The ongoing conversation regarding the nature of the gospel, the role and purpose of God’s law, the relationship between justification, sanctification and union with Christ, and how all of this impacts preaching and the life of the Christian, is super-important (see here). These are big issues. I’ve devoted my life and ministry to working these things out.
One good friend of mine who has been instrumental in helping me think these things through is Mike Horton. Recently, I asked Mike a series of questions with regard to the issues
that I mentioned above. Over the next week I’ll be posting his answers
to my questions in the hopes that he might bring theological help and
clarity to those of us who long to see a gospel revolution sweep the
In what sense has the current conversation been merely a
matter of different emphases, and in what sense are there genuine
I have only had opportunity to read bits here and there. However, I
can speak to your question more generally. Sometimes it’s no more than
emphasis. However, faithful preaching includes the law and the
gospel—never assuming that believers know either well enough that one
can be heard without the other. Of course, we do have to be sensitive to
different contexts of pastoral ministry, but every believer and
therefore every church is simultaneously justified and sinful. Not only
at the beginning, but always, every believer needs the law and the
It would be a lot simpler if we could say that congregations tending
toward legalism need more gospel and those leaning toward antinomianism
need more law, but I question that this is how it works.
In the first place, I’m not sure that “legalism” and “antinomianism”
are the best categories for what seems to me at least to dominate
contemporary “Bible Belt” religion in the U.S. today. Sure, there are
some antinomians (in theory) who believe that you can be justified
without being sanctified—even without continuing in faith. Sure, there
are some who say that the third use of the law (guiding believers) is no
longer in effect. In their view, referring to the Ten Commandments as
normative for how we should live would be going back “under the law” in
the sense that Paul condemned. I’m also sure that there are legalists
out there. But the portrait of the preacher threatening card-players
with the fires of hell is a distant memory, replaced by the smiling
motivational speaker telling you how you can have your best life now if
you follow his seven easy principles.
That’s where I think it all gets so tricky. We’re using theological
categories when one of the most transformative events in our churches
has been cultural: namely, what Philip Reif called “the triumph of the
therapeutic.” What we’re dealing with today in the majority of cases, I
believe, is not accurately described as either antinomianism or
legalism, but a pragmatic and narcissistic appeal to moralism. It’s not
“stop going to parties or you’ll go to hell,” but “follow these ten
principles and your life will be a party.” It’s “principles for living”
on any number of life management topics, mining the Bible for quotes,
but for the most part ignoring the interests of the text itself.
So you can’t really call this diet antinomian: it’s full of
imperatives (rules, steps, principles, motivational tips—some kind of
“To Do” list). But you also can’t call it legalistic, because the
reference point isn’t really salvation or damnation—or even God, but me
and my happiness or unhappiness. God only makes a cameot appearance. The
whole paradigm is what sociologist Christian Smith defines as:
moralistic, therapeutic deism. Say what you will about the legalists and
antinomians of yesteryear, but despite their heterodoxy, they were more
interested in the Triune God and in interpreting and applying Scripture
than a lot of what passes for evangelical preaching today.
Can you explain the law-gospel distinction for those who may be unfamiliar with it? And why is this so important?
It’s important to recognize that in Scripture “law” and “gospel” can be used in two different senses.
First, there’s the redemptive-historical transition from “the law” as
an era when the church was under the supervision of the Mosaic types
and shadows, to “the gospel” as an era in which the old covenant is
fulfilled and is therefore obsolete. In thise sense, law and gospel are
not opposed, even though the latter is greater than the former.
Second, “law” and “gospel” refer to radically opposed principles for
gaining the covenantal inheritance. The Mosaic covenant was strictly
conditioned on Israel’s obedience: “Do this and you shall live.” It was
about long life in the land, not about everlasting life. It was about
salvation from the nation’s enemies, as a type of the deliverance from
God’s wrath and the powers of darkness. Paul’s agitators had confused
these two covenants—the Abrahamic and the Mosaic—and were trying to
secure the everlasting promise by way of the temporal covenant
(something never intended in the Old Testament).
So in this second sense, “law” and “gospel” refer to two antithetical
answers to the question, “How can I be saved?” This is what most
people have meant by the need to clearly distinguish law and gospel.
There is basic continuity between law and gospel in the
redemptive-historical sense (as Old and New Testaments), but radical
discontinuity between law and gospel in a covenantal sense. That’s why
the law-gospel distinction was espeically developed in Reformed theology
by way of the differences between the covenant of works and the
covenant of grace.
Law is everything in the Scriptures that commands and gospel is
everything in the Scriptures that promises God’s favor in Christ. If we
confuse these, we’ll weaken the law, lowering the bar to something that
we can (or think we can) actually clear, and we’ll make the gospel
anything but good news.
The Triune God directs us by his law, but delivers us by his gospel.
This distinction was not only crucial to Luther and Lutheranism but to
Calvin and Calvinism. The gospel is never an exhortation for us to do
something, but an announcement of something that God has done for us.
We are called to obey the gospel—that is, to embrace it, but the gospel
itself is the good news about what God has done for us in Christ. Beza
said that “confusion of law and gospel is one of the principal sources
of the corruptions in the church.” Ursinus, primary author of the
Heidelberg Catechism, said the same. So did the great Elizabethan
Puritan William Perkins, as well as John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and
Charles Hodge. On and on we could go. So when some say that that this
is merely a Lutheran distinctive, it is ill-informed. It’s routine in
our standard theological works and, as I said, it’s woven deeply
throughout our whole Reformed system in the covenant of works-grace
It’s easy to see when law and gospel are being confused when Rome
says, “Do penance and you will be saved,” or Charles Finney says,
“Perfect obedience to the law is the necessary condition of present
justification.” It’s more difficult to recognize that the gentle,
affirming, smiling stream of exhortations and life coaching in our day
is also a form of law (not necessarily biblical) that is often presented
as if it were the gospel.
The word “antinomianism” has been thrown around a lot in this conversation. Can you explain what it is?
It means, literally, “against law.” One branch of the ancient
Manichean (Gnostic) movement taught this in the second century. It
survived in various sects during the Middle Ages. It’s usually part and
parcel of “enthusiasm”: the contrast between the Spirit speaking to me
in my heart, directly and immediately, versus the Spirit speaking
through an external Word, preaching, sacraments, or church officers. So
it has often gone hand-in-hand with extreme forms of mysticism.
In 17th-century England, that was certainly true. Basically, the
“Calvinistic” antinomians believed that the elect were justified from
all eternity (otherwise their faith would be a condition of salvation).
Not only in regeneration, but in conversion and sanctification, the
believer does nothing (even by grace) but is always acted upon. It was
the “let go and let God” philosophy that became especially prominent in
the Keswick or “higher life” movement (despite its more Arminian
underpinnings). Many within this group denied the third use of the law.
Because we are in Christ, the law has no place in the believer’s life.
We see antinomianism today, as I mentioned above, especially in the
“carnal Christian” teaching. However, it should be said that many very
sound people (like Thomas Goodwin and John Owen) were charged with
antinomianism by legalists (like Richard Baxter and John Goodwin). The
“Marrow Controversy” in early 18th-century Scotland was an example of
this. A great theological textbook, written by a formative Reformed
orthodox theologian (Edward Fisher) in the late sixteenth century, was
rediscovered by preachers like Thomas Boston. Yet now, this standard
Reformed teaching was regarded by many ministers in the Church of
Scotland as “antinomian.” That wasn’t because it actually was
antinomian, but because the Church had become increasingly dominated by