articles in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8
by Wes White
This series was originally posted in 2011 atJohannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]
We deny that law and gospel should be considered as hermeneutics, or treated as such. We believe that any passage, whether indicative or imperative, can be heard by the faithful as good news, and that any passage, whether containing gospel promises or not, will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand. The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart.
This is a blatant denial of the law/Gospel distinction. They do not believe it is in the text itself.
This denial of the Biblical distinction between law and Gospel is a major plank of the Federal Vision system and their confusion of justification by works and faith. As Steve Schlissel said, “The law as God gave it is the Gospel” (“The Monroe Four Speak Out,” pp. 1–2). This has also been confirmed by Doug Wilson:
When we say that all of God’s word is perfect, converting the soul. When we don’t divide it up into law and gospel, when we don’t say law over here, gospel over there, when we say it’s all gospel, it’s all law, it’s all good (“Visible and Invisible Church Revisited”, p. 21).
Thus, there is no law/Gospel distinction except in the way that people may take the passages. It is not in Scripture itself, though they admit there’s a difference between the Old and New Testaments.
Now, some may say, what does the Reformed Church believe about the law/Gospel distinction? They might wonder, isn’t that a Lutheran distinction? Well, yes, it is. But it’s also a Reformed distinction.
The Reformed Church teaches that one of the most basic heremeneutical principles of the Scripture is the distinction between law and Gospel. These are two different types of communication from God.
The law was given from the beginning and is good and useful, but it cannot save. In order for salvation to occur, there must be another word or communication from God, and that is what we call the Gospel. These two must be distinguished, since one gives the knowledge of salvation and the other does not.
I shall demonstrate the truth of this from three Reformed confessional documents.
teaches that the law teaches us our sin and misery and can only condemn sinners to eternal hell.
3 Q. How do you come to know your misery? A. The law of God tells me.
10 Q. Will God permit such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished? A. Certainly not. He is terribly angry about the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge he punishes them now and in eternity. He has declared: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.”
In contrast, if we are to find salvation, we must have another word, different from the law. It is called the Gospel:
19 Q. How do you come to know this? A. The holy gospel tells me. God himself began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise; later, he proclaimed it by the holy patriarchs and prophets and portrayed it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; finally, he fulfilled it through his own dear Son.
Thus, the Gospel alone reveals saving knowledge. It is a distinct type of communication within the Word of God, not in the human heart.
Article 5 — In the same light are we to consider the law of the decalogue, delivered by God to His peculiar people, the Jews, by the hands of Moses. For though it reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate him from misery, but, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.
Article 6 — What, therefore, neither the light of nature, nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.
Thus, there are two types of communication in the Bible itself, law and Gospel. I do not know how the Canons could make this any more plain.
says that the law was given before the Gospel, at the beginning of time. Since the fall, it cannot bring about righteousness and life.
Q. 92. What did God first reveal unto man as the rule of his obedience?
A. The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the estate of innocence, and to all mankind in him, besides a special command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law.
Q. 94. Is there any use of the moral law since the fall?
A. Although no man, since the fall, can attain to righteousness and life by the moral law; yet there is great use thereof, as well common to all men, as peculiar either to the unregenerate, or the regenerate.
In contrast, there is communication from God that can bring about by the Spirit righteousness and life. It is the Gospel:
Q. 59. Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?
A. Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel.
Q. 60. Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved by their living according to the light of nature?
A. They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body the church.
The communication of the Gospel is so necessary for salvation that no one can be saved without it. If you just had the law, you could not be saved. Everyone has the law, but not everyone has the Gospel. Only those who have the Gospel can be saved.
The Reformed Confessions are plain. There are two words or types of communication in the Bible. There is the law, and there is the Gospel. One is saving. The other is not.
It is also plain as day that the Federal Vision denies this distinction. Since this distinction concerns the all-important saving knowledge of the Word of God, to confuse this distinction is extremely dangerous.
One Federal Visionist has actually admitted that the denial of this distinction (via the denial of the bi-covenantal structure of the Standards) is contrary to the system of doctrine in the Westminster Standards. He believes that this view would demand that the entire system be re-worked. He wrote:
I do think the latest scholarly work in biblical theology demands that we go back and redo a great deal of the
standards. They were written when people still thought of the
covenant as a contract and believed that “merit” had some role to play in our
covenantal relations with God. The whole bi-polar covenant of works/grace
schema has got to go. And if that goes, the whole “system” must be reworked. Westminster
The choice is plain. Do we believe in the works/grace or law/gospel system of the Reformed Confession, or do we think that all this has to go?
Editor's note: Signers of the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Profession include:
Douglas Wilson (minister, CREC), Peter Leithart (minister, PCA), Jim Jordan (minister, teacher at large), Steve Wilkins (minister, PCA), Randy Booth (minister, CREC), John Barach (minister, CREC), Rich Lusk (minister, CREC), Jeff Meyers (minister, PCA), Tim Gallant (minister, CREC), Ralph Smith (minister, CREC), and Mark Horne (minister, PCA). Credentials were those held by the signers when the profession was released.