3. LAW AND GOSPEL
We believe that the Bible has two separate and distinct teachings called “Law” and “Gospel.” In John 1,17, the apostle John writes, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Later the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1,16-17, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
The difference between the “Law” and the “Gospel” is this. The Law tells you what you must do if you want to please God and enter Heaven. And then the Law condemns you when you sin, and fall short of God’s expectations, and disappoint God. The Gospel tells you what Jesus has done to save you, and that Heaven is yours because of Jesus’ work, despite what you have done, and what you deserve.
Let me give you some examples of the difference between the “Law” and the “Gospel.” In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were considered the most religious and the most righteous people in Israel. If anyone would be able to please God it would be the Pharisees. And yet in Matthew 5, 20, Jesus tells the crowd, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” And then Jesus proceeds to tell them, “You have heard that it was said, to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5, 21). Later Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5, 27). So, the apostle Paul writes in Romans 3,20 “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law, rather through the law we become conscious of sin.”
Now, the message of the gospel teaches that our entrance into Heaven is by the work of Jesus, which He gives to us, despite our efforts, and regardless of how sinful we are. Go back to the very first doctrine we discussed, “Justification by Grace,” and read Ephesians 2, 1-10. Even when we were dead in our sins, Jesus Christ made us alive by grace, and gave us the faith we need to believe. Despite what we were, and without any work on our part, Jesus made us alive and gave us everlasting life. That’s the same thing Paul says in Colossians 2, 13-14, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”
Whenever I teach this in class, I use a picture on the board. Two circles one on top labeled "God" and the second picture below it labeled "Mankind." There is an arrow labeled "Law" that goes from mankind to God, that only makes it up partway, but never gets to the top circle. Another arrow labeled "Gospel" runs all the way down from God to mankind. And then I try to explain it this way:
The message of the law states this, “if you want to please God and get into heaven, this is what you must do.” It’s the arrow pointing from mankind to heaven. But you will notice that the arrow doesn’t make it to Heaven, because there is no way we can ever do enough to please God and get ourselves to Heaven. Since God demands perfection, the first time we sinned we were doomed to Hell.
The message of the Gospel states, “This is what God has done to make you a child of God, and give you eternal life.” And you will notice that that arrow comes completely down from God to us. The Gospel tells us that Jesus has completed our salvation totally and completely. It is a “done deal.” He has given us faith to believe it, and promises to hang on to us. The Gospel is a message that tells us “Heaven is ours!” Not “might be”, but “is” ours!
The other distinction between the message of “Law” and “Gospel” is the audience for whom this message was meant. The law is meant to be preached to self-righteous people who think they are good enough to get to Heaven on their own! The gospel is meant to be preached to souls who are terrified of their sin, and worried about whether or not God could ever love them and forgive them.
Let me give you an example of what I mean here. In the Bible two men asked the same question but got two totally different answers. One man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus told him to keep the law. And then Jesus told the man to “sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.” Then another man asked the apostle Paul the same question, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul told the man “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Some Bible scholars can’t understand this “discrepancy,” in the Bible. They talk about two different way to be saved.
But the truth is, this is the difference between the message of the “Law,” and the message of the “Gospel.”
In Matthew 19, a rich young man comes up to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Mt 19, 16). When Jesus told this young man the way to heaven is by keeping the commandments, the young man answered, “All these I have kept! What do I still lack?” (v 20) This man was a good man. He followed the laws of God as best he could. And I would imagine that most of the people who knew him would also say, “Yes, this man is a very God-fearing man, and he keeps the commandments.” So, if Jesus asked this man, “Have you kept all the commandments?” this man would have said “Yes, all of them.” If Jesus asked this man “Have you kept the first commandment by loving God more than anything?” this man would have said “Yes I have!” Jesus then asks this man to prove it. Show that you love God more than anything! And how could the young man do that? Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”(v 21) This the man could not do. “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”(v 22)
This man had lived a very moral life, and had followed the laws of God. Everyone who knew him was impressed with his life style. This man thought that his lifestyle was good enough to get him to heaven. But God doesn’t demand “pretty good!” He demands “Perfection.” This man shows that he wasn’t perfect! He wasn’t even able to keep the first commandment the way God intended it to be kept. This man loved God on his own terms. But he wasn’t able to love God more than anything. Given the choice between his wealth and God, this man chose his wealth. Would we have fared any better if that were us asking Jesus this question? No! Because as good and as moral as we are, we haven’t obeyed the will of God perfectly like God demands. The message of the Law shows us that point blank. That is the purpose of the Law. To show us that we cannot get to heaven, and we cannot please God on our own.
In Acts 16, on his second missionary journey in a city called Philippi, Paul had been arrested by the authorities on false charges. But he was whipped and beaten and thrown into the public jail. The jailor was given the responsibility to make sure this prisoner did not escape. During the night, Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, are praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners are listening to them talking about their God. Suddenly God sends a violent earthquake that shakes the very foundation of the prison. And then we’re told, “At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.” (Ac 16, 26) But instead of heading for the hills, all the other prisoners ran into the inner most part of the prison where Paul was, to hear more about this God of salvation. However, when the jailer saw the prison doors opened, “he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.” (v 28) But Paul told him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” That’s when the jailer came into the place where Paul. He was trembling and that’s when he asked, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” This man had no thought of being able to save himself. This man was brought face to face with his own mortality. This man was brought face to face with God and was terrified. This man was at the end of his rope. And that’s when Paul answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, - you and your household.” (v 31)
This man didn’t need to be knocked to his knees in humility before God! He was already there! That’s why he didn’t need to hear the message of the law! He needed to hear the message of the gospel. He didn’t have to be reminded that he couldn’t please God on his own. He already knew that and was terrified because of his. This man needed to hear the good news that Jesus had saved him too, and that his sins too had been forgiven. He needed to hear the gospel.
Our God has given us two different messages in the Bible, because even as Christians we need to hear both messages. There are times when I can become the most self-righteous Pharisee you’ve ever seen. I can begin to strut around boastfully thinking that I must be God’s gift to the world. I can begin to think that my own efforts somehow must have pleased God and brought me to heaven. And I need to hear that law which condemns my heart and soul, and brings me to my knees and reminds me just how sinful I am.
And once I am on my knees terrified before God because of my sins, and wondering whether God could ever love a wretched sinner like me, I need to hear the precious Gospel message that says, “Yes! Jesus died for me!” And I have peace with God and everlasting life, because of what Jesus did, and only because of what Jesus did.
That is the precious message of the Bible. That is the message of “Law” and “Gospel.”