Law as Gospel: Covert Antinomianism
by Dave Spotts
Many churches erroneously present Law as if it were Gospel. This example of covert antinomianism is particularly harmful to the Church and to our attempts to bring a biblical message of sin and salvation to our culture. Yet our attempts to be clear about Law and Gospel are often unintelligible to leaders within broader Protestantism. Through careful presentation of a distinctly Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel we can make headway in this difficult situation.
As we recall, a concise definition of Law is that which we are required to do. A concise definition of Gospel is that which God has done on our behalf. Unfortunately many churches in many denominations, particularly within the broadly evangelical church growth movement, do not have an adequate working understanding of Law or Gospel. They may view Law as the Old Testament or as some of the particular books in the Old Testament and Gospel as the New Testament, all of Jesus' teachings, or the contents of the four Gospels. Some pastors and churches go so far as to say this distinction is irrelevant, that they preach whatever they find in the Bible, as it is either all God's Law or God's promises. The particular error I wish to address here, though, is the situation where a church looks at God's Law and presents it as if it is Gospel. Picture with me a conversation between myself and a minister. I ask what the Gospel is. This pastor may respond by telling me that it is God's will that everyone should repent and live a holy life. I can further define the Gospel as good news and ask how that statement is Gospel. The pastor may tell me that people who are dedicated to living a holy life will find that God blesses them. He has promised that all who call on his name and walk according to his promises will be blessed. At this point, the pastor is genuinely convinced that he has explaiend the Gospel to me. I may ask him to be specific about what he means by calling on the name of God. He may respond that this means asking Jesus for forgiveness. Finally, I think, the pastor has approached the Gospel, at least obliquely. At least Jesus and forgiveness are present. However, the pastor may well go on to tell me that this way, if we hold fast to Jesus and live like the sheep of his pasture who follow him and do what he tells us, then we will be remembered in his kingdom.
This misunderstanding of the true nature of the Law is a form of antinomianism, as oddly as it sounds. It denies the true crushing burden of God's Law. It makes the Law into something that we are capable of keeping. If we slip up once in a while, we can ask Jesus' forgiveness, but really we are going to be justified by the Law. The good news, the Gospel, becomes the fact, we are told, that we are given the spiritual power to keep God's Law. After all, God really just wants our best. He's given us ways to earn a great life of blessing by following him, and on the rare occasion that we fail he really doesn't think the worse of us. He forgives and forgets, just like we should. The teachers who say God's Law is really the Gospel are antinomians. They have denied the content and nature of God's Law.
Why is this so harmful to the Church in our culture? We find that our culture, including the churches which have become imbued with this misunderstanding of Law and Gospel, finds our message unintelligible. We insist that nobody can keep God's Law. They insist that there are lots of laws people keep perfectly well. We insist that the Law requires perfect and heartfelt obedience all the time. They insist that the Law doesn't mean what it says, that God is really forgiving, that Jesus overlooks our mistakes. We insist that outside of Christ nobody is able to do any good works. They insist that there are lots of good works going on. We insist that good works don't earn any merit. They counter that our opinion must be wrong. If God is good he accepts even our imperfect good works. A conversation like this will leave both participants thoroughly bewildered. The Christian with the historic Law/Gospel paradigm thinks he communicated God's demands clearly. The person who has confused Law for Gospel thinks he has just had an encounter with some sort of curmudgeonly killjoy who can't see something good for what it is and certainly doesn't represent the kind and loving God of the New Testament.
The crux of the matter is that our culture, including broad evangelicalism, and sometimes sadly more reformational groups, including many Lutheran congregations, have forgotten the distinction between Law and Gospel. They have a kind of a "Law-lite" view of God's demands. We are told to keep the Law so we must be able to do so. Any other message seems like an odd anachronism at best. Yet when a right distinction between Law and Gospel is carefully taught people are able to see how crushing the demands of God's Law are and therefore how glorious the Gospel is. The Gospel is seen clearly for a liberating message when we see the Law clearly as that which crushes and kills. Most believers who are at all biblically astute can grasp this distinction. But as long as it is assumed and not explained we will find ourselves communicating with people who have denied the crushing power of the Law and wonder what we are talking about.
To combat this type of antinomianism I suggest we approach it slowly, gently, carefully, not assuming anything, and yet patiently insisting that Law and Gospel be rightly divided in all situations. Over a period of time we may be able to rebuild some historic understanding of the righteous wrath of God against sin and the wonders of Jesus' atonement on our behalf.
blogging at http://capnsaltyslongvoyage.blogspot.com and http://alex-kirk.blogspot.com