Know Your Unrighteousness About the relationship between Law and Gospel in preaching and in the experience of faith
“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” With these words Calvin begins his famous Institutes. In the true religion it therefore comes down to these two matters: knowledge of God, and knowledge of ourselves. These two may be distinguished from each other, yet they are also inseparable. According to Calvin it is then also not easy to determine which of these two comes first and which one next. Does knowledge of God come from knowing yourself, or is it the other way around? On the one hand Calvin notes, “Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is urged to seek God,” while on the other hand he immediately writes, “It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God” (Institutes I, I, 1-2).
Knowledge of Self is Knowledge of Sin
In the light of Scripture, knowing yourself can mean nothing less than that I know myself as a sinner before God. Principally that is something different than having an awareness of good and evil. For every person there lies a boundary somewhere between good and evil, even though this boundary can differ on account of someone’s education, conscience and worldview.
Knowledge of sin is essentially also something different than identifying sin in other people. Every person is affected to greater or lesser extent by the sinful practices of his fellow men and of society. However, that does not constitute knowledge of sin in its essential nature. Typically we are more inclined to recognize sin in others than in ourselves, and we may even react indignantly about the walk and talk of those others. Sometimes we do it to cover up or to minimize our own evil.
Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit however, we notice first of all the sin in our own self, and we see that not only do we commit sins, but also that we are a sinner before God. When the prophet Nathan came to David to confront him about his sin with Bathsheba, and told him the story of the man with the one little ewe lamb, David exclaimed, “The man who has done this deserves to die.” But when Nathan pointed his accusing finger at him — “You are the man!” — the confession came from his lips, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12).
Confession and Forgiveness
The obvious question is here: how do we arrive at knowledge of our sin and to the confession that we are a sinner before God? That question is of vital importance, seeing the inseparable connection that the Bible makes every time between confession of guilt and forgiveness of sin. The fact that the remorse for sin sometimes received a meritorious or conditional character may not lead us to deny the connection between confession and forgiveness.
The Bible leaves no doubt in this matter. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Prov. 28:13). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). These are only a few proofs of Scripture and many could be added to it. This also explains why the Bible calls us so often to knowledge and confession of our sin, because that is the way in which forgiveness can be attained. “Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God” (Jer. 3:13).
There is no knowledge of sin without acknowledgment before the Lord. And the other side of this confession is forgiveness. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5).
Law or Gospel
So how do we come to knowledge and an acknowledgement of our sin: through law or through the gospel? In the course of the centuries this question has been answered differently. On the one hand it is alleged that sin can be known exclusively through the law. The law is the source of knowledge of our misery. It holds up the mirror to us so that we can see how hideous we have become because of sin. The law is the public prosecutor who indicts and accuses us. In this way sinners are cornered and forced to profess their guilt. Only when the law has done its work thoroughly, and the sinner has been exposed, will there be room for the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. Otherwise, how would man have need for forgiveness if he does not realize that he is guilty?
Those who say that we should base everything on the gospel, and that this is our starting point, take an almost contradictory view. After all, the gospel proclaims to us that Christ has fulfilled the law. From his sacrifice we can see that we cannot fulfill the law of God, and neither do we need to. The depth of our sin and our brokenness becomes clear only on Golgotha. Knowledge of guilt and repentance over sin are awakened only through the gospel.
If we were to be forced to make a choice between these two views — knowledge of sin either from the Law or from the Gospel — at first glance this choice does not appear all that difficult. After all, the Heidelberg Catechism asks the question in Lord’s Day 2: “From where do you know your sin and misery?” and answers briefly and to the point: “From the law of God.” It is an answer that is rooted in Holy Scripture, for Paul writes to the Romans: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). And also, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). Misunderstanding appears to be excluded: the law is the source of knowledge of our misery.
And yet — upon closer examination — the second view is not altogether unfounded either. Both John the Baptist as well as Jesus himself begin their public ministry with the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). The call to penance and conversion is motivated by the coming of the kingdom, and therefore from the gospel.
We can also think here of the classic form used for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which appeals to each believer to “consider his sins and accursedness, so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God. For the wrath of God against sin is so great that he could not leave it unpunished, but has punished it in his beloved Son Jesus Christ by the bitter and shameful death on the cross”.
Luther and Calvin
The choice between these two points of view is therefore not all that simple, but do we need to make a choice? This has been done with an appeal on the one hand to Luther, and on the other hand to Calvin. There was namely no complete consensus in regard to the position of the law. True — both recognized fully the function of the Law as the source of knowledge about our unrighteousness. The law demanded perfect righteousness, but we cannot and will no longer fulfill that demand. The Law indicts us in order to show that we need a different righteousness; one that is valid before God and that is revealed in the gospel.
With Luther, the law occupies a rather independent position. The work of the law, i.e., the knowledge of our sin, our brokenness and our readiness to repent, is to Luther a stage that precedes faith.
“Now when a man has through the precepts been taught his own impotence, and become anxious by what means he may satisfy the law — for the law must be satisfied, so that no jot or tittle of it may pass away; otherwise he must be hopelessly condemned — then, being truly humbled and brought to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself no resource for justification and salvation. Then comes in that other part of Scripture, the promises of God, which declare the glory of God, and say: ‘If you wish to fulfill the law, and, as the law requires, not to covet, lo! believe in Christ, in whom are promised to you grace, justification, peace, and liberty.’” On the Freedom of a Christian.
With Luther we see therefore how the law makes room for the gospel. The promises provide what the commandments demand. In later developments of Lutheranism, and also in Pietism, this sequence becomes a system: first the law, and only then the gospel. An anxious struggle and a profound awareness of misery precede the perspective on God’s grace and a breakthrough of that grace.
This condemning and accusing function of the law, with which Luther had become very acquainted also during his own life, is also known by Calvin although with him it does not have a leading role. According to him, the law is saturated with the gospel. Because of this he does not view the work of the law as a preliminary stage that precedes faith, but as something inherent to faith.
There are many instances in the Institutes where this is shown:
“That repentance not only always follows faith, but is produced by it, ought to be without controversy”Inst. III, 3, 1
“What then? Can true repentance exist without faith? By no means”Inst. III, 3, 5
Calvin sees repentance that is not accompanied by faith with people such as Cain, Saul and Judas, who “perceived the heinousness of their sins and dreaded the divine anger”. But “evangelical repentance we see in all those who, first stung with a sense of sin, afterwards [were] raised and revived by confidence in the divine mercy, and turned unto the Lord” — Inst. III, 3, 4.
However much Calvin has emphasized the significance of the law, he does not want to admit any form of repentance that would have been derived exclusively from the law. He does acknowledge that a certain fear can precede faith, but he does not want to prescribe to the Holy Spirit as to how he should bring man to faith, and definitely he does not want to create any system in the sequence of law and gospel.
For that matter it would be incorrect to pit Luther’s and Calvin’s views against one another. Admittedly, Luther stressed the independence of the law, while according to Calvin the law was more subservient to the gospel. But even with Luther expressions can be found where he connects repentance to faith. Also Calvin remarks sometimes that no one will accept the gospel unless he has been altogether crushed by the law.
As soon as someone makes absolutes of the view of either Calvin or Luther and turns these into a “system”, this will have consequences for preaching and pastoral work. On the one hand, with an unwarranted appeal to Calvin, one can assimilate the law altogether in the gospel. The accusing and condemning function of the law are then deactivated and there is hardly any room left for repentance. The necessity of knowledge of sin and confession of guilt is not quite denied, but yet it is silenced. The consequence is that the gospel no longer has any point of contact and has no longer an address. The starting point is that either we are saved and that we need to witness of this salvation, or that we must give shape to the kingdom of God in a legalistic way.
It is also possible — more in line with Luther — to strictly let the law precede the gospel. Through a thorough and strident preaching of the law the sinner needs to discover his sin and be made receptive to the gospel. In this way, the knowledge of sin is separated from faith. Or it is constantly maintained that knowledge of sin and guilt are needed, while the invitation of Christ and the promises are no longer proclaimed. “In this way the law is put as a massive obstacle on the way to the gospel” (C. den Boer).
Law and Gospel
It cannot be a question whether the law needs to be preached. The only question is what place the law should have in our preaching. We cannot get around the well known words of Paul, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Beside the question whether this should be understood purely in relation to the history of salvation, or also in relation to the order of salvation, the law also has a pedagogical function. Literally it says “the law is a pedagogue unto Christ”. And a pedagogue was in the Greek world a slave who brought the children to school. The task of the law is therefore to bring the sinner to Christ. This means that the preaching of the law can never be a goal in itself, but that it is a means to bring us to Christ.
The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Lord’s Day 2, “From where do you know your sins and misery?” and answers, “From the law of God.” But then the immediate next question is, “What does God’s law require of us?” to which the answer starts with, “Christ teaches us this in a summary.” The law has therefore been placed in Christ’s hands and he teaches us from the book of the law how sinful and depraved we are so that we would begin to need HIM.
Knowledge of sin is therefore not a preliminary and certainly not a momentary stage. For the same Catechism says in Lord’s Day 44, right in the middle of the section on gratitude, that God has the law preached to us so strictly “so that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ!”
Law and gospel need to be proclaimed in the preaching, but not in the same manner. The ministers of the Word are not servants of the law but servants of the gospel. Christ did not order his disciples to “Preach the Law”, but to “Preach the Gospel.” The law has its place in the preaching and should have a place in it, yet it is always to make room for the gospel. Calvin even calls it “the unintended use of the law”. The actual use of the law is for Calvin the normative aspect, i.e., the law is the rule by which we live.
It is therefore biblical and reformational to state that the law prepares and trains us for the gospel. But this does not happen apart from the gospel, for also the preparatory work of the Lord has a place in the framework of God’s saving work with man,
Anyone who separates law from gospel makes the “praeparatio” into a “conditio”, the preparation into a requirement. But in doing this the gospel can no longer be proclaimed in an unrestrained manner. If a sinner first needs to be broken and destroyed before he can come to Christ, then Christ and the promises of the gospel can no longer be presented to the hearers of that gospel. However, that would be in conflict with the character of the gospel, and also with Christ’s command when he said, “Proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
We may not proclaim a gospel apart from the law, for in that case it does not have an address. But neither may we preach the law separately from the gospel. That provides no perspective and would bring people to despair. We need to call sinners to communion with God in Christ. We need to call them to repentance and faith, and to proclaim to them the fear of the Lord. “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3). We need to assure our hearers that Christ welcomes them as they are, because his blood cleanses from all sin.
It is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who according to Christ’s own words convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). For this he uses the proclamation of the Word: law and gospel. At Pentecost we see, for example, that Peter’s preaching about the crucified Christ has the effect on his hearers that they are “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), broken sinners ready to repent.
Perhaps we may say in summary that the Holy Spirit uses the law to make us see our sin, but that this knowledge is deepened through the gospel. Or as Bavinck formulated it once, “that the true repentance, the true grief about sin, and the sincere return to God and his service, comes about not exclusively through the law but also, and to an even greater extent, through the gospel” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV).