Whatever happened to the Law and the Gospel?
When one looks at the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the writings of the Apostles, one would think that a confession of faith ought to have some explanation of the law of God as well as the gospel of Christ. You cannot read the Sermon on the Mount, Romans, Galatians, James, or 1 John without seeing many references to the law of God or the commandments of God. Yet in the progression of Baptist confessions from England into America we see a decided and obvious reduction of any serious reference to the law of God or the commandments of God.
The 1689 Second London Confession (SLC) included Chapter 19 on “The Law of God” followed by Chapter 20 on “The Gospel and its Influence.” This confession was adopted as the Philadelphia Baptist Confession (1747) and the Charleston Baptist Confession (1767). So, the early Northern and Southern Baptists held to a robust theology of the law and the gospel as a major doctrine in Baptist life.
In 1833, the New Hampshire Baptist Confession (NHBC) was composed by J. Newton Brown and included in J. M. Pendleton’s Baptist Church Manual (1867). Until 1896, the Northern Baptist Churches followed the 1833 NHBC while the Southern Baptist Churches still looked to the 1689 SLC (McClintock and Strong). The NHBC had a much shorter article on the law and the gospel theology of Scripture, but still held to its essentials:
XII. Of the Harmony of the Law and the Gospel
We believe that the law of God is the eternal and unchangeable rule of his moral government; that it is holy, just and good; and that the inability which the scriptures ascribe to fallen men to fulfill its precepts arises entirely from their love of sin; to deliver them from which, and to restore them through a Mediator to unfeigned obedience to the holy law, is one great end of the gospel, and of the means of grace connected with the establishment of the visible church.
Rom. 3:31; Matt. 5:17; Luke 16:17; Rom. 3:20; Rom. 4:15; Rom. 7:12; Rom.7:7,14-22; Gal.3:21; Ps. 119; Rom.8:7-8; Josh. 24:19; Jer. 13:23; John 6:44; John 5:44; Rom. 8:2-4; Rom. 10:4; I Tim. 1:5; Heb. 8:10; Jude 20&21
What is ironic is that when the 1925 Southern Baptist Convention adopted the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, it used the Northern 1833 NHBC as its template instead of the historical Southern Baptist SLC. And not only this, but the 1925 BFM left out the NHBC Chapter 12 “On the Harmony of the Law and the Gospel.”
Why is this? Why would the 1925 Southern Baptists choose the Northern Baptist confession over its historical affection for the SLC? And was there something that our forefathers believed about the law and the gospel up till 1900 that modern Baptists just overlooked in the NHBC when composing their 1925 BFM and its subsequent versions (1925, 1963, 1998, 2000)? Or did they delete the doctrine of the law and the gospel from the historical confessions on purpose?
If we believe that our Baptist confessions are consensus statements of Baptist beliefs at the times they were written, and I believe that is a reasonable assumption, then something happened to the theological consensus of Southern Baptists from 1845 to 1925 which reduced the original importance of the law and the gospel theology of our forefathers. Whatever happened, and I am sure there are many explanations, it cannot be denied that modern Baptists have diminished the importance of the biblical content regarding the law and the gospel in our confessions which our forefathers thought essential to any confession of faith.
John Newton, pastor and composer of “Amazing Grace,” once wrote:
Clearly to understand the distinction, connexion, and harmony between the Law and the Gospel, and their 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! (Newton’s Works, 1. 322)
Charles Spurgeon preached in 1855:
There is no point upon which men make greater mistakes than upon the relation which exists between the law and the gospel. Some men put the law instead of the gospel: others put the gospel instead of the law; some modify the law and the gospel, and preach neither law nor gospel: and others entirely abrogate the law, by bringing in the gospel. Many there are who think that the law is the gospel, and who teach that men by good works of benevolence, honesty, righteousness, and sobriety, may be saved. Such men do err. On the other hand, many teach that the gospel is a law; that it has certain commands in it, by obedience to which, men are meritoriously saved; such men err from the truth, and understand it not. A certain class maintain that the law and the gospel are mixed, and that partly by observance of the law, and partly by God’s grace, men are saved. These men understand not the truth, and are false teachers.
On this 325th Anniversary of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession, it is my hope that modern Baptists will at least read through its chapters but especially Chapters 19-20 on the law and the gospel. If the Bible has not changed, perhaps our forefathers have something yet to teach us about a major doctrine of the Bible, of the Reformation, of the Puritans, and of our Baptist forefathers. Yes, but will we be humble enough to listen?