Calvinists and Lutherans on Law and Gospel (Part 1)

One of the ongoing debates within the Reformed world centers on the purported distinction between law and gospel. There are some who insist that such a distinction is an indispensable pillar the Protestant Reformation. But others see the distinction as a uniquely Lutheran doctrine that tends to eclipse the historic Reformed emphasis on the so-called “third use” of the law (as a guide for the redeemed). John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, falls into the latter camp. He has written an article entitled “Law and Gospel” (available online here), which has become one of the most frequently cited critiques of the law-gospel distinction. He argues that, although we are certainly justified by grace alone through faith alone (as Protestants have always affirmed), this does not entail a sharp and absolute antithesis between law and gospel.

Recently, Lutheran minister Jordan Cooper has responded to Dr. Frame’s article in a 5-part series of podcasts (available online here, here, and here). In these talks, Rev. Cooper offers some helpful clarifications, highlighting areas where Frame has perhaps misunderstood the Lutheran tradition, and also showing where common ground between Lutherans and Calvinists is often overlooked.

In this post, I would like to respond to Cooper’s critique from a Reformed perspective, giving a qualified defense of Frame’s article. Like Cooper, I believe that more common ground can be found between us than is often supposed. Nevertheless, I believe that in the final analysis, Calvinists and Lutherans have different ways of handling the law-gospel distinction, and where the two traditions differ, Calvinism is to be preferred.


A natural place to begin would be to clarify exactly what is meant by “law” and “gospel.” Much of the confusion, I believe, is due to the fact that these terms are often used differently by Lutherans and Calvinists. Within the Lutheran tradition, and especially as summarized in Article V of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord (1577), the distinction is understood as that between “promise” and “command,” or between “indicative” and “imperative.” Taken in this sense, the law is a word that condemns sinners and drives them to despair of their own effort, while the gospel is a word of comfort and forgiveness to those who put their trust in Christ. The law says, “Do,” while the gospel says, “It is done.”

Frame criticizes this characterization of law and gospel for being too simplistic and not reflective of Scripture’s own use of these terms. He counters that there are plenty of biblical passages where the law offers promises and the gospel makes commands. The Formula itself recognizes this fact, and thus it distinguishes between a “correct” sense of the terms and a “proper” sense. Frame complains that this terminological distinction appears to give with one hand and take away with the other: how can a “correct” sense be different from a “proper” sense? This would seem to imply that there exist biblical definitions of “law” and “gospel” that are nevertheless improper. However, Cooper replies that this is a misunderstanding of the Formula’s use of the term “proper.” According to later Lutheran theologians, the distinction is actually between “broad” and “narrow” definitions. In the broad sense, “law” and “gospel” can both mean essentially all that is contained within divine revelation. But in their narrow senses, “law” means that which God commands—along with all its attendant threats and curses—while “gospel” is a simple proclamation of salvation by grace. If the Formula had used the term “narrow” rather than “proper,” I suspect that Frame would not have raised this particular complaint.1

Now it needs to be said that, if law and gospel are taken in their narrow senses, I agree with the Lutherans to a point: law and gospel can and must be kept distinct with respect to our justification. No amount of law-keeping can ever merit God’s righteous verdict; it is a free gift by virtue of Christ’s merit, received by faith alone. As a matter of fact, Reformed theologians have made similar terminological distinctions as well.2 It is not hard to find a good number of well-known Calvinists who stressed the importance of distinguishing between law and gospel, including John Calvin himself, Zacharius Ursinus, Samuel Rutherford, William Perkins, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and more. (R. Scott Clark, Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, has catalogued the Reformed tradition’s widespread use of the law-gospel distinction here and here.) Nevertheless, Calvinists have historically made use of the distinction in ways different from Lutherans, with important consequences.


The law-gospel distinction is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states concerning the redemptive covenant of grace (VII.5-6):

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

One notices that law and gospel are here distinguished redemptive-historically (Old and New Covenants), and not hermeneutically (indicative and imperative) as in Lutheranism. In this respect, the Reformed distinction between law and gospel is merely relative, since the gospel is foreshadowed in the Old Testament and the law is reaffirmed in the New. Further, both law and gospel are said to be of one and the same “substance.”

There are other differences between Calvinists and Lutherans as well. Whereas Lutheranism has been more thoroughgoing in excluding any imperatives from the gospel, it was common among early Reformed theologians to include within the gospel the call to repentance. This principle goes back to Calvin himself, who taught that repentance flows from faith in the gospel, not from an antecedent “pre-evangelistic” preaching of law (Institutes III.3.1-2). Thus Calvin can speak of repentance as “a consequence of the offer of grace and promise of salvation.” This “pedagogical use” of the gospel runs counter to a hard and fast distinction between law and gospel.

In a similar fashion, Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish commissioner of the Westminster Assembly, wrote against contemporary antinomians, who taught that God’s moral law has no continuing validity in the life of the Christian (let me emphasize that Lutherans are not antinomian; this much is clear from Luther’s disputes with Agricola). While the antinomians argued that the gospel can only persuade and not command, Rutherford insisted that the gospel “both commands (as the Law doth) and with a more strong obligation of the constraining love of Christ, beside the authority of the Lawgiver, and also persuadeth; so here be no difference at all.”3 Rutherford concludes this chapter by stating:

…Holy fear that the Law commandeth, is the end of the Gospel-Laws as well as love, Gospel-Grace teacheth us to fear God, and to walk in godly fear.4

Writing shortly after the time of Rutherford, English Congregationalist John Owen declares that God’s commands in the New Covenant belong to the “preceptive part of the gospel.”5 Similarly, Puritan Samuel Crooke goes so far as to say that, for the regenerate, the law becomes gospel.6 One gets the impression that, in the Reformed tradition, there is perhaps a “semi-permeable membrane” between law and gospel, but not the absolute antithesis found in the Lutheran tradition. Lutherans seem to treat the “broad” definitions of law and gospel almost as an embarrassment—an unfortunate lack of systematic precision on the part of the biblical authors (indeed, do Lutherans see any positive theological value in the broad senses?). But Calvinists have held that there are important implications to the broad unity of law and gospel, which can be encapsulated in the doctrine of “the grace of law.” In my next post, I will examine these theological implications in further detail.


  1. To be fair to the Formula, it should be pointed out that we still use the term “proper” in this sense in modern English. For example, I have taught my 9th-grade theology class to distinguish between theology “in general”— the application of Scripture to every area of life (a definition which I get from Frame himself)—and theology “proper”—the doctrine of who and what God is.
  2. See especially Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis (1646), cited in Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012), ch. 20. Burgess, a member of the Westminster Assembly (not to be confused with the author of A Clockwork Orange!), also made use of the “broad” and “narrow” senses of law and gospel, in much the same way as contemporary Lutheran divines.
  3. Rutherford, A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist, 2:122.
  4. Ibid, 2:127.
  5. Owen, Discourse on the Holy Spirit in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1855), 3:605.
  6. Crooke, The Guide Unto True Blessedness (London, 1614), 85. Cited in A Puritan Theology, ch. 35.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

5 Responses to “Calvinists and Lutherans on Law and Gospel (Part 1)”

  1. Again, a careful and helpful discussion. It helps to confirm what I believed to be the main fault-lines.

    I think the way the Bible most often looks at law and gospel is redemptive-historically. The law is a covenant. It is the mosaic covenant. As such it is unitary and indivisible. We are either under the covenant or not. If under it we are obliged to keep the whole covenant. While we may divide it into moral/ceremonial/civil these are to some extent artificial. Certainly in terms of obligation we are either covenantally obliged to the whole or we are free from the whole. The NT argues that in the death of Christ we die to the law or to the world where the mosaic covenant had authority (Roms 7). However, living by the Spirit, we fulfil the life the law pointed to. Fulfilling the law is different from keeping the law. As with other aspects of NT fulfilment it eclipses the letter of the OT.

    The distinction some lutherans make that law equals command and gospel equals supply is unhelpful if applied outside of a redemptive-historical context. The imperatives of the gospel are not ‘law’. I’m not sure whether we should view the promises of law as ‘promise’. To do so is to fudge the proper redemptive-historical nature of promise. The promises of law are within a covenant of works. Galatians views the Abrahamic covenant as promise but not the law.

    The Calvinistic principle of the law as a rule of life (the third use of the law) is also I think misguided. It normally is understood to mean we are obligated to the Ten Commandments, the so-called moral law. Yet, as I say above, the law is indivisible. If we are obliged to keep any of it we are obliged to keep all of it; it is a covenant from which we cannot pick and choose. This is Paul’s argument in Galatians. This, of course, does not mean we cannot learn from it, we can. The whole of Scripture is profitable for training in righteousness. However, when we read other parts of the OT we rightly discern their redemptive-historical context and don’t simply assume an obligation to apply it unfiltered to our lives. The rule of life is better defined for Christians as Christ and his commands.

    Of course most of the Ten Commandments are moral principles which transcend the covenant and reflect the obligations that belong to relationships in any culture. The sabbath is the obvious exception. This is a big subject however I think we must face that the special day for believers is the Lord’s day which despite claims otherwise, is not the sabbath.

    Paul’s concern that rules of the mosaic covenant should not be made binding rest on his belief that to make them so places us under the mosaic covenant and so under a covenant of works. This is to move away from grace and the gospel.

    This is how I understand the dynamics at work in law and grace from outside a Lutheran and Reformed tradition. I hope it adds to any discussion.

  2. Kyle

    I find it remarkable and heartening that there is such a school as Westminster Academy where you can teach the Bible in such a thorough way. That must be a joy.


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