Tullian Tchividjian|10:14 am CT

Law And Gospel: Part 4

J. Gresham Machen counterintutively noted that “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace.” The reason this seems so counter-intuitive is because most people think that those who talk a lot about grace have a low view of God’s law (hence, the regular charge of antinomianism). Others think that those with a high view of the law are the legalists. But Machen makes the very compelling point that it’s a low view of the law that produces legalism because a low view of the law causes us to conclude that we can do it–the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think that the standards are attainable, the goals are reachable, the demands are doable. It’s this low view of the law that caused Immanuel Kant to conclude that “ought implies can.” That is, to say that I ought to do something is to imply logically that I am able to do it.

A high view of the law, however, demolishes all notions that we can do it–it exterminates all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor. We’ll always maintain a posture of suspicion regarding the radicality of unconditional grace as long as we think we have the capacity to pull it off. Only an inflexible picture of what God demands is able to penetrate the depth of our need and convince us that we never outgrow our need for grace–that grace never gets overplayed. “Our helplessness before the totality of Divine expectation is what creates the space for God’s amazing grace and the freedom it produces.” The way of God’s grace becomes absolutely indispensable because the way of God’s law is absolutely inflexible.

So a high view of law equals a high view of grace. A low view of law equals a low view of grace.

Carefully showing the distinct roles of the law and the gospel, John Calvin wrote:

The Gospel is the message, the salvation-bringing proclamation, concerning Christ that he was sent by God the Father…to procure eternal life. The Law is contained in precepts, it threatens, it burdens, it promises no goodwill. The Gospel acts without threats, it does not drive one on by precepts, but rather teaches us about the supreme goodwill of God towards us.

As Christians, we still need to hear both the law and the gospel. We need to hear the law because we are all, even after we’re saved, prone to wander in a “I can do it” direction. The law, said Luther, is a divinely sent Hercules to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness–a monster that continues to harass the Redeemed. The law shows non-Christians and Christians the same thing: how we can’t cut it on our own and how much we both need Jesus. Sinners need constant reminders that our best is never good enough and that “there is something to be pardoned even in our best works.” We need the law to strip us of our fig leaves. We need the law to freshly reveal to us that we’re a lot worse off than we think we are and that we never outgrow our need for the cleansing blood of Christ.

Regardless of how well I think I’m doing in the sanctification project or how much progress I think I’ve made since I first became a Christian, like Paul in Romans 7, when God’s perfect law becomes the standard and not “how much I’ve improved over the years”, I realize that I’m a lot worse than I realize. Whatever I think my greatest vice is, God’s law shows me that my situation is much graver: if I think it’s anger, the law shows me that it’s actually murder; if I think it’s lust, the law shows me that it’s actually adultery; if I think it’s impatience, the law shows me that it’s actually idolatry (read Matthew 5:17-48). No matter how decent I think I’m becoming, when I’m graciously confronted by God’s law, I can’t help but cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Romans 7:24). The law alone shows us how desperate we are for outside help. In other words, we need the law to remind us everyday just how much we need the gospel everyday.

And then once we are re-crushed by the law, we need to be reminded that “Jesus paid it all.” Even in the life of the Christian, the law continues to drive us back to Christ-to that man’s cross, to that man’s blood, to that man’s righteousness. The gospel announces to failing, forgetful people that Jesus came to do for sinners what sinners could never do for themselves. The law demands that we do it all; the gospel declares that Jesus paid it all–that God’s grace is gratuitous, that his love is promiscuous, and that while our sin reaches far, his mercy reaches farther. The gospel declares that Jesus came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it–that Jesus met all of God’s perfect conditions on our behalf so that our relationship with God could be unconditional.

God’s good law reveals our desperation; God’s good gospel reveals our deliverer. We are in constant need of both. But we need to carefully distinguish them, understand their unique job descriptions, and never depend on the one to do what only the other can. 

The Law discovers guilt and sin, And shows how vile our hearts have been. The Gospel only can express, Forgiving love and cleansing grace. (Isaac Watts)

While there is so much more that can be said about the law and the gospel, I have to bring this short mini-series to a close. And to conclude, I thought it might be helpful to post the sermon below. Back in the fall, I preached from Romans 7 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on the importance of distinguishing between the law and the gospel.


  1. Pastor
    I find it a little amazing how we generally mix the two Words as it were the Law and the Gospel. I find even some of the leaders in the Church don’t have a clear distinction.

  2. This is something that a lot of people have been thinking about, so I appreciate this little series. I have been thinking about it too, and I am curious to see how some of these thoughts might fly in the crowd that frequents Tullian’s posts.

    We have 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

    Let me say this as a preliminary: I am understanding this verse in the sense that we are forever forgiven because of Christ’s blood (as 1 John 1:7), and that the dynamic here is that we are massaging that grace into a specific instance of our experience of guilt, because grace is not only for eternity, but includes the here and now. I have much more to read about this if anyone is interested, here

    But, this is a minor point. The real point is this. If we confess our sins, the scripture says that HE is faithful, HE will cleanse. The cleansing is HIS action. The law takes us to the cliff of confession today, and there we are to leave it. The reason we don’t like this is because our conscience is a very present and powerful pain, and we want to go past mere confession and fix it ourselves. We want repentance with hair on its chest.

    We resist grace because we don’t really believe our invisible ephemeral silent fake God is going to step in and REALLY cleanse us. It is too important to leave it to God, because it seems likely that He will not do this miracle of cleansing. We cannot believe that our present existential horror could possibly be addressed by His suffering and His blood. There seems no connection. Yet, we are told that HE will cleanse, we are only to confess our need and lack and guilt.

    Moralism and resistance to the power of grace is really based on a lack of belief. The moralist cannot believe He will cleanse. So the believer says grace, and the unbeliever sees only freedom to sin, because he cannot believe there will be supernatural cleansing for others if he cannot believe it for himself.

    Much more along these lines here: We Confess He Transforms

    Sorry for all the links to my own site, I generally try to avoid posting links to my blog on a comment, but I think it is genuinely relevant to the discussion and this comment could be a chapter or 2 in a book!

  3. Pastor Tullian,

    You did a really nice job there. I really like to your down to earth teaching style and you make sometimes difficult ideas, easier to understand.

    Another great Reformation principle that you might want to tackle (along with the Law/Gospel distinction, is the doctrine of “free-will”. This one is tough, but until one gets this right, then it is very difficult to get off of internalizing the gospel.
    Luther’s greatest work (his words) is his “The Bondage of the Will”. This is the lynchpin for the whole doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Heady stuff, but worth all the effort.

    Thanks, Pastor.

    PS – Forde’s name is pronounced Fur-dee.

  4. Both a “low view” or a “high view” of the Law is insufficient for the new covenant believer. The only sufficient view of the Law is the crucified view. The Law, as an undivided covenant whole, has once and for all been crucified to us in the death of Christ, so that there is no more condemnation or terrors of Sinai for them that are *in Christ*. (Rom 7:4-6, Col 2:14)

    The Law cannot “drive” believers anywhere but back to the fleshly Old Covenant terrors of Sinai. It’s pedagogical and typological purpose has been terminated with the revelation of the Christ (Gal 3:24-26) and the outpouring of His Spirit. Christ is the end of the Law for everyone who believes (Rom 10:4). New covenant believers do not need to be chased or driven with the scourge of the Law any longer because they are crucified with Christ to the Law. His life now lives and reigns within them (Gal 2:20). The Spirit is now the internal pedagogue which teaches us, unites us to Christ, and transforms us into his magnificent image (2 Cor 3:18, 1 John 2:27).

    Why would those who are insepparably united to Christ, via the life-giving Spirit, need to be driven or chased back to Him with a fleshly instrument of the abolished Old Covenant . . . especially when the living Christ is already abiding within them?

    Here the Gospel good news of the new covenant:
    “For you have *NOT* come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

    BUT you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:18-24)

    Christians, live and abide in the light of Zion’s glorious mount beholding the radiant face of your new covenant Saviour and Lord, walking in his Spirit, and producing his fruit!

  5. Pastor
    about this time 2000 or so yrs ago it was done!

  6. Pastor Tullian,

    Over the past couple of years, God has opened me up to a deeper understanding of the Gospel and of grace. I love the law in that I believe it is vital to my understanding of the Gospel, and I love His grace, of course. I recently studied James, so I began thinking about the link between the two. Because I’ve been blogging my thoughts, a friend sent me a link to your blog, and I am so glad she did. I wish more of our church leaders and teachers taught true Gospel/grace and the link to Law because frankly, I’ve found it pivotal to my faith.

    Thank you for the book recommendation. While I’ve been getting a deeper understanding of grace for myself, I’ve been looking for a resource as a parent. As a mom, I’ve been wondering how to apply grace in my parenting to my children, so I look forward to checking this out.

  7. As Christians, we still need to hear, NOT both the law and the gospel, but Christ’s Crucifiction and Resurrection.

    Christ’s death alone shows us how desperate we are for outside help. In other words, we need the Cross to remind us everyday just how much we need His resurrection life and power every day.

    Christ’s death sealed our sin and guilt under the Adamic Law. But His resurrection triumphed over sin, death, and Adamic Law once and for all, sealing our redemption and guaranteeing our union to Himself and his resurrection life.

    “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).

    We now possess the eschatological new “law” of the Last Adam, the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2-4) who dwells in us, so that the righteous requirment of the Law might be fully met in us, who live according to the Spirit.

  8. The Law has absolutely no power to kill self or sin, but only inflame it and magnify it. Only the Cross has the power to kill self and sin . . . and that by the ministry of the Spirit who unites me to my blessed Saviour’s death and resurrection by faith.

  9. John Dunn,

    I beg to differ. St. Paul tells us that the law brings death. he calls it “the ministry of death.”

    The cross is law. It is judgement and death. For you…and for me.


    Look friends, the law is necessary. Period.


    A very Happy Easter to all of you!

  10. Steve,

    In the context of 2 Corinthians 3 Paul is explicitly comparing two historic covenant periods . . . the typological Old Covenant (Law engraved on tablets of stone) and the promised New Covenant fulfillment (Spirit written on tablets of the heart).

    In the framework of Paul’s argument, the Law is killing to those who slavishly cling to it WHILE at the same time reject the eschatological fulfillment and end of the Law, Jesus Christ. Those who cling to Law and reject Christ are enslaved to death. They are children of the slave woman who must be cast out (Gal 4:21-30). Their hearts are still hardened. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts (2 Cor 3:14-15). Those who love the Law hate Christ. For it is impossible to serve two masters. We can only be married to one covenant Husband . . . Law or Christ (Rom 7:1-6). Those who cling to Law are ignorant of the righteousness of God (Jesus Christ), now revealed completely apart from the Law (Rom 10:3-4, Rom 3:21).

    Those who slavishly cling to the Law as possessing a continuing “rule of life” and/or “killing ministry” for those beloved saints who have been redeemed from the Law through the death of Christ are greivously mistaken and bring the Bride into an adulterous relationship, mixing Law and Christ.

    Jesus Christ, in his life perfectly kept the Law (for us), and through bitter travail and death upon a cross took upon himself the full measure of the Law’s curse (Gal 3:13) in our place, nailing the Law and all its legal demands to the cursed tree, once and for all (Eph 2:15, Col 2:14). The Law has been completely put to death for us, so that in Christ Jesus we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Gal 3:14).

    The Law is a dead covenantal husband to us. We now serve our new covenantal Husband in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Rom 7:1-6).

    Shall Christ then allow the old husband (Law) to return and rub his precious blood-bought Bride’s nose in the dirt and filth? Shall He permit her to be repeatedly disgraced and abused by being paraded shamefully in front of all her former lovers? Does not Jesus Christ send the Law slinking away from his forgiven and washed Bride (John 8:1-11)? Is there anything that can ever condemn or bring railing charges of sin against Christ’s blessed saints (Rom 8:31-34)?

    To those who are so intent on maintaining the Law as a “killing ministry” for Christ’s redeemed saints then why not use the whole Law? Surely a bloody animal sacrifice would be a much better demonstration of death to “drive the saints back to Christ” than the 10 commandments? Or perhaps we should cut off a few foreskins? Surely, this would “drive” the saints to see their need for Christ too? Those who would maintain any part of the Law are obligated to maintain all of it (Gal 3:10, Rom 10:5). If Christ is not the end of ALL the Law, then He is not the end of any of it.

    The Law’s purpose was to typify the Messiah, his perfect righteousness and his Redeeming death as the suffering Servant, the true Israel, the perfect “firstborn” son, and the Last Adam. Now that Christ has completed and transcended the fulness of the Law’s shaddow in his life and death, what further need do we have of it now that we live in light of the promised new covenant reign of the Spirit?

  11. Have happy Easter

    It is Done!!!!!!

  12. He is risen indeed!

    Death is abolished!(Rom 6:8-10, 2 Tim 1:10)

    The ministry of Death is abolished!(Eph 2:14-15, 2 Cor 3:10-11, Heb 8:13)

  13. Kelvin Thiessen

    Hello Tullian(this is off topic but I brought it up due to the Easter season):

    I’m interested in your thoughts on lent. It seems to me that people are trying to earn favor with God by avoiding ‘Coca-Cola’(or some other modern thing) for 40 days and for me it doesn’t magnify God or give Him glory. It seems that if Jesus ‘Paid it all’ I don’t need to keep paying.

  14. Kelvin,

    Your observations about Lent are correct. There is nothing we can do, in the power of the flesh (Law, works, personal sacrifice, asceticism), that can ever please God. Paul attested to this when he narrates the helpless condition of national Israel under the old covenant regime of Law (Rom 7:7-25). As new covenant believers, we are now to serve Christ by faith alone in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code (Rom 7:6).

    If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world (fleshly externals), why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you still submit to regulations “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but THEY ARE OF NO VALUE in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:20-23)

    We are to flee from fleshly externals, asceticism, and the dim shadows of the Law and cling to Christ only, who is the true eschatological Substance and Head (Col 2:16-19).

    For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery! (Gal 5:1)

  15. Mitchell Hammonds

    One is free to participate in Lent or not to participate in Lent. Lent isn’t an opportunity to ‘earn’ anything from God (at least from a Lutheran perspective). To deny oneself of something is a reminder of how tied to the material we truly are. Lent isn’t a requirement nor is it prohibited. It seems to me that telling someone “they shouldn’t participate” in Lent is just as legalistic as telling someone they “have to.”

  16. Indeed, one is free to participate in Lent or not. But what we need to remember is that the Kingdom of God is no longer about external rites of the flesh. Some make much of Lent, as if self denial of the flesh is an end to something spiritual.

    For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)

    From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. (2 Cor 5:16)

  17. [...] Tchividjian hat eine Serie zum Thema “Gesetz und Evangelium” geschrieben. In der vierten Folge stellt er mit Rückgriff auf Gresham Machen folgende These auf: J. Gresham Machen counterintutively [...]

  18. The very frustrating thing is when you explain all this to pastors, they don’t get it. They think they ARE doing this. After all Rick Warren started a book (all about you) with the line “It’s not about you.”

    They don’t understand how they are repeatedly violating this idea in practice even while giving assent to it.

  19. Here is a followup post to this one from Tullian. We not only diminish the Law, but we also error when we inflate our anthropology.

    Contrary To What You Think, Legalists Do Not Have A High View Of the Law:

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