When Law and Gospel Meet

I have heard many times, and often lamented myself, that the Christian Church is far too often identified by what it stands against, rather than what it proclaims. As is generally the case, there are truths embedded in both extremes; ideas tend to swing like pendulums, oftentimes missing the full-orbed biblical truth in both directions.

When culture starts going to seed, two groups seem to inevitably pop up in the Christian camp. The first becomes entirely fixated on preaching “Thou Shalt Not” until they are blue in the face, and the second group becomes just as fixated on preaching a gospel of “Just as I Am”, with no mention of God’s law at all. It becomes clear, however, that both of these folks are only preaching half the story, and thus a truncated gospel.

There is a real cause for pause when we hear that it’s wrong to be known by what you’re against, precisely because this is the very way God’s commands are given. God could have, instead of revealing a “Thou Shalt Not,” revealed a “Thou Shall.” John Murray was quite right when he wrote that:

“Underlying each commandment is a sanctity. Underlying the first is the sanctity of the being of God—there is none other but he. Underlying the second is the sanctity of the worship of God—he may be worshipped only in a way that is consonant with his spirituality and his holiness, and therefore only in the way which he himself prescribed. Underlying the third is the sanctity of the name of God—the name of God expresses his glory and reverence for his being must carry with it reverence for his name. Underlying the fifth commandment is the sanctity of the parental relationship, underlying the sixth the sanctity of life, underlying the seventh the sanctity of the source of life or of the instruments for the propagation of life, underlying the eighth the sanctity of property, underlying the ninth the sanctity of truth, underlying the tenth the sanctity of individual possession.”[1]

God could have gone to Israel in the fire and smoke, and told them all the things that He was for (and, He certainly is all for these things, as Murray aptly points out). The point here is that there is nothing inherently wrong with being expressly against things, the Bible is such all the time.

Hopefully, however, the above quote also points out that the positive and the negative here are inescapably connected; you really can’t have one without the other. The folks who want to solely focus on gospel preaching without any reference to God’s law lose the radical nature of God’s grace. Sin is the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4). If we do not understand the weight of our sin, we cannot ever understand the power of God’s grace toward us in Christ. On the other hand, if we are preaching a law that does not drive us to Jesus for salvation, we are probably not preaching God’s law at all. In other words, when we set the bar at such a level that we are not convicted for lawlessness, we have set the bar far lower than God’s standard.

If the world knows what the Gospel requires repentance from, that is a good thing. All men are required to repent, and all men are required to repent for actual sins. Repentance by itself, however, does nothing if it isn’t evangelical repentance. We must turn from sin, and we must turn towards Christ for salvation. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and we cannot look anywhere else.

A high view of God’s law is necessary for a high view of God’s grace.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Collected Writings, vol. 1, page 215. Banner of Truth, 1976. The next paragraph starts, “What then is the sanctity underlying the fourth commandment? It is the sanctity of every recurring seventh day as the day of rest to the Lord.” This quote is taken from an argument for the continuing validity of the Sabbath command.
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