Beliefs

Law and Gospel Distinct, but not Opposed

“You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Lev 18.4-5; emphasis added).1

As I was traveling home one day after work I flipped on a Christian AM radio broadcast out of Columbus, OH, and the host at the time (a retired minister) gave some very good advice. He said, “The devil is in the extremes.” His point is that straying to the left or the right gets us off the path that God intends for us to walk.

What I have found over the better part of a decade in preaching ministry is that Christians seem to either tip to one side of the other when it comes to God’s Law-Word. Either they get really nervous and begin to think you’re bordering on heretical teaching when you start speaking of the Law of God as a requirement; or, they embrace the Law in such a fashion that their obedience to it is what saves them, not Christ. Both positions are false.

The Law and the Gospel are distinct, but they are in no way in opposition with one another.

The Law of God is always placed before mankind in covenantal status. All people have a covenantal status with God. They are either covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers. We must not view the Law of God as given outside of the covenant.

When Adam sinned he did so as a creature in covenant with his Creator God. As the first man God placed upon him the responsibility of the human race. The command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1.28) was not fulfilled until after the testing period in the garden in Eden (Gen 3). Adam named his wife Eve because she was to be the mother of all living; this took place after the Fall. It was Adam’s response to the Law-Word of God that determined the outcome for his progeny. His choice of acknowledging and submitting to the authority of God’s Word alone determined the type of inheritance he was purchasing for his children. This is true because Adam was stationed as the head of humanity by God, his obedience or transgression would have lasting consequences on all his children.

Rather than listening to the voice of God, Adam chose to listen to the voice of a fellow creature (his wife) and his own heart (he made his own choice, no one made him do it)—Gen 3:12, 17. This act of rebellion against the Creator earned Adam and his children after him the position of being covenant-breakers. In the language of the apostle Paul we read that it was Adam’s transgression that ushered “sin…into the world… and death through sin” and this “spread to all men [i.e. people] because all sinned” (Rom 5.12. In short, Adam’s trespass brought condemnation to all men for through him all his children became sinners (cf. Rom 5.16-20). Which means that in Adam our covenantal relationship with God is broken, but the standard NEVER changed!

The problem is not the Law of God.

How could it be when God’s Law is described as holy, good and spiritual (cf. Rom 7.12, 14)? What then is the problem? The problem is found in our hearts and minds. For what impure thing could ever come from the Holy God when it is man that is declared impure (cf. Job 9.2; 25.4)? The promise given to Adam was that if he did well, he would live (cf. Gen 2.16-17).2 The same promise is what we see given in the Leviticus 18:4-5 passage quoted above. The promise is that if we do what is good we will live—”the person who does them shall live by them.”

There is a problem, however, that arises. Just one infraction against the Law of God on one point is to be guilty of breaking all of it. As James the apostle explains to the Christians he is writing to in the first century demonstrates:

  • “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jam 2.10; cf. Deut 27.26).

The truth of the matter is this, “without [holiness] no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12.4; HCSB). Perfect obedience to the Law of God equals eternal life. If you do all that the Law instructs you, life is promised. If you are able to do this you will be (not strive to be—you will be) “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48).

Yet it is here where we identify the root problem. Human beings fail to do this very thing:

  • “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God [why?], for it does not submit to God’s law [why?]; indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8.7-8).3

Pay attention to the word “cannot” for it adds greater depth to the phrase “does not” before it. The reason the natural person (the way they are born into this world) “does not” keep the Law of God, the Holy Spirit says through Paul, is because he/she “cannot”—they (we) are unable to do so. This text reveals our own inability as human beings to follow the instructional voice of God because of (due to) our natural hostility to the Lord. God speaks and people by their very nature rebel. The commandment of God comes and we are appalled. Not only do we not keep the Law of God because we do not want to, we do not want to because we are not able.

This is the foundation of why it is said that when man is confronted with the Law of God our mouths are shut. We have nothing to boast in, because we are by nature rebels at heart. We demonstrate that we are covenant-breakers rather than covenant-keepers at every point in response to God’s Law-Word:

  • “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God [why?]. For the works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3.19-20; emphasis added).

The Holy Scriptures are adamant on this point; the Law of God proves that we are sinners. The Law of God which promises life to those who obey all of it brings forth condemnation to the whole human race because of our inability to keep it.

The reason this is important is…?

We need to understand our current relationship as God’s creatures. Our internal relationship towards God will determine our internal/external reaction to Gods Law-Word. In Adam we are all covenant-breakers; that’s our status. In Christ people become covenant-keepers; that’s the new status, not because of what we do, but only because of what He has done as our representative head.

Jesus obeyed the Law of God perfectly. He never sinned. Therefore, his life of holiness is what enables God to remain both just and the justifier; giving to the offspring of Christ the status through inheritance that He alone enjoyed—i.e. Holiness leading to life; eternally.

  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2Cor 5.17-18).

Why does the Bible say this?

Our standing before God as covenant-keepers has been changed, by what Christ’s life purchased on our behalf.

  • “For our sake he made him…” Who made who? God the Father made the Son… “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor 5.21).
  • “He himself bore our sins in his body on a tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1Pet 2.24).

Righteousness speaks of living-rightly; something we in Adam are incapable of doing as the Law of God demonstrates. Holiness speaks of being separated from sin, purity; something we in Adam are incapable of having as the Law of God demonstrates. And in that state we will never see the Lord (Heb 12.14).

The standard of righteousness and holiness did not change when Adam fell. The requirement still stands:

  • “The one who does them [i.e. obedience to the Law] shall live by them [i.e. promise to continue living]” (Gal 3.12; emphasis added; cf. v.10).

But, we “don’t” and we “can’t” obey the Law of God that is our condition as covenant-breakers, and so…

  • “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the [nations; peoples]4, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gen 3.13-14).

**This is the gospel of God.

The Law and gospel are distinct, but they are not opposed to one another.

The standard of God for righteousness and holiness did not change when in Adam we all became covenant-breakers (i.e. sinners). However, due to our unwillingness and inability to do what is right so that we might live, the Father sent the Son into the world to save His people from their sins (cf. Matt 1.21). This transaction by God the Father on account of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit changed our status before God as covenant-keepers. Jesus became our new head replacing the former one (cf. 1Cor 11.3; 15.22).

With these things in mind—having set the stage so to speak—I want to speak on a few things related to the Law of God and the misunderstandings in terms of the supposed “harshness” or “awfulness” regarding it that I touched on when examining some philosopher’s arguments not long ago. Until then, God bless.

___________________________

ENDNOTES:

1 All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

2 All of God’s Laws have both a positive and negative aspect attributed to them. These are not always stated, but are implied. For example, the commandment not to steal means to enjoy the property that God has provided you. The commandment not to murder means to cherish and protect the life given by God to mankind. The command not to covet what is your neighbors means to covet (desire) that which God has provided you and what God alone can give which leads to contentment. Unfortunately, we do not take the time to mull over all the implications of the Law of God and so, as a result, we miss the full scope of the goodness that God has given us.

3 If you want to know why Paul reaches this conclusion, or if you are confused as to what it means to be “in the flesh,” I would suggest that you go back and read the chapters that lead up to this categorical statement. The scope of this post does not permit me to delve into it. If you would like my reasoning, feel free to ask and I will attempt to respond in a reasonable time frame.

4 The Greek term is “ethnos” which is defined as in a variety of ways, but carries the generalized meaning of nation or people groups. In the O.T. the concept regarded all “foreign nations not worshiping the true God….” Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001. Paul’s point here is that what Christ did fulfilled the promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (cf. Gen 17.4). These true offspring of Abraham were not physical descendants, but children of the promise which is Paul’s argument throughout the Galatian epistle. As seen in Gal 4 and the argument given in regards to Isaac and Ishmael.

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