Law and Gospel in Moral Reasoning

One of great failures of modern evangelical Christians that has been undeniably made manifest over the last few years is the lack of moral reasoning that plagues so many of our number—even those regarded as leaders. I have commented on this and written about it in relation to racial tensions and abortion and politics. At the bottom of this deficiency, I have argued, is a failure to recognize and think deeply about the teaching of God’s Word on law and gospel. Many of our leaders have rightly encouraged us to keep “the gospel above all” but have done so in ways that suggest there is no place for the law.

One of the great needs of our day is to recover what was better understood by many of our forebears about the relationship between law and gospel. Specifically, we need to face up to the fact that the God who gave us His gospel has also given us His law and He cares as much about His law being obeyed as He does His gospel being believed. Such understanding is no threat to the gospel. On the contrary, it exalts the gospel and protects it from antinomianism on the one hand and legalism on the other. In fact, the gospel cannot be properly appreciated apart from a recognition and appreciation of the law. The very subsoil of Mount Calvary is Mount Sinai.

God loves His law by which He rules us as much as He loves His gospel by which He saves us.

This is what I mean: Without the law, there is no sin and without the knowledge of the law there can be no recognition of sin (Romans 4:15, 5:13, 7:7-8; 1 John 3:4). Without sin, there is no need for grace—specifically, the grace of God in the gospel. The gospel—the person and work of Jesus—is for sinners (Luke 5:32). What Jesus did to accomplish our salvation—living a righteous life and dying a sacrificial, atoning death—was necessary because of our violation of God’s law. When a sinner turns from sin and trusts Christ for salvation, he is credited both with the righteousness that Christ earned by His life and the payment that He made by His death.

Such a saved sinner now loves Jesus and wants to please the God who freely saved Him at such a great cost. What does that look like? As Jesus put it, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In other words, true discipleship under the lordship of Jesus looks like a life of faith in Christ that is committed to keeping His commandments. Anything less is not biblical Christianity. It is false faith. Jesus makes this plain when He asks, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46; cf. Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 2:3-6).

God loves His law by which He rules us as much as He loves His gospel by which He saves us.

If a Christian fails to grasp this and order his life accordingly, he will not be able to see his way out of the moral morass that afflicts so many sectors of evangelicalism in our day. What J. Gresham Machen wrote about the law a century ago is as true today as it was then.

A new and more powerful proclamation of [the] law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law….So it always is; a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail (What is Faith, 141-42).

The only hope of being delivered from the tyranny of ever-changing, man-made standards of righteousness is to be clearly committed to and advocates of God’s one, unchanging standard as summarized in the Ten Commandments. Without this, Christian moral reasoning is lost and virtue and righteousness will be dictated by the most effective mob. But, understanding and embracing such biblical wisdom grants freedom and strength to withstand the mobs and refuse to kowtow to their demands of obeisance to their false gods and compliance to their false standards. Christians who are committed to trust God’s gospel and obey His commandments will, with joy in their hearts, pursue the path of true righteousness regardless of cost or consequence.

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