Doctrine is the necessary basis for a sound spiritual life, and defective doctrine almost inevitably leads to a distorted spiritual life. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in understanding the relationship between the old covenant law and the gospel, which is a theological issue with enormous practical implications. Its importance was recognized by Martin Luther, who could write that “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” The gospel always demonstrates that God’s perfect law and His love were fulfilled on the cross of Christ. To lose the balance will always lead to spiritual deformity because, if either “law” or “love” is absent from the life of God’s people, the gospel will fail to operate in its God-intended way.
The Reformed community, following John Calvin, has put significant emphasis upon the Law and its three uses: pedagogical, civil, and didactic. Pedagogically, it teaches us our sin, thus showing us our helplessness to keep it and revealing our sin. Its civil use restrains sin as it outlines the reality of punishment that follows if we break it. Its third use is didactic in that the Law urges believers into good works and therefore has a sanctifying use in the life of the Christian.
Calvin was aware of the temptation to confuse the first and the third uses of the Law. According to its first use, the Law is contrary to faith and should serve to drive us to despair of our own righteousness; the Law at the same time is a revelation of God’s holy will, and the Christian obeys it out of gratitude. The result of confusing the first and third uses of the Law has profound implications for the lives of individuals and churches. Yet that happens almost unnoticed. The reason such a substitution often goes unchallenged is that while the foundational truths of the gospel are all held sacrosanct, the gospel itself is not understood or integrated into the lifeblood of the church.
When law is substituted for the gospel in preaching, while the content of a sermon may be wholly orthodox, it will have a doubly negative effect. It will provide some members of the congregation with a religious cushion to their consciences. They will find it a sermon that announces a law that in large measure they have kept. Because they are doing right and it makes them feel good, even as they condemn “sins” that are not their own, they will hear from the pulpit exactly what they are looking for, a reassurance that everything is all right with them. In fact, their religion effectively keeps them from relying on Christ for their real salvation and sanctification because the Christian life is reduced to a carefully constructed code of behavior. At the same time, there will be some who hear the Law sounded and will find themselves defeated because, though they are Christians, they are all too aware of their own secret but persistent sins. As a consequence, their whole experience is to live with a secret shame that never permits them to enjoy their salvation. Instead, they are haunted by the fear that others will find out what they are really like and either reject them or denounce them as hypocrites.
There is also a loss of spiritual power and dynamism in the Christian life because grace is spoken of without being experienced. The result is that Christians become compelled to service in their own strength, believing, albeit unconsciously, that their continued acceptance before God is based upon their performance in overcoming temptation. This wearies Christians because the performancebased life will always bring strain and fear of failure, as well as guilt when failure becomes real, which is inevitable while we remain in the flesh. Instead of the sight of Christ sacrificing Himself in love to redeem us, we become impelled by a moral demand that serves to make us both hard and tired at the same time. Congregations can then become unwelcoming in their ethos, as there developes a concentration upon behavior.
Perhaps what is even more damaging is that our repentance before the Lord becomes focused upon the trivial issues, as if any sin is trivial! Instead of dealing with the deep issues of human idolatry that are ever the challenges of the human heart, we become focused upon the single sins that beset our hearts. We never deal with the thing that causes us to lose the sense of true fellowship with God that has been procured for us by His grace at Calvary. We lose the sense of gratitude and become trapped by the sense of obedience to a moral code instead of being drawn by the love of Christ, who bled and died for us. In fact, as the apostle Paul reminds the Galatians, we change the privilege of being sons into the experience of slaves (Gal. 4).
Gospel repentance motivates men and women to trust Christ without the fear of rejection, for it calls us to understand that our sins violate the love that paid the cost so that we would never be rejected. It shows us Christ, who is the draw of our hearts and the center of our devotion and adoration, thus establishing Him and His work as the true heart of the soul and the church.