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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:Distinguishing Law and Gospel
Text:LD 2 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Revelation of the Gospel

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 59
Hymn 1A
Psalm 19:3-5
Psalm 116:1-4
Augment Hymn 27 (May the Grace of Christ Our Saviour)

Readings: Matthew 19:16-22, Galatians 3:1-14, Belgic Confession Article 25
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Jesus Christ,

It is often thought that “God helps those who help themselves” is a quote from the Bible or perhaps that it is a Biblical teaching. It is neither. Even though “God helps those who help themselves” is not Biblical, it is a very old error. Before the Reformation, the common belief was that “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power” – another way of saying God helps those who help themselves. This manner of thinking was and is connected with a certain way of reading and understanding the Bible.

Before the Reformation, in the Medieval church, it was common to think of the Bible in terms of old law and new law. In the Old Testament, there was old law, where there was no grace and therefore no hope for salvation. In the New Testament, one could find a New Moses, Jesus Christ, and a new law. The difference between the old law and the new law was that God gives more grace so that believers can obey. Believers do everything they can and then God adds his grace so that there is even more obedience. This obedience contributes to one’s righteous standing before God. God helps those who help themselves.

This way of thinking continues to be popular, although today we might more aptly describe this way of reading the Bible as hard law and law light. A very popular author found in Christian bookstores tells readers that we just have to do our best and then God will give us his grace. According to this writer, God looks in our hearts and he sees that they’re basically good and we’re trying to do the right thing. He comes with steps to follow to have “your best life now” or “become a better you.” By living a certain way, you can tap into God’s power and receive all sorts of blessings. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he was asked why he never speaks about Jesus Christ. He just answered that that’s not what he does and that he wants to help a wide variety of people to live better lives. You’ve probably guessed the author I’m speaking about. Joel Osteen is just one example of the modern tendency to preach law light.

What we need today is simply what was needed and rediscovered at the time of the Reformation: a proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Martin Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme after he carefully studied 2 Corinthians 3:6. That passage clearly speaks about the law as a killing letter. Instead of old law/new law, Luther saw that the proper way of understanding the Bible, particularly when it comes to salvation, is to see it in terms of law and gospel. Not very long after, John Calvin followed in his footsteps, also clearly distinguishing between law and gospel when it comes to our salvation.

That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us to find this distinction found in the Heidelberg Catechism as well. In Lord’s Day 2, we discover that we know our sins and misery from the law of God. That law is summarized with Christ’s words in Matthew 22. Later, in Lord’s Day 6, we confess that we know the revelation of Jesus Christ as our Mediator from the holy gospel. The words here were chosen very carefully and if you ever read the commentaries of Ursinus and Olevianus on their Catechism, you’ll see that the distinction between law and gospel was critically important for them. Because it is so important also for us, I’m going to explain it further this afternoon. First, we’ll have a brief look at our definitions, then we’ll consider the some of the differences between the law and the gospel, and then we’ll consider some of the similarities.

So, let’s begin then with our definitions. Briefly, the law is where God commands what we are to do and not to do; the law is where he demands our obedience. The law tells us to do something, to act a certain way and not others, to have certain attitudes and not others, to say some things and not others.

The gospel is about what Jesus Christ has done for us and in our place. The gospel is where God simply bids us to receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The emphasis in the law entirely falls on us and our ability or rather inability; the emphasis in the gospel is on what somebody else has done for us.

Now it has to be clear that the Bible uses the words law and gospel in two different, but related ways. On the one hand, law and gospel sometimes stand for the old covenant and new covenant or the Old Testament and New Testament or the time before Christ’s death and the time after Christ’s death. Using law and the gospel in this way is meant to portray that there are two different eras in history. And in fact, the Heidelberg Catechism also uses this way of speaking about law and gospel. In Lord’s Day 6, we confess that the gospel was foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. So law and gospel can refer to different eras or times in history.

However, here we’re concerned with the distinction in its connection with our salvation. Can we contribute anything from ourselves for our salvation, can we render some kind of obedience to the law that would keep the holy God from destroying us? As the Catechism puts it, “Can you keep all this perfectly?” Or is justification entirely by faith alone apart from works? Does God declare us right with him because of what we have done or because of what Christ has done? Those are the sorts of questions that are answered by carefully distinguishing law and gospel.

As we look at the differences between the two, we should pay careful attention to what happens in Christ’s encounter with the rich young man in Matthew 19. This man comes up to Christ and asks what he must do to get eternal life. Notice the question: what good thing must I do? Not: “What must I believe?” But: “What must I do?” The man thinks that there is something he can do to obtain eternal life. Jesus takes him to the logical conclusion of that way of thinking. He says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” Here Christ is simply repeating the demand of God’s law in the Old Testament. It’s found in places like Deuteronomy 30:15-20, “Do this and live.” Well, the man keeps on the same track and asks which of the commandments Jesus has in mind. Christ answers by going through a few of them and then adding the summary commandment about loving one’s neighbour. The young man says that he’s done everything, so what does he still need to do? Christ says, “If you want to be perfect, sell everything and give to the poor and then come back to me.” The young man heard that and then became sad, because he was so rich. In other words, he hadn’t really obeyed the commandments of God. Maybe in some external ways he was keeping the law, but when it came to loving his neighbour as himself, he fell short. There was no salvation in law keeping for this rich young man. He could not keep it all perfectly; he, like us, was inclined by nature to hate God and his neighbour.

That illustrates the first difference between the law and the gospel. The law promises life on the condition of perfect obedience. Do this and you will live and live eternally. If you do not keep all the law perfectly, you will die and die eternally. Think of what we sang from Psalm 19, that there is a great reward for keeping God’s law – but who can do this? If you’ve broken one commandment you’ve broken them all. Think of what we read from Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” And a little bit further, Paul tells us that the law is not based on faith. Rather, it is based on works, on human accomplishments and achievements.

The gospel is something different. The gospel promises life based on the work of Christ and on the condition of faith in Christ. Galatians 3:11 says (quoting Habakkuk), “The righteous will live by faith.” The law says do this and live. The gospel says: it is done for you perfectly by Christ, accept it and believe it! One of the most clear statements of the gospel is found in that well-loved passage of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

So, the first difference: the law says do all this perfectly and live; the gospel says Christ has done it, believe it and you will live.

The second difference rests in the fact that the law is revealed in two places, but the gospel is only revealed in one. The law, of course, is revealed in Scripture in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere. In the Ten Words we have a precise revelation of God’s righteous will. But the law is also found in nature. Romans 2:15 tells us that the requirements of the law are written on the hearts of every single human being. It has been that way from the very beginning, from creation. Romans 1 teaches us that every human being knows in their heart of hearts that there is a God to whom they will have to give account.

The law is revealed in nature and in Scripture. The gospel is different. The gospel was and is not written on the hearts of human beings. The gospel is only revealed from heaven, which means for us today that we find it in Scripture. Romans 10 teaches us that the good news is something that has to be brought to us. It is not something we know intuitively or innately, we’re not born as people who know about Jesus Christ – someone has to tell us the good news.

So, the second difference: the law is revealed in nature and in Scripture, whereas the gospel is only revealed in Scripture.

A third difference can be found in the Catechism. From the law we learn of our sin and misery, our need for a redeemer, and from the gospel we learn the glorious truth of our redemption. Galatians 3:24 teaches us that the law was given to lead us to Christ, so that we would be justified by faith. The law drives us to Christ, but the gospel reveals him. The law demands perfect righteousness and the gospel shows it in Jesus Christ.

There you have three important differences between the law and the gospel. I should mention that there are more, but we’re going to leave it at that for this afternoon. Now we’ll briefly consider three of the similarities between the law and the gospel.

First of all, both are found in the Old Testament and the New Testament. For instance, we find the gospel throughout the Old Testament. As a classic example, we find the gospel in seed form already in Genesis 3:15 with the crushing of the head of the serpent. We call this the mother promise because from this promise all other promises in the Bible are derived. Isaiah 53 is another classic example, and we could mention many more. The gospel is found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

So is the law. There are those who think that the Old Testament is all or mostly law and the New Testament is all or mostly gospel. Well, the law is also there in the New Testament. Think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. In Matthew 5:17, we hear Christ saying that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, or better translated, to confirm it. The law still has power after the coming of Christ. He adds that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Elsewhere in that sermon he shows how deep God’s law really goes. In fact, he summarizes it in Matthew 5:48 by saying “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is the law.

So, our first similarity is that the law and the gospel are found in both Old Testament and New Testament.

Second, both the law and the gospel speak to us about Jesus Christ. Earlier we read from Article 25 of the Belgic Confession. That article mostly speaks about the ceremonial law of Moses and how it witnesses to Christ. However, it is equally the case with what we call the moral law, those commandments that are summarized with the Ten Commandments. It also witnesses to Christ, especially in the fact that he is the only perfect law-keeping man ever to have walked on the face of the earth. And of course, the gospel is all about Christ from first to last, about what Christ has done, his perfect obedience and suffering, his resurrection and ascension. Law and gospel find their meeting point in Jesus Christ, for his law keeping and curse bearing are part of the gospel for us.

Last of all, there is a similarity between the law and the gospel in that both have a place in the life of a believer. No one should understand this distinction between law and gospel to mean that there is no call for believers to live according to God’s Word. In fact, when we believe in Jesus Christ, the law takes on a new function. The old function of pointing us continually to Christ is still there – that’s why we read the Ten Commandments every Sunday. But there is an added function and that’s as the guide for the expression of our thankfulness. For believers, the law points us to the gospel, and then the gospel points us back to the law, but now with the law in a different light. Now the law is not something that condemns, but something that shapes our Christian walk. The gospel is the power of life and holiness, and the law serves to structure Christian holiness. So, distinguishing law and gospel is not meant to say that the law no longer has any bearing on how we live. We call that antinomianism, being against the law, and we don’t want to go in that direction. There are enough commands in Scripture addressed to Christians to demonstrate that the law is still relevant for us today. If you want a clear example, have a look at the last four chapters of the book of Romans and see how many commands are there.

There you have three ways in which the law and the gospel are similar. And again, I could have mentioned several more, but three will suffice for today. I think the big question on many minds at this point will be: so what? So let me briefly explain why this law and gospel distinction matters for Christians, for you and for your families.

Loved ones, it’s important to get this right because confusion on this point will ultimately distract us away from Christ and his perfect work of redemption. When we are confused on law and gospel, one of two things may result: if we flatten everything in the Bible and in the Christian faith out to law, we end up with this idea that it’s up to us to contribute something to our salvation. As some have said in recent times, we get in by God’s grace but we stay in by our works. That’s the view that may result when everything becomes law. On the other end, if we flatten everything in the Bible out to gospel, the gospel is stripped of its meaning. The gospel only has meaning because the law was broken. If there is no law, there is no gospel. If there is no law, Christ came for no good reason. Then his life and death were in vain. Then we’re back to how theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described Protestant liberalism: a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross. Unfortunately, that view is becoming more and more descriptive of Christianity across the board in North America.

At the end of the day, the law and gospel distinction is part of God’s revelation to keep us focused on Christ. The law drives us to the Christ presented in the gospel. Getting confused on this point or flattening out this distinction has never helped anyone fix their eyes on Christ. And that’s what we want to do, isn’t it? Hebrews 3:1 says, “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.”

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father,

We thank you for the revelation of your Word. We thank you for the law which reveals you as holy, just and good. We thank you that the law points us outside of ourselves to Jesus Christ. Whenever we read or hear your holy law, help us to be convicted of our sin and to fix our thoughts on Jesus. O Lord God, we thank you for the gospel. We thank you for your words of promise, telling us that Christ has done everything for us so that we may be accepted by you. Please give us more grace so that as often we hear the gospel, we accept it and believe it. We ask you to hear us in the name of Jesus, our only Saviour, AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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