Done Before Do and Done Again
Law / Gospel Distinctions in Preaching the Bible
There are two great threads in the Bible: Law and Gospel. The Law is threat, judgment, demand, obligation and condemnation. The Gospel is promise, mercy, grace and redemption. In the first under Adam we are required to do but cannot. In the latter under Christ we are given and not required. The Law is duty. The Gospel is gift. The Law is not saving and the Gospel is. The Gospel is not condemning but the Law is. These threads emerge from the beginning. “The man and the woman hid themselves” (Law) & “he shall bruise your head” (Gospel). Both threat and promise are there throughout AND remain until the end.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates (Gospel). Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood (Law). (Revelation 22:14-15)
The challenge of interpretation then (among others) is twofold: 1) Not preaching Law as Gospel. 2) Not preaching Gospel as Law. Unfortunately, we do both rather constantly since we have not trained ourselves to maintain the distinction. The result is distortion. Confusing Law/Gospel ultimately makes the Gospel (Done) sound like Law (Do) and the Law (Do) sound like Gospel (Done). The Gospel becomes something to do or maintain when it is actually something that has been done. The Law becomes a means to save (or transform) when it is actually something that condemns. Or, the Law becomes a means to cure when it is really a diagnosis of death.
Both should be preached where they are found. The Law itself is good and holy. “The Law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 119:7). But, due to our fallen condition, a perfect conformity to it is impossible and perfect conformity is what it demands. Yet, we should not hesitate in allowing the Law to expose those inadequacies and shortcomings in our lives as believers (diagnosis). This is the Law’s role in us. But, we should never imply that the Law saves, or changes. Nor should we imply that the condemnation inherent in the Law affects our standing before God. It does not. It only exposes that which has already been dealt with on the cross (Romans 8:1). Furthermore, we should not hesitate to offer the unconditional accomplishment of God in Christ on our behalf – the Gospel of Grace. And, we should never imply that the Gospel is something to do.
Ultimately, the Gospel has the last word. The Law, while it might bark its commands at us, has no jurisdiction over us. “For you are no longer under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14).” The resurrection ended the Law’s dominion. The Law can tell us to do something (and be accurate) but it can neither help us to do it, or punish us for not doing it perfectly. We’re free. So says the Gospel.
Law as Gospel
When Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart they shall see God” he was not speaking in relative terms (Matthew 5:8). “Pure” means to be “without corruption.” “Heart” is the core of the person. Purity at the core level is an absolute requirement for being in the presence of God in the future. Jesus did not mean “purer.” He meant absolutely pure. In this sense then, the declaration of purity here is “Law.”
Contextually, Jesus was offering this as a contrast to superficial performance in religion (Matthew 6:1). He was pushing the standard to its appropriate level – the heart (5:27). Purity is what God requires at the level of motive. It is a statement of fact and not a call to accomplish anything. It is not a condition to be met. It is a statement to be acknowledged. Either you are pure of heart, or you are not. Those who are will see God. Those who aren’t will not. And we know this is nothing we can accomplish (Romans 3:23). This is where the Gospel comes in – Christ has accomplished this on our behalf (Romans 5:17) and yet frees us to pursue purity (as commanded) without fear of condemnation in light of our constant failure.
Therefore, to approach this text and suggest that our access to God is the result of becoming pure in a relative sense is to preach Law as Gospel. Additionally, to reduce the requirement of purity down to principles to be followed in a relative sense is to reduce the strict requirement of the Law down from its absolute status. We end up encouraging sinners to take hold of something as a means of personal improvement that ultimately can only kill and condemn. In either case the message is, “do this and live.” But, this is not possible. The Gospel is “I’ve done… this now live.”
Jesus, who held forth the strict standard of the Law in statements like this (Matthew 5:17-20), also presented the Gospel as a remedy. “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest (11:28).” Jesus maintained the distinction between the two. When he pushed back on the Rich Young Ruler he was not offering Law as Gospel or the Gospel as a new Law, but was answering the young man’s question at face value. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Answer… do everything perfectly. That’s the Law (Galatians 3:10). The Gospel should always be brought in to remedy the condemnation of the Law. The Law should always be brought in to expose the need of the Gospel. It is always Done before DO and Done again.
Gospel as Law
When the author of Hebrews traversed ten chapters emphatically putting forth Jesus as superior to Moses, Aaron, Melchizedek, and the tabernacle he did so pointing to Christ as the supreme object of faith for redemption – the Gospel (Hebrews 10:19-23). When the reader gets to chapter eleven and reads about the “faith” of the OT saints they should not understand him to be talking about their “faithfulness” in the sense that they lived superior lives. It makes no sense to hear “Jesus is greater” (faith) for ten chapters and then hear “These guys also have good lives to follow after (faithfulness).” The point is – in context – the people believed the same promise of God (Gospel) that you believed for salvation, therefore, God is faithful to do what He has promised (Hebrews 11:39-40). It is about the Gospel. When we turn to this passage and encourage Christians to emulate the lifestyle of sinful people rather than emulate their belief in the Gospel we are preaching Gospel as Law.
The only thing we are called to do in the book of Hebrews at this stage is believe God’s promises in Jesus to be true. But, even those passages that call us to do something are done so in light of the Gospel previously articulated. It is Done before Do and Done again.
The Law of God should be swung unrelentingly as a great hammer that crushes and dismembers all futile attempts at self-justification, all speculations that we might gain a right standing before God by our own means (or by any other means outside of faith in the merits of Christ) and favorable views of our own condition. The Law is the bad news for the unrighteous. It should also be wielded with unyielding and unmixed liberty at the heart of the redeemed. That is – it should not be relativized to appear as a means for transformation, but presented in all its purity as a diagnostic of our utter failure to comply with the absolute standard of God.
In this there should be two results. First, all those delicate contours of needed change in our hearts are exposed allowing us to confess that true means of transformation and conformity is resident only in the Spirit’s renovating power. For the Law cannot change and it can only expose the need for it. Second, the Law while landing its blows against the reality of our sin should send us (the redeemed) fleeing not to ourselves, but to the shelter of the one who bore the penalty of the Law on our behalf – Christ.
In all of this, it should not be assumed that the Law and the Gospel are essentially opposed to one another. “The Reformed have always recognized that, however antithetical law and gospel are to sinners, they are not antithetical to God.” (R. Scott Clark) The mystery of redemption remains in this – The God who demanded justice with His creatures (Law) saved those same unworthy creatures by meeting the demands of His justice Himself (Gospel). The tension of the Law and Gospel remains as the same foolishness of the Cross that Paul once spoke (1 Corinthians 1:18).