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Doctrinal Theology
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§ 52. The Law and the Gospel.

The Word of God is divided, according to the different results it produces in men, whose salvation it is to effect, into Law and Gospel. [1]

I. THE LAW, in which God, by command and prohibition, has made known His will to men, and to the fulfilment of which He has obligated them, [2] is, according to its widest extent, partly general and applicable to all times, and partly given for a certain period and under certain circumstances. The former is called the moral Law, inasmuch as it contains the precepts of God relating to our moral conduct, which remain unchanged at all times, and concern all rational creatures. [3] The latter is called the ceremonial and forensic Law, inasmuch as it contains the ceremonial and civil precepts which were given to the Jews during the period of the Jewish theocracy. [4] We have here to consider only the former, as the other has already been abrogated by God. [5] The contents of this were written on the heart of man at the creation (hence it is also called the Law of Nature), and men, as long as they remained in their original state, had in it a perfect rule for their moral conduct; [6] but after the Fall, when their knowledge was obscured and they heard the voice of God in their hearts but imperfectly, it was necessary for God to adopt another method of making known His will to them, and that was most completely done at the delivery of the Law of Sinai. [7]

The Law there given contains the most perfect rule for our moral conduct, [8] and applies to us no less than to the Israelites. [9] It binds us to the most perfect obedience, and threatens temporal and eternal punishment in case of disobedience; [10] but also promises eternal life to him who perfectly observes it.

As, however, no one since the Fall is able perfectly to keep the Law, we cannot say that the Law avails for our salvation, [11] but it rather serves, first of all, to lead to the knowledge of sin, and render man receptive for the salvation that is in Christ. [12] The former the Law effects by teaching us the difference which exists between its requirements and our deeds; the latter, by alarming us the more we come short of the requirements of the Law, and by constraining and impelling us to long earnestly for a refuge from the wrath of God with which He has threatened every violator of the Law. Thus the Law drives us to Christ, who promises us such a refuge. It is also predicated of it that it contains a call to repentance, and hence we include within the Law everything which contributes to repentance. [13] Besides this, the Law serves to maintain external propriety and morality in the unregenerate: bit it is serviceable to the regenerate, because it contains the perfect rule of moral life, both internal and external. According to these different designs for which the Law was given, the use of it is divided into political, elenchtical, pedagogical, and didactic. [14]

II. THE GOSPEL. As the Law contains the declaration of the divine will, promising a reward to him who keeps it, and threatening punishment to him who violates it, so the Gospel, in distinction from the Law, contains the doctrine of the gracious pardon of sins, which we receive as a gratuity for Christ’s sake through faith. [15] Thus, in the preaching of the Gospel, the means are pointed out to men by which they may escape the condemnation which the Law suspends over them. And when men are brought to a knowledge of sin through the Law, the Gospel enters, holds forth the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and all the benefits therewith associated; [16] and aims at producing faith in them, by which they appropriate to themselves the salvation in Christ.

Different, then, as are the Law and the Gospel in their signification, [17] yet there is no contradiction between them. As they were both alike given by God, so they are both always and equally binding; they both alike have a work to accomplish in all men; they have in view the same final result, namely, the salvation of men, [18] to the attainment of which end each contributes its part. As, by the preaching of the Law, knowledge of sin and repentance are produced, so, by the preaching off the Gospel, faith is effected. The efficacy of the one follows that of the other; but the efficacy of the one does not hence entirely cease where the efficacy of the other begins, for the Law still continues to be a rule for the regenerate, to which he conforms his moral conduct, and it thus works in him a penitence which is renewed daily, inasmuch as it still continually convinces him of his sins. [19]

[1] The division of the Word of God, according to its historical publication in the world, into the Old and New Testaments, belongs to the section which treats of the Scriptures. The division specified above, i.e., Law and Gospel, must be treated under this article; for the design here is to derive from the Word, and to illustrate, the different operations which must be experienced before man is fully brought to a personal knowledge of salvation in Christ. The division is justified by John 1:17 and 2 Cor. 3:6. The Law was given by Moses, e.g., “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” The Law and the Gospel are not then here identical with the Old and the New Testament; for the Old, as well as the New Testament, contains “a preaching of repentance, and a preaching of the remission of sins.”

FORM. CONC. (Sol. Dec., v. 23): “These two kinds of doctrine, viz., repentance and faith, were held in the Church of God from the beginning of the world, yet with a proper distinction. For the posterity of the patriarchs, as well as the patriarchs themselves, not only carefully remembered that man in the beginning was created by God just and holy, and by the guile of the serpent disobeyed the command of God, and thus became a sinner; . . . but they also encouraged and consoled themselves by the most precious announcement concerning the Seed of the woman,  . . . and concerning the Son of David who was to restore the kingdom to Israel and to become the light of the Gentiles.”

[2] HOLL. (996): “The divine Law is the command of God, in which this supreme Lord and Legislator prescribes that which is to be done by men, and prohibits that which is to be avoided, binding them to render a perfect obedience, or, in the deficiency of this, visiting them with punishment.”

The term Law is also used in the sense “(1) of everything that is taught by God, Ps. 1:2; (2) of the Scriptures of the Old Testament, John 15:25; 1 Cor. 14:21; (3) of the Mosaic Pentateuch, Luke 24:44.”

HOLL. (ib.): “But here the words Law and Gospel are taken, as far as they are adequately contradistinguished.”

[3] HOLL. (997): “The divine Law is either universal and perpetual, or particular and temporary. The universal and perpetual Law is the immutable rule of all moral actions, by which God binds all men to do that which is honest and right, and to avoid that which is dishonest and unjust. It is called also the moral Law. The particular and temporary Law is that which God gave to the Israelites alone, binding them to the obedience of it; it is either ceremonial or judicial, and ceased with the cessation of the Hebrew polity.”

[4] HOLL. (1026): I. “The Ceremonial Law is the command of God, by which the supreme Lord and Legislator bound the people of the Old Testament, and through Moses prescribed to them a certain form of external worship, that He might remind men of their sins, show from afar to the contrite a Redeemer, and apply and seal covenant grace by two sacraments and various sacrifices. The external worship, prescribed to the people of God in the Old Testament, consisted in certain rites to be observed about sacred persons, things, places, and times.”

The chief end of the Ceremonial Law is the signification and adumbration of the benefits of Christ, as well as their application by sacraments and sacrifices. The subordinate end is the admonition of sin, the observance of proper order in ecclesiastical assemblies and rites, and the separation of the Jewish Church from all association with the Gentiles.” (Id., 1027)

II. “The Forensic or Judicial Law is the command of God, by which He bound the Israelites in the times of the Old Testament, and through Moses prescribed to them a form of political government so that external discipline might be preserved in civil society, and the Jewish polity, in which Christ was to be born, might be distinguished from the polity of other nations. The forensic Law uttered precepts concerning all those things which pertained to the administration of the Israelitic republic, and came under the cognizance of the forum or court of the Jews.” (Id., 1030.)

“The design of the Forensic Law is (1) The preservation of external discipline in civil society. (2) The separation of the Jewish polity from that of other nations. (Id., 1031.)

[5] QUEN. (IV, 1): “That the Jewish Law is abrogated is evident from the fact that, since the destruction of the Jewish polity and temple, there is no place for sacrifice or the execution of the forensic Law.”

[6] BR. (398): “It is otherwise called the Law of Nature, because it is employed about those things which are naturally and per se either honorable or base; whether they be such as agree or disagree with rational nature. It is also called the Moral Law, in so far as it relates to morals, or to the mode of life which is becoming or unbecoming to a rational creature.”

HOLL. (997): “The Natural Law is the command of God impressed naturally on the minds of all, by which they are informed and bound to do those things which per se are right and honorable, and to avoid those things which per se are wicked and base.”

QUEN. (IV, 3): “It is the light and dictate of right reason divinely given to man, enabling him intellectually to discriminate between the common notions of what is just and unjust, honorable and base, that he may understand what is to be done and what is to be avoided.”

[7] The Moral Law is therefore divided into the Natural or Connate Law and the Moral Law specially so called.

QUEN. (IV, 1): “In original, uncorrupted nature the natural and moral Laws were entirely the same, but in corrupted nature a great part of the Natural Law has been obscured by sin, and only a very small part of it has remained in the mind of man; and so a new promulgation of Law was instituted upon Mount Sinai, which Sinaitic law is particularly called the Moral Law, and does not in kind differ from the Natural Law.”

HOLL. (1002): “The Moral Law, specially so called, is the command of God superadded to the Natural Law in the divinely revealed Word, which was often repeated from the beginning of the world, and at last solemnly promulgated on Mount Sinai and reduced to writing, distinctly teaching what is right and forbidding what is wrong, directing all our actions and feelings, binding all men to the most perfect obedience, or, in the deficiency of this, to the most excruciating torments.” MEL., Loc. Comm.: “The Law is doctrine divinely revealed, teaching what we ought to be, to do and to omit to do.”

GRH. (V, 223): “The Moral Law is summarily comprehended in the Decalogue.”

The Dogmaticians generally hold that a primordial Law preceded the Sinaitic Law, by which they understand those preparatory revelations which were given to primaeval men and the patriarchs.

HOLL. (1003): “The primordial Moral Law is that which was given to our first parents, Gen. 2:17, then revealed to their posterity by the voice of God, and afterwards expounded and taught more fully by the patriarchs, until the solemn promulgation of the Law on Mount Sinai . . . . The primordial Moral Law and the Sinaitic do not differ in substance of doctrine, but in the mode of revelation.”

HOLL. (1002) thus states the difference between the Natural and the Moral Law: “The Natural Law does not differ as to matter from the Moral Law specially so called, for indeed the Natural Law is summarily contained in the Decalogue; but it differs from it as to form. For (1) the Natural Law is inwardly written by nature on the minds of men, the Moral Law is promulgated externally, uttered by the voice of God, and reduced to writing; (2) the Natural Law is more imperfect and obscure, the Moral Law is more perfect and clear. The former directs external discipline; the latter governs and rules the internal as well as the external conduct of men.” Concerning the Natural Law, HOLL. (999) further admits, that “there nevertheless remain certain vestiges of it, namely, universal principles, from which the difference between right and wrong is naturally apparent. Rom. 2:15.”

[8] We hence find in the Dogmaticians a very exact exposition of the Decalogue, comprehending the whole science of ethics.

CHMN. (Loc. c. Th., II, 23): “Such is the brevity of the precepts of the Decalogue that Moses called them ten words. And yet in that brevity is comprehended everything that pertains to the love of God and of our neighbor, and those short sentences are to be the rule and line by which we may ascertain what constitutes sin.”

[9] HOLL. (1019): “The Sinaitic Moral Law is the perfect rule of things to be done and things to be avoided, neither has it been enlarged by new precepts added by Christ, but only more fully declared and purged from Pharisaic corruptions or additions.”

[10] Quen. (IV, 8): “The internal form of the Moral Law consists in a directive and constraining power with respect to doing or avoiding moral acts, binding the conscience to most perfect obedience, or, if this be not rendered, bringing the most dreadful punishment, temporal and eternal, on the violator. James 2:10; Matt. 5:19; Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10.” And, indeed, “the Law demands conformity not only in external actions, but also in internal; neither is it satisfied with any interior effort of the will, but it requires love, i.e., the most ardent feelings, and indeed from the whole heart, the whole soul, and all the strength.”

[11] BR. (630): “The Moral Law has been given for eternal life, but upon the condition of its complete fulfilment (Luke 10:28; Gal. 3:12). But, since the Fall, no one can render this, and therefore no one can be saved by the Law.” Whence HOLL. (1007): “The aim of the Moral Law is (a) the glory of the Lawgiver; (b) eternal life, promised upon the condition of perfect obedience. The accidental issue is eternal death. Rom. 8:10.”

[12] BR. (636): “The Law, which teaches what is to be done and what is to be avoided, and binds to the most perfect observance of these things, charging the most grievous guilt upon all manner of transgressors, by so doing leads men to the knowledge of their sins and to grief concerning then, and so renders them desirous for a mediator.” QUEN. (IV, 9): “The subsequent aim is the knowledge of our inability, which fails to fulfil the Law (Rom. 8:3), and the urging of us to seek a remedy.” And the additional remark: “This powerlessness ascribed to the Law does not belong to it per se and by virtue of its own nature, but accidentally, by reason of our flesh, which weakens the Law of God, although it is in itself holy and good, and renders it powerless and unable to give us life, or to preserve it, since our flesh is not able to fulfil the condition of the Law, i.e., to render to it a perfect obedience, Gal. 3:24; and this is the reason why the impossibility of saving is ascribed to the Law.”

[13] FORM. CONC. (Epit. V, 4): “Whatever is contained in the Holy Scriptures that convinces of sins, that truly belongs to the preaching of the Law.” Therefore, just as the Old Testament contains the Gospel, also (comp. note 1) in like manner the New Testament contains the Law.

FORM. CONC. (V, 11): “Yet, meanwhile, it is true and proper that the apostles and ministers of the Gospel should confirm the preaching of the Law, and begin with it in dealing with those who as yet do not feel their sins and are not disturbed by a sense of the divine wrath.” Hence to the preaching of the Law can be reckoned, from a certain view of the subject, even the preaching of the death of Christ.

FORM. CONC. (Sol. Dec., V, 12): “For what more severe and terrible indication and declaration of the wrath of God against sin is there, than the passion and death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God? But yet, so far as this displays the wrath of God and alarms men, it is not properly a preaching of the Gospel or Christ, but of Moses and the Law against the impenitent.”

[14] HOLL. (1021): “(1) The political use of the Law consists in the preservation of external discipline, that wicked and licentious men may be turned away from heinous offences, by presenting before them the penalties and rewards. According to this use, the Law is a bridle or barrier by which sinners are restrained. (2) The elenchtical use consists in the manifestation and reproof of sins, and also in the demonstration of the most severe divine judgment. Rom. 3:20. According to this use of the Law is the mirror of sin. (But the FORM. CONC. already properly observes that the Law does not fully impart the designed knowledge of sin until the coming of the Gospel. FORM. CONC. (Epit., V, 8): ‘As to what relates to the revelation of sin, the matter stands thus: The veil of Moses is hung before the eyes of all men, as long as they hear only the preaching of the Law and nothing of Christ. Therefore they do not truly come to a knowledge of their sins from the Law, but either become hypocrites, inflated with an idea of their own righteousness, as were the Pharisees, or fall into despair in their sins, as Judas the traitor did. For this reason Christ undertook to explain the Law spiritually, and thus the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all sinners, that, the Law being rightly understood, they may learn how great is that wrath. Thus at length sinners, being led to the Law, properly ascertain the enormity of their guilt. But such a recognition of their offences Moses alone could never have extorted from them.’) (3) The pedagogic use of the Law consists in indirectly compelling the sinner to go to Christ. Although the Law formally and directly neither knows nor teaches Christ, yet by accusing, convincing, and alarming the sinner, it indirectly compels him to seek for solace and help in Christ the Redeemer. Wherefore the Law is our schoolmaster, to bring us unto Christ. Gal. 3:24. (4) The didactic use consists in the instruction and direction of all internal and external moral actions. Thus the Law is a perpetual rule of life. Matt. 5:17.”

QUEN. (IV, 10): “The first use pertains to unregenerate and obstinate sinners; the second and third to men about to be justified; the fourth to those who are justified and regenerate.” The FORM. CONC. and the earlier Dogmaticians favor only a threefold use of the Law, political, pedagogical, and didactic. The later Dogmaticians have divided the pedagogical use into two parts, one of which they call the elenchtical use. The question introduced in the Antinomian controversy, whether the Law is to be inculcated to the regenerate, and its observance urged on them, is thus determined by the FORM. CONC. (Epit., 6:4): “Although they are regenerated and renewed in the spirit of their minds, yet regeneration and renovation are not perfect in all respects in this life, but only begun. Believers are constantly struggling in the spirit of their minds with the flesh, i.e., with their corrupt nature, which cleaves to us even to our death. And on account of the old Adam who yet dwells in the understanding, the will, and all the powers of man, it is necessary that the Law of God should always shine before us.” . . . When, however, the Law is still held before the regenerate, its significance is thus more particularly described: “That the Law here means only one thing, namely, the immutable will of God, according to which all men ought to regulate their mode of life.”

[15] FORM. CONC. (V, 5): “We hold the Gospel to be specifically that doctrine which teaches that man should believe, who has not kept the Law, and is therefore condemned by it; namely, that Jesus Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sin, and thus has procured remission of sin, righteousness before God, and eternal life, without any merit intervening on the part of the sinner.” FORM. CONC. (V, 21): “Everything that consoles terrified minds, everything that offers the favor and grace of God to transgressors of the Law, is properly called the Gospel, i.e., the cheering message, that God does not wish to punish our sins, but for Christ’s sake to forgive them.”

BR. (631): “The Gospel is the doctrine of the grace of God and of the gratuitous pardon of sin for the sake of Christ the Mediator, and His merit apprehended by faith.” Hence, as far as this grace is declared in the Old Testament, so far does it also contain the Gospel. (Note 1.) Hence, BR. (ib.): “This doctrine was revealed not only in the New Testament, but also in its own way in the Old Testament (in the New more clearly).” Such intimations in the Old Testament are cited as occurring, not only in the protevangelium to the patriarchs and prophets, but also in the Ceremonial Law. BR. (632): “It is certain that those things which were contained in the ceremonial laws, had the force of Law, so far as they commanded certain acts and rites; yet as far as they represented Christ the Mediator, and His merit to be apprehended by faith, by certain rites, such as types and shadows, they are properly to be considered as Gospel.” As to the relation of the Law and Gospel to the Old and New Testaments, QUEN. (IV, 61) says: “The Old Testament and the Law, and the New Testament and the Gospel, are not identical, but distinct; for they differ as the containing and the contained. For the Old Testament contains the Law as its part, but not to the exclusion of the Gospel, and the New Testament contains the Gospel as its portion, but not to the exclusion of the Law; and thus the evangelical intention of God respecting the remission of sin, grace, and salvation through the death of Christ, is declared not only in the books of the New, but also in those of the Old Testament.”

The word Gospel can also be used in various senses. HOLL. (1032): “Generally, but with less propriety, the word is used to designate the whole doctrine of the New Testament, taught by Christ and the Apostles, Mark 1:1; 16:15. Specially, for the doctrine of grace and the gratuitous remission of sin to be obtained by faith in Christ, whether proposed in the Old or New Testament, Rom. 10:15; Heb. 4:2. Most particularly, for the doctrine concerning the Messiah already manifested, Rom. 1:1.” Here the word is taken in the second sense, for we are to describe that effect of it, which is different from the effect of the Law. (HOLL. (ib.): “In this special sense, the Gospel is sufficiently contradistinguished from the Law.”) In the proper discrimination of these senses, the question is also settled, whether the Gospel also preaches repentance. FORM. CONC. (ep. V, 6): “We believe, etc., that if by the word Gospel be meant the whole doctrine concerning Christ [taken, therefore, in the general sense] which He taught in His ministrations, that we properly say and teach, that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins. But when the Law and the Gospel, Moses himself, as a teacher of the Law, and Christ Himself, as a teacher of the Gospel, are compared together, we believe, teach, and confess, that the Gospel does not preach repentance or reprove sin, but properly is nothing else than a more cheering message and an announcement full of comfort.”

On the whole Antinomian controversy, which properly belongs in this connection, see FORM. CONC. (Sol. Dec., V), in which also the different statements in the preceding Symbolical Books, in regard to the Law and the Gospel, are explained according to the different senses given above.

[16] FORM. CONC. (Sol. Dec., V, 24): “We believe and confess that these two heads of Christian doctrine should be diligently taught and enforced in the Church of God even to the end of time, yet with a proper distinction. For, by the preaching of the Law and its severe threatenings, through the Gospel ministry, the hearts of impenitent men are to be alarmed and brought to a knowledge of their sins and to the exercise of repentance; yet not so that they may despair on account of their sins, but that they may flee to Christ . . . . Wherefore, after they have come to a knowledge of their sins by the Law, their alarmed consciences are to be so directed that they may receive solid consolation from the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.” HOLL. (1038): “The Gospel preaches and offers to us the grace of Christ, the merit of Christ, and all the benefits derived from Him.” QUEN. (IV, 6): “The form of it is the gratuitous promise of grace, Rom. 3:24; 4:13, 14, 16; Gal. 3:18, given to produce faith, John 3:16; Mark 16:16; Acts 10:43; Rom. 10:9, 10.”

[17] The distinctions are stated by HOLL. (1039) as follows: “The Moral Law and the Gospel differ: (1) As to the manner of their revelation and recognition. The Law is in some measure known from the light of Nature; for it was communicated to the mind of man at his creation, and it was not entirely extinguished by the Fall, Rom. 2:15. But the Gospel is a mystery plainly concealed from human reason, brought to us from the bosom of the eternal Father by the Son of God, and revealed to us. (2) As to the object. The Law is the doctrine of works; it prescribes and commands what is to be done and avoided, hence it is called the law of works, Rom. 3:27. But the Gospel is the doctrine of faith; it holds forth Christ as the Mediator, His merit, the righteousness and salvation derived therefrom to be apprehended by faith: therefore it is called the law of faith, Rom. 3:27. (3) As to the difference of the promises. The promises of the Law are conditional and compensatory; they indeed promise life, but under the condition of individual, perfect and perpetual obedience. But the promises of the Gospel are gratuitous, because they promise life, not on account of our own obedience, but of another’s, namely, of Christ, apprehended by true faith. The promises of the Gospel are, therefore, absolute and unconditional, not simply, but in respect to legal and meritorious condition, although they do not exclude the evangelical condition or faith, which is destitute of all merit, and the use of the means of faith. (4) As to the subject, to whom they are declared. The Law is to be uttered and sharply inculcated to wicked and contumacious sinners, that they may be brought to contrition; the Gospel is to be applied to the contrite, that they may believe in Christ. (5) As to the disparity of the effects. The Law accuses delinquents of disobedience, convicts, condemns, alarms, Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 2 Cor. 3:2; but the Gospel exhibits the Saviour, consoles, absolves, vivifies, Luke 2:10; 4:18; 2 Cor. 3:6.” HOLL. (996) makes another distinction, which may be here quoted. “The divine Law is not the causative or conferring means of salvation to fallen man, but it is only the pedagogic means to a sinner seeking the causative means of salvation, Gal. 3:24. The Law leads to Christ not directly, but as disease leads to the physician, indirectly and on account of the manifested inability of obtaining salvation by the Law.”

[18] BR. (633): “The Law and the Gospel agree (a) as to the author of both, who is God; (b) as to the subject to whom they are given, namely, all men; (c) as to their design, which is eternal salvation; (d) as to their duration, which is to the end of the world.”

[19] HOLL. (1041): “The Law and the Gospel practically are united, as if in a certain mathematical point. They concur in producing: (1) the repentance of sinners (repentance consists of two parts, contrition and faith, and so it is the αποτελεσμα, or the common function of converting and regenerating grace. The Law, in converting man, does its part by exciting and producing contrition. The Gospel, in regenerating man, also does its part by enkindling faith in Christ. There results, therefore, repentance, as the effect, from the concurrence of the Law and the Gospel); (2) the renovation of a justified person (in sanctification, the Law is at hand as a normative principle, or the rule of a holy life; it prescribes and teaches what is to be done and what omitted, and binds to obedience, but it does not confer new strength for a spiritual and holy life: therefore the Gospel comes in as a succor and productive principle, which furnishes strength and power to men, enabling them rightly to walk in the ways of God. Wherefore the Law and the Gospel concur in producing one holy act in the work of renovation); (3) the preservation of the renewed man in perseverance of faith and godliness (the Law by its threatenings moves the renewed man the more strictly to suppress his carnal desires, lest, conquered by the flesh, he should lapse into mortal sin, and fall away from the faith; the Gospel, by constantly affording new strength, confirms and increases his faith, so that the renewed man perseveres in faith and holiness. Add to this, that the Gospel alone shows the difference between mortal and venial sin. The Law prohibits both, that the renewed man, conscious of his imperfection, may practice a daily repentance. The Gospel consoles his mind, grieving under a sense of his imperfect obedience and sin, by teaching him that there is no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit, Rom. 8:1).”

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