The law and the gospel are two parts of the Word of God; both
are useful for our salvation and spiritual life. The two aspects of Scripture
should be clearly distinguished from each other, otherwise much confusion will
result. Yet the law and gospel are so intimately related that an accurate
knowledge of one cannot be obtained without the other. The gospel will be
rendered meaningless if we do not understand the justice and wrath of God
revealed in his law. The cross is as much a manifestation of God’s justice as it
is of his mercy.
The law comprises everything in scripture in the form of
divine command and prohibition, whereas the gospel is the accomplishment and
application of redemption. The distinction between law and gospel is not the
same as that between the Old and New Testaments. There is law and gospel in both
Testaments, albeit the law is more prominent in the Old while the gospel is more
fully revealed in the New.
The Law of Moses
God gave the law to his people Israel by Moses. The Ten
Commandments, or the Decalogue, are the summary of the Mosaic Law, but we should
keep in mind that there were hundreds of other rules and precepts that regulated
the moral, religious and civil life of Israel.
The moral commandments (prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy,
disobedience, stealing, lying, murder, coveting, etc) are applicable in all
ages, including our own. The writers of the New Testament reiterate the moral
laws for Christians.
The ceremonial laws, such as various feasts and Sabbaths, and
the priestly sacrifices of animals, have been abrogated because
they were fulfilled in Christ (see Col 2:16,17; Heb 10). As Christians we do not
observe the Jewish Sabbath and its ceremonies. However the New Testament
commands Christians to gather together, and following the apostolic example (Act
20:7; 1 Cor 16:2), the churches meet on the first day of the week, the day of
the resurrection, to worship the Lord. This is called the Lord’s Day or the
Right Use of the Law
It is customary to distinguish a three-fold use of the law.
To Maintian Civil Order
The law serves the purpose of restraining disorder and
injustice, and promoting fairness. Human society cannot survive without law and
its enforcement. The civil laws of Israel are not applicable to the church since
the people of God are no longer organized as a single nation. Nonetheless
Christians are admonished to obey the civil authorities of their individual
countries (see Rom 13).
A Tutor to Lead Sinners to Christ
The law cannot save, yet it is indispensable in evangelism.
It convicts us of sin, our inability to meet its strict demands, and our dire
need of a Saviour.
All are aware of God’s moral law, even those who never heard
the Ten Commandments, since our conscience tells us what is right and wrong (Rom
2:14, 15). No one can be excused on the basis of ignorance. Some are more
responsible than others because they have more light, but all are accountable
for the light they have.
Moreover the entire human race is guilty of transgressing the
law. ‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the
law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before
God’ (Rom 3:19). Even a cursory look at the Ten Commandments suffices to convict
us that we have missed the mark. Did I always speak the truth and obey my
parents? Was I always pure and honest (Jesus says that lust is adultery in the
heart)? Was I ever unjustly angry (Jesus says that anger is the seed of murder)?
Did I always give God the honour and praise he deserves? Indeed, we are all
‘guilty before God’.
When a sinner looks at himself in the law as in a mirror, he
sees the darkness and filth of his heart, but that is as far as the law can take
him. It cannot cleanse nor excuse the sinner. The law compels the convicted
sinner to seek forgiveness elsewhere. ‘Therefore the law was our tutor to bring
us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith’ (Gal 3:24). Thus the law
works along the gospel in the conversion and salvation of sinners.
The Christian’s Moral Rule of Life
The law of God is the ethical norm for believers. The law
does not save, but it is our guide to live as children of God, as he had
promised, ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes,
and you will keep My judgments and do them’ (Ez 36:27).
The first Psalm describes the blessed man who does not walk
in the counsel of the ungodly but finds joy and meditates in the law of God. The
apostle Paul gives his personal testimony, saying, ‘I delight in the law of God
according to the inward man’ (Rom 7:22). Elsewhere he summarizes our Christian
duty by a single word, love, and goes on to explain that love is the fulfillment
of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
We need the law to discern God’s will, our remaining sins and
weaknesses, and our continual need for grace, pardon and the power of the Spirit
for our sanctification.
Wrong Use of the Law
There are two great enemies of the law and the gospel,
antinomianism and legalism. Both are deadly errors and we must be careful not to
fall into any one of them.
1. Antinomianism (literally ‘against the law’) refers
to the false idea that the gospel frees Christians from required obedience to
any law. Sadly antinomianism is not uncommon among evangelicals. The Bible warns
against this deception, ‘He who says, I know Him, and does not keep His
commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’ (1 John 2:4). Jesus did
not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. Not the smallest letter will by
any means disappear from the law, he said, and solemnly warned those who break
the least of the commandments and teach others to do so (see Matt 5:17-19).
As Christians we rejoice that we are not under the law, in
the sense that God has been gracious to us and we are no longer under its
condemnation. However Christian freedom is not lawlessness! Paul continues to
say that we become willing slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:14-23). We remain
under obligation, indeed we are now motivated by love, to obey Christ’s
commandments (John 14:21). For the first time we have been set free from the
bondage of sin to serve and obey the living God. Our obedience, through
imperfect, is a powerful witness of God’s saving work in us. ‘I will put My laws
into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them’ (Hebrews 10: 16, 17).
God forgives; he also gives his children an obedient heart.
2. Legalism is the false doctrine that salvation can
be gained by our obedience to the law. This attitude is common among Roman
Catholics. Legalism is an impossible task. We are all law-breakers; therefore
the law cannot justify anyone. ‘Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will
be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom 3:20).
In fact, all those who hope to attain life through obedience of the law are
condemned. ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are
written in the book of the law, to do them’ (Gal 3:10). God’s law makes no
concessions but demands perfect and unbroken obedience. It is foolish for
sinners to hope in that very thing that condemns them.
What then is the biblical balance between law and gospel? We
should not attempt to be saved by our obedience to the law – we should rather
admit our failure and guilt. For salvation, we should place our faith in Jesus
Christ as proclaimed in the gospel. Well then, we ask, ‘Do we then make void the
law through faith?’ The Bible answers, ‘Certainly not! On the contrary, we
establish the law’ (Rom 3:31). The gospel does not nullify but rather fulfills
the law by Christ meeting the demands of the law in his obedience to its
precepts and in his suffering its penalties, even death on the cross, for our
justification. Having been set free from sin, we gladly became servants of God.