Law and Gospel: Looking at the Big Picture

The biblical teaching on “the law” and “the gospel” is massive. And contrary to what some may think, these concepts are fairly complex. They can’t be reduced to a plaque on the wall with the Ten Commandments or a paper tract with Four Easy Steps on how to become a Christian. Instead, law and gospel each have a fairly expansive range of meaning. Broadly considered, they overlap and are interrelated. More narrowly viewed, they’re distinct. In Part 1 of our study, I’d like to examine these concepts more broadly and show how they’re related. Then we’ll narrow our focus in Part 2, noting the ways in which law and gospel are distinct.

Law and Gospel: The Big Picture

According to Michael Horton, “Everything in the Bible that reveals God’s moral expectations is law and everything in the Bible that reveals God’s saving purposes and acts is gospel.”1 So the “law” is what God expects us to do, and the gospel is what God plans and accomplishes on our behalf.

We’ll come back to this definition when we consider law and gospel in narrow focus. For now, I want to suggest that Horton’s definition of “law and gospel” is much narrower than the picture given us in Scripture. In reality, the concepts of law and gospel are much broader and more flexible concepts.

A Biblical Portrait of the Law

In Scripture the term “law” (Hebrew: תורה/Greek: νόμος) is used in several different ways. For example, it may refer to the Decalogue:

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction” (Exod 24:12).

When used in the plural, “laws” can refer to the many “legal stipulations or codes” found especially in books like Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (see Lev 26:46). Sometimes “law” is used synonymously with the term “covenant” (Ps 78:10). The term is also used to refer to the Five Books of Moses as a combined group of writings (Luke 24:44).

As the reader can see, the concept of “law” as used in the Scripture is much broader than Dr. Horton’s definition of “law” as God’s expectations. Think for a moment of the “Law of Moses.” Certainly, the “Law of Moses” includes the Ten Commandments and many other legal stipulations. But it also includes lots of history and narrative. For example, the Book of Genesis is part of the Law, and it mainly consists of historical narratives. Exodus and Numbers have a good deal of historical narrative too.

What’s more, the Law of Moses or the Pentateuch contains many redemptive promises. Think of God’s first promise to Adam and Eve of an offspring who would crush the head of the Serpent. Think of the many promises to Abraham and to his descendants. As a matter of fact, the Law of Moses not only reveals God’s moral expectations of us, but it also contains, to use Horton’s definition of gospel, a record of God’s “saving purposes and acts.” This is why Jesus could say to the Jews, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).

From this evidence, we should dispel from our minds the idea that the Old Testament is all “law” in the sense of “dos and don’ts” and the New Testament is all “gospel.” That certainly wasn’t the view of Jesus. Nor was it the view of the OT saints! Listen to the Psalmist:

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple (Ps 19:7 ESV)

Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law (Ps 119:29 NIV)

In Psalm 119, the term “law” is really a synonym for God’s written revelation – what would have been the Psalmist’s entire Bible in his day. It’s referred to by other terms like “word,” “promise,” “statute,” etc. So it’s obvious that the biblical concept of “law” cannot simply be reduced to rules or regulations or commandments.

Sometimes it has that more narrow meaning. But in other cases, it’s used in a much more broad sense to include the totality of God’s revelation to mankind. In that sense, we can say the “law” includes the gospel.

A Biblical Portrait of the Gospel

The term “gospel” comes from the Greek noun εὐαγγέλιον, which in its basic sense means “good news.” There’s also a matching Greek verb εὐαγγελίζω, which means, “to proclaim or announce good news.” In OT usage (LXX), the verb and noun could refer to the good news of a blessing experienced. More often, though, the terminology was used to refer to a military or political victory or referred to the announcement of such a victory. The OT prophets employed the term to speak of Yahweh’s past deliverances or his future victories over the enemies of God’s people. Perhaps one of the most well known examples is Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isa 52:7).

Not surprisingly, the NT writers pick up on this terminology and employ it for the good news of God’s climactic work of redemption through the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. And since the first four books of the NT focus on the life, ministry, and saving work of Christ, we refer to them as the four “Gospels.”

But here’s where we need to be careful. Just as the concept of “the law” is not limited to the Ten Commandments or the various regulations in the OT, so too the gospel or “good news” cannot be limited to Jesus dying on the cross, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. It certainly includes these things. But it means a whole lot more.

For example, Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee in these words: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt 4:23). Note carefully: the gospel is about a “kingdom.” Remember also Isaiah’s depiction of the content of the “good news”: namely, “Our God reigns!” To borrow the words of John Frame, the gospel is about “God’s sovereign power and authority breaking into human history to bring about salvation with all of its consequences.”2

What are the practical ramifications of God’s rule breaking into history to bring about salvation? Listen to Mark’s parallel account of Jesus’ gospel ministry:

Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

The gospel is about God’s rule breaking into history. That’s why we have to repent! Jesus has come not simply to be our Savior, but also to be our King. If we would be saved, we must not only receive Jesus as Savior. We must also receive him as Lord (see Rom 10:9).

This underscores the fact that the gospel makes certain demands of us! Not surprisingly, the NT sometimes speaks of the need to “obey the gospel” (2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17). The point is not that we obey God’s laws in order to be saved. But God calls us to believe the gospel with the kind of faith that embraces not only the blessing of God’s forgiveness, but also the authority of God’s law. Jesus puts it this way: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). For this reason, the genuine believer should have no problem praying,

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:9-10).

So the biblical concept of “gospel” does not just refer to Jesus work on the cross or one of the first four books of the NT. The gospel or “good news” is about God’s kingdom, his sovereign power and authority breaking into history in the person and work of Jesus Christ not only to bring us forgiveness from sin but to break sin’s reign over us and to free us so that we might become slaves of righteousness unto God!3

Just as the Bible doesn’t reduce the concept of “the law” to rules or regulations or commandments, so too the Bible doesn’t reduce the concept of “gospel” to the story of the cross or the promise of forgiveness. Sometimes, as we’re going to see, “gospel” has that more narrow meaning. But in other cases, it’s used in a broader sense like “the law” to include the totality of God’s saving revelation to mankind. In that sense, we can say the “gospel” includes the law. As John Frame remarks,

In both law and gospel, God proclaims his saving work and demands that his people respond by obeying his commands. Law and gospel differ in emphasis, but they overlap and intersect. They present the Word of God from different perspectives. Indeed, we can say that our Bible as a whole is both law (because as a whole it speaks with divine authority and requires belief) and gospel (because as a whole it is good news to fallen creatures). Each concept is meaningless apart from the other. Each implies the other.4

What God has joined together, let not man put asunder!5

Conclusion

The “law and gospel” are to us spiritually what “oxygen and water” are to us physically. No life without them! And if law and gospel are really the message of the whole Bible, we ought to spend plenty of time reading and studying and learning the Bible, not only for our own benefit but also for the benefit we might bring to others.

In our next study of this topic, we’ll consider how law and gospel are distinct.

Notes

1 Christless Christianity, 109.

2 Doctrine of the Christian Life, 185.

3 Compare, for example, the language of Isaiah’s Servant Song (Isa 42:1-4) with that of Matthew’s Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Both refer to Messiah’s saving work, and both refer to divine law or commandments.

4 Doctrine of the Christian Life, 187.

5 From the evidence cited above, we should dispel the notion that the gospel somehow liberates us from God’s rule. That once we trust in Jesus as Savior, we can take the Ten Commandments and throw them out the window. Not so! Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:17, 19-20). Of course, one of the purposes of the “law,” as we’re going to see, is to show us our sinfulness, to convict us of the fact that we cannot meet up to God’s expectations, and to drive us to Christ for forgiveness. But that’s not the only purpose. The “law” is God’s gracious playbook to show us the way to live a victorious Christian life: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? (Deut 10:12-13). God wants us to be happy and blessed, and he has given us both his law and his gospel to that end. That’s why we must not view the law and gospel as enemies or as two distinct religious systems but as complementary and interdependent biblical realities.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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