Recapturing the Complementarity of Law and Gospel

Founders Journal · Winter 2005 · pp. 14-24

Recapturing the Complementarity
of Law and Gospel

Tom J. Nettles

[The following article is taken from the author’s forthcoming Broadman Press book, Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches, to be released in late 2005.]

The Bible Establishes the Issue

Tension over the issues of law and gospel have penetrated Christian history from the first century to the present. Jesus had conflict with the Jewish leaders and teachers over their misuse of the law. His heightened sense of the righteousness of the law and His submission to its curse in no sense diminished, but only enhanced, its place in the display of God’s righteousness through the gospel. Paul’s letter to the Galatians attacks the misuse of the law by the Judaizers. Their low view of its demands allowed them to prescribe its keeping as an element of our righteousness before God (Galatians 3:2, 10–13). Paul had warned the Ephesians that false teachers would come in among them from their own number (Acts 20:30). His letter to Timothy indicates that this false teaching focused on a misuse of the law (1 Timothy 1:7). Paul reminds Timothy that the “law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). Every erroneous teaching against which Paul warns Timothy to be on his guard can be seen as a failure to grasp the fundamental relationship between law and gospel.

The Witness of the Past

Within Puritanism and Baptist life, especially of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the relationship of the law to the gospel fueled many controversies.[1] In 1786, the Particular Baptist Association of Warwickshire wrote its circular letter on the subject of antinomianism. Its second sentence stated “Of all the errors with which the Christian church is, or ever has been, infested, none is in its nature more absurd, and in its consequences more subversive of all true religion, than the libertine doctrine of Antinomianism.”[2]

Accusations of antinomianism filled the theological vocabulary of the eighteenth century evangelicals. Sometimes those that appeared to be polar opposites skewered each other with the barbs of the same accusation, “Antinomian!” In reality, a measure of truth resides in these epithets hurled from opposing camps. Andrew Fuller gives some insight into this phenomenon.

Let an attentive reader examine the system of Socinus, and even of Arminius, and he will find them agreed in opposing the native equity and goodness of the moral law. The former claims it as a matter of justice that allowances be made for human error and imperfection; and the latter, though it speaks of grace, and mediation of Christ, and considers the gospel as a new, mild, and remedial law, yet would accuse you of making the Almighty a tyrant, if this grace were withheld, and the terms of the moral law strictly adhered to. All these, as well as that species of false religion which has more generally gone by the name of Antinomianism, you see, are agreed in this particular. This last, which expressly disowns the moral law as a rule of life, sets up the gospel in opposition to it, and substitutes visionary enjoyments as the evidence of an interest in gospel blessings, in place of a conformity to its precepts. – This last, I say, though it professes to be greatly at variance with several of the foregoing schemes, is nearer akin to them than its advocates are willing to admit.[3]

Later, Fuller describes the confessional approach to the tri-fold use of the law with an emphasis on its evangelical use and its use as “the rule of life.” He asserted that “we may safely consider it as a criterion by which any doctrine may be tried; if it be unfriendly to the moral law, it is not of God, but proceedeth from the father of lies.”

Fuller was the heir of much clear thinking and skilful polemics on this issue. Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) in opposition to Richard Baxter focused on the law and justification. His sermons and treatises steadily insist on a right understanding of law, gospel, righteousness and holiness. Both the conviction of sin and understanding the necessity of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness come from a submission to the purity, spirituality and irrevocable standing of the moral law. Keach never retreated from preaching that “The righteousness, and Benefits of Christ’s Righteousness, is made ours, when we relye, or trust to God’s free promise as the immediate and sole Cause of Pardon and Life, (as all true Protestants formerly affirmed).” One of the views that Keach opposed asserted that justification comes from a new covenant of diminished expectations so that our faith is accepted as obedience to the law and thus justifies. So taught Baxter. Not so, taught Keach: “If Christ fulfilled the Law for us, then (say I) that Obedience of his, must be imputed to us, as if we had wrought it, and so we, by the Application of the Righteousness, are justified in God’s sight, from the Accusation of the Law, without any Works, or procuring Conditions, performed by us.”[4]

John Gill (d. 1771), accused of antinomianism, does not seem to qualify as such. He heaped unmistakable disdain on all human works, all supposed works of the law, as containing any possible merit. Some moralists who thought the doctrine of imputed righteousness cut the moral nerve represented him as an opponent of the moral law. Related to justification, however, he clearly preached the law as the means by which a soul is brought into a state sensible of its sinfulness and condemnation. In addition, the law points to the righteousness and acceptability of the life and atoning work of Christ. Beyond that, though human good works even in the regenerate still are flawed and filled with sin, the law in the hand of Christ serves as a means of sanctification.

John Ryland, Jr. (d. 1825), in Serious Remarks on the Different Representation of Evangelical Doctrine engaged the dangers of antinomian doctrine. The antinomianism he opposed, while addressing the evangelical use of the law, concerned more pointedly the use of the law in progressive sanctification. Some had denied that such a spiritual reality as progressive sanctification existed and any use of the law for such a thing amounted to a denial of the gospel. Ryland responded,

What can be designed by denying that the law is a rule of life to believers? Do these men suppose we mean it is a rule by which they are to merit life? Our Lord knows we are as far from this imagination as they can be; and as careful to prevent others from indulging it. But we are fully assured the most effectual and scriptural way of cutting up all illegal hopes by the root, is showing the strictness, extent, spirituality, and yet the excellence and equity of the divine law; even that law, which is summed up by the Apostle in one word, LOVE; which our Lord divides into two great commandments, requiring supreme love to God, and disinterested benevolence to man; which is farther ramified in the Ten Commandments; and fully explained in the whole preceptive part of the divine work.

This was the law which the incarnate Son of God delighted to obey; it was in his heart, and he has promised to write it in the hearts of his people. Is it possible a genuine believer should despise it? What part of it is vacated by the interposition of our Redeemer? Which precept has he granted us a license to violate? Has he lessened our obligations to love God; or our obligations to love our neighbour? Or can we show our love to God, by having more gods than one, by idolatry, by profaning his name, or by neglecting the Lord’s-day? Can we manifest our love to man, without regarding those relative duties which are so expressly inculcated by Paul and Peter? Are we at liberty to kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet any thing that is our neighbour’s. What duty is there required in the moral law, which the believer is not bound to perform? What sin is forbidden there, which he is at liberty to indulge?[5]

Richard Furman, preaching in Charleston in 1791, enunciated as a qualification for gospel ministry that one must have a clear understanding of how to “distinguish between the law and gospel.” He must “point out the ruined and guilty state of all, by nature, under the curse of a broken law; sound, as it were, Mount Sinai’s thunder in the sinner’s ear.” Sinners must know without equivocation that “by the deeds of the law, shall no flesh living be justified.” Just as clearly, however, the preacher must point out Jesus as the “Lamb, who taketh away the sins of the world,” one who is an almighty and willing savior.[6]

C. D. Mallary (1801–1864) gained a large hearing among his contemporaries for his profound godliness. Mallary was a part of the committee that prepared the “Address to the Public” when the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. Cathcart’s Encyclopedia describes him as a “man of most uncommon piety” who exerted “a more wholesome influence than any other man of the denomination in the State [Georgia].” He had “clear views of divine truth, and a deep experience of its sanctifying power in the heart.” Because he was “thoroughly instructed in the Scriptures,” he also was “profoundly conversant with the workings of experimental religion.” Peppered throughout his edifying book Soul Prosperity, one finds the importance of accurate appraisals of law and gospel. One section defines the relationship between obligation and dependence. Here he gives this clear analysis.

We are not to seek nor to expect justification by the deeds of the law; no, verily—that comes to us by the perfect righteousness of Christ. But shall we therefore encroach upon the strict claims of the law as our rule of life, as the guide and teacher of our inner man? Our want of conformity to its demands does not diminish its claims. Our attainments are one thing, our duty is another. The former are crowded with defects, and call for daily sorrow and for daily pardon; the latter calls for nothing less than a hearty and full compliance with all that God commands A standard less elevated than this will leave us without chart or compass, throw every man upon his own dark, selfish, and capricious promptings, and by pulling down the views form [sic; from] the right mark, paralyze our efforts, reconcile us to dwarfish attainments, and at length fill the bosom with proud and swelling notions for having attained to a deceitful and imaginary perfection. What unscriptural reasonings sometimes creep into the bosoms of many that we would fain call the children of God! … Alas! Alas! These frames and feelings are often poor, rebellious, antinomian things! … Away with all this carnal heresy! God’s eternal word is the standard. As the creatures of God are we bound to respect it in all things; as redeemed by the blood of Christ, our obligations are infinitely augmented to respect to all God’s commands.[7]

Richard Fuller (1804–1876) reflects a consensus on this issue for the Southern Baptists of the nineteenth century in a sermon entitled “The Law and the Gospel.” A picturesque and rhetorically powerful interweaving of the themes of law and gospel, the sermon presents a full exploration of both the evangelical and sanctifying uses of the law as it is seen in the context of the gospel. A succinct summary of these themes begins with the assertion that “the law has no efficacy to produce in us any conformity to the pattern it proposes.” Rather, the gospel “possesses this wonderful property,” that is, that it “charms away the power of corruption and transforms us to the righteousness of the law, at the very time that it absolves us from all the penalties of the law.”

Fuller’s sermon, built on Romans 8:3, 4, pursues unrelentingly a display of the “wisdom and power of Jehovah” in devising a scheme of pure grace, “ supra-judicial interference,” by which lawbreakers find release from their punishment though each one would confess: “But mine are sins thou must not, canst not spare while heaven is true, and equity is thine.” He then quotes from Romans 8:3, 4.

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Fuller’s explanatory summary of his discussion crystallizes not only his sermon but the issue as it must be consciously addressed again as an element of Baptist witness.

But, now—here is our second reflection—where the sacrifice of Calvary is truly accepted as the expedient by which, in the jurisprudence of heaven, the judicial righteousness of the law has been abundantly fulfilled for us, it will also, along with the sense of pardon, send its sanctifying power into our nature. By a mysterious influence which the world cannot comprehend, which can be known only by experience, it will win the heart to love and obedience, and will thus fulfill the moral righteousness of the law in us. “Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea we establish the law.” Not only does faith repair the outrage done to the majesty of the law by pleading the sublimest satisfaction, but it restores its dethroned supremacy over the heart and life.[8]

Fuller also reminded his generation, his church in Baltimore in particular, of the great personal comfort of the operations of grace to satisfy an outraged law. In 1861, November, as his daughter lay dying, she had the keenest consciousness of acceptance before God because of the work of Christ specifically in relation to the law. As Fuller told her about how solicitous the church had been for her in prayer and how highly she was esteemed in their eyes, she responded, “Do not my dear father, I beg you, utter one word about me. Speak only of Jesus, his blood and righteousness. I am a poor sinner saved by grace, who feels her unworthiness, and laments that, having so short a life, she did not devote it more entirely to such a Saviour.” When asked how such assurance brightened the hours in which she faced death, she responded, “How? Did he not die for me? Does not his blood cleanse from all sin? … Washed in his blood, how can I doubt? Clothed in his spotless righteousness, what can I fear?” Fuller picked up this theme of his daughter’s dying confidence as one of the elements of his sermon. “In the satisfaction of Calvary, God’s justice is satisfied; for, on the very theatre which had witnessed the dishonor of the law, that law is vindicated and magnified: God’s holiness is satisfied.”[9]

The law therefore, in Fuller’s view, must have a three-fold fulfillment in the life of the believer. His sins, transgressions of the law, must be forgiven, his opposition to its holy character must be cured, and it demands for positive righteousness must be imputed. Fuller expresses this cogently in a sermon entitled “A Precious Saviour.”

To those who believe he is precious. They alone feel their guilt and corruption, the absolute necessity of a great atonement and the infusion of a holy nature by the Saviour. And they are conscious of something more. Even after pardon and the transfusion of a new principle of spiritual life, the Christian has to mourn over daily imperfections; and, at times, sin—though it cannot have dominion—breaks out with such alarming mutiny that he is kept low and abhors himself before God. He feels, therefore, the necessity of a righteousness not only imparted, but imputed;—a righteousness other than his own, if he is to stand perfect before inflexible Justice. Others are blinded, but he sees clearly that God must love us, or we are forever lost; that if God loves us, he must love our person, not our characters; and that, therefore, he must love us in Christ, clothed in his righteousness.[10]

The Message for Today

The struggles with law and gospel appear in the beginning of Baptist life and establish agenda of vital questions. The necessity of contemporary attention to the issue arises from two concerns, one ecclesiological, or the maintenance of historic Baptist identity, and the second, pastoral.

Moderate Baptists

As an issue of identity, antinomianism has made strange bedfellows with the moderate cause in Southern Baptist life. Though historically and doctrinally connected with hyper-Calvinism, the individualistic freedom from external guidelines propounded in antinomian views of assurance and sanctification have been attractive to at least one ardent defender of the moderate cause, Frank Louis Mauldin. The Particular Baptist preacher of the seventeenth century, Paul Hobson, espoused regeneration as an immediate indwelling of the Spirit resulting in a sinner’s being “Christed.” For Mauldin, this kind of immediacy gives just the right pretense for freedom. Christ’s indwelling through His Spirit eliminates the validity of propositions and external guidelines. That false dichotomy between internal freedom and externally revealed authority summarizes the moderate assumptions about Baptist identity.

Mauldin summarizes Hobson’s view of truth in its “Christological modes” for Christ is the “personal cause, object, and essence of truth.” For this reason one may distinguish truth from falsehood “by means of an intimate acquaintance with Christ.” Truth, according to Mauldin’s view of Hobson, must not be equated with “comprehension, or with an intellectual assent to the truths of God;” just as surely eliminated is “a knowledge gained from properly understanding the law.” No, none of the “speculative” ways of thinking will do for the apprehension of truth; rather it is a “supernatural light set up in the soule by God ; the life of which light hath his residence in God.” Mauldin then makes this observation about Hobson’s view as he makes his pitch for historic Baptist views of truth.

Hobson here pictures the relation of Christ and the Christian as that of an internal relationship, i.e., as a relation in which the terms related are affected or changed by the relation. In Christ, the believer is transformed into the very nature and glory of Christ. Hobson does not use figurative or metaphorical language in making this assertion. He speaks descriptively. In the internal relation to Christ, the old self is “annihilated, and all turned into Christ; He is removed from his former center, his owne bottom; there is a new ingrafting and being carried up into Christ, so that he is transformed into the hidden, divine, superexcellent glory, and riches and life of Christ.” The believer is in actuality made one with “the truth.”[11]

That Mauldin is interpreting Hobson entirely accurately may be called into question. Though his language startles with its imagery, many seventeenth-century Puritans discussed God’s operations on the soul in similar manner. Hobson, perhaps, contra Mauldin, uses language figuratively and metaphorically. His intent could easily be interpreted as the normal Puritan understanding of the immediacy of the work of the Spirit in regeneration and transformation of life. Suppose, however, that Mauldin is correct about Hobson. Hobson’s view represents a fringe view of the Baptists that the majority disowned and fought against. If a person is “annihilated” and made one with “the truth” what need is there of law or Scripture? This kind of antinomianism was soon corrected by seventeenth-century Baptists. Ironically it found no quarter in the Calvinist resurgence of the late twentieth century but came to rest among the moderate wing of Southern Baptists.

American Baptist Churches USA

Churches of the American Baptists have fallen prey to this annoying error. The 1970–90’s saw resolutions on human rights, freedom, Christian unity and human sexuality. With the intent of affirming “the denominations basic principles of freedom of thought and belief,” these statements referred to John Bunyan, Roger Williams and Martin Luther King as embodying historically the concerns the resolutions addressed. Even the greatly agitated controversy over sexuality called for a new attempt to “consider prayerfully the mind of Christ.” The urgency given this issue arose from the acknowledgement there “exists a variety of understandings throughout our denomination on issues of human sexuality such as homosexuality.” Dialogue should proceed under the banner of commitments to “freedom,” “the principle of liberty of conscience,” “free inquiry and debate without restrictions or coercion” and “openness of mind and spirit.”

Though the Bible provides source material and stands ostensibly as “central to our lives,” a clear divide between a settled word and the “living Christ” determines the burden of the interpretative task. “The Christian faith is centered in a person,” they argue. “It is not a legalistic code which forms our faith; it is the living Christ.”

For “legalistic code” one should read “the historic consensus of Baptists on theological confession through the centuries.” Baptists of former generations shared certain theological presuppositions no longer held by many Baptists in the modern ABCUSA. The defining authority of objective truth has no place in their concept of freedom and contradicts, in their opinion, the ongoing work of Christ in his people. Glenn Hinson, a Baptist aligned with the moderate cause among Southern Baptists, stated this principle in saying, “The name Baptist refers to that version of Christianity which places the priority of voluntary and uncoerced faith or response to the Word and Act of God over any supposed ‘objective’ Word and Act of God.”[12] The fight to be free from an objective word indulges the spirit and basic principle of antinomianism.

Conservative Southern Baptists

More definitive inconsistencies on law and gospel still unsettle conservative Southern Baptists. Pastoral concerns over issues of justification, sanctification, assurance and church discipline have direct connections with a healthy grasp of the conceptual relations between law and gospel. Some strategies of outreach and paradigms for church growth have pushed aside the law/gospel relationship for one that appears more immediately relevant. The minister’s task, so it is assumed, is to present biblical principles as giving a sound foundation for day-to-day happiness and healthy relationships. Pressures of contemporary life, issues of personal insecurity and self-esteem, financial insolvency, perplexity in rearing children, marital unity, pleasing personal relationships and unresolved emotional conflict often dominate the sermonic menu of many evangelical and Baptist churches.

Though cloaked within an evangelical ethos and an ostensible commitment to biblical inerrancy and an undergirding motive of evangelism, the basic substance of biblical content, in such cases, goes little beyond the man-centered optimistic liberal message of the early twentieth century. Transcending the effectiveness of the liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick in this scheme of preaching and organization of church life would be extremely difficult. Fosdick presents a picture of the greatest diversity designed to fulfill everyone’s perception of worship.

Indeed, we have deliberately sought to make our services of worship inclusive of varied religious temperaments, so that under Riverside’s roof are housed week by week types of worship commonly housed under separate sectarian roofs. Each week we conduct one major congregational preaching service of the kind familiar in most nonliturgical Protestant churches; we conduct one liturgical service without sermon, composed mainly of music and litany; on every Sunday of the year we sponsor a Quaker service, run by the Friends themselves, some of whom are members with us; we conduct worship services where religious drama is central, and others where free discussion of religious problems is carried on. All these types meet real human needs and represent valid varieties of temperament, and we have put them under one roof.[13]

Did this grand scheme of broad appeal arise from a doctrinal commitment from Scripture? Fosdick says that in “implementing this idea we did not so much impose a prearranged program on the community as ask the community what it wanted from us.” This diversity arose mainly, therefore, from the community’s perceptions of its needs and desires. Some things, however, were prearranged: “bowling alleys, a gymnasium, a playground, theatrical stages.”[14]

Even the major preaching service was held only because so many traditional Protestants felt more comfortable with the practice of that tradition. Fosdick did not see preaching as an ordinance of God mandated as central to every corporate worship experience. In fact, Fosdick did not “put preaching central in my ministry” but instead distrusted a “preacher to whom sermons seem the crux of his functioning.” Fosdick, though celebrated as a preacher, saw the task as “personal counseling on a group scale.” The task focused on dealing “directly with individual needs, … with personality’s urgent needs, … dealing privately and intimately with the deep-seated problems of those whose servant he is supposed to be.” The radio program, “National Vespers,” he saw as a “means of vital dealing with the problems of real people.”[15]

No serious evangelical would deny that a preacher must speak to the vital needs of his listeners. To define those needs, however, in terms of their own immediate perceptions, or in the categories of psychology, or in terms of present culture sidesteps the biblical analysis. The biblical message on law, that is, we all are under a verdict of condemnation and death, and gospel, that is, only one remedy will suffice for our deepest need, the Lord Jesus’ atoning work and resurrection, constitutes the only message of the Christian pulpit. One who focuses on issues of the present age and gives help only for the present age does nothing more than Fosdick did—a man who did not even believe in the deity of Jesus, or His substitutionary atonement or His bodily resurrection.

The approach of speaking immediately and fundamentally to felt-needs betrays the biblical framework for confronting human ills. The understanding of condemnation and its remedy of atonement and imputed righteousness so prominent as a biblical theme flows immediately from the law/gospel construct. Even so is it true for the divine purpose of mortification of sin and increase of holiness—law and gospel are at the center of that issue. Assurance of salvation, including the ground for rational investigation of internal evidences of regeneration, and an individual’s conformity of life to a biblical pattern of saving faith, comes only with serious consideration of the perpetuity of the law as an expression of the intrinsic holiness of God. Spiritual vitality and purity within the church suspend largely on these issues. It is in the context of law and gospel that doctrine and experience, both corporate and individual, radically and inextricably mesh.


A full and healthy recovery from the recent decades of doctrinal reductionism and corresponding heterodoxy awaits a renewed apprehension of the inter-connections of the biblical themes of law and gospel. Misperceptions and misapplications of this issue within the pale of the conservative movement of Southern Baptists could eventually be more crippling to the recovery of biblical Christianity than the active opposition of the moderate movement.


1 Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993). Kevan’s knowledge of the primary sources is comprehensive and the arrangement of topics in this book makes for the greatest facility of studying systematically the relationship of law and grace in the Puritan era. He includes several Baptist writers, e.g. Nehemiah Cox and John Bunyan, in his study.

2 “Circular Letter” The Elders and Messengers of the several Baptist Churches, etc. 1786, 1.

3 Andrew Fuller, The Works of Andrew Fuller, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, n.d.), 2:661.

4 Benjamin Keach, The Everlasting Covenant (1693), 29.

5 John Ryland, Jr., Serious Remarks on the Different Representations of Evangelical Doctrine by the Professing Friends of the Gospel, Part the Second (Bristol: J. G. Fuller, 1818), 47, 48.

6 Richard Furman, Sermon on the Constitution and Order of the Christian Church (Charleston, SC: Markland & McIver, 1791), 26, 27.

7 Charles D. Mallary, Soul Prosperity: Its Nature, Its, Fruits, and Its Culture, reprint ed. (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1999; originally Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1860), 199, 200.

8 Richard Fuller, “The Law and the Gospel,” in Sermons by Richard Fuller, 3 vols. (Baltimore, MD: John F. Weishampel, Jr; Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society; New York: Sheldon and Company, 1877) 2: 108, 109.

9 Fuller, Sermons, 1:246, 248.

10 Fuller, Sermons, 2:333, 334.

11 Frank Louis Mauldin,The Classic Baptist Heritage (Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1999), 30. Mauldin’s citations and paraphrases of Hobson are from Hobson’s work A Discoverie of Truth published in London in 1647 and Practicall Divinitie published in London in 1646. It is not the point of this discussion of Mauldin to correct what, in my opinion, are misapplications of Hobson, but merely to show the tendency to antinomianism of the Moderate view of freedom in Christ.

12 E. Glenn Hinson in Are Southern Baptists “Evangelicals?” (Macon, GA: Mercer Univesity Press, 1983), 173.

13 Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 202.

14 Fosdick, 203.

15 Fosdick, 214-225.