alien righteousness

Xanga Post Revisited: Law and Gospel distinction

It snowed a lot today therefore work was cancelled, all the kids stayed home.  With some time on my hands  I  flipped through some old xanga posts and came upon this one.  Since we’re on the topic of the law and gospel distinction, thought this would be very helpful.

A few years back this question and answer was posted on a discussion forum at the Puritanboard (PB). I  asked the author if I could post it with his permission a few years back. Permission was granted.  Hope that still stands.

The question was:  One hears different things put forward by people as to the “Reformed” view of the law/gospel distinction. I was wondering what sources to look at and what quotes people had. Specifically: how wide of a divide is there between Lutheranism and Calvinism on this point? Is there a Reformed consensus or was this an ongoing point of dispute?

Note that there was a lot of posts on this topic on the PB, so there was a lot of repeating of the same answer on the PB.  Here’s R. Scott Clark’s answer and links to resources on the topic:

See this page.

See esp. this page that contains quotations on law and gospel.

See also Shane Rosenthal’s site Reformation Ink for lots of documentation.

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.


R. Scott Clark, D.Phil
Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology
Westminster Seminary California
“For Christ, His Gospel, and His Church”
Associate Pastor
Oceanside URC

The discussion on the PB is here.

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