The Bible in Two Words: Law and Gospel


gavel There's a story that I've often read that's occasionally caused me to stop and ask a few questions about the theology of Jesus.  In Mark 10, Jesus gets asked a question about eternal life and his response could easily lead one to wonder whether or not Jesus has a proper understanding of eternal life.  When the Rich Young Ruler asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus responds by listing out a few of the commandments - don't murder, don't commit adultery, and so on.

Isn't that strange?

Jesus gets asked how to inherit eternal life and he doesn't answer the way most evangelical Christians would answer the exact same question; what's up with that?  The story gets crazier in that the man actually thinks he has kept the commandments perfectly and so he responds, "Yep, done that.  Now what?"  And Jesus responds to this rich, young ruler and tells him he needs to give away all his possessions to the poor…which doesn't sound very much like grace alone through faith alone.

What Jesus does here is not a doctrinal mishap, it's actually quite brilliant.  Jesus is very intentional about his use of both the law and his lack of use of the Gospel.  The Bible can be divided up into two major categories - the law and the Gospel.  These two categories shape our understanding of the Scriptures, and they also have two very different purposes.

Obviously, both God’s law and God’s gospel come from God which means both are good. But, both do very different things. Serious life confusion happens when we fail to understand their distinct “job descriptions.” We’ll wrongly depend on the law to do what only the gospel can do, and vice versa. - Tullian Tchividjian

Law & Gospel

The law and gospel are two great gifts from God.  We need both of them, but we need both of them for very different reasons.

Without the law, we are left without an awareness of our completel and utter failure to be righteous before God.  The law tells us what to do.  And since the Scriptures are clear about what we should be doing, it also becomes clear that we are not doing what we should be doing.  The law reveals how screwed up we are; we are sinners in need of a savior.  The law is the bad news.  Any part of scripture that demands obedience, perfection, or tells us what we must do - this is the law.  Any part of scripture that describes our failure to follow the law, this is also considered law.  And this can be found all throughout the Bible and it's important because the law always drives us towards repentance.  By the law we become aware that we desperately need a Savior.

Without the Gospel, bad news is just bad news.  The Gospel is the rest of the story; the Gospel is the part of the story that doesn't leave us miserably rotting in judgement because of our sin, but instead proclaims a message of rescue.  The Gospel tells us what has been done.  The Gospel reminds us that it doesn't matter how screwed up we are because Jesus took our place on the cross.  The Gospel tells us that by Christ we are made saints.  The Gospel is the good news.  While the law is all about what we must do and what we fail to do, the Gospel is about what has all been done.  The Gospel declares that the perfect righteousness of Christ has been given to us.

"Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology–the entire Christian life, even–depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel." - Martin Luther

The Rich Young Ruler...

When Jesus spoke to the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus spoke the law.  The purpose of the law is always to drive people to repentance, and it is in the midst of that repentance that the good news of the Gospel is proclaimed.  But in Jesus' conversation it seems to be that the rich young ruler is not convicted of his sin.  Instead he walks away upset.  And the disciples respond, "Then who can be saved?"

That's the point.

Perfection is the demand.  So no one can be saved by our own obedience.  Our own works will always leave us failing.  And in response, we can then proclaim the beauty of the gospel.   We don't have to be saved by our own obedience, we are saved by Christ's perfect obedience.  Christ perfectly obeyed the law that we failed to obey and he paid the price for sin that we deserved to pay.

Photo Credit: SalFalko

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