Properly Dividing Law and Gospel: Part I


Historically, the biggest problem with the church has been over the issue of Law and Gospel. I will go into the history of this in more depth in later posts, but for now I will mention the earliest instance of this controversy. It was the first council the church ever had. No I am not speaking of Nicea, but of Jerusalem. Acts 15 records the first meeting of the church leaders to discuss the first controversy: that of the Judiazers. They were arguing that Gentiles were bound to the Law just as they were. They were tying the salvation of the gentiles to their obedience to the Law. This is later condemned in the strongest terms by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. What exactly were they doing? Confusing the Law and the Gospel. Confusing that which saves us with that which condemns us. It is still a problem the church faces with increasing frequency, which is why I have taken it upon myself to address it on this blog through various authors.

In this introductory post I will start with a writing from James White; scholar, author, apologist, and Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries. In his book on Justification, he begins by addressing the necessity of considering the issue of sin and how it affects the doctrine of Justification. In this section of the book he also addresses the purpose of the Law by citing a wonderful piece of writing by James Buchanan. In a day and age where we want to speak more of the Grace and love of God than His wrath, Dr. White (with the help of Buchanan) expertly reminds us why discussion of sin (and therefore, the Law) is so necessary.


One of the greatest works on the doctrine of justification came from the pen of the British divine James Buchanan. It first appeared in 1867 and has withstood the test of time since then as a classic volume on the subject. As with every other man of God who has addressed this central topic, Buchanan intimately knew the necessity of spiritual preparation for the proper understanding of justification. His words deserve to be heard once again:

“The best preparation for the study of this doctrine is—neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning,–but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God. A deep conviction of sin is the one thing needful in such an inquiry,–a conviction of the fact of sin, as an awful reality in our own personal experience,–of the powder of sin, as an inveterate evil cleaving to us continually, and having its roots deep in the innermost recesses of our hearts,–and of the guilt of sin, past as well as present, as an offense against God, which, once committed, can never cease to be true of us individually, and which, however He may be pleased to deal with it, has deserved His wrath and righteous condemnation. Without some such conviction of sin, we may speculate on this, as on any other, part of divine truth, and bring all the resources of our intellect and learning to bear upon it, but can have no suitable sense of our actual danger, and no serious desire for deliverance from it. To study the subject with advantage, we must have a heartfelt interest in it, as one that bears directly on the salvation of our own souls; and this interest can only be felt in proportion as we realize our guilt, and misery, and danger, as transgressors of God’s Law. The Law is still, as it was to the Jewish Church, “a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith”; and the Law must be applied to the conscience, so as to quicken and arouse it, before we can feel our need of salvation, or make any serious effort to attain it. It is the convinced, and not the careless, sinner, who alone will lay to heart, with some sense of its real meaning and momentous importance, the solemn question—“How shall a man be just with God?”

But more than this. As, without some heartfelt conviction of sin, we could have no feeling of personal interest in the doctrine of Justification, such as is necessary to command our serious attention in the study of it, so we should be scarcely capable of understanding, in their full scriptural meaning, the terms in which it is proposed to us, or the testimonies by which alone it can be established. The doctrine of Salvation, which is taught by the Gospel, presupposes the doctrine of Sin, which is taught by the Law; and the two together constitute the sum and substance of God’s revealed truth. They are distinct, and even different, from each other; but they are so related that, while there may be some knowledge of sin without any knowledge of salvation, there can be no knowledge of salvation without some knowledge of sin. As this is true of the general doctrine of Salvation, which includes deliverance from the power, as well as from the punishment, of sin, so it is equally true of each of its constituent parts,–the only difference, that, in the once case, we must have some knowledge of sin, in its legal aspect, as guilt already incurred, in the other, of sin, in its spiritual aspect, as an inveterate inherent depravity.”

The fact that the above quote from Buchanan is lengthy must not interfere with the tremendous importance of the truth he pronounces, for it is central to the entire thesis of this work. Justification will only hold the place it deserves in the heart of believers when it is placed at the head of the list of divine truths both because we are convinced by the weight of Scripture that it rightly holds this position and when this conviction is joined by the personal, intimate, spiritual knowledge of the sinfulness of sin and the tremendous blessing of free and gracious justification. Without the scriptural testimony we are left with nothing but subjective desires that lack any meaningful answer; without the conviction of sin we are left with cold, doctrinal orthodoxy that leaves the heart untouched and apathetic.


Hopefully, this has been both uplifting, and poignant in showing the importance of properly distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Both have distinct and unique purposes and contributions in our salvation. Understanding the difference may also mean the difference between salvation and damnation.

White, James R. A Comprehensive Study: The God Who Justifies, The Doctrine of Justification. Minneapolis: Bethany House. 2001. Print.


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