alien righteousness

Law and Gospel – Thomas Boston and Bavinck

A quote from Philip Graham Ryken in his book titled Thomas Boston as Preacher of the Fourfold State (Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology) pertaining to the law and gospel distinction in Thomas Boston:

It is not the purpose of the present thesis to minimize the importance of Thomas Boston’s federalism or to re-evaluate his place within the history of covenant theology.  There are important parallels between his sermons on the covenants and  those on the fourfold state.  Indeed, Boston’s introduction to A View of the Covenant of Grace echoes the dichotomy between sin and grace which lies at the heart of the Fourfold State:

‘My design is, under the divine conduct, to open up unto you the two covenant of works and grace; and that because in the knowledge and right application of them the work of our salvation lies;  the first covenant shewing us our lost state, and the second holding forth the remedy in Jesus Christ; the two things which, for the salvation of souls, I have always thought it necessary chiefly to inculcate. (XI, 178; cf. I, 279; VIII, 115; XI, 252).  (85)


Also related, over at the Reformed Reader blog, Rev. Shane quotes Bavinck in regards to the sharp law and gospel distinction here.

13 Responses to “Law and Gospel – Thomas Boston and Bavinck”

  1. Nick

    The Law showing us our sinful state and the Gospel freeing us from sin does not result in there being a law-and-gospel “dicotomy”.

    The Law is to be seen as something akin to a speed limit, it shows us the line between speeding and not and condemns us when we are speeding. However, that doesn’t mean the law rewards us for keeping it, anymore than we get rewarded for keeping the speed limit.

  2. inwoolee

    Hey Nick,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ve read your comments with Peter and Josh on the discussion regarding faith. Now, onto the topic of the law and gospel distinction:

    The law never rewards sinners for keeping it. We cannot keep it. The holy law of God condemns. Hence, the first use of the law is to show us our sin and misery, driving us to Christ’s finished work for the sinner. The law and Gospel distinction is crucial. What is the law?- it is an imperative. What is the Gospel?- it is an indicative. The law is holy, righteous, and good, but the problem is I’m not! Christ fulfilled the law on the sinner’s behalf. He perfectly and perpetually obeyed all the commandments for his elect.

    What Boston means is what I believe what the Heidelberg Catechism means in questions and answers number 3, 4, 5, 60 and 2.

    3.Q. From where do you know your sins and misery?
    A. From the law of God.[1]
    [1] Rom. 3: 20;

    4. Q. What does God’s law require of us?
    A. Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.[1] This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.[2]
    [1] Deut. 6:5. [2] Lev. 19:18.

    5. Q. Can you keep all this perfectly?
    A. No,[1] I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.[2]
    [1] Rom. 3:10, 23; I John 1:8, 10. [2] Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:23; 8:7; Eph. 2:3; Tit. 3:3.

    60. Q. How are you righteous before God?
    A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ;1 that is, although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, have never kept any of them,2 and that I am still inclined always to all evil,3 yet God, without any merit of my own,4 out of mere grace,5 imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ,6 as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me,7 if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.8
    1 Rom 3:21-28; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; Php 3:8-11; 2 Rom 3:9-10; 3 Rom 7:23; 4 Deut 9:6; Ezek 36:22; Tit 3:4-5; 5 Rom 3:24; Eph 2:8; 6 Rom 4:3-5; 2 Cor 5:17-19; 1 Jn 2:1-2; 7 Rom 4:24-25; 2 Cor 5:21; 8 Jn 3:18; Acts 16:30-31; Rom 3:22

    and question and answer number 2 from the same catechism:

    2. Q. How many things are necessary for you to know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
    A. Three things: first, the greatness of my sin and misery;1 second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery;2 third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.3
    1Rom 3:9-10; 1 Jn 1:10; 2 Jn 17:3; Acts 4:12, 10:43; 3 Mt 5:16; Rom 6:13; Eph 5:8-10; 1 Pt 2:9-10

    Do you see how the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Casper Olevian and Zacharias Ursinus distinguish the law and the gospel? There is a clear distinction.

    Here are some resources that I hope would be helpful to you:

    1. Also see the blog post on William Perkins here:

    2. This is a helpful chapter by David Vandrunen, titled to Obey is Better Than Sacrifice here:

    3. Here is Scott Clark’s answer to a question that he posted on the Puritanboard a few years ago, which I found very helpful.

    “To answer your question directly: No. This was not a matter of ongoing dispute. Were there moralists in the 16th and 17th centuries? Yes. Might you find a Baxter fiddling with the doctrine of justification? Yes. Did Owen reply and obliterate him? Yes. Did Owen speak for the confessional folk? Yes.

    If one wants to see the Reformed consensus on this simply read the Reformed confessions.

    What does Heidelberg Catechism 2 say:

    What things are necessary for you to to know….?

    Three things, first the greatness of my sin and misery, second, how I am redeemed from all my sins…third how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

    Q. 3

    Whence do you know the greatness of your sin….?

    OUT OF THE LAW OF GOD!!!!!!!!!! (yes, I’m shouting!)

    Read Ursinus’ lectures on this. He says, this means law/gospel! Read the covenant theology page on my site. He says, “when I say “covenant of works,” I mean “law.” When I say, “covenant of grace,” I mean “gospel.”

    Anyone who says that the Lutherans differ substantially from the Reformed on the law/gospel distinction simply does not know what they are saying. Yes, it’s possible to find Modern Reformed folk making claims that the Reformed do not distinguish between law and gospel as the Lutherans do. I recently saw an appeal to something by Moises Silva to that effect. My answer: With all due respect, Moises (not MOSES) is wrong. It happens you know.

    We must get back to the sources. Ad fontes!

    Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Olevianus, Perkins, Wollebius, Polanus, Owen, Turretin, Boston, the Erskines, Hodge, Warfield, Berkhof, these are not known as Lutheran theologians, but they all say the same thing, and they are just a sample of the tradition. They all agree that there are two kinds of speech in Scripture, imperatives/law (“do”) and indicatives/gospel (“done” or “shall do”). They agree that, in justification, the law does one thing (condemns) and the gospel another (justifies).

    This was a basic Protestant doctrine. It was and remains the foundation of the doctrine of justification.

    Cash it in and you’ve bought a one-way ticket to Rome. I think some folks are in the dining car right now. Maybe they should look out the window? They might notice that the scenery is changing.”

    Happy reading,

    • Nick

      Hello Inwoo,

      I’d first like to comment upon your first two sentences, because it could possibly lead to confusion if we don’t get it cleared up.

      You said: “The law never rewards sinners for keeping it. We cannot keep it.”

      Not rewarding due to having broken the law and not rewarding at all are two different things. The Law never promised eternal life whether kept perfectly or not. This is Paul’s very point in texts like Rom 4:13f and Gal 3:15-18; the Law never had the promise of eternal life attached to it.

      A second critical point that must be cleared up is the term “Law”. When Paul uses the term “Law” (in contrast to faith), he is virtually always speaking of the Mosaic Law, delivered 450 years after Abraham, to the Israelites. Paul is not speaking in philosophical categories such that we could say: “What is the law?- it is an imperative.” The Law Paul is concerned with is the Mosaic Law, also known as the Old Covenant.

      You then concluded with: “Christ fulfilled the law on the sinner’s behalf. He perfectly and perpetually obeyed all the commandments for his elect.”

      I see this nowhere taught in Scripture; in fact, I see Scripture denying such a thing. Scripture teaches Christ abolished the Law, meaning it’s done away with – to deny this is the Judaizer heresy of Gal 5:2-4, and yet that is precisely what “kept the law in place of the sinner” is teaching! It teaches that the Law was not abolished but in fact remains a standard that must be met for justification.

      I think Question 60 (specifically the last two lines referencing footnotes #6-7) that you quoted is simply unBiblical, because none of the prooftexts (properly understood) are saying what the Q60 Answer is saying. The Bible never teaches the notion of ‘as if I’d never sinned and as if I’d been perfectly obedient’.

      You quoted Dr. Clark, who said: “[Ursinus]says, “when I say “covenant of works,” I mean “law.” When I say, “covenant of grace,” I mean “gospel.””

      While this might be how he defines his categories of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, that is not how Paul is using those terms. Because Paul is not using the terms “law” and “gospel” like that, you cannot cite Paul in support because Paul means something else. Otherwise, you’re committing the fallacy of equivocation.

      I think the greatest error in all this is not properly recognizing what “Law” Paul was ‘attacking’. If Paul had something other than the Mosaic Law in mind, much of what he argues becomes nonsense. Aside from that error, the great danger here is giving so much weight to the ipse dixit of famous Reformed teachers.

      The point of the Law is akin to a medical scan to show us we have cancer, it doesn’t remove the cancer. Only Christ removes the cancer; the Law merely exposes and quarantines it. To add on that keeping the law saves (via demanding perfect obedience) is not only non-sequitor and illogical, it’s unBiblical and even contradicts the Gospel.

      I am in the middle of reading your links.

      • inwoo

        This is the post that Nick is referring to, I deleted it, wanting to respond adequately when I had the time after work. But here it is, edited for those interested.

        Hey Nick, Are you a Catholic or a Federal Visionist?

        Have your read David Vandrunen’s To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice? Here

        Also check out Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral ministry edited by R. Scott Clark. There is a chapter on the topic of Adamic Covenant by Bryan Estelle.

        The active obedience of Christ is clearly in Scripture.

        Check out those links again. There is a lot that could be said here. So you would disagree with Olevian and Ursinus. I know where this conversation will lead. And I really don’t want to go around in circles, I could make time for that, but I having read your discussion on faith in a previous blog post here.

  3. Nick

    Thanks for your response. You asked if I was Catholic or FV; I am Catholic, but the FV is basically Protestants discovering Catholicism without realizing it.

    I have finished reading most of Vandrunen’s book you posted, but I see the argument built on unsubstantiated assumptions as well as erroneous exegesis.

    As an example of an unsubstantiated but foundational assumption: the Bible is silent upon Adam being in a ‘probationary’ state, as well as that he was in fact promised eternal life.

    As an example of erroneous exegesis: Page 128 (the second page of the chapter), at the bottom, quotes Calvin’s comments on Gal 2:21, where he says we can infer the Law promised eternal life for perfect obedience, as well as that Christ kept it for us. Nothing could be further from the truth: Paul is saying the Law never could save, irregardless of perfect obedience; and, further, Paul mentions the Law in contrast to Christ’s death, not Christ keeping it versus us keeping it.

    I’d say the greatest flaw in the book is the (almost unconscious) equivocation of the term “Law” as meaning “the eternal covenant of works since the time of Adam’ and the “Law” meaning “Mosaic Law”. Paul doesn’t use the term “Law” in the former manner, and that should be a red flag to those who do. This cascades into another serious yet unsubstantiated assumption that the demands of the ‘covenant of works law’ are always binding and must still be met for justification, denying that Christ’s death is sufficient. His thesis fails to realize that the Law has been abolished, and that forgiveness for failure can certainly remove an obligation for perfect obedience.

    You said: The active obedience of Christ is clearly in Scripture. Check out those links again.

    I have consulted both of your links, and I’ve told you my thoughts, concerns, and obejctions.
    I have a request for you now: Please give me your top three passages in Scripture that you believe “clearly” teach active obedience. I would prefer if you briefly commented upon them, but I will also accept the Scriptural references themselves.

    • inwoolee

      Be right back I have to work, no pun intended.

      So you disagree with the Heidelberg Catechism and David Vandrunen’s chapter titled “To Obey is better than Sacrifice”? So, you don’t subscribe to the Heidelberg Catechism? What is your confession?

      In the meantime,
      I would recommend Covenant Justification and Pastor Ministry edited by R. Scott Clark.


      This should keep you busy. That link above provides good resources to what we are talking about.

  4. inwoolee


    I have a free period from work.

    I respond to your previous comment with this. I wrote this a couple of years ago to a question a friend had regarding the active obedience of Christ and its over-emphasis in regards to the doctrine admist the Federal Vision controversey.

    I believe this over-emphasis is necessary since there is a controversy and strong attack on the active obedience of Christ sadly within Evangelical and even in the Reformed Churches today. And the active obedience is crucial to our understanding of Justification, as J.I. Packer wrote from the introduction of James Buchanan’s work Justification, “The doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas: it bears a world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace. The doctrines of election, of effectual calling, regeneration, and repentance, of adoption, of prayer, of the church, the ministry, and the sacraments, have all to be interpreted and understood in the light of justification by faith. When justification falls, all true knowledge of the grace of God in human life falls with it, and then as Luther said, the church itself falls.”
    The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in their 63rd General Assembly came out with their Report on Justification criticizing the “Federal Vision” and the “New Perspective on Paul” stated, “While the treatment of Christ’s active obedience in the next section is more comprehensive than that of his passive obedience as discussed in this section, this in no way implies that his active obedience is more important than his passive obedience. Rather, in the current controversies, fewer parties dispute the significance of his passive obedience, while his active obedience is under greater attack. Thus, the doctrine of active obedience warrants closer scrutiny.” So this is why we are focusing more of the intention in the debate through the articles and books that have been written because of these attacks on the active obedience of Christ.
    Keep in mind, both the passive and active obedience which articulates the entirety work of Christ for the sinner are both crucial to the doctrine of justification.

    We should not separate the active and passive obedience? You cannot have one without the other.
    Louis Berkhof explains it clearly in the relation to Adams beginnings and Genesis and the two Adams in Romans 5 in the background answering objections for Christ commandment keeping:

    1.) Objection: “Christ needed His active obedience for Himself as a man. Being under the law, He was in duty bound to keep it for Himself.

    Answer: In answer to this it may be said that Christ, though possessing a human nature, was yet a divine person, and as such was not subject to the law in its federal aspect, the law as the condition of life in the covenant of works. As the last Adam, however, He took the place of the first. The first Adam was by nature under the law of God, and the keeping of it as such gave him no claim to a reward. It was only when graciously entered into a covenant with him and promised him life in the way of obedience, that the keeping of the law was made the condition of obtaining eternal life for himself and for his descendants. And when Christ voluntarily entered the federal relationship as the last Adam, the keeping of the law naturally acquired the same significance for Him and for those whom the Father had given Him. (380-381)
    2.) Objection: God demands, or can demand, only one of two things of the sinner: either obedience to the law, or subjection to the penalty, but not both.
    Answer: If the law is obeyed, the penalty cannot be inflicted; and if the penalty is borne, nothing further can be demanded. There is some confusion here, however, which results in misunderstanding. This “either…or” applied to the case of Adam before the fall, but ceased to apply the moment he sinned and thus entered the penal relationship of the law. God continued to demand obedience of man, but in addition to that required of his that he pay the penalty for past transgression. Meeting this double requirement was the only way of life after sin entered the world. If Christ had merely obeyed the law and had not also paid the penalty He would not have won the title to eternal life for sinners; AND IF He had merely paid the penalty, without meeting the original demands of the law, He would have left man in the position of Adam before the fall, still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life in the way of obedience. By His active obedience, however, He carried His people beyond that point and gave them a claim to everlasting life. (381) [1]

    “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

    Louis Berkhof explains it well (and the Reformed Confessions as well) in regards to the Adamic Covenant of works with the two Adams in mind.

    With the first Adam was there a need for passive obedience? Nope. There was only an active obedience with the first Adam! The first Adam in the beginning failed to perfectly obey the commands of God therefore with the second Adam, Jesus Christ there was a need of a passive obedience to take the penalty away for sin and an active obedience to do what the first Adam failed to do in obtaining eternal life for us.
    “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” (John 17:4)

  5. inwoolee

    Nick I’ll give you a thorough response going through your comments and responding. For the next four weeks my school in Korea where I am teaching has me teaching from 9am to 10:30pm plus Saturdays. Thank goodness that I get a wage for my work. But in justification it’s not like that “but to the man who does not work….” read Romans. Pun intended.

    I hear reading Romans out loud is edifying or just reading it silently all the way through. It’s great stuff.
    Kim Riddlebarger recommended to do that (reading it out loud) on a broadcast of the White Horse Inn.

    Also you speak and write, no offense, as if you were the first one and only one to ever read the Bible. Don’t pass by the ad fontes Reformers so quickly.

  6. Nick

    I have read your letter you sent your friend and I do understand where you’re coming from. My objection is in the ‘founding principles’ you are presenting as if they were established Biblical fact. For example, you said the following for “Objection 1”:

    “The first Adam was by nature under the law of God, and the keeping of it as such gave him no claim to a reward. It was only when graciously entered into a covenant with him and promised him life in the way of obedience, that the keeping of the law was made the condition of obtaining eternal life for himself and for his descendants. And when Christ voluntarily entered the federal relationship as the last Adam, the keeping of the law naturally acquired the same significance for Him and for those whom the Father had given Him.”

    I really don’t see how you’ve come to this from Scripture. It is logical, as a number of positions could be, but being logical doesn’t make a theological position Scriptural. I realize and understand this foundation you’ve laid here, but I’m looking for Biblical support for it it. Where does Scripture say Adam’s relationship with God transitioned from a law to a covenant, and moreover where does it say eternal life was promised? Next, where does it say Christ took on that specific role and kept that law in our place?

    And the difficulty does not end there: The way you keep using the term “law” is not how Paul uses it. Paul does not link the term ‘law’ or ‘works’ and such with Adam. Or does he? It is clear to me that Paul is speaking of the Mosaic Law when the term “law” and such is employed, but to apply that to Adam’s situation is a leap I cannot take. Romans 5:13 is a solid example of what I’m saying regarding Paul’s use of the term “law” versus the Protestant use.

    As for your “Objection 2,” it is based upon the principles I’m challenging from Objection 1, so of course I can’t agree with that logic. But even that said, you went onto say things that don’t help your case either:

    “AND IF He had merely paid the penalty, without meeting the original demands of the law, He would have left man in the position of Adam before the fall, still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life in the way of obedience.”

    While I do challenge the notion it puts man in the position of Adam before the fall, the bigger question is: How does this help the case for active obedience? What you just said here makes active obedience merely an option God could choose and not something absolutely required. Putting man back at square one gives him the option of ‘working his way to heaven’ again, just as you say Adam was originally.

    I’m not trying to sound as if I’m the first person to read the Bible, nor am I intending to covey that in any way. It might come off as such because I’m objecting to some pretty significant issues and calling them unBiblical. And if they are unbiblical, then the rest of the building crumbles. Just as Luther said the Church stands or falls on sola fide, a Catholic would say Protestantism stands or falls on sola fide. That leads to two possible options, either your position is built off of significant error or my position is. This is why the Join Declaration and such are so misguided and dangerous, because they pretend there are not serious foundational differences and instead a problem of semantics and rhetoric.

    Lastly, I do plan on buying Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry this month because it sounds well written.

    • inwoolee


      I was going over some old posts, and wanted to respond to this one.

      The mistake that I made was calling the law and gospel distinction, the law and gospel dicotomy. For we believe in the thid use of the law, a guide for the Christian, since the law can neither justify or sanctify. I mistakened dicotomy to mean distinction, yet both words are not synonymous.

      There is clearly an Adamic Covenant of works, you have both the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and you have the tree of life.

      In Genesis clearly Adam was in probation, Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism is helpful when he states that Adam chose to obey Satan rather than God his creator.

      Take a look at the Heidelberg Catechism questions in the beginning, you’ll see the Adamic Covenant of works:

      3. From where do you know your misery?

      From the Law of God.[1]

      [1] Rom 3:20, 7:7

      4. What does the Law of God require of us?

      Christ teaches us this in summary, in Matthew 22:

      “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.[1] This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.[2] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[3]

      [1] Deut 6:5; [2] Lev 19:18; Gal 5:14; [3] Luk 10:27


      5. Can you keep all this perfectly?

      No,[1] for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.[2]

      [1] Rom 3:10-12, 23; 1 Jn 1:8, 10; [2] Gen 6:5, 8:21; Jer 17:9; Rom 7:23, 8:7; Eph 2:3; Tit 2:3


      Lord’s Day 3

      6. Did God create man thus, wicked and perverse?

      No, but God created man good[1] and after His own image,[2] that is, in righteousness and true holiness,[3] that he might rightly know God his Creator,[4] heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.[5]

      [1] Gen 1:31; [2] Gen 1:26-27; [3] Eph 4:24; 2 Cor 3:18; [4] Col 3:10; [5] Ps 8


      7. From where, then, does this depraved nature of man come?

      From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise,[1] whereby our nature became so corrupt[2] that we are all conceived and born in sin.[3]

      [1] Gen 3; [2] Rom 5:12, 18-19; [3] Ps 14:2-3, 51:5


      8. But are we so depraved that we are completely incapable of any good and prone to all evil?

      Yes,[1] unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.[2]

      [1] Gen 6:5, 8:21; Job 14:4; Isa 53:6; Jer 17:9; Jn 3:6; Rom 7:18 [2] Jn 3:3-5


      Lord’s Day 4

      9. Does not God, then, do injustice to man by requiring of him in His Law that which he cannot perform?

      No, for God so made man that he could perform it;[1] but man, through the instigation of the devil,[2] by willful disobedience[3] deprived himself and all his descendants of this power.[4]

      [1] Gen 1:31; Eph 4:24; [2] Gen 3:13; Jn 8:44; 1 Tim 2:13-14; [3] Gen 3:6; [4] Rom 5:12, 18-19


      10. Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?

      Certainly not,[1] but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as our actual sins, and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity,[2] as He has declared: “Cursed is everyone that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”[3]

      [1] Heb 9:27; [2] Ex 34:7; Ps 5:4-6, 7:10; Nah 1:2; Mt 25:41; Rom 1:18, 5:12; Eph 5:6; [3] Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10


      11. But is not God also merciful?

      God is indeed merciful,[1] but He is likewise just;[2] His justice therefore requires that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul.[3]

      [1] Ex 20:6, 34:6-7; Ps 103:8-9; [2] Ex 20:5, 34:7; Deut 7:9-11; Ps 5:4-6; 2 Cor 6:14-16; Heb 10:30-31; Rev 14:11; [3] Mt 25:45-46

      The Adamic Covenant of works is crucial to the Active Obedience of Christ, and thus Nick, as a Roman Catholic coming from a different theological position, system and motivation you are attacking it because in your system you are making yourself righteous before God, yet justification is God’s declaration that one is justified in the sight of God. Your confusing both justification and santification, both are meant to be distinct as we see especially in Galatians and Romans.

      Did you read Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry? If so let’s interact if you want, with R. Scott Clark’s chapter on Active Obedience.

      • inwoolee

        To the law of God in Romans this maybe helpful

        This is taken directly from Michael Horton’s work titled, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ in his chapter “Paul’s Polemic against “Works of the Law” that run from pages 53-79. This excerpt from the book is from pages 57-60.

        “The wealthy young man, who by his own account was steeped in Second Temple Judaism (“All, this I have done since my youth”), nevertheless asked the question about personal salvation: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” ([Matthew] 19:16). Jesus presses him on what “good deed” means and shows him why he has not kept the law from his youth, as he had claimed. In one sense, of course, he had probably kept the law–at least, according to the NPP (New Perspective on Paul) definition (and, I argue, according to the Mosaic code as the regulation for the nation). As a pious leader, he had been circumcised and offered an annual sacrifice, in addition to observing the ritual days, washings, dietary laws, and other ethnic markers. On what basis then could Jesus drive this inquirer to despair of entering the kingdom simple because he was unwilling to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor (vv. 17-22)? Does the law prescribe such radical demands?

        To answer this question, we must recognize that Jesus is not just another lawgiver or prophet, but is inaugurating the kingdom in his very person. Just as the law that God gave Adam in paradise had an eschatological aim, so too the goal of Sinai law is “a kingdom of priests,” in which each person in one’s relationships with God and neighbor fulfills not simple the letter but also the spirit of the law from the heart.

        Jesus was not simply engaging in hyperbole in order to point up the young man’s hypocrisy; he was also revealing the eschatological kingdom in its deeper character. Contrary to the popular perception, Moses cannot be distinguished from Jesus in terms of law versus love. However different this new era of redemptive history (viz, suspension of the theocracy and its holy wars against the enemies of Yahweh in the law) and however different from rabbinic interpretation it may be. Jesus’ famous summary of the law as love is simply a repetition of Deuteronomy 6:5 (cf. 10: 12; 30: 6). It is with the prophets and with Jesus, not Paul, that we are introduced to this recurring theme that righteousness consists not simple of outward actions but also purity of heart. Law defines love, and love is the animating soul of the law. Just as one may be outwardly circumcised in heart and a child of promise in truth, one could be designated a “keeper of the law” in terms of obvious violations yet completely fail to love GOd with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. Yet, Jesus says, the whole law rests on this (Matt. 22: 40).

        Therefore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges the rabbinic interpretation of the law: hatred toward a neighbor is tantamount to murder, and entertaining lustful thoughts to adultery (5: 21-30). Divorce, except on the grounds of adultery, is out of the question (vv. 31-33), love must be extended to enemies and not just to friends (vv. 38-47). The demand is, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). With such rigorous definitions of covenant faithfulness in mind, the Westminster Confession defines sin as “any transgression of the law of God or any lack of conformity thereto,” and the Book of Common Prayer offers the confession of sin not only as “what I have done,” but also as “what I have left undone.” It is one thing to refrain outwardly from violation and quite another to postively fulfill the law’s intention.

        Returning to the story of the wealthy young man, we not that Jesus takes the opportunity to warn the disciples of the difficulty of wealthy people being saved. Yet the climax of Jesus’ point comes in 19: 25-26: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said. ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possibly.’” It is not only difficult for rich people to be saved, but impossible; in fact, it is impossible for anyone to be saved–at least according to the law.

        Jesus presses the argument not to absurdity but to the point of crisis: his interlocutor was not faulted for asking how he might be saved. Rather, his problem was that he though that he obeyed the law yet needed merely to supplement his lifelong fidelity with one work that he might have left undone. Yet he is undone not even the disciples–“but with God all things are possible.” “Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. When then will we have?” (v. 27). This is hardly the first or last time that Peter has missed Jesus’ point. While Jesus promises Peter and the disciples blessing in the kingdom, he cautions, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (v. 30).

        When one focuses on the potential of human beings for righteousness and salvation, the situation is precarious, even impossible. The kingdom upsets the way things are usually done, and to the extent that Jesus preaches the kingdom, he heightens the sense of personal emergency in his hearers. Jesus speaks of only a few being saved, for example (Luke 13: 23-24). There is also his famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, which Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded other with contempt” (18:9). Clearly, it is self-righteousness–the presumption of self-justification, and not an ethnic superiority, at issue in this description of the Pharisee. Interestingly, the Pharisee’s prayer, enumerating his exemplary moral character, includes a pretentious thanksgiving to God for his righteousness, which the NPP might cite as an example of grace in Second Temple Judaism. By contrast, the tax collector, “standing far off, would not even look up to heave, but was beating his breast saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus’ verdict is clear. “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (vv. 13-14).

        Even in John’s ministry, the insiders were on the verge of becoming outsiders, and in his Olivet discourse (Matt. 25), Jesus uses the most dramatic language to speak of a separation of sheep and goats, with the angels collecting the elect at the end of the age. The ‘goats’ are not only unbelieving Gentiles, but also those who claim to have done great works in his name. All of this eschatological, apocalyptic talk, far from being antithetical to the question of individual salvation, provokes it. It is not wonder, then, that the goal of Jesus’ work and winess is “so that you may be saved” (John 5:34).

        The sermons in Acts integrate the cosmic and the individual dimensions. There we find examples of the question “How can I be saved?” (for example, 2:37-41). In this report to the Jerusalem church, Peter explains, “God gave them (the Gentiles) the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ” (11:17).

        By recapitulating the narrative of redemption (historia salutis), Paul also brought the question of salvation to the point of the individuals (ordo salutis) to whom he was preaching in the synagogue, proclaiming the forgiveness for sins that could not be forgiven under the law (13:38-39). On the next Sabbath “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord,” and many Gentiles “were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers” (vv. 44, 48). When the jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (16:30), they were not met with a blank stare, as if this could only be a Gentile (or perhaps a Protestant) question. “They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will b e saved, you and your household’” (v. 31).

        Throughout Acts are abundant examples of individuals responding in faith and being saved even as they are incorporated visibly in Christ’s body through baptism. In both the preaching and the responses, the redemptive-historical horizon and personal salvation, communal identity and individual faith–all are woven into a single bolt of fabric. The Epistles exhibit this complementary concern as well (Rom. 5:9; 8:24; 9:27; 11:26; 1 Cor. 1:18; 7:16; 9:22; 1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5; Heb 7:25; James 5:20; 1 Pet. 3:20; Jude 23), even to the point of summarizing an earlier creedal formula: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul can even speak, in what is incontrovertibly an autobiographical, first-person narrative, about his having deid to the law and been crucified with Christ, so that he, now raised with Christ, lives to God. “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:18-21). (Footnote: This passage may lend further credibility to the classic interpretation of Rom. 7 as Paul’s own personal experience in the Christian life.)” (57-60)

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