Calvinists and Lutherans on Law and Gospel (Part 2)

This is the second post in my two-part response to Lutheran minister Jordan Cooper’s critique of John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (Rev. Cooper’s critique can be found here, here, and here; part 1 of my response can be found here). Dr. Frame has called into question the traditional Lutheran (and to a lesser extent, Reformed) distinction between law and gospel (his original article is available online here), but Cooper argues that this distinction, when properly understood, is of the essence of Protestant orthodoxy. My goal here is to argue 1) that Lutherans and (many) Calvinists have historically dealt with the law-gospel distinction in different ways, and 2) that the law-gospel distinction in its strongest form is theologically unhelpful.

In my previous post, I set forth some of the terminological and historical differences between Lutherans and Calvinists when it comes to the law-gospel distinction. I acknowledged that law and gospel, when taken narrowly, should be kept distinct with respect to our justification. But I also argued that Reformed theologians have traditionally been more comfortable using law and gospel in their broad senses, such that “gospel” may also include the call to repentance (though there has admittedly always been a diversity of opinion among Reformed theologians, some of whom come much closer to the Lutheran position). In this post, I will focus on the theological implications of the broad unity of law and gospel, or as it is called among many Calvinists, “the grace of law.”


In the volume Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Sinclair Ferguson offers a Reformed critique of Gerhard Forde’s Lutheran perspective on sanctification. In truth, Forde is about as representative of Lutheranism as Karl Barth is of Calvinism. Many of the Reformed (mis)conceptions of Lutherans—such as their supposed denial of the third use of the law—stem partly from Forde’s rather idiosyncratic theology. The third use of the law has actually enjoyed a resurgence among Lutherans of late, as is evident in the publication of Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism by Scott Murray (Concordia Publishing, 2001; review forthcoming). Therefore, some of Ferguson’s criticisms of Forde do not apply to Lutherans in general. But other points that Ferguson makes are quite on target:

I appreciate Dr. Forde’s concern to avoid a legalism that defines sanctification in formal terms. In contrast, however, Reformed teaching speaks of “the grace of law.” It recognizes the reappearance of the Decalogue in the New Testament’s very concrete imperatives arising out of the gracious indicatives of the gospel (see, for example Eph 6:1-3). This, Reformed theology argues, was the original context of the Decalogue itself (Ex 20:1). Obedience is nothing if it is not concrete and specific. Sanctification, ultimately Christlikeness, has a definite form and structure in the New Testament, as well as a foundation and motivation in grace.1

Derek Kidner also stresses the basic unity of law and grace in his commentary on Psalm 119:29 (“Graciously grant me your law, O Lord”):

It is a happy reminder that God’s law is a good gift… and is only the antithesis of grace when it is used to try to earn salvation.2

To my knowledge, no Lutheran would ever use the term “grace of law.” Cooper says that the law is gracious only in the sense that it was gracious for God to reveal his will and convict us of our sin, but strictly speaking, law and grace are mutually exclusive categories. For this reason, Lutherans generally do not see the law as a means of sanctification, as a proper motive for good works, or as grounds for assurance of salvation. On all three counts, I believe that Lutherans are mistaken.

Regarding sanctification, many Reformed theologians have understood the believer’s obedience to God’s law as a positive means of growth in holiness. To be sure, this has not been a consensus position, and some Calvinists have shied away from describing law-keeping as a means of sanctification (see especially the so-called “Grace Boys”). Nevertheless, this idea has early and well-established precedent. For example, Westminster divine Thomas Goodwin has written:

God therefore set forth a copy of his law in his word, which is the means of sanctifying us; and sanctification itself is but a writing of that law in the heart.3

Samuel Bolton, another Westminster divine, has similarly said:

We preach obedience to the law, but not as they [Papists] do; they preach obedience to justification, and we preach justification that we may obey. We cry down works in opposition to grace in justification; and cry up works as the fruits of grace in sanctification.4

In his magisterial work The Grace of Law, Ernest Kevan summarized the Puritan view of the law as follows:

Sin is the transgression of the law, the death of Christ is the satisfaction of the law, justification is the verdict of the law, and sanctification is the believer’s fulfillment of the law.5

This doctrine of sanctification by law continued into 20th-century Reformed thought as well, especially within the Dutch tradition. G.C. Berkouwer writes, “Sanctification and law are inseparable; within their compass move all of redeemed life.”6 Anthony Hoekema further elaborates on this point:

The Christian life, we conclude, must be a law-formed life. Though believers must not try to keep God’s law as a means of earning their salvation, they are nevertheless enjoined to do their best to keep this law as a means of showing their thankfulness to God for the salvation they have received as a gift of grace. For believers, lawkeeping is an expression of Christian love and the way of Christian freedom; it is equivalent to walking by the Spirit. Since the law mirrors God, living in obedience to God’s law is living as image-bearers of God. The law, therefore, is one of the most important means whereby God sanctifies us.7

A common Lutheran rejoinder is that God’s law cannot sanctify us, since it “lacks the power to produce what it commands.” This is true, but it is also beside the point. I am not aware of any Reformed theologian who has ever said that the law empowers obedience. But it is also worth pointing out that the gospel does not in itself empower obedience either (contra Lutheranism). Rather, it is the Holy Spirit who enables Christians both to believe the promise and to walk according to God’s commands. And yet God has ordained that the preaching of God’s law is an effectual means by which the Spirit can bring about the beginnings of obedience in the believer’s life. (Mark Jones has elaborated upon this point here.)

For this reason, it is not inappropriate to speak of the law as a proper motive for good works. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states (XIX.6):

[The law] is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof…

Cooper suggests that any motive for good works other than the gospel is somehow tainted or sub-evangelical. God’s law does contain threats and promises, but according to Lutherans, these incentives are only necessary because of sinful human nature. True obedience, it is said, needs no motivation except gratitude for what Christ has done. As pious as this claim sounds, I’m not so sure it fits the biblical data. Were King David’s motives impure when he celebrated the rewards promised in the law (Ps. 19:11)? Wasn’t even Adam motivated by threats and rewards in his original state of innocence (Gen. 2:17)? Further, does not God delight in blessing us, and is not law-keeping the means by which he can do this? Old Testament professor C. John Collins describes the blessing of the law with this analogy:

I love and treasure my children, and only want to cuddle them, or to read books to them, or play with them, or teach them Hebrew; but if one of them is disobedient – well, I love her, so I will discipline her to teach her obedience, and she’ll learn the lesson.  But time is finite: the time we spent in discipline is time we did not, and now cannot, spend in cuddling, reading, playing, speaking Hebrew.  I don’t say it’s been wasted; we just haven’t been able to go forward.  So it is in Christian growth: obedience doesn’t earn us the relationship with God; it’s the way we experience that relationship and go forward in it.8

Lutherans may sometimes say that God’s law is a delight for the redeemed heart. But rarely if ever do they call the law a blessing that strengthens and nurtures our relationship with God. In my judgment, this falls short of the third use of the law in the fullest sense. The law may kill those who wrongly use it as a means of earning salvation, but to those who use it properly, it is a source of life. In the words of the psalmist, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Ps. 119:93).

Lastly, the Reformed tradition has consistently given a place to law as a proper ground of assurance for salvation. The Westminster Confession (XVII.3) states:

Infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance.

Assurance may sometimes be difficult for a Christian to attain, but it is nevertheless possible through diligent effort. The converse is also true: assurance is diminished if the believer is not exerting continual effort in growth toward holiness. If I were to borrow Frame’s perspectivalism, I would say that Christian assurance has a normative perspective (the gospel promises of Scripture), a situational perspective (the believer’s conformity to God’s law), and an existential perspective (the inward witness of the Holy Spirit).9 To the extent that Lutherans neglect or deny the situational perspective, they are missing out on a vital aspect of Christian assurance. As the epistle of 1 John repeatedly tells us, we know that we are children of God if we keep his commandments (1 Jn. 2:3-4; 3:24; 5:2-3).


Ultimately, I think that the law-gospel distinction creates more problems than it solves. It may be true in a certain limited sense (especially with respect to our justification), but it ends up dying the death of a thousand qualifications. We all agree that one is justified by faith alone and not by works. We also agree that, in pastoral ministry, one should ordinarily preach God’s commands and threats to those who are unrepentant in their sin, and one should ordinarily preach God’s forgiveness and grace to those who are burdened by guilt. But these realities capture only a part of the Christian life. I believe that the Reformed doctrine of the grace of law allows us to affirm all these things, in addition to the vital biblical teaching on sanctification, good works, and assurance.


  1. Ferguson, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1989), 35.
  2. Kidner, Psalms 73-150, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1975), 460.
  3. Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Reformation Heritage, 2006), 10:419.
  4. Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth, 1965), 96.
  5. Kevan, The Grace of Law (Soli Deo Gloria, 2003).
  6. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952), 182.
  7. Hoekema, Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 88.
  8. Collins, “A Study Guide for Psalms and Wisdom Literature” (Covenant Theological Seminary, 2011), 86.
  9. See also Frame, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 1004-7.

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.


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