Monday, March 8, 2010

What is the difference between Law and Gospel? (part 3)

The previous two blogs discussed two different ways of defining the distinction between law and Gospel, and the implications of those definitions. In this entry I want to discuss how justification interacts with these two definitions. To begin, let's review the two definitions.
One definition, rooted in Hebrews 10:1 or Colossians 2:17, says the law relates to the Gospel as a shadow relates to the object which casts the shadow. By the shadow of something, I might be able to get an idea of what the real thing is; I should recognize it. But when I have the real thing, I have greater clarity, more accurate details and specifics about what the shadow was revealing.
The other definition characterizes law as “that which commands all good, and forbids all evil,” while the Gospel “contains the free promises of God made unto us in Jesus Christ, without any respect of our deservings.”1 By this definition, the law is not a shadow of the Gospel, but something that is the opposite of the Gospel.
It seems the second definition has developed into the idea that the Gospel is justification, while the law is rules and regulations only. I'm not sure which is the chicken or the egg in the proverbial question of which came first. In other words, I don't know whether the definition grew out of equating the Gospel with justification, or whether equating the Gospel with justification grew out of the thinking produced by this definition; but there seems to be a relationship.
How does the Gospel relate to justification? For the answer let's look at Romans 1:15-17.
So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith." (ESV)
Paul was eager to preach the Gospel, unashamed of the Gospel, confident it would produce a harvest in Rome (vs. 13). Why? On what was Paul's confidence based? Paul knew it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. What did he know about the Gospel that produced this confidence? Paul knew the Gospel is the power of God to salvation because of something that was contained in the Gospel. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” The Gospel reveals justification by faith alone; free righteousness.
This sets up a relationship between the Gospel and justification. The Gospel cannot equal the doctrine of justification, but must always contain the doctrine of justification. The Gospel is like a nuclear power plant... it is the power of God for salvation for all humanity who believes. The doctrine of justification by faith is like the nuclear reactor in the power plant. The whole plant is powerful, but the source of the power is found in the reactor.
How does this relate to our opposing definitions of law and Gospel? If the Gospel is justification, then the Gospel cannot contain any rules, for it is all about free righteousness. However, if the Gospel is powered by justification, then it may also contain the law of Christ. The Gospel is both big and small. That is to say, the Gospel can be summed up in some key points. Usually, if someone asks you to share with them the Gospel in a minute or two, what you might share is a version of the doctrine of justification. And that is perfectly fine because you have shared part of the Gospel; indeed that part which powers the whole. But the whole Gospel of course cannot be shared in a few moments... we have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for starters. The Gospel is the Story about Jesus Christ.
Does this proposed relationship between Gospel and justification fit into the idea of the Law being a shadow of the Gospel? Absolutely. For the law was never supposed to be about rules only. At the center of the community was the tabernacle/temple. Every day sacrifices were to be made for the sins of the people. When you walked into the tent of meeting, you immediately found yourself in front of the altar of sacrifice, which you had to go around to get to the gathering area. In other words, you come in by way of atoning sacrifice. And the amount of blood being shed daily, the significance of the annual Day of Atonement, all pointed to what made that shadow covenant possible: God was going to pass over their sin and place the punishment for it on another life (in this case a sacrificial animal).
It seems Judaism in Christ's day often failed to see this just as the church often forgets the truths of grace revealed in justification. They turned the law into justification by works. However, the shadow also pointed to the source of its power in substitution and sacrifice which are the very foundation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact the law taught us the language and thinking necessary to understand the Gospel in terms of truth. In it we learn about holiness, judgment, guilt, atonement, sacrifice, substitution, bearing away one's guilt, redemption... well the list could go on. This language and thinking was necessary to understand the work and person of Jesus Christ. The law was our tutor in more more ways than showing us we could not keep the commands, though it certainly teaches us that as well.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1Richard Greenham; language updated. Quoted in Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. This is not the first writer I've run across that communicates this. In fact, this would be a commonly held view.

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