Law & Gospel

My pilgrimage from ‘Lordship’ to Law/Gospel (part 2): Test case—the rich young ruler

Mike Abendroth

In part 1 of this series, we considered the definition of Lordship Salvation (LS) and the Reformation distinction between Law and Gospel. If you read the “rich young ruler” passage in Matthew 19:16-30, as the LS folks frequently do, you will see Jesus calling people to surrender, submission and discipleship. They teach that the ruler should heed the call of Jesus to surrender totally. Was Jesus giving the man the Gospel or the Law?

If you read it as Law (what theologians call the “first use”, because it exposes the sin in unbelievers), then you clearly see Jesus uncovering the man’s heart by using the Law. This Law demands, condemns and is unbendable. The Law preached by Jesus should lead the man to say, “I cannot keep such a law. I am guilty. I stand condemned. You are right in your precise assessment of me. Is there any hope or mercy to be found in God? In you, Jesus? Please be gracious. Have mercy upon me, the sinner.” Sadly, the text does not show any remorse, repentance or the man’s perceived need of a seeking and saving Lord.

Look at Matthew 19:16–17 and ask yourself, “Does Jesus give the Law or Good news to the man?”

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” (ESV)

Did Jesus preach the Gospel to the ruler? No. The Gospel is good news–it proclaims what God in Christ has done. It heralds an accomplished fact concerning the representative life and the substitutionary death of Jesus. It announces that Jesus has triumphed over sin, death and Satan. Jesus did not preach the good news to the rich young ruler. Christ gave him Law (“keep the commandments”).

God extends an offer in the Gospel. He does not demand. God’s Gospel gives freely. It does not give to the sinner if the sinner first submits, commits, desires, treasures or yields. The believer, in response to God’s saving work, will, in the category of holy living, begin to submit and surrender, but the response to the Gospel is not “believe and keep the Law”. The Gospel is not Mount Sinai. The Gospel contains no threats, no punishments upon sinners, no warnings of doom, zero descriptions about thinking lightly of God’s work. Rather, the Gospel reveals forgiveness, joy, comfort and a gracious assurance. Should we warn sinners about Hell and the wages of sin? Yes, but that is not good news. It is Law. “Do this perfectly or perish eternally” is not good news. It is awful news. It is terrifying news. Although true, it is not the Gospel.

To be precise: the Gospel is different from why we need the Gospel. Sinners need the good news of Jesus Christ because they are sinners. Furthermore, the Gospel is not the means of receiving the Gospel. Our believing is not the Gospel, rather, it is the non-meritorious means of receiving all that Christ has done.

Our conversion and holy life as Christians are not the Gospel, but they are fruit and evidence of it.

When people reject the Gospel, there are consequences to such rejection, such as eternal Hell and God’s wrath, but those things are not strictly speaking part of the Gospel. The Gospel is good news! It is what the Triune God has done! The unbegotten Father sends the begotten, not made, Son to rescue sinners, freely and graciously. The Holy Spirit not only assisted/empowered the incarnate Jesus on earth, but He also wonderfully applies the benefits of Christ’s work (both His righteous Law-keeping and substitutionary death for our sins) to our account. That is, indeed, good news.

LS all too often stresses submission and unconditional surrender of the sinner. In their attempt to avoid mere intellectual assent, they want to tell the unbeliever to DO something more than believe. That is Law. Instead, they should call unbelievers to rest in the person and finished work of a God Man who loves sinners. Many LS advocates think Matthew 19 has Jesus telling the man good news. Jesus is giving the Law and the Law alone.

The opposite of LS is not necessarily “free grace” theology or “easy believism”. It is Law/Gospel. The remedy for false converts is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The solution to carnal living is not more Law or Law added to the Gospel. Calling sinners to “surrender” is not the solution. Are LS advocates reluctant to offer the free Gospel because people might take advantage of such free grace and subsequently sin that “grace might abound?” (Romans 6:1). Paul was not reluctant at all.

An unbeliever never has to obey/surrender/keep the Law, treasure or desire God in order to be saved. Faith in Jesus Christ contains no personal obedience of the sinner. Faith looks away from self and believes in the perfect obedience of Another, the Lord Jesus. After a person is saved, there will obviously be obedience and surrender, but it will not be unconditional nor total.

Notice how carefully the Westminster Larger Catechism navigates faith and the fruit of faith, works:

Q. 73. How does faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?

A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness.

Sola Fide is faith alone in Jesus Christ. It is not a resting faith in Jesus including submission, forsaking, yielding and commitment. Knowledge, assent and trust comprise saving faith, not knowledge, assent and submission or surrender. Obedience, faithfulness and surrender certainly follow justification and the new birth, but they are not the ground nor the instrument. Jesus is the ground, and faith alone is the instrument. Categories matter.

Advantage #2 – Keeping categories distinct

LS often confuses justification and sanctification by asking a professing believer, “Have you surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus in every area of your life?” (Law-focused). “Are you living a holy enough life?” (Law-centred). Instead, the believer should first be asked, “Do you believe in the Risen Saviour?” (Gospel-centred). “Are you resting in the finished and perfect work of the God-Man? (Gospel-focused). Sanctification by faith will be reserved for another article. I am not saying that holy living is irrelevant, unnecessary or optional. I am saying that godliness is not the ground of anyone’s salvation.

Caspar Olevianus could have been anticipating LS when he wrote, “The Law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely… the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith.”

The Gospel is not conditional. There is nothing a person must do before they believe. Sola fide is exactly that, “faith alone”. Must a person stop sinning in order to come to Christ? No. Must a person surrender their lives to Jesus so they can believe? No. Is surrender the same as believe? No. Does God justify the ungodly? Yes. There is nothing a person can or must do so that they can trust the Risen Saviour. In other words, there is no law they must obey (yield, submit, commit, surrender, etc.) before they believe. Rest in Christ alone, not in Jesus and your surrender. Trust the Saviour alone, not Him plus yielding or forsaking sin. If forsaking sin is a prerequisite to coming to Christ, the forsaking is to be 100%. When a person is drawn by the Father and believes, there will certainly be a forsaking of sin, but that is in the category of sanctification/good works, not Justification. We must place surrender, commitment, yielding, submission and desiring in the sanctification category.

LS tends to make holy living the test for justification. This also confuses categories. Although sweat and toil are necessary in the believer’s quest to mortify sin (and live unto righteousness), hard work is not in the category of justification by faith alone. A believer’s works are not Jesus. Many err by making a Christian’s holy life “a Christ of it to save them”, as Thomas Wilcox states. Holy living (as great as it is and as much as it should be stressed) is never (now or finally) your justification before a Triune God.

Read the full article on The Heidelblog

Click here to read part 3