Justin Perdue: Today on Theocast we are going to talk about one of the most important doctrinal issues that we ever consider on this show. It’s something that we talk about quite often, and that is the distinction between the Law and the gospel. The Bible contains passages that are Law and passages that are gospel. Sadly, we’ve observed that those two categories are often collapsed in the evangelical world.
In the conversation today, we’re going to define the terms Law and gospel – what we mean by those, and think about the distinction between the two. We’re going to consider some passages from the Bible that are often confused where Law and gospel are collapsed. Then we’re going to think about the fallout that is produced by this confusion of Law and gospel and what it means for our assurance.
In the members’ podcast, we talk about the implications of Law-gospel distinction for our assurance, our peace, and our rest in Christ. We hope that this conversation is helpful and encouraging to you. Stay tuned.
We’re having another one of those foundational conversations today; we did this a couple of weeks ago in talking about assurance. Our hope with some of these conversations is to turn these into primers for people to be able to read. Today we plan to have a very foundational conversation. It’s about a topic that we discuss regularly on Theocast that we think is absolutely essential for our understanding of Scripture. It’s essential for all kinds of things; it has a lot of implications for assurance and other things.
Jimmy Buehler: Today, we are going to talk about one of our favorite topics, which is Law-gospel distinction. When we read Scripture, how do we make sense of the verses that seem to speak in such a way that can perhaps generate fear, anxiety, doubt, insecurity, and makes us pause for question? How do we reconcile those with the passages that we also see in Scripture that are meant to bring us comfort and hope and assurance and all that? We believe that the proper way to understand these things and to reconcile and marry them is to have a proper understanding of the Law and the gospel, and specifically how we distinguish those things.
When we say Law and gospel and how we distinguish them, a simple way to think of that would be this: The Law is the commands of Scripture that tell us what to do. In other words, the Law is the imperatives of Scripture: do this and live. The gospel is the indicatives of Scripture. In other words, the gospel declares to us what God has done in and through Christ.
That is a very simple definition, but now we want to flush that out for you to help you understand it a little bit more.
Jon Moffitt: In a helpful quote from a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher, Fisher is giving a distinction here between the Law and the gospel. He says, “The Law says thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shall be damned,” uses Romans 7:2 as an example or 2 Thessalonians 2:12, “but the gospel says, no. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and therefore believe on Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved.” 1 Timothy 1:5 or Acts 16:31. So you have the Law – any passage that says, “do this,” and if you don’t do it, you are damned. It’s not relative goodness. The Law does not look for you to do your best. The Law says you must perform perfectly. The gospel is the exact opposite. The gospel is good news and says there’s nothing to perform. There’s nothing that’s required. It’s a gift given to you. It’s good news being heralded that you are rescued, so you have demand versus rescue, hope versus dread is the way that we have to define those two separately.
Justin Perdue: To put a few paradigms out there in trying to sum this up relatively succinctly, and I’ll be repeating a little bit of what the guys have said, but nonetheless, I trust it’s helpful. The law says, “do this and live.” The gospel says, “Christ has done it, now live in him.” If we want to be more succinct, the Law equals do, the gospel equals done. Those things are helpful for people as we try to distinguish categories.
And the last thing I would say about this, perhaps this is helpful to me in thinking about a Law economy; men earn favor with God through what we do. In a gospel economy, we receive favor with God by believing not by working. We’re believing upon the Lord Jesus and what he has accomplished. We are not striving after something that we would earn through our own works and merit.
Jon Moffitt: There are passages that anybody would be able to pick up and say, “This is the gospel.” John 3:16 is clearly a gospel passage. Praise be to God for such a wonderful passage. And then you go to Exodus, and you go to the 10 Commandments. Obviously, that’s Law – that is the pinnacle of the Law. It’s easy to see passages like that where it’s “do this and live”, the Law, 10 Commandments. Everyone would say that. And then John 3:16, everyone would say this a gospel passage. But what would you guys say are passages that maybe aren’t as clear? And we can tend to mix them where we make the gospel now have requirements, and we get “glawspel”, as Patrick Abendroth has coined it, where I’m assuming he’s going to. Will we get “glawspel” passages?
Jimmy Buehler: That’s a good question. I think probably one of the most significant examples is Mark 10, where we see the rich young ruler approach, Jesus. He says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds to him and says, “Why do you call me good?” In essence, “if you’re calling me good, no one is good but God alone, so if you’re going to call me good, you’re going to call me God.” So, let’s just get that out of the way. What does Jesus respond to him? I think all of us would agree that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is not a bad question. It’s a sincere, honest, and good question. How do I get eternal life? What do I need to do? And Jesus responds to him, and he says, “You know the commandments.” And Jesus begins to list off various commands that we see. And how does the rich young ruler respond? He responds with a very interesting phrase. He says, “All of these I’ve kept from my youth.”
It’s at this moment that we see Jesus begin to, in our view, turn up the heat of the Law. What Jesus does is, he says, “If you would then be saved, go sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” In that moment, when we do not properly distinguish the Law and the gospel, here’s what we can do with that passage: we can say that Jesus is preaching the gospel to this young man and the gospel in that passage is radical giving or radical generosity or keeping the commands of God. In fact, what do we see later on in that narrative? The disciples pulled Jesus aside, and they’re like, “Jesus, if that’s the call, which can be saved?” And Jesus says, “With man, it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” And we see this in Luke – what did Jesus go and do later on? He meets a very rich man named Zacchaeus. What does he do? He saves him? And so, when we do not properly distinguish between Law and gospel, specifically in Mark 10, the rich young ruler, we can say the gospel is radical living.
Justin Perdue: Wow.
Jimmy Buehler: It can be very confusing and damaging to people, specifically in the realm of their assurance. I know there are other passages that you guys want to bring up as well.
Justin Perdue: How many times have we heard that passage preached, Jimmy, where the gospel is “surrender all to Christ, and you’ll be saved”? You’re spot on in pointing out the fact that Jesus is not giving that young man gospel. He’s actually turning the temperature of the Law upon that young man. He’s dumping the full weight of the Law on his conscience.
Another passage that that comes to mind is the greatest sermon on the Law that’s ever been preached, the Sermon on the Mount – and this may be an entire show in and of itself, to talk about the Sermon on the Mount – the biblical, redemptive historical theological stuff going on. The Sermon on the Mount is epic in that Moses gave the Law to God’s people on a mountain and now the Lord himself is sitting on the side of a mountain giving a sermon on the Law to his people, and he’s unpacking the Law and all of its implications and aiming it and applying it to the hearts of men.
If we don’t have the distinction between the Law and the gospel in our minds, we’ll do all kinds of bad things with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins that sermon in verses 17-20 by explaining to people that he has not shown up to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but he has come to fulfill them. Then he begins to unpack the Law and demonstrate to people that nobody actually has kept the Law, though he’s speaking to people who think that they’re doing a decent job of it. This is where he begins by talking about lust and anger and these kinds of things. “You’ve heard it said that you should not commit adultery. But I say to you that if you have lust in your heart after somebody, then you’ve broken the Law,” or, “You’ve heard it said, ‘do not murder’. Well, I’m telling you that if you are angry with your brother, then you have broken the Law.” He gives a number of other exhortations and imperatives throughout that sermon. But it’s very clear that in the mind of Christ that he has fulfilled the Law in the place of his people, and now he is helping them see that they cannot keep the Law and thereby need to look to him and trust him.
If we’re not preaching the Sermon on the Mount that way, we end up saying all kinds of things like, “You need to battle lust vehemently,” and, “You need to battle and fight against anger in this particular way,” and, “You need to live this way and live that way in order to be right with God and be pleasing in His sight.” That’s not the message that Christ is giving at all. He is exhorting these people to all kinds of things, but underneath the banner of “I have fulfilled the Law for you.”
Jon Moffitt: The original intentions of the Law were never to save anyone. If you go back to Moses, and when the Law was given to Moses to give to the people, it was not “do this and live”. What I mean by that is God has never called people to Himself. Abraham didn’t look to the Law. There was no Law to be justified, and Abraham was the father of Israel, who then passed it down. Every human being in the Old Testament has always been justified by faith. The Law was designed so that they could have fellowship with God and protection by Him. God also used it as a schoolmaster to teach them, “Don’t trust your own righteousness.”
What were they doing when Jesus showed up? They were trusting in their own righteousness in the Law to make them justified before God. Jesus was saying, “Let me turn it up to the level it’s supposed to be because no one is justified by the Law.” This is why it is so dangerous to go back to the rich young ruler or really to any question that Jesus receives, “How much should I be saved?”
Jesus rarely gives the gospel. Very rarely. Yes, to those who are beaten down by the Law, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden by the Law, and I will give you rest.” He literally says, “My disciples are those who believe in me.” People say they’ll follow Jesus because they’re adding to their righteousness. But Jesus goes, “No, unless you forsake everything – mother, father, everyone – and follow me, you can’t be my disciple.” He’s not giving gospel there. That’s not gospel. Gospel is not “forsake everything to follow me”. No one can do that. It’s impossible. It’s not within our capacity. Jesus was doing was turning up the volume in order for you to say, “That’s impossible, Jesus. No one can do that.”
Jimmy Buehler: It’s important to keep in mind that when we think of God’s Law, God’s Law doesn’t just apply to our outward actions. This is what the Sermon on the Mount portrays – beautifully and condemningly – that the Law of God does not just talk about our outward action actions, but it also talks about the inward posture of our hearts and minds.
That’s why Jesus says such terrifying things. “You’ve heard it said that if you commit adultery, that’s sin. I say to you, if you even look at a woman with lustful intent, then you’ve committed adultery.” My goodness. What? What am I supposed to do?
So please do not hear us say that we are only preachers of the gospel. Certainly, there is room, and we should preach the Law in all of its force. What we would argue for around these microphones is that when we preach the Law, we are preaching the Law as Jesus preached it – that it is dialed to 11 – and that what the Law does is it removes any hope in and of yourselves to have any self-righteousness. When you preach the Law properly, what it does to you is it reveals how sin-sick and miserable you are. However, when we preach Law and gospel, the gospel does what? The gospel lifts you and shows you that the good news is that Christ has fulfilled these things on your behalf, and your posture now is to receive that and rest and believe.
Justin Perdue: Jesus, in his context, is speaking to an audience who either understands that in and of themselves they are righteous and they’re trusting in that, or they assume that they can achieve righteousness. So, he explodes those notions over and over and over again. To Jon’s point a moment ago, I would say that 90-plus percent of the time that Jesus responds to a question about eternal life, he gives Law and not gospel, and that’s true.
We’ve talked about the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve talked about the rich young ruler. Another significant passage is when he’s asked about the great commandment. He says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And a second is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.” This is how the kingdom of God is attained.
We look at that, and rightly we would conclude that we’ve never done either one of those things for five seconds of my life. How in the world could I ever have hope? To think about the language of Paul in Galatians 3, Romans 5, the Law was given to increase the trespass. It was given because of transgression. It is the schoolmaster. It is this instrument that God has given us to show us who and what we are and to drive us outside of ourselves to the Savior. It’s exactly right that we understand that the Law was never given that men would be saved by it, but it was given to wreck and undo us, and to show us the only way of salvation – which is through Christ and the Messiah.
Here’s the thing. When Jesus answers the questions like the rich young ruler’s question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He says to keep the commandments. That’s exactly right. No one will ever live with God forever, who has not kept all of the commandments perfectly. We have to be clear that if you break one command and you’ve broken the entire Law, this is again Galatians 3, it’s James 2, and it’s Deuteronomy 27 that you’ve got to keep all of these things all the time or you’re done.
The reality for us in the gospel is that Jesus has kept the Law perfectly and that by faith in him, his obedience is counted to us. It’s as though we have done what he did, and so works will save us, but it’s not. We are saved by the works of Jesus in our place, applied to us by faith.
Jon Moffitt: To add to what you’re saying, Justin, we go to the New Testament, the Epistles. There were writings of Paul, and even 1 John, where you can also see a lot of “glawspel” happening where, you are given commands like, “Examine yourself.” We’ve seen that passage used where unless your life looks like a certain way, then you are not a believer. What ends up happening is the good news is your performance – the gospel becomes, “Perform well, and you can have assurance.” That is not gospel. You have to remember gospel has nothing to do with you. The only thing you contribute to the gospel is your sin, which makes it necessary. So, as you hear any kind of instructions that you are to perform in any such a way to either save or maintain yourself, that is not good news. That’s what we call Law. That does not mean we disregard it – we do uphold the Law, and it’s necessary for believers.
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s very obvious that you are to pursue holiness, love God and your neighbor. Let’s not get confused here, but that is not the gospel. The gospel is always, in Scripture, what Christ has done for you, and the only thing you are to do with that information is to trust it.
That’s it. The moment there is an action coming to you, whether it is love of neighbor, whether it’s having to do with morality, or any of the instructions in the New Testament, this is where I think the most important Law-gospel distinction has to happen, next to the gospels with Jesus, is in the Epistles. Anytime there is an imperative or instruction that is related to your righteousness, that is not gospel, that is Law. Anytime Paul talks about Christ, our righteousness, our union with Christ, Christ being imputed to us, our eternal hope of Christ, that’s all gospel. If someone connects your obedience, your sincerity, your emotions, your feelings, what you do or don’t do, and they connect that to the gospel, that’s mixing Law and gospel, and that’s what ends up removing our assurance.
Jimmy Buehler: We do see a lot of imperative commands throughout the New Testament; particularly one that is very popular is to flee from sexual immorality. All of us would say that is a wise and good command to flee from sexual immorality, but one of the things that we can do is we collapse the Law and the gospel, and we begin to say something nonsensical like, “Your final salvation depends on how well you can flee from sexual immorality in this life.” I think a phrase like that is certainly an overcorrection to what we are saying that certainly, we all would say we need to flee from sexual morality. We need to flee from drunkenness. We need to flee from whatever it is – insert your favorite command here.
What we are saying is that in light of all these things, what a proper Law and gospel distinction does is the Law gives us the things that we should do, but what the gospel does is it provides us a safety net; it provides the wind in our sails by which we do these things. Ultimately, as we strive and we struggle in this life, and we fail, we look to Christ and his finished work on our behalf. What else puts wind in our sails and breath in our lungs than the safety net of Christ who lifts us from our sin, forgives it and sets us on our feet? Because merely barking at somebody like, “Hey, you’re going to die if you don’t do this,” we lay burdens on people that are almost unbearable.
Justin Perdue: Whenever you talk about burdens that are unbearable, I immediately go back to Matthew 11. I know this was mentioned a minute ago, but when Jesus says that His yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s referring to the Law. Those are images of the Law – the yoke and the burden, and he’s telling his people to come to him if they’re weary. “I’ve done these things in your place and trust me, and I’ll give you rest.”
I know we’re talking about implications of these things and some of the fallout of the confusion of Law and gospel, but just a couple of illustrations briefly about how this is often done: you hear a lot of language in the church these days about the church needing to live the gospel or the church needing to do the gospel. This is like exhibit A of the problem. When we’re telling people that they need to do the gospel or live the gospel, we clearly have misunderstood the fact that there is one person who did the gospel and lived it and his name is Christ; we are called to trust in him and then live in light of what he has done.
Or you’ll hear the language of demands of the gospel, what the gospel demands of us now. I could talk about this for a long time, but I’m not going to do that. If there is a demand of the gospel, it’s one demand, and that’s belief; trust Christ. The other things that fall under the gospel by way of imperatives are not gospel. They are implications of the gospel. They are outworking of the gospel. They are Law – and Law is not a bad term. I think we’ve got to get past that. That whole framework, where the gospel is good, and the Law is bad, is not true. They are always good, and it is wonderful when it’s used lawfully.
The problem is the Law is often not used lawfully. We wielded around this tool. You’re trying to keep it in order to know that you’re good with God, and I think everybody understands that that is a damning reality. So, when you start to talk about living and doing the gospel or the demands of the gospel, people immediately start to assess their lives, and they realize, “I’m not doing enough. How could I ever know that I am appropriately meeting the demands of the gospel or that I am living the gospel sincerely enough?” And if I’m not, the implication is I should be concerned, and I am going to be one of those people that Christ looks at and says, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
So, we have people in the church who are sincere, and I’m using that word on purpose, in meaning to trust Christ and follow him. They have no hope and no confidence that they will certainly be with Christ forever. How could I ever know that when you’re constantly asking me to stack myself up against these demands of living the gospel?
Jon Moffitt: Their gospel has splinters of Law, and those splinters keep them out. We have argued so far that in Scripture, we see that there is the definition of the gospel and the definition of the Law, and they have to separate intentions. One is to save, one is to condemn; the Law never saves, the gospel always saves. The reason we say this is because that actually becomes an interpretive model or a hermeneutic, a way in which we understand Scripture to present itself. If you do not allow Scripture to present that present itself this way to you, you then will start getting theologies that we’ve kind of alluded to.
I wanted to add to Justin’s thought here on the demands of the gospel. You hear this in language like, “Unless you make Jesus Lord of your life, you cannot be saved.” That is a demand that is given there. The word that’s often used here is repent. Unless you repent, you cannot be saved. I would completely agree with you on that. If you don’t repent, you can’t be saved. Also, if you don’t do a lot of things, you can’t be saved. That’s all still Law.
There’s no good news to repentance. That is a work. That is something you must do. I would say it is an implication of being under the gospel, the moment that Christ comes in and transforms your heart, and you believe the first response of a new believer is to repent.
So, to say, “repent and believe”, to say that together is not to contradict it. But people will point to passages and say, “Jon, see it says right there that Peter says, ‘Repent and believe, and you shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.'” Well, it also says, “Repent and be baptized, and you will inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Do we hold to baptism or regeneration? Do we believe that you have to be baptized in order to be a believer? So, we have to look at the entire context of Scripture. He is saying repent, a turning away not in a moral sense, but he is saying turn away from the Law. Turn away from your own self-righteousness and turn towards Christ; trust in Christ.
Let’s be clear about our repentance here – we are not turning it into the Law. Collapsing these, even when it may feel like Jesus says clearly that you have to forsake all and repent, and you start hearing demands in the gospel, then I would agree with Justin that the only demand that’s ever there is to believe what you are hearing to be is good news. And even your belief, according to Ephesians 2, is a gift given to you. It’s not something you can achieve. You can’t even meet the requirements.
Jimmy Buehler: There’s something I want to jump on what you said, Jon, where you talked about gospel implications. I think it’s important to remember that the implications of the gospel are not the gospel. “Does the gospel have implications for my marriage, the way I parent, the way that I think about my life and work and ministry?” Absolutely. But those things are not the gospel themselves. The gospel is that Christ saves sinners.
Last night my wife and I were having a conversation, and it was a little rugged, as we like to say. We do pause, and we ask the question, “How does the gospel help us get through this conversation?” We look to the forgiveness that we have in Christ, so we are able, with fervor and vigor and joy, to press through where we are not in alignment in our marriage at the moment. Us doing that are not the gospel itself, but rather we are looking to the finished work of Christ on our behalf in order to continue to press forward in our marriage.
Once again, we can easily make the formula this: that it’s Law-gospel-Law. That it’s the Law that crushes you, the gospel that saves you, and now you’re back into the realm of Law. What we’re trying to say is that the gospel actually rescues us from the Law and its condemnation, and we always rely on the finished work of Christ on our behalf. We never move back into the realm of trying to earn our merit at all ever. Period.
Justin Perdue: In thinking about this Law and gospel distinction, I want to illustrate this with a couple of passages where I think there is confusion demonstrated. In 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5, Paul uses very clear language about certain kinds of sins. He talks about sexual immorality and envy and drunkenness and all these things to the Corinthian and Galatian Christians. He says, “People who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If we maintain appropriate distinctions between Law and gospel, we do not need to do all kinds of gymnastics with those passages to make any sense of them. We can preach them straightforwardly as they are stated. People, who do this stuff will not inherit the kingdom of God, which then immediately causes us to ask the question, “What’s the solution? What’s the answer?” Because all of us have done this stuff.
In 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul says, “All these things that I’m telling you, if you do them, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you, but you were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit of our God.” That’s a great exercise and illustration of the distinction between Law and gospel in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and in Galatians 5. It’s very interesting to note that it’s in the section on works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit, where Paul talks about the works of the flesh being obvious, and people who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
I remember preaching this. I preached Galatians a couple of years ago in our church. I remember preaching that text and stating that we don’t need to qualify this because typically, how do we hear that preached? We hear that preached as, “Well, what Paul was talking about here is a trajectory of your life. If your life is characterized by sexual immorality or drunkenness or slander or perversity, then you will not inherit the kingdom of God. But if the trajectory of your life is one of improvement, sanctification, and transformation, then you can have assurance that you will inherit heaven.”
One, that’s clearly not what the text is saying, and two, this circles back around to the question of assurance. How could a person who is self-aware at all ever have any confidence and assurance that he or she will make it to heaven? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we are sexually immoral in all kinds of ways that we don’t want to admit. We are envious in all kinds of ways that we don’t want to talk about. We slander others, at least in our minds and hearts, if not with our mouths. We could go on and on and on. We are all grieved by the amount of sin that we see in our lives.
How much transformation is enough? What kind of trajectory do I need to be looking for? Help explain that to me, pastor. You’re telling me that this is what Paul is saying, and nobody can answer those questions because that’s not what the text means. The text means if you do this at all, you’re damned. And now you need a perfect righteousness that can only be found outside of you in the Lord Jesus Christ, who did the Law perfectly. So, look to Him and be saved, believe and receive.
Jon Moffitt: I would even turn to Romans chapter 6 where Paul tells a believer, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you are committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” What he means by that is that we had zero control. In other words, the more you sin, the more condemnation you brought upon yourself. Now being in Christ, 1 John says, when you sin – not if you sin – when you sin, repent, and you will be cleansed. He will be cleansed of all of your unrighteousness. To compare those two together, Paul is saying, “You are now set free, and you have repentance as the means by which you can be free from the condemnation of the sin.” In 1 John, it does not tell you that you got a cap on this, that you can repent of the same sin three times, and then that’s it. “You’ve been set free from it,” is what Paul is saying. We often interpret that to mean, “Oh, that should mean I should never struggle with sin again.” May I remind you that Romans 6 is right before Romans 7, and what does Romans 7 teach us? Oh dear. Paul repented of the same sin quite often, it seemed, according to his own words.
So, we cannot turn those passages into Law, saying, “If you get tripped up in sin, we’ll then you’re not a believer.” That is Law. That is not gospel. The gospel must always be, “I am saved by the righteousness of Christ through faith alone, by grace alone, period.” Sola fide. If you add in performance, you are no longer set free. You are back underneath the condemnation that we’ve been set free in Romans 5 when it says, “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Jimmy Buehler: I want to give an illustration. I think you guys are going to might roll your eyes at me.
We don’t want to preach Jesus like the stock market. What I mean by that is if you put $1,000 into the stock market, you know it can go up, it can go down, you can lose money, you can go into the red. Often the way we like to preach Jesus specifically, the way we like to preach sanctification is like the stock market in that Jesus has given you his forgiveness, his thousand dollars of forgiveness. Now it is up to you in your stock market wit to make that positive, or you can lose it and go into the negative. We think that a proper distinct distinction between Law and the gospel actually tells us that no, Jesus has given us an inheritance in heaven, saved for us, given to us freely by grace, through faith on account of Christ. This is what 1 Peter 1 talks about.
As we struggle and fall and stumble in this life, we rest, not even in our failures. We rest, not even looking to our worst days of sin. We don’t look to our worst days of sin, but we also don’t look to our best days of obedience, but rather we always trust the meritorious work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. That’s it. That is the simplicity and beauty of the Christian life. That we’ve said this how many times: how many times can a Christian sin and still be a Christian? In theory, ad infinitum. Forever. On and on. Because one, sin is more of more than just a collection of misdeeds – it’s a power that reigns and rules in you. It’s not like we’re just writing things on a chalkboard.
Jon Moffitt: You can’t repent in your nature.
Jimmy Buehler: Absolutely. And that is why God gives us a new heart. Even when we repent, that is just evidence of God’s gracious work in our hearts.
It’s important to remember that it’s not like God has not given us $1,000 in stock, and now it’s up to us to use our sanctification to make that either green or red. He has given us a final inheritance in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is the seal of that promise.
Justin Perdue: One of the more damaging confusions of Law and gospel that’s out there today – and it’s a conversation that’s going on in evangelical circles and even amongst Calvinists in particular – is this conversation around future justification. I don’t need to lay this out in a ton of detail, but just to summarize it simply, the idea in a future justification view is that we are justified by faith in Christ alone, but we will finally be saved by faith and good works. To frame it another way, we have the right to eternal life, completely by faith in Christ, but we will acquire possession of eternal life by faith in Christ plus good works done in the Spirit.
There are a few problems with that. It’s a separation and a bifurcation of justification and final salvation in a way that the Scripture does not do and does not allow. Biblically speaking, to be justified in Christ is to be finally saved; to be in Christ Jesus and united to him by faith is the same. Your final salvation is certain, not because of anything that you will ever do or anything that God foresees you doing, but it is completely because of what Christ has done for you, received by faith, and you are safe.
I’m going to say something strong and hyperbolic, and you can rebuke me; I shouldn’t say hyperbolic because it’s true, so you can rebuke me if you want to.
In the Council of Trent, session six, canon 24, they talk about justification and good works. They state – paraphrased – that anybody who says that good works are simply the fruit and the evidence of justice obtained by faith and good works are not working to preserve and increase the justice received. Let that person be accursed.
Jon Moffitt: Just to clarify really quickly, what is the Council of Trent? For someone who may not know what that is.
Justin Perdue: The Council of Trent took place in the 1540s to the 1560s. It was an ecumenical council of what would be called the Church of Rome in response to the Protestant Reformation. They were defining their teaching in the official doctrine of the Church of Rome over and against what the Protestant Reformers were teaching and articulating.
In session six, which took place around 1546-1547, they were dealing with the issue of justification – how a person is declared righteous before God, or how a person is right before the Lord. They were saying that the Protestant understanding of good works, that it was simply evidence and fruit of justification already obtained, is wrong, and that good works preserve and increase our justification.
I don’t know that many evangelicals would ever say that our good works increase our justification, but there are a ton of evangelicals, and there are a number of pastors who preach and teach in such a way. They teach that you are keeping your justification intact through your obedience and good works.
That is absolutely damaging. It wrecks any possibility of assurance that we could ever have. Two, if we talk that way, we have departed from the Protestant faith, and we have become Roman Catholic, and so we need to be very careful in how we talk about good works in obedience and even how we are examining our lives. It can never be the ground of our confidence. Jimmy, like you, just said, the illustration of the stock market is right – you can’t talk about it as if Jesus has done this for you but keep yourself in the black and you’ll be good. That is not a Protestant, and we would argue a biblical understanding of salvation and justification.
Jimmy Buehler: I would love for us to discuss the Law and gospel specifically in how it rates to relates to our assurance in Christ. Maybe we can throw that ball over the fence into the members’ realm. For those of you that have listened to my introductory interview into Theocast, assurance for me was something that I feel was robbed for so much of my life. To be honest, I still have these PTSD assurance moments where I just really struggle to believe in the good, gracious nature of God and Christ toward me. But having a proper Law and gospel distinction, if you struggle with assurance, is a balm to your soul. I think that’s what we should talk about in the membership.
Justin Perdue: Jimmy, you’re not alone in that; I still struggle. I had mighty struggles with assurance in my younger years, and I still find that rearing its head with me where I wrestle with thoughts of my legitimacy. Will I really finally see Christ and be with him forever? Because we’re aware of the sin in our lives, we’re aware of God’s righteous standard, and we have heard so many things about examining ourselves and assessing our hearts, minds, and our performance. I have a tender conscience when it comes to this stuff. It’s that Martin Luther-like crisis of the soul – there is nothing that could ever be enough. I’m undone here before the Holy God of the universe; where are my hope and confidence?
Let’s talk about that in the members’ area. So, friends, we are headed to the members’ podcast. You might be listening, and you don’t even know what the members’ podcast is. It’s an additional podcast that we offer to our membership every week. The members are those who have partnered with us financially to help support the work of Theocast. You can go to our website, Theocast.org, and learn more information not only about our ministry in general but in particular about our total access membership. We offer a 14-day free trial on that thing so you can kick the tires and get a feel for what the additional content is.
The three of us are headed to the members’ podcast now to talk about assurance and how that relates to the distinction between Law and gospel. We hope you’ve been encouraged by the conversation thus far, and we hope you’re encouraged by the other things that we have to say. We’ll see you there.