The Distinction Between Law and Gospel (Part 1)

“There is no point on which men make greater mistakes than on the relation which exists between the law and the gospel.This is a quote from well-known preacher Charles Spurgeon. Most can easily understand the first part. An area of Christian theology is being highlighted that is often accompanied by mistakes. In fact, this area, whatever it is, is where the greatest mistakes in theology are made.

It is the particular area of focus that may sound foreign to many, though. The area in focus is the “relation which exists between the law and the gospel.” What does that mean? What does Spurgeon mean by “the law and the gospel”? Whatever that is, Spurgeon is saying if you do not understand how the law and the gospel relate, you will make the biggest mistakes you can make in theology.

While the Bible is a single, unified story from beginning to end, throughout the story God communicates two words or messages. One is Law and the other is Gospel (Good News). God’s Law is everything that commands and demands. When the Bible calls you to be a righteous, good, and holy person, you are hearing the Law. When the Bible says you should not murder, steal, lie, or commit adultery, you are hearing the Law. The Law, as a whole, demands persistent, perpetual, pervasive, perfection. It calls you to be a certain kind of person who lives a certain kind of way, all the time.

The Law not only demands but with its demands comes punishment for law-breakers. If you are not perfect, if you break the Law in any way, you are a law-breaker. And no one goes unseen in lawlessness. The threat of the Law is God’s wrath, judgment, and curse for all sinners. There is no grace and there is no mercy in the Law. Either you do it and you live or you break it and you die. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” (Gal. 3:10).

If you heard the last two paragraphs, if you really heard them, then you are hoping that in the Bible there is a second word. You are hoping there is some good news somewhere in the Bible. And thank God, there is. The story of the Bible communicates not only the Law but the Gospel. God’s Gospel is the message that does not command or demand. It is a message not about who you are and what you should do but who Jesus is and what He has done for you. The Gospel is about the persistent, perpetual, and pervasive perfection of Jesus Christ, for you. The Gospel does not call you to be a certain kind of person who lives a certain kind of way but rather tells you of a certain person, Jesus Christ, who lived a certain kind of way for you. Jesus fulfilled the Law’s demands perfectly.

But what about the curse of the Law for law-breakers? Jesus took it. Jesus fulfilled the Law in your place to give you His righteousness. Then He died in your place, taking your curse. Through faith in Him, there is no more curse, judgment, or damnation. You are seen by God as the righteousness of Jesus Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

With that foundation laid, we can see how great mistakes are made when we mix and mingle the Law and the Gospel. In other words, if we think, “Yes, the Law demands perfection but no one is perfect! Surely God will overlook some of my common errors”, we are making the Law gracious and merciful. We are trying to make the Law give us mercy. We are trying to insert Good News into the Law. “Good News, you don’t have to be perfect, that’s a bit much!” This means we do not need salvation by Christ alone because we already have some grace coming from the Law itself.

Let’s look at it the other way. If we think, “If you want to be saved, if you want to become a Christian, just believe in Jesus and obey His commands”, we just inserted into the Gospel a component of the Law. Suddenly the Gospel is now comes with a condition of law. But how is it Good News that I need to obey Jesus’ commands (the Law)? That is my exact problem! That is what I need saving from! I need Jesus to fully obey God’s commands for me because I have totally fallen short.

The Law and the Gospel are both God’s Word. But they are totally distinct and accomplish totally different things. The Law rightly commands us to be righteous people and live righteous lives, loving God and loving our neighbor perfectly. The Gospel commands nothing of us but simply delivers the staggering news that Jesus, in our place, fulfilled the Law, died our death, and rose to give us new life. The Gospel is all grace. That is why our salvation, our only hope in life and death, is not in the Law and our works in the slightest but only in the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For more on Law and Gospel, check out our podcast series on it here!