Law and Gospel
Louis Berkhof (1873-1957)
died in 1957, at the age of 83, after a long and distinguished career
as a teacher of theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids,
Michigan. He attained world-wide fame as an author of the Reformed
faith. We here reproduce from his Systematic Theology a
portion of his comments on the law and gospel. – Ed.
Law and the Gospel in the Word of God
The Churches of the Reformation
from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel
as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction
was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and
the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies
to both Testaments. There is law and gospel in the Old Testament,
and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything
in Scripture which is a revelation of God's will in the form of
command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether
it be in the Old Testament or in the New, that pertains to the work
of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love
of God in Christ Jesus. And each one of these two parts has its
own proper function in the economy of grace. The law seeks to awaken
in the heart of man contrition on account of sin, while the gospel
aims at the awakening of saving faith in Jesus Christ. The work
of the law is in a sense preparatory to that of the gospel. It deepens
the consciousness of sin and thus makes the sinner aware of the
need of redemption. Both are subservient to the same end, and both
are indispensable parts of the means of grace. This truth has not
always been sufficiently recognized....
The promises which man appropriates certainly impose upon him certain duties, and among them the duty to obey the law of God as a rule of life, but also carry with them the assurance that God will work in him "both to will and to do." The consistent Dispensationalists of our day again represent the law and the gospel as absolute opposites. (They teach that)... Israel was under the law in the previous dispensation, but the Church of the present dispensation is under the gospel, and as such is free from the law. This means that the gospel is now the only means of salvation, and that the law does not now serve as such. Members of the Church need not concern themselves about its demands, since Christ has met all its requirements. They (the Dispensationalists) seem to forget that, while Christ bore the curse of the law, and met its demands as a condition of the covenant of works, He did not fulfill the law for them as a rule of life, to which man is subject in virtue of his creation, apart from any covenant arrangement.
Distinctions Respecting the Law and the Gospel
a. As was already said in the preceding, the distinction
between the law and the gospel is not the same as that between the
Old and the New Testament. Neither is it the same as that which
present day Dispensationalists make between the dispensation of
the law and the dispensation of the gospel. It is contrary to the
plain facts of Scripture to say that there is no gospel in the Old
Testament, or at least not in that part of the Old Testament that
covers the dispensation of the law. There is gospel in the maternal
promise, gospel in the ceremonial law, and gospel in many of the
Prophets, as Isa. 53 and 54; 55:1-3, 6-7; Jer. 31:33, 34; Ezek.
36:25-28. In fact, there is a gospel current running through the
whole of the Old Testament, which reaches its highest point in the
Messianic prophecies. And it is equally contrary to Scripture to
say that there is no law in the New Testament, or that the law does
not apply in the New Testament dispensation. Jesus taught the permanent
validity of the law, Matt. 5:17-19. Paul says that God provided
for it that the requirements of the law should be fulfilled in our
lives, Rom. 8:4, and holds his readers responsible for keeping the
law, Rom. 13:9. James assures his readers that he who transgresses
a single commandment of the law (and he mentions some of these),
is a transgressor of the law, Jas. 2:8-11. And John defines sin
as "lawlessness," and says that this is the love of God,
that we keep His commandments, 1 John 3:4; 5:3.
b. It is possible to say that in some respects
the Christian is free from the law of God. The Bible does not always
speak of the law in the same sense. Sometimes it contemplates this
as the immutable expression of the nature and will of God, which
applies at all times and under all conditions. But it also refers
to it as it functions in the covenant of works, in which the gift
of eternal life was conditioned on its fulfillment. Man failed to
meet the condition, thereby also losing the ability to meet it,
and is now by nature under a sentence of condemnation. When Paul
draws a contrast between the law and the gospel, he is thinking
of this aspect of the law, the broken law of the covenant of works,
which can no more justify, but can only condemn the sinner. From
the law in this particular sense, both as a means for obtaining
eternal life and as a condemning power, believers are set free in
Christ, since He became a curse for them and also met the demands
of the covenant of works in their behalf. The law in that particular
sense and the gospel of free grace are mutually exclusive.
c. There is another sense, however, in which the
Christian is not free from the law. The situation is quite different
when we think of the law as the expression of man's natural obligations
to his God, the law as it is applied to man even apart from the
covenant of works. It is impossible to imagine any condition in
which man might be able to claim freedom from the law in that sense.
It is pure Antinomianism to maintain that Christ kept the law as
a rule of life for His people, so that they need not worry about
this any more. The law lays claim, and justly so, on the entire
life of man in all its aspects, including his relation to the gospel
of Jesus Christ. When God offers man the gospel, the law demands
that the latter shall accept this. Some would speak of this as the
law in the gospel, but this is hardly correct. The gospel itself
consists of promises and is no law; yet there is a demand of the
law in connection with the gospel. The law not only demands that
we accept the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ, but also that
we lead a life of gratitude in harmony with its requirements.
The Threefold Use of the Law
It is customary in theology to distinguish a three-fold use of
The Three Defined. We distinguish:
a. A usus politicos or civilis.
The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness.
Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and
is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God's common
grace in the world at large. This means that from this point of
view it cannot be regarded as a means of grace in the technical
sense of the word.
b. A usus elenchticus or pedagogicus.
In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under
conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability
to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes his
tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God's
gracious purpose of redemption.
c. A usus didacticus or normativus.
This is the so-called tertius usus legis, the third use
of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them
of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation.
This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians.
Reprinted from Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
(London: The Banner of Truth Trust), pp. 612-615. Used by permission.This excellent book can be obtained from The Banner of Truth Trust, P.O. Box 652, Carlisle, Pennsylvania 17013.