More than You Bargained For?

If a person living in the United States discovers that he prefers democracy to other forms of political governance, glaces at the major parties and discovers a Democratic Party, and decides that’s the party for him, he may have made a legitimate decision. But wouldn’t he want to find out something about the party’s past and platforms. What happens when he examines the work of Andrew Jackson, or Stephen Douglas, or Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Clinton, and finds that these figures may be Democrat but he hardly approves of their administrations? Does he then rethink his identification with the Democratic Party?

This analogy occurred to me once again when considering the arguments of John Frame against the so-called Escondido Theology. Greenbaggins has started reviewing Frame’s latest book and has come to the first chapter on the law-gospel distinction. He writes in response to one of Frame’s infelicities:

Frame goes on to say, “They are also motivated by a desire to oppose what they regard as theological corruptions of the Reformation doctrine, particularly the views of N.T. Wright, Norman Shepherd, and the movement called Federal Vision.” I would be a whole lot more comfortable with this sentence had Frame struck out the words “what they regard as.” These distancing words would seem to imply that Frame does not regard Wright, Shepherd, and the FV to be corruptions of the Reformation doctrine. Also, I would think a more charitable way of phrasing this motivation would be that the WSC theologians are motivated by a desire to defend the truth (are they really motivated by opposition, or are they motivated by the truth?).

Greenbaggins contends that the law-gospel distinction has a long pedigree in Reformed circles. It is not merely a Lutheran way of interpreting the Bible, even if Reformed Protestants are not of one mind in distinguishing law and gospel.

Frame notes what he thinks are two failures of the WSC theologians: 1. They fail to notice the problems with the law-gospel distinction. 2. They “fail to understand that the law is not only a terrifying set of commands to drive us to Christ, but is also the gentle voice of the Lord, showing his people that the best blessings of this life come from following his will” (p. 2). WSC theologians fail to notice the problems that Frame points out because they are not problems for the law-gospel distinction. Advocates have noted these objections before and answered them. As to the second point, Frame seems to be accusing the WSC theologians of denying the third use of the law. Whether this is an accurate assessment of Frame’s charge here or not, Frame is off the mark. WSC theologians do not deny the third use of the law any more than Lutherans do (there is an entire section in the Augsburg Confession devoted to the third use of the law).

Greenbaggins’ critique of Frame has not prevented his readers from wondering whether something is still suspect about Westminster California. Some continue to think that the law-gospel distinction has no standing in the Reformed creeds. Others seem to think it may be there but the Southern Californians use it in a radical way. So I’m to imagine that using the law-gospel distinction in opposition to Shepherd, Wright, and the Federal Vision is extreme?

Once again, what seems to happen is that Reformed Protestants understand the Reformed tradition to be as old either as the founding of the Free University or the creation of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia). These folks continue to be surprised that older members of the Reformed tradition, some of those who defined it, spoke about doctrines like jure divino presbyterianism, or exclusive psalmody, or the priority of justification, or the law-gospel distinction. I too was surprised to learn these doctrines back when my exposure to the Reformed faith came mainly from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and Francis Schaeffer. But, you know, I soon discovered that the Reformed faith preceded Princeton Seminary and Jonathan Edwards and went all the way back to the sixteenth century where Protestants talked about law-gospel distinctions. Unlike the democrat who did not like what he found among the Democratic Party, I had no problem trying to take instruction from Reformed Protestants older than Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til (both of whom Frame claims to follow).

Speaking of following Kuyper and Van Til, these Dutch Protestants were members of a church that confessed the Heidelberg Catechism. And lo and behold, the Heidelberg Catechism makes a distinction between law and gospel.

Question 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery?
Answer: Out of the law of God.

Question 4. What does the law of God require of us?
Answer: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt. 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Question 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?
Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

Question 19. Whence knowest thou this?
Answer: From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.

Some may wonder if this really is a law-gospel distinction (by the way, you can see a similar distinction between Q. 39 in the Shorter Catechism — “The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will” and Q. 85 “To escape the wrath and curse of sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby he communicates the benefits of redemption.” The section on the law is distinct from the means of grace.). But if you go to Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, it sure looks like he thinks Heidelberg rests upon this basic distinction:

The gospel and the law agree in this, that they are both from God, and that there is something revealed in each concerning the nature, will, and works of God. There is, however, a very great difference between them:

1. In the revelations which they contain; or, as it respects the manner in which the revelation peculiar to each is made known. The law was engraven upon the heart of man in his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given. “The Gentiles have the work of the law written in their hearts.” (Rom. 2: 15.) The gospel is not known naturally, but is divinely revealed to the Church alone through Christ, the Mediator. For no creature could have seen or hoped for that mitigation of the law concerning satisfaction for our sins through another, if the Son of God had not revealed it. “No man knoweth the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.” “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.” “The Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (Matt. 11: 27; 16: 17.)

2. In the kind of doctrine, or subject peculiar to each. The law teaches us what we ought to be, and what God requires of us, but it does not give us the ability to perform it, nor does it point out the way by which we may avoid what is forbidden. But the gospel teaches us in what manner we may be made such as the law requires: for it offers unto us the promise of grace, by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith, and that in such a way as if it were properly ours, teaching us that we are just before God, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The law says, “Pay what thou owest.” “Do this, and live.” (Matt. 18: 28. Luke 10: 28.) The gospel says, “Only believe.” (Mark 5: 36.)

3. A the promises. The law promises life to those who are righteous in themselves, or on the condition of righteousness, and perfect obedience. “He that doeth them, shall live in them.” “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Lev. 18: 5. Matt. 19: 17.) The gospel, on the other hand, promises life to those who are justified by faith in Christ, or on the condition of the righteousness of Christ, applied unto us by faith. The law and gospel are, however, not opposed to each other in these respects: for although the law requires us to keep the commandments if we would enter into life, yet it does not exclude us from life if another perform these things for us. It does indeed propose a way of satisfaction, 105which is through ourselves, but it does not forbid the other, as has been shown.

4. They differ in their effects. The law, without the gospel, is the letter which killeth, and is the ministration of death: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “The law worketh wrath; and the letter killeth.” (Rom. 3: 20; 4: 15. 2 Cor. 3: 6.) The outward preaching, and simple knowledge of what ought to be done, is known through the letter: for it declares our duty, and that righteousness which God requires; and, whilst it neither gives us the ability to perform it, nor points out the way through which it may be attained, it finds fault with, and condemns our righteousness. But the gospel is the ministration of life, and of the Spirit, that is, it has the operations of the Spirit united with it, and quickens those that are dead in sin, because it is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and life in the elect. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” etc. (Rom. 1: 16.)

Objection: There is no precept, or commandment belonging to the gospel, but to the law. The preaching of repentance is a precept. Therefore the preaching of repentance does not belong to the gospel. but to the law. Answer: We deny the major, if it is taken generally; for this precept is peculiar to the gospel, which commands us to believe, to embrace the benefits of Christ, and to commence new obedience, or that righteousness which the law requires. If it be objected that the law also commands us to believe in God, we reply that it does this only in general, by requiring us to give credit to all the divine promises, precepts and denunciations, and that with a threatening of punishment, unless we do it. But the gospel commands us expressly and particularly to embrace, by faith, the promise of grace; and also exhorts us by the Holy Spirit, and by the Word, to walk worthy of our heavenly calling. This however it does only in general, not specifying any duty in particular, saying thou shalt do this, or that, but it leaves this to the law; as, on the contrary, it does not say in general, believe all the promises of God, leaving this to the law; but it says in particular, Believe this promise; fly to Christ, and thy sins shall be forgiven thee.

Now since several of Westminster California’s faculty are ministers in a communion that confesses Heidelberg, should it really be that surprising they follow Van Til and Kuyper all the way back to Ursinus and affirm a distinction that the historically challenged consider to be sub-Reformed? Or might it be more plausible to recognize that since members of Westminster California’s faculty work within the Continental Reformed tradition, their appeal to the law-gospel distinction entirely compatible with earlier generations of Reformed Protestants?

This doesn’t settle, of course, whether the law-gospel distinction is correct. But given Frame’s endorsement of a pro-Shepherd account of the Shepherd controversy, I am reserving the right to question what he believes to be at stake in contemporary debates over justification, not to mention other matters of Reformed Protestant conviction.