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Martin Luther: The Distinction between Law and Gospel

But you ask how it can be the fact that faith alone justifies, and affords without works so great a treasure of good things, when so many works, ceremonies, and laws are prescribed to us in the Scriptures?

I answer, before all things bear in mind what I have said: that faith alone without works justifies, sets free, and saves, as I shall show more clearly below.

Meanwhile it is to be noted that the whole Scripture of God is divided into two parts: precepts and promises. The precepts certainly teach us what is good, but what they teach is not instantly done. For they show us what we ought to do, but do not give us the power to do it. They were ordained, however, for the purpose of showing man to himself, that through them he may learn his own impotence for good and may despair of his own strength. For this reason they are called the Old Testament, and are so.

For example, “Thou shalt not covet,” is a precept by which we are all convicted of sin, since no man can help coveting, whatever efforts to the contrary he may make. In order therefore that he may fulfil the precept, and not covet, he is constrained to despair of himself and to seek elsewhere and through another the help which he cannot find in himself; as it is said, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thine help” (Hosea 13:9). Now what is done by this one precept is done by all; for all are equally impossible of fulfilment by us.

Now when a man has through the precepts been taught his own impotence, and become anxious by what means he may satisfy the law–for the law must be satisfied, so that no jot or tittle of it may pass away, otherwise he must be hopelessly condemned—then, being truly humbled and brought to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself no resource for justification and salvation.

Then comes in that other part of Scripture, the promises of God, which declare the glory of God, and say, “If you wish to fulfil the law, and, as the law requires, not to covet, lo! Believe in Christ, in whom are promised to you grace, justification, peace, and liberty.” All these things you shall have, if you believe, and shall be without them if you do not believe. For what is impossible for you by all the works of the law, which are many and yet useless, you shall fulfil in an easy and summary way through faith, because God the Father has made everything to depend on faith, so that whosoever has it has all things, and he who has it not has nothing. “For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all” (Rom. 9:32).

Thus the promises of God give that which the precepts exact, and fulfil what the law commands; so that all is of God alone, both the precepts and their fulfilment. He alone commands; He alone also fulfils. Hence the promises of God belong to the New Testament; nay, are the New Testament.

This is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s “Concerning Christian Liberty.” It was edited for clarity.

Francis Schaeffer on Preaching Law and Gospel

One unique mark of Reformation theology is the important emphasis on preaching Law and Gospel. Called God’s two words, the Reformers believed that Law and Gospel was the thread that ran through the entire bible.

Law—God’s word of demand that declares us all guilty before God is to be preached until the hearer is brought to despair and then the Gospel—God’s word of deliverance that declares us all justified before God is to be preached to bring deliverance to guilty people on account of what Jesus has done for them. The distinction between Law and Gospel is what distinguishes Reformation folks from the ‘hippie spiritualists’ that dot these parts.

You will not see the Good News of the Gospel until you come to terms with the bad news that you are.

The Christian philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer writing in the late 1960’s had this to say about what he called the ‘tearing down’ or  ‘negative message’ (Law) and the ‘positive message’ (Gospel):

“…we may say that there is a time, and ours is such a time, when a negative message is needed before anything positive can begin. There must first be the message of judgment, the tearing down. There are times….when we cannot expect a constructive revolution if we begin by overemphasizing the positive message. People often say to me, What would you do if you met a really modern man on a train and you had just an hour to talk to him about the gospel? I would spend forty-five or fifty minutes on the negative, to show him his real dilemma—to show him that he is more dead than even he thinks he is; that he is not just dead in the twentieth-century meaning of dead (not having significance in life) but that he is morally dead because he is separated from the God who exists.

“Then I would take ten of fifteen minutes to tell him the gospel. And I believe this usually is the right way for the truly modern man, for often it takes a long time to bring a man to the place where he understands the negative. And unless he understands what is wrong, he will not be ready to listen to and understand the positive. I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear simply because we are too anxious to get the answer without  having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychologically guilt feelings) in the presence of God. But the same is true on our culture. If I am going to speak to a culture, such as my culture, the message must be the message of Jeremiah. It must be the same in both private and public discourse.” (Death in the City, p. 60-61).

Image credit: Getty Images.

The Battle of the Heart

The gospel is good news to all who hear it. That is known. Its relieving to hear that your sins, for example, are forgiven and that God remembers them no more because of what Jesus has done. But therein lies the problem–the human heart finds it so hard to believe the gospel, in fact the hardest thing to believe is whether this Good News is for me. “Is it really for me?”, “It sounds too good to be true but is it really true what you are saying?”,” Am I really saved, me?” Believing the gospel is a battle of the heart.

Charles Spurgeon, in one his sermons on the topic of assurance draws back on a discussion between a one John and his Pastor. This dialogue is helpful for all of us struggling to believe that the Good News of the gospel is really for us:

Pastor. He who believes in Jesus Christ, has eternal life. “John 3:36: do you know this declaration of the word of God? Very well, but you appear to think it obscure or equivocal.

John. Never, I am sure it is true. Yet all those who say—I believe in Jesus Christ, are not the elected of God, bought of the Lord, or saved by grace. All these are not chosen, for there are many hypocrites who dare say that they believe in the Son of God.

Pastor. You observe, that the word does not say, that those who say they believe, or pretend to believe, in Jesus Christ, or who imagine falsely that they believe, have eternal life; but this infallible word says, that those who believe in effect and really, have this life; so, then, the multitude in Christian nations who profess to believe in Jesus Christ, is not proof that they believe in effect; but if this multitude believe in effect on the Savior, certainly they will have eternal life.

John. Thus, then, sir, whoever is able to assure himself that he believes on the Savior, then he will be certain that he has actually the life eternal, and that he is also elected.—

(The minister took a little bit of paper and wrote upon it these words.) Whoever receives from my hand this paper, and this declaration, I hold him for my friend: (he put his name to these words, and presenting it to John, he said to him.) Receive this from my hand, and believe my testimony, for I am a creditable person:—

(John took the paper and read what the minister had written.)

Pastor. How am I to regard you, John, after this testimony that I have given you?

John. I have the minister for a friend.

Pastor. Is it from you to me that this friendship flows, or is it from me to you?

John. It is from you to me.

Pastor. Do you hesitate to say that I am your friend, and that you have become mine?

John. If I said I did not believe you, I should make you a liar.

Pastor. Do you, then, look with affection towards me, or is it I with affection towards you? for you are assured that I am your friend, and that I regard you as mine.

John. You, dear sir, love me, and care for me.

Pastor. And how are you assured that this good-will is addressed to you!

John. Because you have been pleased to say it, and I do not doubt your veracity.

Pastor. I am sure that I have not written your name, as my friend; why then do you know that I have mentioned you in particular?

John. You have written with your own hand, that whoever receives this paper, you shall have him for a friend; and because I have received this paper, and because I know that you are of good authority, I have no doubt at all upon the subject.

Pastor. That is, then, because you have been certain on the one hand of having received this paper from my hand, and on the other hand, that I am of good authority, that you are certain of possessing, at the present, my affection,

John. I do not think that I am able to speak with doubt upon this point, without insulting your veracity.”

“The substance of which is just this, that when you can take the Word, and find that you are the character there spoken of, it is as good as if out of heaven an angel should fly down to you, sitting in your pew now, and should say in your ear, in the presence of this congregation, “God is thy salvation.” Now, brethren, I know this day I have no other trust but in the cross of Christ; therefore I am saved; and you can say the same, each one of you, if you are resting in Christ alone, There is not an “if” or a “but” about it; you are saved. Oh! Do enjoy that thought, and go home and live upon it; it shall be marrow and fatness to your spirit.”

(This is an excerpt from a sermon delivered on Sunday Morning, April 28, 1861 by the Rev. C. H. SPURGEON, At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington)

Faith, What is It?
By Charles H Spurgeon
What is this faith concerning which it is said, “By grace are ye saved, through faith?” There are many descriptions of faith; but almost all the definitions I have met with have made me understand it less than I did before I saw them. The Negro said, when he read the chapter, that he would confound it; and it is very likely that he did so, though he meant to expound it. We may explain faith till nobody understands it. I hope I shall not be guilty of that fault. Faith is the simplest of all things, and perhaps because of its simplicity it is the more difficult to explain.
What is faith? It is made up of three things–knowledge, belief, and trust. Knowledge comes first. “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” I want to be informed of a fact before I can possibly believe it. “Faith cometh by hearing”; we must first hear, in order that we may know what is to be believed. “They that know thy name shall put their trust in thee.” A measure of knowledge is essential to faith; hence the importance of getting knowledge. “Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live.” Such was the word of the ancient prophet, and it is the word of the gospel still. Search the Scriptures and learn what the Holy Spirit teaches concerning Christ and His salvation. Seek to know God: “For he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” May the Holy Spirit give you the spirit of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord! Know the gospel: know what the good news is, how it talks of free forgiveness, and of change of heart, of adoption into the family of God, and of countless other blessings. Know especially Christ Jesus the Son of God, the Saviour of men, united to us by His human nature, and yet one with God; and thus able to act as Mediator between God and man, able to lay His hand upon both, and to be the connecting link between the sinner and the Judge of all the earth. Endeavour to know more and more of Christ Jesus. Endeavour especially to know the doctrine of the sacrifice of Christ; for the point upon which saving faith mainly fixes itself is this–“God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” Know that Jesus was “made a curse for us, as it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” Drink deep of the doctrine of the substitutionary work of Christ; for therein lies the sweetest possible comfort to the guilty sons of men, since the Lord “made him to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Faith begins with knowledge.
The mind goes on to believe that these things are true. The soul believes that God is, and that He hears the cries of sincere hearts; that the gospel is from God; that justification by faith is the grand truth which God hath revealed in these last days by His Spirit more clearly than before. Then the heart believes that Jesus is verily and in truth our God and Saviour, the Redeemer of men, the Prophet, Priest, and King of His people. All this is accepted as sure truth, not to be called in question. I pray that you may at once come to this. Get firmly to believe that “the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s dear Son, cleanses us from all sin”; that His sacrifice is complete and fully accepted of God on man’s behalf, so that he that believes on Jesus is not condemned. Believe these truths as you believe any other statements; for the difference between common faith and saving faith lies mainly in the subjects upon which it is exercised. Believe the witness of God just as you believe the testimony of your own father or friend. “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater.”
So far you have made an advance toward faith; only one more ingredient is needed to complete it, which is trust. Commit yourself to the merciful God; rest your hope on the gracious gospel; trust your soul on the dying and living Saviour; wash away your sins in the atoning blood; accept His perfect righteousness, and all is well. Trust is the lifeblood of faith; there is no saving faith without it. The Puritans were accustomed to explain faith by the word “recumbency.” It meant leaning upon a thing. Lean with all your weight upon Christ. It would be a better illustration still if I said, fall at full length, and lie on the Rock of Ages. Cast yourself upon Jesus; rest in Him; commit yourself to Him. That done, you have exercised saving faith. Faith is not a blind thing; for faith begins with knowledge. It is not a speculative thing; for faith believes facts of which it is sure. It is not an unpractical, dreamy thing; for faith trusts, and stakes its destiny upon the truth of revelation. That is one way of describing what faith is.
Let me try again. Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him. The Scriptures speak of Jesus Christ as being God, God is human flesh; as being perfect in His character; as being made of a sin-offering on our behalf; as bearing our sins in His own body on the tree. The Scripture speaks of Him as having finished transgression, made an end of sin, and brought in everlasting righteousness. The sacred records further tell us that He “rose again from the dead,” that He “ever liveth to make intercession for us,” that He has gone up into the glory, and has taken possession of Heaven on the behalf of His people, and that He will shortly come again “to judge the world in righteousness, and his people with equity.” We are most firmly to believe that it is even so; for this is the testimony of God the Father when He said, “This is my beloved Son; hear ye him.” This also is testified by God the Holy Spirit; for the Spirit has borne witness to Christ, both in the inspired Word and by divers miracles, and by His working in the hearts of men. We are to believe this testimony to be true.
Faith also believes that Christ will do what He has promised; that since He has promised to cast out none that come to Him, it is certain that He will not cast us out if we come to Him. Faith believes that since Jesus said, “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life, it must be true; and if we get this living Water from Christ it will abide in us, and will well up within us in streams of holy life. Whatever Christ has promised to do He will do, and we must believe this, so as to look for pardon, justification, preservation, and eternal glory from His hands, according as He has promised them to believers in Him.
Then comes the next necessary step. Jesus is what He is said to be, Jesus will do what He says He will do; therefore we must each one trust Him, saying, “He will be to me what He says He is, and He will do to me what He has promised to do; I leave myself in the hands of Him who is appointed to save, that He may save me. I rest upon His promise that He will do even as He has said.” This is a saving faith, and he that has it has everlasting life. Whatever his dangers and difficulties, whatever his darkness and depression, whatever his infirmities and sins, he that believes thus on Christ Jesus is not condemned, and shall never come into condemnation.
May that explanation be of some service! I trust it may be used by the Spirit of God to direct my reader into immediate peace. “Be not afraid; only believe.” Trust, and be at rest.
My fear is lest the reader should rest content with understanding what is to be done, and yet never do it. Better the poorest real faith actually at work, than the best ideal of it left in the region of speculation. The great matter is to believe on the Lord Jesus at once. Never mind distinctions and definitions. A hungry man eats though he does not understand the composition of his food, the anatomy of his mouth, or the process of digestion: he lives because he eats. Another far more clever person understands thoroughly the science of nutrition; but if he does not eat he will die, with all his knowledge. There are, no doubt, many at this hour in Hell who understood the doctrine of faith, but did not believe. On the other hand, not one who has trusted in the Lord Jesus has ever been cast out, though he may never have been able intelligently to define his faith. Oh dear reader, receive the Lord Jesus into your soul, and you shall live forever!
*Excerpted from ‘All of Grace’ by Charles H. Spurgeon.

Religion You Wear Like a Coat

What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness (Mark 7:20-22).

Lip-worship is as common in our day as it was

when Jesus visited this world.

People not only respect the traditions of the past—

as they ought to—

but they ordinarily honor them

and desperately clutch at them

like a drowning man latching on to floating debris.

They wear their religion—put on their religion—

the way a person might put on a coat.


As the prophets persistently enunciated,

this is abominable to God.

Hymn-singing, the making of prayers,

the confessing of creeds

the symbols and rituals and religious exercises

that are an important part of our churches,

are valid and desirable—

and they are pleasing to God.

But He looks deeper into the heart of man and woman,

into his or her real desires and motivations,

into the honest beliefs and intentions

of His human creatures,

He looks for faith.


The spirit of God breaks through the visible

and the apparent, the words people say,

the motions they go through,

and the rituals they perform;

He sees and knows what is in the hearts

of His children.

If hatred is there,

recognized but unconfessed sin there,

disobedience or faithlessness there,

the spirit of God knows,

and the heart of God is displeased.

The hymns of praise, the verbal confessions and prayers,

and the religious ceremonies enacted do nothing

for those people who wear their religion like a coat.


People may impress their naïve and undiscerning friends

with their religious activity,

but God looks into the hearts of His creatures

and He knows what goes on there.

It is not what a person wears

that makes that person acceptable to God;

it is what he or she truly believes—

what he or she is truly committed to—

that determines the source and object

and quality of faith.

Mark 7:6-23.

Adopted from: ‘Jesus/Now’ by Lesile F. Brandt. You can get the Jesus/Now from Amazon here.


Can Future Obedience Make Up for Past Transgression?

The way to heaven by following the law given at Mount Sinai, is very steep and narrow, and it takes only one wrong step for a man to be dashed to pieces. Stand at the foot and look up at it if you dare.

On its brow of stone there is the black cloud, out of which lightening leaps and the blast of the trumpet sounds loud and long. Do you not see Moses tremble, and will you dare stand unabashed where Moses is fearful and afraid? Look upwards, and give up the thought of climbing those steep crags, for no one has ever striven to clamber up there in the hope of salvation without finding destruction among the terrors of the way! Be wise, give up that deceitful hope of salvation which your pride leads you to choose and your presumption would soon cause you to rue (to feel sorry for).

Suppose you could do some great thing, which I am sure you cannot, and it were possible that you could from now on be perfect, and never sin again in thought, or word, or deed; how would you be able to atone for your past delinquencies? Shall I call for a resurrection in that graveyard of your memory? Let your sin rise up for a moment, and pass in review before you. Ah, the sins of your youth may well frighten you; those midnight sins; those midday sins; those sins against light and knowledge; those sins of body; those sins of soul! You have forgotten them, you say, but God has not. Look at the file! They are all placed there, all registered in God’s daybook, not one forgotten—all to be read against you in the day of the last judgment.

How can future obedience make up for past transgression? The cliff has fallen and though the wave washes up ten thousand times, it cannot set the cliff up again. The day is bright but still there was a night, and the brightest day does not obliterate the fact that once it was dark. The self-righteous man knows that what he is doing cannot satisfy God, for it cannot satisfy himself; and though he may perhaps drug his conscience, there is generally enough left of the divine element within the man to make him feel and know that it is not satisfactory.

To believe what God says, to do what God commands, to take that salvation which God provides—this is man’s highest and best wisdom. Open your bible. It is the pilgrim’s guide, in which God describes the glory yet to be revealed. This is the one message of the Gospel, “believe and live.” Trust in the incarnate savior, whom God appointed to stand in the place of sinners. Trust in Him and you shall be saved.

Excepted from ‘Advice for Seekers‘ by Charles H. Spurgeon