I’ve posted a few times on the law gospel distinction and this is an area I’d like to read more widely on. Here are some thoughts from a classic Puritan work mentioned in my last post The Marrow of Modern Divinity.
There is a section entitled simply “The difference between the Law and the Gospel.” The author of the Marrow E.F begins here be stating that there is little in the Marrow from him – all the credit he can claim is gathering the doctrines of the Marrow from other respected theologians. He is trying to articulate an already extant Reformed law/gospel distinction (with a heavy dose of Luther) rather than inventing something novel.
He begins by quoting Luther to the effect that “in the case of justification, [we are] to separate the law and the gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated.” E.F. outlines the leading differences between law and gospel:
… the nature and office of the law is to show unto us our sin, (Rom 3:10), our condemnation, our death, (Rom 2:1, 7:10). But the nature and office of the gospel is to show unto us, that Christ has taken away our sin, (John 1:29), and that he also is our redemption and life, (Col 1:14, 3:4). So that the LAW is a word of wrath, (Rom 4:14); but the GOSPEL is a word of peace, (Eph 2:17).
E.F. notes the law gospel distinction is not a distinction between the Old and New Testaments as law and gospel are found in both. So as there is no simple Old New classification of law and gospel “we are to take heed, when we read the Scriptures, we do not take the gospel for the law, nor the law for the gospel, but labour to discern and distinguish the voice of the one from the voice of the other.” The way to do this is to:
… consider … that when in Scripture there is any moral work commanded to be done, either for eschewing of punishment, or upon promise of any reward, temporal or eternal—or else when any promise is made with the condition of any work to be done, which is commanded in the law—there is to be understood the voice of the law. Contrariwise, where the promise of life and salvation is offered unto us freely, without any condition of any law, either natural, ceremonial, or moral, or any work done by us, all those places, whether we read them in the Old Testament, or in the New, are to be referred to the voice and doctrine of the gospel; yea, and all those promises of Christ coming in the flesh, which we read in the Old Testament; yea, and all those promises in the New Testament, which offer Christ upon condition of our believing on his name, are properly called the voice of the gospel, because they have no condition of our mortifying annexed unto them, but only faith to apprehend and receive Jesus Christ; as it is written, (Rom 3:22), “For the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all, and upon all that believe,” &c.
He goes on to give some helpful examples:
Law. The law says, “Thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shalt be damned,” (Rom 7:2, 2 Thess 2:12).
Gos. But the gospel says, No; “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”; and therefore, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, (1 Tim 1:15, Acts 16:31).
Law. Again the law says, “Knowest thou not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God; be not deceived,” &c. (1 Cor 6:9). And therefore thou being a sinner, and not righteous, shalt not inherit the kingdom of God.
Gos. But the gospel says, “God has made Christ to be sin for thee who knew no sin; that thou mightest be made the righteousness of God in him, who is the Lord thy righteousness,” (Jer 23:6).
Law. Again the law says, “Pay me what thou owest me, or else I will cast thee into prison,” (Matt 18:28,30).
Gos. But the gospel says, “Christ gave himself a ransom for thee,” (1 Tim 2:6); “and so is made redemption unto thee,” (1 Cor 1:30).
Law. Again the law says, “Thou hast not continued in all that I require of thee, and therefore thou art accursed,” (Deut 27:6).
Gos. But the gospel says, “Christ hath redeemed thee from the curse of the law, being made a curse for thee,” (Gal 3:13).
Law. Again the law says, “Thou are become guilty before God, and therefore shalt not escape the judgment of God,” (Rom 3:19, 2:3).
Gos. But the gospel says, “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son,” (John 5:12).
E.F. concludes with the importance of the law/gospel distinction in justification:
Therefore, whensoever … any doubt or question arises of salvation, or our justification before God, there the law and all good works must be utterly excluded and stand apart, that grace may appear free, and that the promise and faith may stand alone: which faith alone, without law or works, brings thee in particular to thy justification and salvation, through the mere promise and free grace of God in Christ; so that I say, in the action and office of justification, both law and works are to be utterly excluded and exempted, as things which have nothing to do in that behalf. The reason is this: for seeing that all our redemption springs out from the body of the Son of God, crucified, then is there nothing that can stand us in stead, but that only wherewith the body of Christ is apprehended. Now, forasmuch as neither the law nor works, but faith only, is the thing which apprehendeth the body and passion of Christ, therefore faith only is that matter which justifies a man before God, through the strength of that object Jesus Christ, which it apprehends; like as the brazen serpent was the object only of the Israelites’ looking, and not of their hands’ working; by the strength of which object, through the promise of God, immediately proceeded health to the beholders: so the body of Christ being the object of our faith, strikes righteousness to our souls, not through working, but through believing.