What I don’t like about the Law/Gospel distinction

Run, John, run, the law commands
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.

—(probably) John Berridge, 18th century

I first heard this poem during my first semester in seminary. Since then, I’ve heard it repeated in sermons, books, and blogs. It’s usually seen as a pithy description of the proper relationship between Law and Gospel. Now in some respects, I like it. For one, it reveals the lofty demands of the Gospel—notice how it says that the Gospel bids us to “fly” rather than merely “run.” This goes counter to some theologians who claim that the Gospel is all about believing and not obeying. But biblically speaking, the Gospel does demand obedience—see 2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17 (in other words, the Law/Gospel distinction is not the same as a faith/works distinction).

What I don’t like about this poem, however, is how it seems to turn the Law into an inferior revelation of God. This is evident in two respects: 1) it demands less of us (running, not flying), and 2) it does not empower us to carry out its demands (gives us neither feet nor hands).

Regarding point 1, this is a simplistic understanding of Law, and not in keeping with biblical usage of the term. The Law most certainly does demand much of us. According to Jesus, the two greatest commandments of the Law are to love God with our whole being (Deut. 6:5) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18; see Matt. 22:36-40). Can the bar really get any higher than that?[1]

Regarding point 2, there is a sense in which this is true, but it’s not the whole story. The apostle Paul says: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:3-4)

So there is something that the Law cannot do: it can’t justify us. In our unbelieving, unregenerate state, we cannot earn a right standing before God through the Law. But for those of us who do believe, the Law is most certainly a life-giving guide and a goal to which we can aspire by the empowering grace of God’s Spirit. In this sense, it can help sanctify us. The psalmist prays to the Lord, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Ps. 119:93; cf. 19:7; 119:156).[2] If we are in Christ, the law is life.

That’s what I don’t like about the Law/Gospel distinction. It’s valid for our justification, but not our sanctification. I fear that many Christians turn the preaching of Law and Gospel into a “good cop/bad cop” routine—the Law tears us down, so the Gospel can build us up. The Law brings judgment and condemnation, while the Gospel brings comfort and protection. But this way of understanding it focuses too much on the negative use of the Law. At its worst, it fosters a dismissive and antinomian attitude toward the Law—“I can’t keep the Law, but Jesus kept it for me, so I don’t have to.” To be sure, we need to remember that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet complete. The law still exposes sin, and we can never outgrow our need for the cross. Nevertheless, believers should strive to see in the Law the positive end for which it was originally intended—the promotion of holiness. We need to appreciate the continuing value of the Law as our heavenly Father’s instruction to us, intended to lead us into the fullness of life and blessing.

[1] OT scholar Gordon Wenham distinguishes between law as “floor” and ethics as “ceiling.” Law/floor is concerned with the minimum enforceable requirements that allow a society to function (e.g., do not murder), whereas ethics/ceiling is concerned with the ideal attitudes and values toward which we should aspire (e.g., do not harbor resentment). I think it is more appropriate to speak of law as both floor and ceiling, depending on the context. See Wenham, Story as Torah (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 79-107.

[2] NT scholar Thomas Schreiner, who rejects John Calvin’s third use of the law (as a guide for believers), stumbles on this text, even though he acknowledges that its direct application here is only for believers. He thinks that the Law brings life only in an indirect sense, as it convicts believers and causes us to rely on the grace of God. But for the psalmist, the law is grace (119:29—lit. “grace me your law”). See Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law (Kregel, 2010), 85-87.


2 responses

  1. […] distinction between law and gospel (for my own thoughts on the law/gospel distinction, see my post here). However, I would suggest that these aren’t the only two options open to us. And not only that, […]

  2. […] What I don’t like about the Law/Gospel distinction | Apoblogia. […]

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