Putting Paul in Perspective: Law & Grace

(This is the third article in a series on the New Perspective on Paul)

We now come to a much vexed question: Did Paul disagree with Moses? What concord hath command with promise? Is it law versus grace verses? Is there a fundamental antimony between the two?

When considering the relationship that exists between law and grace, the Reformed have historically understood the two in harmony, while the Lutherans have seen an antithesis. It is true that the law of Moses and the grace of the gospel preached by Christ were largely seen as being in conflict by Martin Luther.

While discussing Genesis 17, Martin Luther once said, “If someone should diligently stress this chapter, he will find countless supporters and pupils, for in it Moses assembles such powerful arguments in favor of circumcision that St. Paul had to resist with all his might.”

In other words, according to Luther, the tension was between Moses and Paul, and not between Moses misunderstood by first-century Jews and Moses understood by Paul. This assumed tension between law and grace is something that is at the very heart of the Lutheran tradition, and the Reformed have been opposed to this from the beginning. Thus, when the New Perspective takes issue with the Lutherans at this same point, it is only arguing from the old perspective of our Calvinistic fathers.

Peter Lillback gives a detailed contrast of the work of Luther and Bullinger in their exegesis of Genesis 17. According to Lillback, the differences can be stated pointedly—Genesis 17 is law for Luther and gospel for Bullinger. The Lutheran approach is to divide the Bible into two categories, law and gospel. This is not to be understood as the same as the Old and New Testament because the Old Testament includes both law and gospel, and the New Testament includes both law and gospel. This distinction is self-consciously understood to be foundational for hermeneutics. In other words, this fundamental distinction is resident in the text, and the job of the exegete is to discover which category the passage is in. Practically, this often devolves into imperatives being viewed as legal statues while indicatives (or promises) are viewed as gracious statements.

Before proceeding further, it is important to note that there is agreement between the Lutheran and historic Reformed position if the discussion involves the psychology of individual conversion. In other words, the Bible does contain moral imperatives and commandments which reveal and increase sin (Rom. 3:20; 5:20). And the Bible also contains words of peace in the gospel explicitly stated as such. Consequently, when a man in rebellion is convicted by the moral demands of the law, reflects on his position before God, hears the gospel preached, and repents and believes, it is fully appropriate to discuss this transition in terms of law and grace, law and gospel. This is fine as far as it goes. It just tends to go too far much of the time.

The psychology of conversion ought not to be transformed into a hermeneutic. Suppose a man is an adulterer. He has his attention drawn to the words of Scripture—the command to not commit adultery. He hears that God will judge him for his disobedience (Heb. 13:4). He comes under conviction of sin and repents. This is wonderful, but none of it changes the fact that exegetically the Ten Commandments (including the prohibition of adultery which convicted this man of his sin) are presented to the people of Israel as gospel. The preamble of the Decalogue is a declaration that God is the One who delivered us from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. That is good news—gospel. The Ten Commandments were given to redeemed people, not mainly to redeem people.

All this is to say that there are some additional subtleties involved. There is a division to be made but it must be made between the hearers of the Word. The Scriptures divide men into two great categories, those who believe and those who do not (Matt. 25:33). This in turn gives us two fundamental hermeneutics—one of faith and love, and the other of unbelief and hatred. The former hermeneutic is faithful and correct, while the latter hermeneutic is rebellious.

For the unbelieving heart, the Word of God in its entirety comes as law, condemning the sinner. This is particularly evident with the moral imperatives of Scripture, but it is equally true of the words of consolation and hope. To those who are perishing, the words of Christ our Savior are the very aroma of death.

Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

So the unbelieving heart sees law and condemnation everywhere, including in the gospel. For unbelief, law is condemning law and liberating gospel is condemning law. For faith, law is gospel and gospel is gospel. The distinguishing features are the eyes that see and the ears that hear rather than the words that are read and heard.

For the believing heart, the Word of God in its entirety comes as gospel, bringing the sinner to salvation. This is particularly evident with the declaration of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, the heart of the gospel message. But it is also true of the Ten Commandments, which are words of joyful deliverance and salvation (Ex. 20:1). The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul (Ps. 19:7). Moses declared that the law was not too hard for Israel to keep. The problem was never with the law. The problem was with the hard hearts and stiff necks that rebelled against it. This passage is applied by Paul to Christ Himself (Dt. 30:11-14; Rom. 10:6-11). This is because Christ is the telos of the law for everyone that believes (Rom. 10:4). The word is near us—it is in our hearts and in our mouths. So the believing heart sees Christ everywhere, including in the law.

But as stated before, it is nevertheless proper to argue that in the work of salvation, in the transition from unbelief to faith, God uses the moral demands of Scripture to make sinners aware of their need for salvation (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:7; Gal. 3:19; Mk. 10:18-19), and He uses the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to deliver them from the condemnation of this law (1 Cor. 15:1-4). But it must be understood that this does say anything about the ontological nature of certain passages; making some “law” without any trace of grace while making others “grace” without any hint if moral obligation.

I mentioned earlier that for the Reformed, law and grace, or obedience and gospel, were in complete harmony. But how would the Reformed answer a Lutheran challenge that any such attempt at harmonizing is actually adulterating the purity of grace? How can obedience and grace be combined without distorting the nature of grace? As an ultimate principle in justification, they cannot be. Grace drives out works, just as works drive out grace (Rom. 11:6). But the classic Calvinist answer here is a nuanced one, and those in the contemporary Reformed world who have attacked some of their brethren for abandoning the Reformed position are doing so because they have actually abandoned it themselves. They are critiquing their brothers in just the same way that Luther critiqued our fathers. Lillback addresses this effectively.

Thus Calvin occupies middle ground between the merit system of the medieval Schoolmen and the law/gospel hermeneutic of the Lutheran system. Calvin was able to conjoin the concept of God’s acceptance of men’s works with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by making this acceptance a subordinate righteousness to justification. Because it was subordinate, it was not contrary to justification righteousness. Calvin presents a remarkable synthesis between the old system of justification of the nominalists and the new system of justification of the Reformation. In so doing, he appeals to the covenant and to the Scriptures as the basis for his position.

Consequently, in the life of the believer, according to the Westminster Confession, there is no tension at all between law and grace. In the life of the believer, the one who understands this aright, how is the law to be understood? Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, . . .

In his discussion of this issue, Thompson does not give sufficient weight to the historic position of the Reformed at all. He rightly chastises those who repeat the error of Marcion, who fail to see the positive role that Paul continued to assign to the law. But he then goes on to say that many modern Christians have slipped into this error in part because it was inherited from the Reformation. Again, while we can applaud the doctrinal point, it is simply false to say that the Reformation was responsible for this dichotomy. As an exercise in exegetical theology, well done. As an exercise in historical theology, C minus. Maybe even an F.

Once again, the trouble comes when the “Reformed” position is viewed as synonymous with the “Lutheran” position. Our fathers taught us to make important distinctions, but those distinctions were not between law and grace, but rather between Luther and Calvin


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