Tullian Tchividjian|9:36 am CT

Law And Gospel: Part 1

For centuries, Reformational Theologians have rightly noted that in the Bible God speaks two fundamentally different words: law and gospel. The law is God’s word of demand, the gospel is God’s word of deliverance. The law tells us what to do, the gospel tells us what God has done. So, when we speak of the distinction between law and gospel we are referring to different speech acts–or what linguist John Austin calls “illocutionary stances”–that run throughout the whole Bible. Everything in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is either in the form of an obligatory imperative or a declaratory indicative“Hence,” wrote Martin Luther, “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”

This may seem like a distinction that would fascinate only the theologian or linguist. But, believe it or not, every ounce of confusion regarding justification, sanctification, the human condition, God’s grace, how God relates to us, the nature of the Christian life, and so on, is due to our failure to properly distinguish between the law and the gospel.

Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity. (Theodore Beza)

Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology–the entire Christian life, even–depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel. (Martin Luther)

Obviously, both God’s law and God’s gospel come from God which means both are good. But, both do very different things. Serious life confusion happens when we fail to understand their distinct “job descriptions.” We’ll wrongly depend on the law to do what only the gospel can do, and vice versa. As Mike Horton says, “Where the law pronounces us all ‘guilty before God’ (Rom 3:19-20), the gospel announces ‘God’s gift of righteousness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (vv 21-31). The law is unyielding. It commands, but doesn’t give. The law says, “Do!”, but the gospel says, “Done!”

So, I’m going to be doing a series of posts that will spell out this distinction and hopefully explain why it’s so important. If we are ever going to experience the unconditional freedom that Jesus paid so dearly to secure for sinners like me, we must have a clear understanding of this crucial distinction.

To get things started I thought I would post this poetic and helpful hymn from Ralph Erskine where the job descriptions of both the law and the gospel are clearly spelled out and distinguished. Enjoy…

The law supposing I have all,
Does ever for perfection call;
The gospel suits my total want,
And all the law can seek does grant.

The law could promise life to me,
If my obedience perfect be;
But grace does promise life upon
My Lord’s obedience alone.

The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done;
The former cannot ease my grief,
The latter yields me full relief.

The law will not abate a mite,
The gospel all the sum will quit;
There God in thret’nings is array’d
But here in promises display’d.

The law excludes not boasting vain,
But rather feeds it to my bane;
But gospel grace allows no boasts,
Save in the King, the Lord of Hosts.

Lo! in the law Jehovah dwells,
But Jesus is conceal’d;
Whereas the gospel’s nothing else
But Jesus Christ reveal’d.


  1. They showed up. Thank you.

  2. John Dunn

    Just to say I have enjoyed reading your posts in your blog. It is good to read someone who really interacts with Scripture in such an edifying way.

  3. Steve, your very response reinforces what I was saying. Another proof text. John 1:13 comes after John 1:12 and here is 11-13 for the setting.

    He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

    The very verse before your proof text says that some people can receive or not receive Christ which is a part of salvation. vs- 13 goes on to say that it is God who regenerates.

  4. jeremiah,

    No one CAN receive Him of their own accord. Yes, they received Him…as we received our birth. Faith is a gift of God. The Bible makes this abundantly clear in mant places.

    But THIS is the issue. Luther said it very well in “The Bondage of the Will” (his best work according to himself). Do we have any free-will when it comes to choosing God? We believe (because Scripture makes it clear it is the case) that are wills are bound to sin.

    We we start the Christian life differently and we end up with a different view of the Christian life.

    Read some of Gerhard Forde’s books. He says all of this much better than I ever could.


  5. Romans 9:32–”Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling-stone.”

    In order to perform its killing function, the Mosaic covenant was law demanding perfection with the power to condemn… Law (Mosaic or new or whatever law) is not only a tutor that “reveals” sin or makes people aware of sin. Romans 5:20 says that the law entered redemptive history that sin would increase, not simply that knowledge about sin would increase

    The law does not merely “kill” by making us thinking of things to do that we would not have thought of before. The main way that the law kills is that it is used by idolaters (all of us by nature) to try to justify ourselves before God (I did it, or I did enough of it…)

    The law kills, leads to death, and if no gospel, only that. But the elect while still under the law are taught by the gospel to SEE that they are dead.

    Romans 7 verse 9: “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” We were dead by nature, and already sinners. This “I died” is something besides the death we were born with under the law.

    It’s life to see that you are dead and to see that any and all righteousness found BY US in the law (Phil 3:9) is insufficient to stand before God. Only Christ has by His death for the elect satisfied the requirements of law for them, so that the law now demands that these elect be given every blessing of salvation.

  6. But did the Mosaic law announce clearly that it was a “killing instrument” and not the gospel? If it didn’t, who could blame any Jew for using the law wrong , so that they tried to be saved by keeping it? The central text discussed in this connection is Romans 9:32–”They did not seek if by faith, as if it were by works of law.”

    The perspective which focuses only on redemptive history (and excludes law/gospel contrast) says that there is no difference between law and gospel, but only a right way and a wrong way of pursuing the law, and that the gospel is the right way of pursuing the law. A most interesting rebuttal to this is an essay by David Gordon in WTJ (Spring 1992): “Why Israel did not obtain Torah Righteousness; A note on Romans 9:32.”

    Gordon writes that the verse should be translated not “as if it were”, but “because the law is not of faith” in line with Gal 3:12. “The qualification works-and-not faith in Gal 3:10-13 is parallel to the qualification works and not faith in Romans 9:32.”

    “If one group attained what the other did not, the difference between them might lie in the manner in which they pursued it…This is NOT what Paul says however. The two groups did not pursue the same thing (the gentiles pursued nothing)…Paul’s point therefore is NOT that the Gentiles pursued righteousness in a better manner (by faith) than the Jews. Rather, God’s mercy gives what is not even pursued.”

    “When Paul asks why the Jews did not attain unto the Torah, his answer addressed the NATURE of the law covenant (Torah demands perfect obedience), not the nature of the PURSUIT of the law covenant.”

  7. Why don’t you just preach on the Beatitudes?

  8. [...] More TEST if You Can Believe it! 3.26.12 March 27, 2012 ·  Tullian Tchividjian on the Law And Gospel: Part 1 ’Serious life confusion happens when we fail to understand their (law and gospel’s) [...]

  9. Steve, I am trying to follow you here. You said- No one CAN receive Him of their own accord. Yes, they received Him…as we received our birth.-
    Did you receive your birth and others not receive their birth? The verse says that the right to become children of God is given to some and not others on the basis of them receiving or not receiving Christ. Then it says that God alone regenerates.


  10. We receive Him because He gave Himself to us. We are not born of blood, nor of flesh, nor of the will of man…but of God.

    There is NOTHING in us that in any way chooses God. Didn’t Jesus say as much to Peter? “Flesh and blood have NOT revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.

  11. Steve when you say- We receive Him because He gave Himself to us.- are you saying that Christ did not give Himself for His own, in verse 11? The text does not say that that, it says that His own did not receive Him.

    This verse you cite is about God revealing not about people not choosing
    “Flesh and blood have NOT revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.
    Amen, the revelation that Jesus is the Christ is from the Father, that does not say that Peter did choose Christ. Jesus called Peter to follow him and he did. Jesus called others to follow Him and they didn’t.

  12. [...] 4. Law and the Gospel  [...]

  13. jeremiah,

    The Bible says that no one chooses God. (Jesus said it himself)

    The Bible says that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

    If you want to believe that we have something in us that is capable of sizing up God and choosing Him BEFORE He chooses us…then go right ahead.

    We do choose God, and reject Him, regularly…but after He chooses us. Until that happens, we only reject Him.

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