Law and gospel

Law and gospel
John Murray
John Murray John Murray (1898-1975) was recognised in his lifetime as one of the world's leading Reformed theologian. He was associated with the work of the Banner of Truth Trust for 45 years.
01 August, 2016 8 min read

There is much to discourage us about the state of the church today. We think of its conformity to the spirit of the world, lack of depth in Christian experience, absence of heart religion, paucity of the fear of God, disregard for the Lord’s Day, lax attitude to worship, and absence of seriousness with regard to eternal issues.

However, the church was in an even worse state prior to the Reformation. It was characterised by indifference, pride, laxity and worldliness, but a change came that was radical in its ethical effects.

God’s law

While we acknowledge that the Reformation was pre-eminently a revival, we have to inquire what instrument was used by the Holy Spirit at the time. It was undoubtedly the application of the law of God — the Ten Commandments — to the existing situation.

For the Reformers, the starting point in evangelism was nominal ‘Christians’ who lived their lives in utter complacency with regard to their sins. In the Reformers’ judgment, the first thing necessary in preaching was that the holiness of God should be brought home to the consciences of sinners.

There is truth in E. F. Kevan’s claim, in his classic work The grace of law, that ‘the Puritans stemmed the tide of moral indifference in their day by the use of the Ten Commandments’.

It was the conversion of Martin Luther that ignited the Reformation. He faced the question, ‘How could a pigmy stand before the divine majesty? How could a transgressor confront divine holiness?’ His conscience was awakened and he became conscious, as a sinful man, of standing in the presence of God.

God’s holiness was ever obtruding itself on his conscience. He relates: ‘I raged with a savage and confounded conscience; yet I knocked importunately at Paul in this place (Romans 1:17), with a parched and burning desire to know what he could mean’.

Luther had been taught to think of ‘righteousness’ in Romans 1:17 as God condemning sin. However, when divine light broke into his soul, he saw Paul was referring to the righteousness revealed in the gospel, by which God justifies sinners through faith. ‘At this’, he says, ‘I felt myself straightway born afresh and to have entered through the open gates into paradise itself’.

The moral law was to play a prominent part in the teaching of the Reformers and later, the Puritans. John Calvin could write, ‘By exhibiting the righteousness of God, the law admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, convicts and finally condemns him’. (Institutes II, vii, 6).

For Calvin, the law reveals God’s righteous character, restrains evil in society and functions as a rule of life to guide Christian believers in the way of life that is pleasing to God. The catechisms and confessions of faith that poured forth from the Reformers gave a central place to the Ten Commandments, and they became prominent in Puritan preaching and writing.

Law before gospel

We must begin with the nature and character of God. ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). He is the only Holy One. He created our first parents in his own image. What was implanted in man in creation was nothing less, or other than, the moral law of the Creator. The law is the transcript of God’s holy character.What then is our justification for preaching the law of God? To many people today the moral law is an arbitrary rule imposed on the creature. But we have to realise that, as Thomas Manton says, ‘the original draft is in God himself’.

In the words of Anthony Burgess: ‘The moral law implanted in his heart, and obedience thereunto, was the greatest part of Adam’s happiness and holiness’. When man sees the character of God reflected in God’s law, he sees who God is and what God requires of him.

When our first parents transgressed the law of God, the divine image in them was greatly defaced. A disruption came in their relationship with God. Man was justly condemned, and his love for God and his law replaced by enmity. But, in this condition, man was still answerable to a holy God. Like Luther, he is in God’s presence.

The sinner still possesses a God-given sense of right and wrong in his conscience. But that conscience is dead and hardened. It is the arousing of the conscience by the law, in the hand of the Holy Spirit, that is destined to awaken the sinner.

He can hear the gospel, but it has no relevance to him unless he knows his need. It is the ‘coming home’ of the law that awakens the sense of need, as Paul found: ‘I had not known sin but by the law (Romans 7:7ff.).

Why preach the law? Scripture’s answer is that God’s condemnation lies at the very centre of the gospel. If sinners do not know that God is angry with them, or why they merit his wrath, they cannot apprehend the meaning of Christ taking their place at Calvary.

Only God’s law can create a sense of need. Only the law can destroy self-righteous complacency. This shuts the awakened sinner to hope in mercy alone. The law exposes the gospel hypocrite, produces a ‘spirit of bondage’, and drives sinners to Christ.

Luther wrote in his Commentary on Galatians: ‘Whoever knows how to distinguish between the law and the gospel, let him thank God and know that he is a theologian’. The sharp needle of the law makes way for the scarlet thread of the gospel.

Sinful man cannot attain to the keeping of the Ten Commandments, but he discovers that the law has been fulfilled in the obedience of the God-Man on his behalf.

In the work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the law is written on the new Christian’s heart and he has the desire to be conformed to the image of Christ. He rejoices in the law and would agree with the Puritans, who ‘believed that the highest spirituality was to be seen in a life that rejoices to be commanded’ (E. F. Kevan, The grace of law).

Christian experience

The Reformers and Puritans believed that there was a relationship between the nature of evangelism and the quality of the subsequent Christian life. At the first Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, in 1962, Rev. Kenneth MacRae spoke on ‘Preaching and the danger of compromise’ (Banner of Truth, July 1964). He referred to the saying of an old minister in the Isle of Arran, ‘A twist in the birth will be with a man all his days’.

Mr MacRae went on to say that, although this is true physically, there is also an application regarding spiritual birth. Christians may be permanently weakened by misguided teaching received at the time of their conversion. We can see some applications of this today.

Life-long repentance and penitence

Having had a sight of the holiness of God reflected in the law, the Christian is one who is poor in spirit and mourns (Matthew 5:3-4). But yet he is truly blessed and pleasing to God (Psalm 51:17). In one sense, his heart is both broken and healed.

John Newton said, ‘My grand point in preaching is to break the hard heart and to heal the broken one’. Philip Henry said, ‘I will take my repentance to the gates of heaven’.

At one of his weekly tea parties in Cambridge, somebody asked Charles Simeon, ‘What, sir, do you consider the principal work of regeneration?’

Simeon replied: ‘The very first and indispensable sign is self-loathing and abhorrence. Nothing short of this can be admitted as an evidence of a real change … I want to see more of this humble, contrite, broken spirit amongst us. It is the very spirit that belongs to self-condemned sinners … This sitting in the dust is most pleasing to God. Give me to be with a broken-hearted Christian, and I prefer his society’ (John Stott, Christ the controversialist, IVP).

Fear of God

The Reformers’ charge against the ministry that preceded them was that it did not bring men into the presence of the true God. Our age too has lost its grip upon that transcendent Being who holds all men accountable to himself. Consequently, we have lost our identity as image-bearers of the living God.

By the fear of God the Reformers understood reverence for God arising out of a consciousness of his majesty and glory. ‘The fear of God’, says Professor John Murray, ‘is the soul of godliness’.

Prof. Murray goes on to say in his masterly chapter on this in Principles of conduct, ‘If we know God, we must know him in the matchless glory of his transcendent majesty and the only appropriate posture for us is prostration before him in awe and reverence’.

Holiness of life

Modern evangelism has pressed for sinners to be converted, but failed to present the implications of a saving commitment to Christ. It has wrongly assumed that submission to the lordship of Christ and holiness of life can be added later.

But the Reformers and Puritans taught that, where there is no renunciation of the world and no denying of self, there is no faith in Christ; and that a professing Christian who does not live righteously is no Christian at all. God’s command is, ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16).

In regeneration we are conformed to God’s holy law. We cannot have justification without sanctification. Dr John Duncan presented it well: ‘That justification precedes sanctification is another of the ultraisms of modern Protestantism. I cannot receive that doctrine. Faith precedes justification, but regeneration causally precedes faith. It is therefore very important to remark initially that all flows from Christ and our union to him’.


John Newton noted that most errors in the Christian life are rooted in erroneous thinking about the law of God: ‘Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes’. That erroneous teaching has permeated the professing church of today.

We are surely in a similar situation to that described by Dr John Duncan: ‘There is enough gospel preaching to heal a world of sin-sick souls, but where is the preaching to make souls sin-sick?

In an address to the alumni at Westminster Theological Seminary, in 1952, on ‘Some necessary emphases in preaching’, Prof. Murray declared, ‘And what I observed as conspicuously minimal in the preaching of evangelical and even Reformed churches is the proclamation of the demands and sanctions of the law of God.

‘To put it bluntly, it is the lack of the enunciation with power, earnestness and passion of the demands and terrors of God’s law’ (Collected writings).

It was concern over this lack that ultimately led to the first Banner of Truth ministers’ conference, in Leicester, in 1962 (See Catch the Vision, J. J. Murray, Evangelical Press).

As we view the state of the church today, we can but agree with the conviction expressed by Dr J. Gresham Machen: ‘A new and more powerful proclamation of that 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 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?).

John J. Murray ministered in the Free Church Continuing (FCC) before retiring. He was Moderator of the FCC General Assembly in 2003.

John Murray
John Murray (1898-1975) was recognised in his lifetime as one of the world's leading Reformed theologian. He was associated with the work of the Banner of Truth Trust for 45 years.
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