The relationship between God’s law and his offer of salvation through Christ is a tricky one.
In the Middle Ages, law and gospel were often unsufficiently distinguished. Many were taught to regard law-keeping as essential to be right with God.
Protestants taught that the law was given to Adam as a way of life. After the fall, however, humankind was unable to keep the law perfectly and so a way of salvation was provided whereby the Sinless One kept the law in our place, bore the penalty for our transgression, and that forgiveness and new life are received by faith in Christ.
Three ‘uses’ of the law were identified by the Reformers: the law (a) acts as a guide and a restraint in civil society; (b) convicts us of sin and drives us to Christ; and (c) directs believers in obedient and holy living.
Lutheranism distinguishes rather sharply between the law and the gospel: the law condemns, the gospel saves; the law reveals God’s wrath, the gospel reveals God’s grace; the law leads to repentance, the gospel produces faith. For Luther, the motivation to live a holy life arises spontaneously in the heart of the believer, although the law does help him to identify and confront sin.
In Reformed theology a clear distinction is drawn between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The third use of the law is recognised as relevant in guiding the believer in holy living.
Over-emphasising grace at the expense of the law leads to antinomianism and a tendency towards moral laxness. Roman Catholics accused the Protestants of precisely this when the latter insisted that justification is by faith alone. Luther himself charged one of his followers, Johann Agricola, with antinomianism when he thought that Agricola was not giving sufficient stress to the moral responsibility of Christians. In England, Tobias Crisp (1600-43) was also accused of antinomianism. But for several centuries the number of antinomians was probably very small.
A more prevalent danger was that of over-emphasising the importance of the law at the expense of grace. This happens when Christians view obedience as not just the fruit and evidence of faith, but as a constituent element of saving faith. Such an approach can, on the one hand, undermine assurance and joy or, on the other hand, engender a proud and judgmental attitude. In 18th-century Scotland the Marrow men (Thomas Boston, the Erskine brothers, and others) confronted moralism and in America George Whitefield did the same.
In the 19th century the dispensationalism of J.N. Darby taught that law and gospel provided two different ways of salvation – one for the Mosaic age and the other for the church age.
Barth argued that there was an essential unity between law and gospel. He agreed with Hans Kung that justification involves both an imputation and an impartation of righteousness.
In recent years Zane Hodges and others have stirred up controversy by asserting a complete distinction between receiving Jesus as Saviour and obeying Christ as Lord. There is no connection, according to Hodges, between saving faith and good works, grace and law, justification and sanctification. Hodges’ thinking comes out of dispensationalism of Darby, Schofield, and Chafer, although other dispensationalists – notably MacArthur – have vigorously opposed Hodges. Many would appeal to Bonhoeffer’s critique of ‘cheap grace’, and to James’ teaching on faith and works to support of their contention that although salvation does not depend on good works truth faith will inevitably be marked by clear (if imperfect) obedience to the revealed will of God.
- W.R. Godfrey, art. ‘Law and Gospel’ in New Dictionary of Theology
- E.F. Kevan, The Grace of Law
- Olson, R.E. art. ‘Lordship Controversy: Faith Alone/Faith and Submission’ in A-Z of Evangelical Theology.
- J.I. Packer, ‘Understanding the Lordship Controversy’, in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol 2, p211-214.