distinction between God’s Word when it says, in effect, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) and “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). These are both God’s Word but they are quite different words. In its first use, God’s holy law convicts us of our sin. Paul says, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Rom 7:7). In this use, the law is a harsh schoolmaster who beats us when we transgress (Gal 3:24,25). The gospel is good news for believing sinners. It declares to them by God’s favor, which Christ earned for them, according to his unconditional election that their sins have been forgiven, that they are accepted with God, indeed that they have been saved from the wrath to come and that God is at work in them conforming them to Christ (Rom 5:1; 8:1; Eph 1:1–15; 2:8–10; Phil 1:6).
How We Lost The Law/Gospel Distinction
In its desire to promote sanctity among God’s people and because it greatly feared what we have come to call antinomianism, the medieval church essentially rejected this distinction. Following several of the earlier fathers, she spoke of law and gospel only in historical terms: “the old law” and “the new law.” To be sure, the Reformation and post-Reformation churches, theologians, and confessions continued to use the traditional language of “law” to refer to the Mosaic covenant and “gospel” to refer to the new covenant. We may call that the historical use of law and gospel. The Protestants also used the distinction theologically and it is that distinction that concerns us here.
Quite naturally we have tended to talk about law and gospel relative to justification. This was one of the principal points of contention with Rome. The distinction, however, applies just as much to the doctrine of sanctification. God the Spirit uses the law in three ways:
- To teach us the greatness of our sin and misery (the pedagogical use)
- To norm civil life (namely via the 2nd table
- To norm the Christian life
In the classical period of Reformed theology these distinctions were received and taught as basics but in the modern period, particularly due to the pernicious influence of Karl Barth (1886–1968) but also due to the influence of what I have called the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) we have lost our classical and confessional categories and vocabulary. We have tended to replace these categories with alien categories from Pentecostalism and fundamentalism and from other sources. Thus, through the 20th century it was difficult to find Reformed people speaking this way and those whose historical horizon stops somewhere in the late 19th century might be excused for being surprised that the law/gospel distinction that Luther articulated was taken as a fundamental Reformed conviction but it was as has been demonstrated in this space and in print several times over the last many years.