Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Biblical Distinction of Law and Gospel

It is common in Protestant circles to contrast law with gospel, where law is understood as equating to God's commandments, and gospel refers to God's promises. But dividing the word of God into two parts is problematic from a biblical theological point of view.

Law or torah in the Old Testament is a co-relative term for the word of God, i.e., the law of God has the same referent as the word of God but describes this referent in a different way. The book of Deuteronomy teaches us this. The revelation that God delivered to Moses to pass on to the people of Israel was simply "the commandment" (e.g., Deut 1:3; 5:31) or "the law" (e.g., Deut 1:5; 4:44).

Psalm 119 also teaches us this. In v. 16, God's word parallels God's statutes. In v. 160, God's word parallels God's judgments. In v. 172, God's word parallels God's commandments. In fact, in Ps 119 God's word is co-relative with God's law, God's testimonies, God's precepts, God's decrees, God's commandments, and God's judgments. That looks like seven different terms altogether, all co-relative.

In a similar way, the law of God and the word of Yahweh are paralleled in Isa 1:10. According to Isa 2:3, the eschatological law that will emanate from Jerusalem and bring peace to the nations is the word of Yahweh.

Law is simply divine revelation. Whatever the King says is law. From a biblical theological perspective, therefore, the law is simply another name for the word of God.

Having established the above point, the biblical teaching concerning law is simple. When God's law is in your heart, you will live; but if the law merely remains an external revelation, not internalized in the heart, then you will die. If the law remains merely externalized, it is a dead letter; but when the law is internalized in the heart, it is the source of life, and effectively gospel. Therefore, the key to life, according to the Bible, is having God's law/word in your heart. Hence Moses' call in Deut 6:6, and hence the supreme importance of the new covenant prophecy of Jer 31:33. The law mortifies or vivifies, depending on its location outside or inside the heart.

The history of Old Testament Israel illustrates this very principle. The revelation given to Israel through Moses came from God. It was an external revelation. The external nature of Mosaic torah was symbolized by the Ten Commandments written on the tablets of stone. What Israel needed was for this external revelation to become internalized on the tablet of their hearts. But despite the prophetic call for Israel to internalize torah, the majority of the people did not respond in a positive way; and so the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation.

In the light of the story of old covenant Israel, the negative function of the law for Paul is simply the idea that the corpus of revelation delivered to Israel through Moses and the prophets brought death to old covenant Israel, because the majority of the people were carnal, not spiritual. In other words, the majority of old covenant Israel did not have the law of Moses in their hearts. Instead of having the Spirit of God guiding them in the way of God's word, they were left to their own devices. Without the Spirit, they were merely flesh.

But God's ultimate purpose for his law is primarily positive, not negative. Thus, a key part of the new covenant is the eschatological writing of torah in the hearts of God's people (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-27). Through Christ's work and the outpouring of the Spirit, torah would be written on the hearts of God's people. Through Christ and the Spirit, the Mosaic law of sin and death would be transformed into the Christian law of life. Through Christ and the Spirit, law would be transformed into gospel in the fullest sense of the word.

This, by the way, is what Paul means when he says: "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). The law external to human hearts brings death, but the law written on the heart by the Spirit of God gives life.

The word of God, therefore, should not be divided into two parts, because it comes to us as a package deal. It comes with promises, warnings, and commandments all mixed together. The issue is not what part must be believed, and what part obeyed. The issue is whether this holistic word of God finds reception in our hearts. The biblical distinction of law from gospel is not a distinction of literary form or genre. It is primarily a cardiac distinction, a matter of the relation of the heart to the word of God.


John Thomson said...


I look forward to dropping in to your blog from time to time. It looks as if it will be stimulating.

I agree that the law/gospel distinction of commandments/promise is not particularly helpful. There is though, I think, a partial case for it. Ironically, I think the case is supported by your second point which is that 'law' sometimes seems to refer to 'the word of God'or at least the OT Pentateuch. But hear surely 'law' is viewing the OT as authoritative and requiring obedience.

However, this sense is not the normal sense, especially in the NT. Normally, 'the Law' is the covenant of Law and normally it is that covenant in totality. As a covenant it was given in totality. They then and we now are not free to pick and choose what should be obeyed. Nor are we free to pick and choose how it should be obeyed. We cannot simply for instance change Saturday into a Sunday. we cannot decide to spiritualise the civil and ceremonial aspects. We must accept the covenant as it satands totally, or not at all. This point both James and Paul argue (James and Galatians).

While I agree that the heart of the law is fulfilled in the NT covenant or gospel it is quite how this happens that is important and it is here I suspect we differ. Paul's argument is much more sophisticated than we simply work out internally the OT covenant commands.

Let me raise the point, we are most likely to differ on. I think the bible teaches that NT believers are completely removed from the sphere where Law has jurisdiction and applies. Law was given to man 'in the flesh' (not merely unconverted man but humanity outside of union with Christ). Man 'in the flesh' in this sense, including Israel, was in a state of immaturity (Gal 3,4) or a 'prisoner'. When he comes to maturity (new reation gospel Spirit-filled people) it is not simply that he now fulfils the law by the Spirit but that he is infact delivered from the world in which law applies altogether. He lives in a new creation where different obligations apply because he finds himself in different relationships.

To put it another way. While alive on earth, Christ was subject to the Law. When he died he was removed from that subjection (as every man is). He is at the right hand of God today. Does the Law apply to him there? Is he subject to its authority there? The answer is no. Nor are we. For in Christ we have died to the world where law had authority. We are seated with Christ in heavenly places. as Christ is so are we in this world.

As we live in and by the Spirit we fulfil all that the Law was concerned to produce. Life in the new creation is 'faith working through love' and against such living there is no law.

Law is essentially negative and prohibitive. It is not for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for sinners for murderers etc (1 Tim 1).

Of course, you too are obliged to reinterpret the Law to make it 'a rule of life', unless you are a thoroughbred theonomist. This should caution about seeing fulfilment in any over simple way.

Thanks for blogging. I am writing a little provocatively. try to see a :) appearing regularly.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John, for your comment. Yes, I was conscious that my post didn't really explain the law-gospel distinction in Paul, so I agree that there is more to the law-gospel distinction than what was covered in my post. My next post may deal with that topic a bit more, so hopefully that will clarify things.

In the bigger biblical picture, Deut 30:1-14 and Jer 31:33 (among other prophecies) show that the Old Testament prophets had a positive view of the law in the long run. I'll do a post on the Old Testament concept of eschatological torah sometime, so you might find that helpful; but by way of summary I think we need to take Paul's negative statements against the law as describing not law in general, but the primary function of the law of Moses during the old covenant age (which was that of condemnation). Ultimately, however, the Bible points us to Jesus Christ as Torah personified. John 1:1-18 teaches us that he is the Word of God, the supreme revelation of the Father, i.e., the Law of God incarnate. When Jesus describes himself as being the way, the truth, and the life, this is the equivalent of saying (in a Jewish context) that he is torah.

The Mosaic law was primarily negative in that it led to the death of old covenant Israel, but in Paul's thinking this Mosaic law of sin and death has been transformed into the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, who is himself the supreme expression of torah.

Thanks for following the blog, and all the best in 2010.

John Thomson said...


I largely agree with this. For me the Deut 30 VV 1-14 passage is critical. Deut 30 seems to me to describe Israel after exile, after the failure to meet the demands of the covenant and in a situation where God circumcises the heart. Moses is writing about NC realities. He describes these as does Jeremiah in terms of law-keeping internalised so that the commandment is not difficult to obey (vv11-14). This text is thus OC law transformed into NC promise, in a word into gospel (Roms 10). From being a word of law it becomes 'a word of faith' (Roms 10)

My worry is that we understand fulfilment merely in terms of OT language. For instance to say the NC is the OC written on the heart is biblical and true, however, in a sense it is much more. The fulfilment eclipses the promise. In the same way as the New Jerusalem, the nations coming to Jerusalem, the temple, the sacrifices all are metamorphosised in fulfilment so to is 'the law written on the heart'. My concern is that if this is not recognised we simply find ourselves working with some such slogan as 'the law leads us to the gospel for justification and the gospel leads to the law for sanctification'. We find christians looking more to the decalogue as a rule of life than to Christ. All these OT images come to completion and transformation in Christ; in my view the transformation is not sufficiently emphasized and explored.

Thanks for taking time to respond. I have been reading some of your previous blogs with interest and hope to get some kind of handle shortly on your general horizons. I appreciate your desire to think outside of confessional boxes while seeking to be under the authority of Scripture. This in all of us must surely be healthy. I read as a Brethren preacher with an interest in theology, especially biblical theology.

Nick Mackison said...

Steven, a really interesting post. I found your blog through John Thomson and will be popping by from time to time!

I would see the law as a covenant of works, since Paul after all declares that "the law is not of faith" Gal. 3:12. While it has gracious elements to it (i.e. promises, types and sacrifices pointing to Christ) it's general structure is "do this and live" with the caveat from God that "I know you won't keep it"!

In this way the law was a school-master for the Isrealis; if they kept the law, they would stay in the land. But you even have Moses failing to enter the land because of disobedience (although he entered/will enter the heavenly Jerusalem). The long list of failures in Israels history was due to man, in the flesh, unable to keep a covenant of works.

As to the nature of the new covenant, I think John expressed my view.

Great blog!

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

Yes, I agree with virtually the totality of your comments there, and totally with your concerns. Your understanding of Deut 30:1-14 is very close to mine. Have you read my article on Deut 30:11-14? An online copy can be found at Deuteronomy 30:11–14 as a Prophecy of the New Covenant in Christ, if you’re interested.

Yes, the new covenant is more than just the old covenant. For starters, it includes all the nations, not just one. And the revelation we have in Christ surpasses the glorious but shadowy revelation given to Israel through Moses (2 Cor 3:7-11; Heb 1:1-4; 10:1). Plus the new covenant will bring about the cosmic consummation of God’s blessing and the fullness of life, something that the old could never achieve. Implied in me saying that Christ is eschatological Torah is that the shadowy torah of Moses has been fulfilled but also transformed in Christ. The revelation of God’s word in Christ eclipses that which was delivered to Israel through Moses and the prophets. In Christ, torah has been amplified and personified (John 1:14, 16-17), and finds its perfection. We always need to remember that.

I think I’m fairly Reformed in my basic theological approach, but I understand the Mosaic covenant in Mosaic (i.e., more Jewish) terms, and this has led me to appreciate that Paul was actually arguing in the historical context of his day for a measure of discontinuity between the old covenant in Moses and the new covenant in Christ, despite the fundamental continuity that also exists between the two on the level of promise-fulfillment and relational dynamics. I view the discontinuity primarily in terms of mediator and content. Under the new covenant, the mediator of God’s word is Christ rather than Moses, and the content of revelation is Christ and the gospel rather than the law of Moses. So what we end up having is a theological priority of the New Testament, but a historical priority of the Old Testament.

I agree with you that Reformed theology has had a tendency to downplay some of the discontinuities between the old and the new covenants, and a similar criticism can be made of some of the New Perspective guys too. It all gets back to the lordship of Christ and what this means for salvation history.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for your comment.

The way I’d prefer to talk about it is that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of grace, because the offer of the forgiveness of sins was genuinely given to Israel (as seen in the laws of sacrifice that were part and parcel of the law of Moses). That is, by the way, a more Jewish way of viewing it.

At the same time, however, we need to understand that to benefit from this atoning grace Israel needed to respond positively to God, which is something that the nation historically failed to do during the old covenant age. So the interesting twist here is that, even though the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of grace, it ended up functioning in salvation history as a kind of replication of the Adamic covenant of works, because Israel’s lack of a positive response meant that condemnation and the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation as a whole rather than justification and blessing. This is what Paul argues in Rom 5:20 and also Rom 7.

So in reality the situation is like this: the arrangement with Adam was a covenant of works; the covenant with Israel was a covenant of grace (which historically ended up replicating the effects of the covenant of works); and the new covenant is a covenant of greater grace (corresponding to a greater work of the Spirit writing God’s word in people’s hearts).

Concerning what was required of Israel under the Mosaic covenant, it is was faith in God in the context of covenant grace and covenant law. Because faith for them was a holistic concept, Mosaic faith was normally expressed using the language of obedience (Exod 19:5). This obedience is covenant obedience rather than absolute obedience. Covenant obedience for Israel was simply a commitment to God’s word as revealed through Moses. In other words, Israel was required to be faithful to the covenant (in the context of grace). This faithfulness was known in the Old Testament as doing torah, and this is exactly what Paul and his Jewish opponents meant when they talked about the works of the law. To sum up, faith under the Mosaic covenant was a holistic concept, and they primarily thought about this in terms of the language of works, i.e., doing torah.

Paul is concerned to contrast (Jewish) faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant (the works of the law) with (pan-ethnic) submission to the lordship of Christ (faith in the gospel). That was the burning issue of his day.

Anyway, hope that makes sense. Thanks for contributing to the blog.

Nick Mackison said...

Thanks for responding Steven. For clarity, how would you interpret "the law is not of faith" in Galatians 3:12?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Nick,

Paul says that the law is not of faith; but when you look at the Old Testament, the language of faith does appear. For example, the psalmist in Ps 119 says that he believes in God’s commandments (v. 66). The way of faith for the author of Ps 119 is the way of obedience to torah (v. 30). So, we must conclude that the law of Moses was of faith in some sense.

Did Paul then contradict the author of Ps 119? I don’t think we can go down that line, so the question we are left with is: what did Paul mean by faith when he said that the law is not of faith?

My suggestion is as follows: the term faith for Paul is often reserved for the proper response of faith to the broadstream word of God (i.e., the word of God that is inclusive of Gentiles). By way of contrast, for Mosaic faith (of which the faith of the author of Ps 119 is an example), which is narrowstream (in that it applies only to the nation of Israel), Paul uses the term the works of the law. This may seem weird to us, but it is in fact a legitimate Jewish method of exegesis, which pays attention to characteristic linguistic emphases in Scripture.

To put it in a way that we can understand better, when Paul said that the law is not of faith in Gal 3, what he meant was that the Mosaic covenant required a Mosaic-type faith, whereas Hab 2:4 prophesies that in the time of the eschaton an Abrahamic-type faith is going to be what constitutes covenant righteousness. In other words, the Mosaic narrowstream was a temporary channeling of faith through one nation. With the coming of the Messiah, this current of faith would return to the broadstream, just like it was back in the beginning with (Gentile) Abraham.

The issue of day was effectively this: Is covenant righteousness limited to (Jewish) faith(fulness) to the Mosaic covenant? Paul argued strongly that covenant righteousness had been opened up to all who come to Christ with an Abrahamic-type faith, the type of faith that believes that God justifies the "ungodly" (the characteristic Jewish way of referring to Gentiles).

Nick Mackison said...

I have wondered how Zechariah and Elizabeth were able to walk "blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord" (Luke 1:6 ESV) given that the law was not of faith.

That's an interesting perspective you've put forward. What authors would you recommend on law and gospel?

John Thomson said...


Thanks for comments. Re 'law is not of faith' I understand that the believing in Israel lived obediently to the law and did so in trust/faith. The psalms and prophets make this clear. Indeed both call for faith from the people (and obedience). However, I am not convinced that this contradicts 'the law is not of faith'.

Let me make one or two points.

1. Frequently in Israel faith goes behind the law to the promises to the Patriarchs (Abrahamic cov etc). In fact often when the people fail they base their optimism (and Moses bases his beseeching of the Lord)on these promises rather than the Law which they have broken.
When the Sinai covenant is first broken is a case in point. Moses appeals not to the Sinai covenant but to the promises to the Patriarch and to the already revealed saving power of God revealing his favour to the nation. It is these and the character of God himself as gracious that enables the reestablishment of the covenant (Ex 33,34). The covenant itself called for curse and judgement.

3. Only unintentional sins had sacrifices available. Now I know that in the NT the parallel in Hebrews seems to be apostasy, however, in the OT unintentional sin seems wider than this. I am thinking for example of David and Bathsheba. In Ps 51 David can offer no sacrifice. I take it this is because there was no sacrifice for murder and adultery (the penalty in the covenant was death). His appeal is to God's mercy and steadfast love (I know I'm getting into covenant love here and getting near to undermining my point). It seems as if the covenant can offer him no hope only the God of the covenant who is bigger than the covenant itself.

I am trying to establish that faith and grace flow to Israel not so much from the covenant as from prior covenants, God's electing and redeeming favour, and his own goodness which is much greater than the covenant.

Cont below

John Thomson said...

It is true the laws of the covenant did have gracious goals and acted as a pedagogue to God's people in spiritual infancy and immaturity. Yet this is not Paul's concern or context when he says, 'the law is not of faith'. He is speaking is he not about th essence of the covenant. The principle of the covenant is works; it is 'this do and you will live'. 'Do' is works. Thus all who 'rely on the works of the Law' (do you see this as legitimate OT covenant faith/obedience???) are under a curse. For the curse extends to those who do not 'abide by all things in book of law and do them'. To rely on the law/to fail to embrace and 'do' all the law is to be cu
rsed. Paul's conclusion is that no-one is justified by the works of the law.

Now it seems difficult given the above to argue (perhaps you are not) that Paul is focussing simply on the interface period between the two covenants and that 'relying on the law - establishing their own righteousness' was fine through most of the OT but is now unacceptable with the arrival of Messiah. Paul's point seems rather to be that it was always wrong/misguided to seek to establish righteousness by the terms of the Sinai covenant for it could only condemn; by the law is the knowledge of sin.

What I am trying to say (I think) is that Israel ought to have lived by faith. That faith should have been centred in the God who had revealed himself to Abraham as a gracious electing God of promise; the God who showed his redemptive power and favour at the red sea, the God they knew to be gracious and forgiving. They ought in faith to have been obedient to this God's revealed 'torah' looking to him for grace for obedience and grace for failure. Instead they shifted their focus (wittingly or unwittingly) to the underlying principle of the covenant itself 'this do and you will live'. They said in misplaced fleshly confidence, 'All this we will do'. By the time of the restatement of the covenant in Deuteronomy Moses was well aware the covenant was beyond the people and that the curse was inevitable. A covenant based not gracious provision rather than imperious demand was needed.

I could go on but you get where I'm coming from.

regards John

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Nick,

Luke 1:6 is talking about covenant obedience rather than absolute obedience. Covenant obedience is a commitment to the word of God in the context of grace. In other words, Zacharias and Elizabeth were keepers of (i.e., faithful to) the Mosaic covenant.

About authors on all of this, that's a hard one. I've learned heaps from Calvin on this, but obviously there are some differences in that I make more of the covenantal aspect than he did. I have found William Dumbrell helpful. Jason Meyer's book The End of the Law is worthwhile too. But overall, I really think more work needs to be done in this area.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

Good observations in your first previous comment. I have great sympathy with what you are saying about the limitations of the Mosaic covenant, but I still think that the Hebrew doesn’t allow us to posit an anthropological distinction between faith and works in the major Old Testament covenants. When I do a few posts on the faith of Abraham, hopefully I’ll be able to point out a few things that may be worthwhile to think about. Can we distinguish between faith and obedience in the actual language that is used in the Abraham narrative? We need to examine that.

The other problem you have to deal with is that the Old Testament prophets viewed the new covenant as including law as a central component. The classic example is Jer 31:33. Deuteronomy 30:1-14 and Ezek 36:26-27 also come to mind. “Do this and live” is so important to the Old Testament prophets that they actually viewed the new covenant as assuring the reality of an obedient covenant response on the part of Israel. In other words, the prophets’ view of the gospel of the new covenant is that, through the coming of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit, “do this and live” is going to become a reality for eschatological Israel. The imperious demand doesn’t disappear in the new covenant. In fact, Jesus came in order to bring a heart transformation to Israel and the nations, such that we would begin to live out this demand (note Rom 8:4 and how Paul interprets Deut 30:14 in Rom 10). In the new covenant age, the word will be in our mouths and in our hearts, so that we will be able to do it. New covenant Israel and the nations will do torah! And this return to God in righteousness is viewed in Hos 2:20 as Israel’s betrothal to God in faith.

Old covenant Israel’s problem was not confusing works with faith. Her problem was not keeping covenant with God. Her problem was a lack of covenant faith, a lack of covenant obedience. As far as the Old Testament prophets are concerned, the solution to this lack of covenant obedience on the part of Israel is a heart transformation/circumcision which will enable Israel to keep torah.

Also, Paul’s teaching in Rom 3:20 is that “all flesh will not be justified by the works of the law.” That’s potentially different from “no one will be justified by the works of the law.”

sujomo said...

I would also refer to passages such as Isaiah 52:4 (and other passages in Isaiah 40-66) which look forward to the time when the torah of God will go to the ends of the earth. Seems to parallel God's justice (mishpat) and God's light going to the four corners of the earth to all nations. Interesting to note too that the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are referred to as "words" (debharim) while the "laws" of Exodus 21ff are referred to as mishpatim.

cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Hey Sujomo. You're pre-empting a future post there! Yes, there is a strong teaching in the Old Testament regarding eschatological torah. Well worth all of us thinking about more. Isaiah 2:1-4 also comes to mind.