Law and Grace

The Trouble with Gospel Centered Sanctification

Used with permission from Theologically Driven.

The blogosphere has been humming lately with questions of Christian freedom and Christian depravity, the role of faith and works in sanctification, the priority of law or Gospel in sanctification, and the like. Some have seized the “Gospel-Centered” banner and have used it to wage general war on law and works—after all, they argue,

  • Major Premise: The Gospel is Justification.
  • Minor Premise: Justification is destroyed by law and works.
  • Conclusion: The Gospel is destroyed by law and works.

So what’s wrong with the syllogism? Well, the logical structure is fine, so if an error is to be found, it has to be in one of the premises. In this case, it is the major premise. The gospel is not reducible to the forensic reality of justification. It also includes the experimental reality of regeneration. Together they comprise what the Reformers described as the duplex beneficium of union with Christ—two distinct benefits received simultaneously in the Gospel. And whenever we minimize either of these benefits, the Gospel disappears:

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Distinguishing Law, Gospel and Grace

Reprinted with permission from Faith Pulpit (Jul-Sep, 2011).

“Now behold, one came and said to Him, ‘Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’ So He said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.’” (Matt. 19:16, 17).

If someone asked you how to obtain eternal life, what would your answer be? We know1 that eternal life comes by believing in God’s Son, as John 3:14-18 tells us, rather than by keeping the commandments. We know this is true because we were saved by believing in Christ, not by trying to keep God’s commands. So how are we to understand the words of Christ to this person? This passage is one in which acquiring the skill of identifying and distinguishing law, gospel, and grace is crucial to its understanding.

What are they?

Romans 3:20 teaches us two truths about God’s law: (1) by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in God’s sight, and (2) the law brings an awareness of sin. Law always refers to some demand by God which brings condemnation and death (cf. 2 Car. 3:7-9). Now we understand that the words of our Lord about keeping the commandments and obtaining eternal life were actually an attempt to show the young man his sin and need of a Savior.

On the other hand, gospel does not make demands but rather refers to what God has done by sending His Son to die for our sins and to be raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The law says “do” while the gospel says “done.” Trusting in Christ is not a demand but a response to the gospel.

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Fulfilling God's Law by Walking in the Spirit

The God of the Bible is presented without apology as a law-issuing God who expects us to be law-keeping people. God does not ask permission to assert Himself as the arbiter of human ethics (Gen. 2:15-17). He determines for His creatures the standard of right and wrong and we are duty-bound to know His commandments and honor them.

Such notions are naturally unsettling, particularly when one begins to comprehend precisely what God requires of us. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a stranger seated next to me on a commercial flight home from the east coast some years ago. I came to find out later that he had grown up in a strict Jewish family in which God’s Law to Israel was studied and honored. He was heading to Minneapolis on business and initially asked my advice on the hottest downtown night clubs. We were obviously strangers. He may as well have asked my advice on nuclear physics.

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The Law


Dispensationalists are sometimes accused of holding a contemptuous attitude towards God’s law. Sometimes this accusation is warranted. Certain versions of dispensationalism treat the law as irrelevant or even downright harmful.

While I am a dispensationalist, I do not share this attitude. When I read the New Testament, I find exactly the opposite view of the law. While legalism is condemned, the law itself is held up as a thing of glory, a thing that is holy and just and good.

Recent conversations have led me to look within and to ask myself, “How do I see God’s law? How do I feel about it?” In the following paragraphs I am going to try to answer that question. Therefore, this essay should not be taken as a normative statement. I am not arguing that my attitudes are exactly the correct ones. Rather, I am attempting a more-or-less phenomenological description of the attitudes that I discover within myself. Perhaps these attitudes need to be corrected—in fact, I am sure that they do. Both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists are welcome to bring the Scriptures to bear so that my view of God’s law can become more accurate than it is now.

Before I describe these attitudes, however, perhaps I should say a word about the notion of “law.” In the narrower sense, I use the term to refer to the 613 commands and prohibitions of the Sinai code. These commands and prohibitions are of three kinds. Some of them directly reflect the immutable character of God. Others, while certainly consistent with God’s character, reflect His plan for Israel as a nation. Still other commands reflect God’s intention to prepare His people for the coming of His Son. These three categories correspond roughly to the ordinary distinctions between moral, civil, and ceremonial law.

When I approach the law, I do not begin by asking which part of it I must keep today. If I understand 1 Corinthians 3 correctly, even the Decalogue has been rendered inoperative as a rule of life. This abolishing of the law does not mean that I am free to live in any sinful way that I please. It simply means that the mechanism for progressive sanctification is not to be found in legal commandments. It is found in the Spirit.

The life of one who is led by the Spirit will reflect the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit results in a life that looks very much like law-keeping, even though the focus is not on the commandments. This is probably part of what Paul means when He says that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.

So, how do I perceive the law? When I look within myself, I discover that I respond to God’s law in several ways.

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