Law and Gospel: the Two Parts of Scripture

One of the fun perks of living and going to church in a large city like Chicago is that my church is often able to welcome distinguished Bible scholars to teach Sunday school or preach. This past Sunday morning, I enjoyed listening to Dr. Douglas Sweeney teach Sunday school on the life of Jonathan Edwards. Dr. Sweeney has specialized in understanding Edwards’ historical context and his impact on American Christianity.

Image by Jose Llamas
Image by Jose Llamas

I was fascinated to hear Dr. Sweeney talk about the society that Edwards was born into: an “officially” Christian society in which the law required outward Christian living. Church attendance was required, fornication was punishable by law, husbands could be charged for not leading their families in daily family devotions.

This environment played a big role in Edwards’ high concern for true conversion, because he perceived that he saw everywhere nominal Christians going through the motions–outwardly living a moral Christian life because it was required of them, but never having been changed by the Holy Spirit.


If you are a student of church history, you’re probably already familiar with The Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards played a big role in this revival, which, for better or worse (probably some of both), spread quickly throughout the American colonies. Without recounting the entire history, I’ll zero in on the particular events that caught my attention last Sunday morning: the suicides that took place in Northampton in 1735.

With the revival spreading in New England, there was a strong emphasis on inner conversion, marked by emotional experience and a sense of devotion to piety. Much of evangelicalism today is still characterized by these same emphases.

In the community of Northampton where Edwards ministered, there were tragically some people who began struggling with depression in response to what felt like a great pressure to experience these inner feelings of transformation. These people were honest with themselves that they were not having the kinds of experiences that were being emphasized by the movement as marks of true conversion. They were plagued with questions and guilt: Why am I still struggling with sin? Why don’t I have the affections and desires for piety being described by the ministers? Am I simply beyond salvation? Several of these people either attempted or succeeded at committing suicide. Not surprisingly, the community was deeply affected.

Law and Gospel

Listening to this story last Sunday, my mind could not help but drift to thinking about law-gospel distinction and what a difference it makes as a Christian to hear the gospel clearly preached, without being commingled with law. It’s not that the law isn’t important–it is. It’s just that the law isn’t the gospel and the gospel isn’t the law. They serve two different functions, both of which are necessary. Theodore Beza famously wrote on these two kinds of “words” found in scripture:

On this subject we call the “Word of God” (for we know well that the Eternal Son of God is also so named) the canonical books of the Old and New Testament; for they proceed from the mouth of God Himself.

We divided this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.” For, all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings.

What we call Law (when it is distinguished from Gospel and is taken for one of the two parts of the Word) is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts. However, so that we may have a more exact knowledge, it was written by God on two Tables and is briefly comprehended in ten commandments. In these He sets out for us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to His majesty and our neighbours. This on contrasting terms: either perpetual life, if we perfectly keep the Law without omitting a single point, or eternal death, if we do not completely fulfill the contents of each commandment (Deut. 30:15-20; James 2:10).

What we call the Gospel (“Good News”) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Matt. 16:17; John 1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom. 3:20-22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time He renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor. 2:4).”

The gospel, properly and technically speaking, is the good news that Jesus Christ has done for sinners what they could not do for themselves. When we talk about law-gospel distinction and refer to a portion of scripture as “gospel” rather than “law,” we’re saying that this portion of scripture fits into the category of telling us what Christ has done, promises us a Savior, etc., rather than compelling us to do something. Explained simply, the law commands; the gospel promises. The law is what we do; the gospel is what Jesus Christ has already done.

We Need Both Law and Gospel

Since we know that the scripture contains both law and gospel, we know that we need both of these two types of words. The law crushes us by commanding that we be perfect. Any sinner who is honest with himself knows that this is not possible, for “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). This is why it is said in Reformed theology that the first use of the law is to drive us to Christ. The second and third uses of the law (civil use and moral use) are important as well, but without the gospel clearly preached as distinct from the law and not mingled with it, we don’t have hope.

In an environment where only or mostly law is preached, it is easy to imagine that people might begin to despair and perhaps struggle with depression. Even more might this be the case if additional requirements are being added to the law, such as inward emotional experiences as a required evidence of conversion. What does it mean for the person who knows he can’t measure up? Tragically, for some in the time of the Great Awakening, it meant an extreme burden, anguish, and eventually suicide. Law without gospel is spiritually deadly.

What we really need is law preached with the gospel. When we comprehend how great the demands of the law are, we realize how futile our attempts are to earn righteousness through law keeping. It is at this point of despair that the gospel gives us hope, promising that the righteousness of Christ is ours if we trust in His perfect obedience instead of our own. Nothing else is required for saving faith but receiving and resting in His finished work. The law’s revealing to us of our failure is what makes us able to comprehend the great relief that the gospel gives us: Christ made a way for us when we were helpless to do so on our own. We rejoice with the Apostle Paul when he says “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’–and I am the worst of them.”