I’ve been patient with this for many years, but today I’m compelled to say it: one of the most theologically irresponsible things anyone can say is “the law is the gospel.” Sadly, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard it from people who should know better.
The issue is a failure to define and distinguish properly. The categories get fuzzy. It starts with grammar. There are distinguishable imperatives and indicatives in the Bible. An imperative is a command; an indicative expresses factual statements. The typical form for biblical law is the imperative. The typical form for the gospel is the indicative. The imperative tells us what we’re to do; the indicative tells us what God has done, is doing, and will do.
We also have to reckon with those passages in Scripture where law and gospel are juxtaposed. In 2 Cor. 3:6, the Holy Spirit says “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” From the context, it’s evident that “the letter” is “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” (2 Cor. 3:7) – the law. But the work of the Spirit in giving life is “the ministry of righteousness” (2 Cor. 3:9). In other words, it’s the gospel of Christ (who is our righteousness). In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin notes that it indeed contrasts law and gospel. He writes:
The law was engraven on stones, and hence it was a literal doctrine. This defect of the law required to be corrected by the gospel, because it could not but be brittle, so long as it was merely engraven on tables of stone. The gospel, therefore, is a holy and inviolable covenant, because it was contracted by the Spirit of God, acting as security. From this, too, it follows that the law was the ministry of condemnation and of death; for when men are instructed as to their duty, and hear it declared, that all who do not render satisfaction to the justice of God are cursed (Deut. 27:26), they are convicted, as under sentence of sin and death. From the law, therefore, they derive nothing but a condemnation of this nature, because God there demands what is due to him, and at the same time confers no power to perform it. The gospel, on the other hand, by which men are regenerated, and are reconciled to God, through the free remission of their sins, is the ministry of righteousness, and, consequently, of life also.
In university long ago I learned a word to describe Calvin: loquacious. That’s a fancy way of saying “wordy.” I can put the above simply: in the law God says “do” (or else); in the gospel God says “done.” The law shows our need for the Saviour; the gospel offers us the Saviour we need.
This law/gospel contrast is found in our Reformed confessions. In Lord’s Day 2 of our Heidelberg Catechism, we confess that we know our sins and misery “from the law of God.” Just knowing your sin and misery isn’t good news. What is good news is what’s mentioned in Lord’s Day 7. It’s all that God promises us in the gospel, as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. The gospel has a promissory character. In chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, we confess that “the promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life.” In chapter 3-4 of the Canons, because the law is inadequate to save us (how can that be good news?), we need “the gospel of the Messiah.” In no place in the Reformed confessions do we find that “the law is the gospel.” Instead, they’re sharply distinguished.
Why do people keep saying “the law is the gospel”? Perhaps they’re trying to hold up a positive view of God’s law. I share that concern. Distinguishing law and gospel isn’t meant to engender a negative view of God’s law. Like the psalmist, we ought to love it. Even as it points our sin and misery, it’s like the wounds of a faithful friend. It does a good work for us. But that still isn’t the good news. The gospel is a message of how someone else has done for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves – obeying the law perfectly and paying for our infractions of that same law. The law proclaims failure; the gospel proclaims victory.
In its role as a guide for our sanctification, the law is good too. The law is designed for our flourishing and blessing. Christians look at God’s law as the standard by which we strive to live our days. To the extent that, by the power of the Spirit, we grow in doing that, we do experience God’s merciful favour. But that still ought never to be confused with the greatest news the world has ever heard: what Jesus Christ has done in the place of sinners.
My greatest fear with saying “the law is the gospel” is that it undervalues the gospel. It does that by confusing what we’re called to do with what Christ has done. Now why would you ever want to undermine the precious value of the good news of Christ crucified? So, please, please, stop saying “the law is the gospel.”