On the Right Use of the Law

By J. Gresham Machen

“The truth of Christianity cannot be established by the intellect unless an important part of the argument is based upon the fact of sin which is revealed by the law of God; the beauty of Jesus, which attracts the gaze of men, cannot be appreciated without a knowledge of the holiness upon which it is based; the companionship of Jesus is possible only to those who say first, in deep contrition; “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord”; the example of Jesus is powerless to those who are in the bondage of evil habit, and it is not even a perfect example unless He be the divine Redeemer that He claimed to be. The true schoolmaster to bring men to Christ is found, therefore, now and always in the law of God— the law of God that gives to men the consciousness of sin.

A new and more powerful proclamation of that law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skillful in relieving men of their burdens. Mr. Legality has indeed in our day disguised himself somewhat, but he is the same deceiver as the one of whom Bunyan wrote.

“Making Christ Master” in the life, putting into practice “the principles of Christ” by one’s own efforts these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one’s own obedience to God’s commands. And they are undertaken because of a lax view of what those commands are. So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.

(J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, p. 141-142)

HT: John Hendryx

The Abusive Power of the Law

LawR J Grune – original source he boldly wrote, “The marks of the Antichrist clearly fit the reign of the pope and his minions.”

I’m not interested in dissecting Melancthon’s actual treatise. Instead I’d like to write in the same spirit as Melancthon’s treatise – a call for Christians to not cave to the religious institutions that threaten the message of grace.

The Abusive Power of the Law in the Church

The Law isn’t bad. But the abuse and misuse of the Law in the Church is bad. And it’s not only bad, but it’s prevalent. The Church, through it’s relational and positional authority, has misused the Law and spiritually abused those already burdened by the weight of their sin. Christians are being run out of churches because they’ve become victims of an abusive, graceless system. Under the facade of biblical teaching, preachers have found a way to inflate their egos by beating up those already wounded by their sin.

The Law is a powerful word. The Law has the power to kill. The Law has the power to condemn and break down. The Law has the power to crush. And all of those are necessary – without the power of the Law, we’d never bear witness to the power of the Gospel.

The Law never exists for the sake of itself. The Law only kills so that it might bring life. It only breaks down so that it might build up. It only crushes so that it might raise us up. But instead of being brought life and being built up, people are walking out of churches, bloodied, bruised, and crushed by the weight of an impossible to-do list and the repeated exhortation to “just do it.”

C.F.W Walther, the great Law and Gospel theologian, once wrote, “As soon as the Law has done its crushing work, the Gospel is to be instantly preached or said to such a man or woman.” We need more of these kind of churches. We don’t need more churches that use their power to leave people dead. We need churches that use the power of the Gospel to bring people life.

The Dangerous Primacy of the Law in the Church

The Law not only gets misused in the abuse of power, but it gets misused in its position of primacy. The Law has become the primary message of Christianity. The primacy of the Law in the Church is anti-Christ. We don’t need more Law-centered churches, we need more cross-centered churches.

The Law is not anti-Christ, but a church that focuses on the Law certainly is. When churches make the preaching of the Law the primary message, they rob people of grace freely given. When the message is about what you need to do, you miss what Jesus does for you.

The abuse of the power of the Law is a misuse of the primary function of the Law – showing people their sin. The problem of the primacy of the Law in the church, however, is a misuse of the third use of the Law.

John Zahl recently tweeted (thanks for the inspiration to this post): “I think the problem with Calvin’s understanding of church is the primacy of the 3rd Use of the Law (i.e., as over and against 2nd Use).”

A quick survey of the most popular books, studies, and podcasts within Christianity will reveal a repeated message of “do more” and “try harder.” Preachers will quickly jump to give us the seven steps to better parenting. Writers will encourage us to step out in faith and find our dream job. And it’s not that an emphasis on parenting, vocation, or the Christian life is a bad thing – I love to write and preach about all of these. The problem is much of Christianity focuses on the Christian life instead of on Christ.

And culture multiplies this problem. The world has abandoned the Law and the church by-and-large has responded by trying to correct culture’s wrong-thinking with the teaching of biblical values and the Christian life. When culture redefines right and wrong, the Church rarely continues to preach the same repeated truth. Instead she often becomes hyper-focused on “thou shalt” and “shalt not.”

My friend Chad recently described his concern:

“What frightens me most about the ongoing moral degeneration in our country is not the lawlessness it brings, but the almost inevitable rise in law-centered preaching that slithers into churches in response to it. That is not to say that we should abandon preaching the law. But the church does the culture no good when she neglects, or gives only lip service, to the centrality of Christ crucified and risen for a world that went mad long ago.”

The moment we center our teachings on the Law, we miss the Gospel and we fail to give our people the power to do what is commanded. And the moment the Law is within our own reach, we’ve dumbed down the Law and simultaneously eliminated our need for the crucified and risen Savior.

The Law, no matter how we spin it, always accuses. This is the danger of making the Law primary. Even when the message of the Law is intended to speak to the Christian life, it will burden and crush the conscience. In fact, the more specific the application of the third use of the Law, the more direct the condemnation for the sinner who fails to obey. For example, “Love your wife,” is a very specific call to obedience. As a Christian it exhorts me in how I am to live, but it also calls me to repentance, not just in a general way but in a very specific one. Vocation on one hand is the most freeing of doctrines, yet it also accuses me very directly – it doesn’t just say “love your neighbor,” it tells me which ones.

The Power and the Primacy of the Gospel

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The Law has power, but it doesn’t have the power to save. The Law has influence, but it doesn’t truly change our hearts. The Law does a work, but it doesn’t do the same work.

It’s time that our churches use the powerful Word given to us in order to “proclaim good news to the poor…[and] to proclaim liberty to the captives.” The death and resurrection of Jesus gives hope to the hopeless and sets the captives free. Sin, death, and devil have no power that can compare to the power of the Gospel. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to sin, we are sons and daughters of our Father. This message is primary. It’s this message that Jesus and the apostles taught. It’s this message that the reformers fought for. And it’s this message that pastors, writers, and teachers will continue to proclaim.

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:2

Law and Gospel

David-MichelangeloThe Good News About The Bad News – an article by R J Grunewald (original source the Law’s work is to expose sin. If the Gospel is the Good News, the Law is the Bad News.

Despite the negative function of the Law, the Law is not bad. The Law is good even when it makes us feel bad. Even when the Law functions for the purpose of exposing our sin, it does not exist for the end goal of your exposure.

The end goal of the Law is always the Gospel.

The Hammer in the Hand of an Artist

In 1501, a young man by the name of Michelangelo began to destroy a valuable slab of marble. He cut, he hammered, and he carved, leaving piece after piece of valuable marble on the ground to be swept away. For months upon months, Michelangelo used the destructive force of the hammer to get rid of extra rock.

Cutting, carving, and hammering a valuable piece of marble is a bad idea. Unless that cutting, carving, and hammering is done at the hands of an artist. A hammer is a tool of destruction unless in the hands of a master artist chipping away at a masterpiece.

The Law is a hammer in the hands of the Master Artist.

In Ephesians Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” One of the tools in the belt of the Master Artist is the Law, a tool that hammers, cuts, and carves in order that the Gospel might reveal a new creation.

At times the hammer swings swiftly and strongly. The hammer swings with force in order to clear away as much marble as possible. The hammer swings accusing our conscience smashing against our pride and arrogance. The hammer swings with the goal of convicting the sinner. The Law swings with force in order to reveal what we really look like. It shatters our self-made images when we realize we aren’t as good as we think we are. It cuts away the excess when we realize that we can’t measure up to God’s demands.

At other times the hammer is more like a mallet, gently exposing our sins and failures. The mallet smooths out the rough edges. It gently causes you to look at yourself and ask, “What kind of husband am I? What kind of neighbor or coworker am I? What kind of friend am I?”

These questions are the work of the Law. They reveal what we really look like and reveal where we are more a piece of work than a work of art.

Notice the demands the Law makes. These are all good things. The Law isn’t bad. In fact, it might even be difficult to consider the importance of being a better parent or husband Law. This is because we are so ingrained with thinking Law equals bad.

“Be a better husband” is Law. It’s good. It’s important. But it’s still Law.

And the Law always accuses.

For example, “Be a better husband.”

If you are a crummy husband, you’re going to feel guilty when I tell you to be a better husband. If you got in a fight with you’re wife this morning, you’re going to think of all the ways you should’ve handled that situation differently. If you had a marriage that ended poorly, you’re going to be filled with regret.

“Be a better husband” immediately exposes your failures. It might swing in harshly making you feel like you’ve been punched in the chest with guilt. Or it might gently tap away reminding you of conversations or attitudes.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The new creation comes with the passing of the old. The destruction of the old materials leaves a masterpiece rising from the ruins. The death that comes at the hands of the Law is followed by the resurrection that comes in the beauty of the Gospel.

This is why Herman Stuempfle in Preaching Law and Gospel said, “the Law is never terminal.”

When Michelangelo began cutting, carving, and hammering a slab of marble his goal was never to destroy the slab. His goal was what he completed in 1504, the masterpiece sculpture of David. The work of the Law is never the end goal. The Law always exists for the masterpiece that comes by the work of the Gospel.

The Law and the Gospel

Dr. John MacArthur:


Well tonight we’re going to turn to a very, very important subject, the Law and the Gospel…the Law and the Gospel. In the general picture out there of evangelicalism today, there is certainly much said about God’s love, much said about God’s mercy, much said about His grace. There is a great emphasis on the fact that God forgives, that He empowers. Almost nothing is said about the Law of God, about the judgment of God, about the heinousness of violating His Law, and the just consequences of such a violation.

And so, in a sense the gospel which means the good news is stripped of what it is really good because people don’t know what is really bad, which makes the good news such good news. The bad news is that all people are under the Law of God, they’re under obligation to obey that Law. They are all violators of that Law, therefore they come under true guilt and with guilt comes condemnation and with condemnation comes punishment, and that punishment is everlasting. The Gospel cannot be understood as good news, until people understand what it is that the Gospel delivers them from, namely the bad news of eternal punishment which is a just punishment on a truly guilty sinner. People are trying to get other folks into heaven while at the same time avoiding telling them they’re on their way to hell. Trying to get them to accept what is good for them, without understanding the truth about what is so bad for them.

And were you to ask the question to people out there as they looked at evangelicalism and listened to the general message that Christians give, if you posed the question…What does Jesus save you from?…they might say, “loneliness, depression, poverty, lack of purpose, lack of meaning, lack of fulfillment, etc.” cause they do not understand guilt, condemnation that comes because of a violation of His Law.

Scripture, however, is very clear that anyone who is to grasp the greatness of the gospel must first grasp the greatness of judgment of sin. Salvation by grace means little to those who know nothing of damnation under the Law.

So, the divine order is Law, then Gospel. And there is a reluctance on the part of evangelical people today to talk about the Law of God because it makes people feel bad and they think it makes the Gospel less attractive, when, in fact, it is necessary to make them feel bad, really bad because that generates the true attraction to the gospel. We understand that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, Ephesians 2:8 and 9. We understand that salvation is never by works but always by grace through faith. All who are saved from eternal damnation at all times in redemptive history are saved by faith and grace apart from the Law. This is the repeated testimony of Scripture. In the Old Testament, Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. Or Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Or in Habakkuk, the just shall live by faith. This is not a New Testament truth, this is a universal truth throughout all of redemptive history. Salvation…deliverance from condemnation, eternal punishment comes by God’s grace through faith. Continue reading

The Inflexible Schoolmaster

The Protestant Reformers were so certain of the importance of this doctrine (of Law and Gospel) that they declared that without it no one would be able to make sense out of Scripture. Martin Luther even declared of the person ignorant of this distinction that “you cannot be altogether sure whether he is a Christian or a Jew or a pagan, for it depends on this distinction.” – Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, trans. by Theodore G. Tappert, (New York: Harper & Bros., 1938). p. 114. Elsewhere Luther wrote, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”

“The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.” – C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.

Theodore Beza said that “confusion of law and gospel is one of the principal sources of the corruptions in the church.” Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said the same. The Bible will be an impenetrable mystery as long as we are confused about this.

The Law Keeping Redeemer

OldTestamentNick Batzig is the church planter of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Ga. Nick has written numerous articles for Tabletalk Magazine, Reformation 21, and is published in Jonathan Edwards and Scotland (Dunedin, 2011) In addition, Nick is the host of East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. He writes:

One of the most important of all the statements about the birth of Jesus is that He was “born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). The one who gave the Law on Sinai was, “in the fulness of time,” born under the Law. Of course, in making this declaration the question is raised, “Why was the One who gave the Law born under the Law?” After all, there was no Divine necessity for God to become man and to be made subject to His own Law. The answer comes on the heel of the statement when the Apostle explained that it was in order that Christ might, “redeem those who were under the Law.” In short, Jesus’ law-keeping was an absolutely necessary component of our redemption. Consider the following ways in which this plays out in the Gospel record:

1. At His Birth

At eight days, Jesus was circumcised according to the Law. He took to Himself the covenant sign–a bloody sign that pointed to His death on the cross. Circumcision promised the cleansing of the heart of sinful man by a bloody cutting away. The One who had the sign of circumcision was promised covenant blessings and curses. Either he would have the filth of his heart cut away by the bloody judgment that would fall on Christ or he would be cut off from the land of the living in the judgment of God. Though Jesus had no sin, and therefore had no need of the promise of the cutting away of the filth of the heart, he took to himself the sign because He would become the sin bearer for us. Paul tells us that, for Jesus, the cross was a bloody circumcision. Christ took the sign to himself as a boy to fulfill the demands of the law and to have a constant reminder that he was the one who would bear the curse of the law for His people.

At forty days, Jesus was brought into the Temple and was present to the Lord according to the custom of the Law. Mary came and sacrificed to set apart her son to the Lord. He was sanctified by the offering that pointed to Himself (though he needed no sanctification because of personal sin) because he was the sin-bearing substitute of His people. Isaac Ambrose captured this idea so well when he wrote:

There was no impurity in the Son of God, and yet he is first circumcised; and then he is brought, and offered to the Lord. He that came to be sin for us, would in our persons be legally unclean, that by satisfying the law, he might take away our uncleanness. He that was above the law, would come under the law, that he might free us from the law. We are all born sinners; but O the unspeakable mercies of our Jesus, that provides a remedy as early as our sin: first, he is conceived; and then he is born, to sanctify our conceptions and our births: and after his birth, he is first circumcised, and then he is presented to the Lord; that by two holy acts, that which was naturally unholy might be hallowed unto God. Christ hath not left our very infancy without redress, but by himself thus offered he cleanseth us presently from our filthiness.1

2. As a Boy

We are told that Jesus, at age 12, stayed behind in the Temple where He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Continue reading

Law and Gospel (in one sentence)

“… every intelligent creature is under an unchangeable and unalienable obligation, perfectly to obey the whole law of God: that all men proceeding from Adam by ordinary generation, are the children of polluted parents, alienated in heart from God, transgressors of his holy law, inexcusable in this transgression, and therefore exposed to the dreadful consequence of his displeasure; that it was not agreeable to the dictates of his wisdom, holiness and justice, to forgive their sins without an atonement or satisfaction: and therefore he raised up for them a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who, as the second Adam, perfectly fulfilled the whole law, and offered himself up a sacrifice upon the cross in their stead: that this his righteousness is imputed to them, as the sole foundation of their reception into his favor: that the means of their being interested in this salvation, is a deep humiliation of mind, confession of guilty and wretchedness, denial of themselves, and acceptance of pardon and peace through Christ Jesus, which they neither have contributed to the procuring, nor can contribute to the continuance of, by their own merit; but expect the renovation of their natures, to be inclined and enabled to keep the commandments of God as the work of the Spirit, and a part of the purchase of their Redeemer.”

– John Witherspoon, Essay on Justification, 1756, Works, 1:50-51

Seven Hours of Dividing Lines

Throughout 2014, while Dr. James White has been away on various ministry trips, I have had the distinct honor and privilege of guest-hosting his “Dividing Line” broadcasts. This allowed me the opportunity of teaching on some major doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith. Here are the youtube videos (all in one place):

Hour 1. “Law and Gospel.”

Hour 2. “The Five Solas of the Reformation.”

Hour 3. The “T” in the TULIP, “Total Depravity.”:

Hour 4. The “U” in the TULIP, “Unconditional Election.”

Hour 5. The “L” in the TULIP, “Limited Atonement.”

Hour 6. July, 2014: Continuing on from Dividing Line broadcasts earlier in the year, here is teaching on the “I” in the TULIP, “Irresistible Grace.”

Hour 7. July, 2014: The conclusion of the TULIP series – the Perseverance (or Preservation) of the Saints:

Law and Gospel: Avoiding both Antinomianism and Legalism

Law-Gospel2-175x150Tullian Tchividjian writes the following article entitled, Legalism and the Relationship Between Law and Gospel”:

There is some talk these days regarding big terms like antinomianism (a word coined by Martin Luther which simply means “anti-law”) and legalism. I’ve written about that at the center of any discussion regarding antinomianism and legalism is how one understands the Biblical distinction between God’s law and God’s gospel. I hope the following thoughts are helpful and further this important conversation. The theological lifting here is a bit heavy, but I think it’s worth your time and effort to think on these things.

One of the problems in the current conversation regarding the relationship between law and gospel is that the term “law” is not always used to mean the same thing. This is understandable since in the Bible “law” does not always mean the same thing.

For example, in Psalm 40:8 we read: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” Here the law is synonymous with God’s revealed will. A Christian seeking to express their love for God and neighbor delights in those passages that declare what God’s will is. When, however, Paul tells Christians that they are no longer under the law (Rom. 6:14) he obviously means more by law than the revealed will of God. He’s talking there about Christians being free from the curse of the law-not needing to depend on adherence to the law to establish our relationship to God: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).

So, it’s not as simple as you might think. For short hand, I think it’s helpful to say that law is anything in the Bible that says “do”, while gospel is anything in the Bible that says “done”; law equals imperative and gospel equals indicative. However, when you begin to parse things out more precisely, you discover some important nuances that should significantly help the conversation forward so that people who are basically saying the same thing aren’t speaking different languages and talking right past one another.

Discussion of the law and its three uses (1) usus theologicus (drives us to Christ), (2) usus politicus (the civil use), and (3) usus practicus (revealing of God’s will for living) are helpful. But I’ve discovered that this outline all by itself raises just as many questions to those I talk to as it does provide answers. Continue reading