Founders Journal


A Neglected Topic for Needy Times

Tom Ascol

Everyone laments the increasing moral decay of American society. Crime and violence have turned our homes into fortresses and given birth to security as an industry. Sexual perversion and political scandal have become such fixed parts of the American landscape that it is now the chaste young person and the honest politician who amaze us.

While preachers decry it, congressmen debate it, and taxpayers pay for it, few people have zeroed in on the real reason for our culture's moral degeneration. God is the Creator. He has made mankind for Himself. He has given to men and women a fixed moral code, a standard by which we must live. Romans 1 teaches us that where this standard is expelled, God's judgment soon replaces it. What is taking place in our culture will never be properly assessed until it is seen in the light of God's absolute, unchanging moral standard.

Without a renewed emphasis on God's law our nation will remain like a ship at sea without a rudder; like a man lost in the wilderness without a compass. Christians, above all people, must be clear on this point. In the forthcoming book, The Law and the Gospel (soon to be released by P & R), Associate Editor Ernest Reisinger addresses this important topic.

Few subjects compare in importance with "law and gospel." It is the hub from which all other biblical doctrines extend. To be unclear on either law or gospel is to be spiritually paralyzed. To confuse the relationship between the two is to fall into serious, crippling error. The great pastor, theologian and hymn-writer, John Newton, declared:

Clearly to understand the distinction, connection, and harmony between the law and the Gospel, and the mutual subserviency to illustrate and establish each other, is a singular privilege, and a happy means of preserving the soul from being entangled by errors on the right hand or the left (Works, 1:350).
The subject of "law and gospel" is vitally important to a proper understanding of God's Word. All of the Bible is either law or gospel. God, man, sin, Christ, redemption, grace, guilt, judgment, atonement, forgiveness and holiness are all revealed to us in the Scriptures in terms of law and gospel. The Christian who neglects the study of this subject, therefore, does so to his own spiritual detriment.

As important as the subject is, it has been tragically neglected by modern Bible-believing Christians. The present generation of evangelicals simply assumes that it understands the gospel. Yet, as several recent studies have embarrassingly revealed, a majority cannot even cite the basic content of the gospel. Fortunately, this easy peace with a contentless Christianity is being increasingly challenged by respected evangelical leaders.

But a necessary component of the renaissance of God's gospel must be the rediscovery of God's law. In fact, the gospel cannot be established on any other foundation than that of law. This was readily acknowledged by earlier generations of Christians. Prior to this century sermons and studies on the Ten Commandments were common place in Bible-believing churches. Today, not only have the commandments been expelled from our schools and our courthouses, they have effectively been discarded in our churches. Less than 1% of all church members can even recite the Ten Commandments!

The failure to teach God's law in our churches has had devastating consequences. Not only is gross sin being flaunted in the public square but also the moral conduct of our church children has degenerated to alarming proportions. Josh McDowell has recently published the results of his study of young people who are actively involved in evangelical churches. He discovered that within the previous three months:

  • 66% had lied to their parents

  • 36% had cheated on an exam

  • 55% had engage in sexual activity

  • 20% had tried to hurt someone physically
Most of these teenagers profess to believe the gospel for salvation. Yet, most are not obeying God's law. Something is gravely wrong.

The relationship between law and gospel desperately needs to be rediscovered in our day. The law was given to teach sinners their sin. When a sinner sees the law in all of its strictness and spirituality he thereby comes to understand the spiritual bankruptcy and grave danger of his condition. The law, able to condemn but unable to save, sends the convicted sinner looking for salvation in the only place it can be found. It sends him to Jesus Christ who, in His perfect law-fulfilling life and perfect law-fulfilling death gave Himself to redeem helpless sinners. In this way the law is useful in evangelism. Spurgeon said,

The divine Spirit wounds before he heals, he kills before he makes alive. We usually draw a distinction between law-work and gospel-work; but law-work is the work of the Spirit of God, and is so far a true gospel-work that it is a frequent preliminary to the joy and peace of the gospel. The law is the needle, which draws after it the silken thread of blessing, and you cannot get the thread into the stuff without the needle: men do not receive the liberty wherewith Christ makes them free till, first of all, they have felt bondage within their own spirit driving them to cry for liberty to the great Emancipator, the Lord Jesus Christ. This sense or spirit of bondage works for our salvation by leading us to cry for mercy (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 30:15-16).
But what about the believer? Does the law have any place in the Christian's life? Absolutely. When Christ receives repentant, believing men and women He forgives them, grants them His righteousness and gives them His Spirit. He writes His law on their new hearts and empowers them to follow Him in obedient discipleship. As the One who perfectly kept the law Himself, He then leads His disciples to obey His commandments. Thus, the commandments continue to be important for Christian living--not because they provide any power to pursue holiness, but because they define that which has always constituted holiness.

It is no disrespect to the gospel or to God's grace to recognize the proper place of law in the believer's life. Nor does emphasizing the law's necessary role in Christian living constitute legalism. Martin Luther, the great champion of free grace against Roman Catholic legalism, had to fight against such misunderstanding with some of his closest followers. In his 1539 tract, Against the Antinomians, he wrote,

It is most suprising to me that anyone can claim that I reject the law or the Ten Commandments, since there is available, in more than one edition, my exposition of the Ten Commandments, which furthermore are daily preached and practiced in our churches....Furthermore, the commandments are sung in two versions, as well as painted, printed, carved, and recited by the children morning, noon, and night. I know of no manner in which we do not use them unless it be that we unfortunately do not practice and paint them with our deeds and our life as we should. I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child.
What a contrast Luther's attitude is to the spirit of the present age which insists that relativism is the only truth and tolerance is the only virtue! Absolutes are seen as archaic and right and wrong are forgotten categories. The Church, rather than effectively standing against this spirit, has been infected by it. We have lost our doctrinal and ethical moorings. We have forsaken our foundations. Until they are recovered, God's people will lack the spiritual ability and moral authority to resist the onslaught of cultural decadence.

When expounding the great themes related to law and gospel perils abound on both the right hand and the left. It is not easy to avoid the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of antinominianism. The spiritual carnage which is scattered across church history bears sad testimony to this fact. It is foolish, however, to think that the errors can be avoided by neglecting the subject altogether. Rather, a right understanding of what the Bible teaches on the subject is what is desperately needed. Ernie Reisinger's new book addresses this need in a wonderful way. What it says is in harmony with the great creeds, confessions and catechisms which grew out of the Protestant Reformation.

Our spiritual forebears of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries clearly saw the importance of this subject for healthy Christian life. John Calvin concluded his ninety-third lecture on the Minor Prophets with the following prayer. May its burden be kindled in the hearts of modern pastors, and may its request be answered in our churches:

Grant, Almighty God,
that as thou hast made known to us thy Law,
and hast also added thy Gospel,
in which thou callest us to thy service,
and also invitest us with all kindness to partake of thy grace,--
O grant, that we may not be deaf,
either to thy command or to the promises of thy mercy,
but render ourselves in both instances submissive to thee,
and so learn to devote all our faculties to thee,
that we may in truth avow that a rule of a holy and religious life
has been delivered to us in thy law,
and that we may also firmly adhere to thy promises,
lest through any of the allurements of the world,
or through the flatteries and crafts of Satan,
thou shouldest suffer our minds to be drawn away from that love
which thou hast once manifested to us in thine only-begotten Son,
and in which thou daily confirmest us
by the teaching of the Gospel,
until we at length shall come to the full enjoyment
of this love in that celestial inheritance,
which has been purchased for us by the blood of thy only Son.