Law and Gospel: The Reformed View

I’ve been reading the book, Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. S.N. Gundry (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI – 1996) which presents five different views of the Law and in some cases and to varying degrees it’s relation to the gospel. The authors and topics covered are:

* Willem A. VanGemeren – The Law is The Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective
* Greg L. Bahnsen – The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel
* Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. – The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness
* Wayne G. Strickland – The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View
* Douglas J. Moo – The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View

This book is part of the “Counterpoints” series put out by Zondervan. It compares, contrasts, and critiques the views of a certain theological issue, the Law and Gospel in this case, by having leaders of different views each submit their explanation and defense of their own view after which the other authors commend or critique the defense. This is done for all five of the above authors. I find this series to be very informative and enlightening as to different views on specific theological topics or issues. Kyle McCallum also recently blogged on a book from this Counterpoints series for his LTC book report on the topic of sanctification [].

Up to this point I have read the first two sections dealing with two Reformed positions, the classical (VanGemeren) and the theonomic or reconstructionist (Bahnsen). The former espouses to be the traditional reformed view whereas the latter is more extreme in that the view of the Law is not merely applied in the personal moral sphere but also to the political (secular government) sphere as well.

Though these guys have much to say, it seems to me that the essential view of the reformed camp is that:

a. God is good,

b. His Law reflects His morality the best if not completely (at least for us), especially in the 10 Commandments (Ex 20:2-17) which is essentially viewed as general apodictic laws that are timeless (p. 30, 53),

c. His Law still is in force (continuity of Covenantal Theology), and

d. We should or must follow the Law in order to obey God and grow in a relationship with Him.

The classical reformed view applies this to the individual believer whereas the theonomist extends this to the civil sector, i.e., the Law should be the basis for secular government in a creation where the Creator God is Ruler of all. There certainly is no argument with (a).With regard to (b), Jesus definitely interprets and expounds on the Law in order to bring out that which is most important to God: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:37-39) and to go even further by giving a new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). More will be said on this in a future blog as we explore the other views. However, I am going to focus on (c) and (d) in this little blog.

What Part of the Law Still Applies Today?

Now, no one believes the entire Law of Moses is directly applicable today. At the very least all accept that the ceremonial (e.g., sacrificial system) has been fulfilled in Christ. This leads to one of the more confusing aspects of the reformed argument, what part of the “the Law” is “the Law” when referred to in the New Testament? Typically, the Law is divided into three sections by the Reformed school: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The classical reformed view views the civil (that applying to the government of nation Israel) and the ceremonial (circumcision, temple, priestly service, & sacrificial system) as being abrogated (p. 53). The theonomic view holds that much of the civil still applies today (Bahnsen’s article). However, one can see the difficulty not only practically but theologically as well in trying to apply theocratic-based laws intended solely for God’s select nation Israel to a secular democracy (Kaiser does a good job of pointing this out in his critique of Bhansen).

It’s pretty obvious then that deciding on what part of the Law continues on and what ends in Old Testament times is largely arbitrary. I think Moo (p. 88) cleverly brought this out in his critique of VanGemeren’s article by bringing up the issue of the Sabbath commandment (number 4 of 10). VanGermemen never did mention the Sabbath commandment but was clear that the Ten Commandments (10C) are viewed as eternally moral and binding (p.53ff.). But what of the Sabbath? Traditional reformed teaching is that the Sabbath is celebrated on the first day of the week rather than the “seventh” (as prescribed in Ex 20:11) to commemorate the resurrection. But Moo astutely points out, “worshipping on the first day of the week is not what the fourth commandment requires: It explicitly requires cessation of work on the seventh day” which is certainly not being applied. Clearly then, either the 10C are not “the eternal moral law of God” or the “eternal moral law of God” is subject to revision. Obviously the former must be true. In other words, the 10C, in their Mosaic form, were not eternally binding on all people everywhere.

The role of the Law in the Believers life

According to the reformed camp, there are three uses of the Law: (1) as a pedagogue it instructs sinners concerning the will of God, usus elenchticus (2) power to restrain us by reminding us of the consequences of our disobedience (1 Tim 1:9-10), usus politicus and (3) an instrument of the HS to teach believers to understand and do God’s will, sometimes as a ‘rigorous enforcement officer’ to bring us into conformity w/God’s will, usus in renatis or usus normativus which is considered the most important use of the law (p. 52-53). Interestingly, very little Scripture reference is given for the latter use, the role of the Law in the Believer’s life. Most of the references in this section are to Calvin’s Institutes (CI), the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), or commentators on the two. For example here is a quote from page 52 of VanGemeren’s article in Five Views:

God is Spirit, and his law is by definition spiritual. His purpose was to lift the minds of the saints before Christ from the ceremonies and institutions to himself, because only “spiritual worship delights him” [CI 2.7.1]. Moreover, the Spirit of God is the “inner light”, who works in the believers to make the law a joy. The demands of the law are such that they require a love for God and the power of the Holy Spirit: “The love of the Law thus created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit is a sure sign of our regeneration and adoption.” [Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, 1959 p. 121]. Otherwise the law becomes a burden and unprofitable.

What then is the power of the moral law since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? … Positively, the law has the power to exhort believers to “shake off their sluggishness, by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection,” [CI, 2.7.14]. As such the law remains inviolable. By its teachings, admonishments, reproofs, and corrections, the law is the instrument of growth in faith and sanctification (2 Tim 3:16-17). [CI 2.7.14]

The only Scriptural reference is 2Tim 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. [NASB]

It doesn’t say “The Law” or “All Law”, it says “All Scripture”, i.e., all of the Bible, the revealed Word of God. This certainly includes the Law, but everything else as well. The Law certainly is good for teaching, reproof, correction and training, as is the rest of Scripture, since it contains God’s truths and eternal principles, but not as a code of ethics to be followed for the purpose of sanctification. In fact the passages in the New Testament concerning the Law focus on our getting out from under the Law and rather focusing on Christ. Consider Paul’s argument in Gal 3 through 5:

Gal 3:24-25 = “no longer under a tutor” (i.e., the Law)

Gal 4:8, “no longer a slave, but a son”

Gal 5:1-4 “It was freedom that Christ set us free… do not be subject to a yoke of slavery… if you receive Circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you… he is under obligation to keep the whole Law… severed from Christ you who are seeking to be justified by law … For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”.

The focus we are to have is on faith in Christ and the working of His Holy Spirit in our lives to transform us (Gal 5:5, Rom 6-8 and 12:1,2) from the inside out, not an external code to follow. Now to be fair, the Reformed camp would say they are not saying that focusing on the Law is for justification and that Paul is arguing against the legalists of his day. But where in the New Testament are we ever called to follow the Law as a means of spiritual growth? We are called to focus on the New Commandment (e.g., Gal 5:13,14; 1 Thes 4:9; Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 3:23, 4:7) and take part in the New Covenant (Hebrews 7-10), which replaces the Old Covenant (Hebrews 7:22, 8:6, 8:13, 9:15). More will be said on the “New Commandment” and the role of the Holy Spirit in future blogs as we get into the other views.

If we don’t follow the Law will we just plunge into immorality and worldliness?

This fear is mostly brought out in Bahnsen’s article. It seems that most of his focus is on doing good and not doing bad and how necessary and binding the Law is in order to show what good and bad is. Bahnsen seems to rely on many straw-man type arguments to portray potential extremes if we don’t follow the Law. His main point throughout is that the Law is binding today as it ever was to individuals (moral part of Law) and governments (civil part of Law).

Much of his argument is to show how Paul does not mean the whole Law when he refers to us not being under law or free from law, but merely the ceremonial part of the Law. It then follows that the law (moral + civil) continues in force today. Bahnsen’s arguments are really not very convincing. For example in Rom 6:14 Paul says we are “under law”, not “under the law”. He seems to think the technical reference to the Law of Moses requires the “the” (p. 106). The lack of a definite article in Rom 6:14 indicates Paul is not referring to the law of Moses. Instead he interprets it to mean being “under the dominion of sin” (p. 107), because Rom 6 teaches us not to be controlled by sin (vs. 1-2, 6, 11-13), that we know what sin is from the Law (Rom 7:7 – note the “the”), and therefore, Rom 6:14 teaches that believers should not transgress the law and thereby sin (p. 107). Christians have the mind of the Spirit, who leads and enables them to meet fully “the requirements of the law” (Rom 8:4).

There is much to be said about this goofy interpretation. First, the “the” is very arbitrary, in fact other passages that have the “the” (e.g., Gal 2:19, Gal 3:23,24, 1Cor 9:21-22) he argues as only referring to the ceremonial part of the Law due to context? Isn’t the focus of Romans 6 showing us how we have been freed from sin through Christ? The reason we are not controlled by sin is because we are identified with His death on the cross (Rom 6:3-6, we need to “know” this), our freedom which comes through Christ’s death and our new life in Christ now that He is raised (Rom 6:4-5, 7-11, we need to “consider” this), and our presenting ourselves to Christ in faith in order to trust in His power in our life rather than our own (Rom 6:13ff) as opposed to the old way we used to live prior to coming into a relationship with Christ (Rom 6:12). And am I wrong, but isn’t the phrase in Rom 8:4 “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” in reference to the prior verse: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” and not those “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” in verse 4 which follows. Christ fulfilled the law in us, not us!

Another odd interpretation is that of Gal 2:19, “through the law I died to the law”, i.e., Paul died to legalism according to Bahnsen’s (p. 96). Both words in for law in Gal 2:19 are the same, nomos and both are without the definite article. Why is one one-way and the other the other-way? Moo points out this “illustrates the tendency evident in his essay: to give the word “law” a limited or nuanced meaning on the basis not of exegetical evidence but on the basis of the logic of his general position.” (p. 167)

Again, I think Moo critiqued this view well when he dissected Bahnsen’s argument into it’s simplest form (p. 170):

God’s moral law is found in the Law of Moses
God’s moral law is universally applicable
Therefore, the Mosaic Law is universally applicable.

Now it is clear that this argument works only if an “only” is supplied in the first line. For if God’s moral law is found in other than the Mosaic form, then the argument fails. Yet Bahnsen never tries to prove this “only”. And, in fact, the presence of God’s law in other than Mosaic forms seems clearly to be argued or assumed by Paul in texts such as Romans 2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21-22… This point is fundamental in my disagreement with Bahnsen. He assumes that “law of God” is equivalent to the Mosaic law; therefore to be without the Mosaic law is to be without any divine imperative and to fall into subjective and humanistic autonomy… but I see God’s moral imperatives for human beings coming in various forms: through the law of Moses, for the Jewish nation, through nature and the conscience for all human beings, and through “the law of Christ” for Christians. Theonomy is misnamed… A better name for Bahnsen’s position would be Mosonomy. (Moo in Five Views, pp. 170-171)

…. more to come on this topic as I finish the book.

One thought on “Law and Gospel: The Reformed View”

  1. Thanks for this review. It’s crazy how people are so into being under the Law. Not only is it anti-New Testament, it sucks, too! I guess people want to think they can do something to be good, but I’ve found that a very frustrating and unfruitful method of change. Though it can be hard to trust God, I’d much rather enter his rest and let him bring the seed of faith to maturity and fruition, as you taught about at CT.

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