Friday, September 24, 2010

Law and Gospel

You hear a lot about the distinction between law and gospel in the protestant world. It is slightly different language than I was used to as a protestant. We would talk about the law and grace. I would have said the law was part of the gospel. Certainly I believe that as a Catholic but I think a lot of protestants even talk that way. Doug Wilson did in the article on lust I linked a while back:

The way to deal with the law that God laid down is by turning to Christ -- that is one of the ways the law was designed to work. But the same principle we learn about God's law and our justification also applies to our own laws, and our sanctification. We must learn to use them as a reason to turn to Christ for grace and wisdom, and not to use them as a source of spiritual power in themselves.
This is great. The problem is that some protestant teachers seem to think you only need to be motivated once to turn to Christ for grace and wisdom. That once that has happened then you don't need any more motivation. It isn't true. We need to constantly use the law to examine our lives and show us where we are failing to be holy.

The law is like an X-ray. It tells us the problem but does not fix anything. Grace is like chemotherapy. It might involve some short term pain but it actually kill the tumor of sin growing inside. But we need to keep having X-rays to make sure the chemotherapy is directed to the right spot. New tumors can start at any time. So the law does not become obsolete. It still does not make us holy. It makes us desire holiness but we need to cooperate with God's grace in actually becoming holy.

There has been much confusion over this. Both with the Manhatten Decalration (on abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty) and a document called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (on justification) there were many evangelicals who signed but the ones that didn't talked about this law/gospel distinction. Mark Horton from White Horse Inn is one of the more vocal opponents.
This declaration continues this tendency to define “the gospel” as something other than the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits.  The document recites a host of Christian contributions to Western culture, adding, “Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good.  In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good.” The declaration concludes, “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.”  In an interview, Mr. Colson repeatedly referred to this document as a defense of the gospel and the duty of defending these truths as our common proclamation of the gospel as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals.
Having participated in conversations with Mr. Colson over this issue, I can assure readers that this is not an oversight.  He shares with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI the conviction that defending the unborn is a form of proclaiming the gospel.  Although these impressive figures point to general revelation, natural law, and creation in order to justify the inherent dignity of life, marriage, and liberty, they insist on making this interchangeable with the gospel.

Now I don't think anybody makes natural law interchangeable with the gospel. It is a much lesser revelation of God than we find in scripture or tradition. But it is salvific. It can cause someone to enter into a saving relationship with Jesus. That might happen visibly in that they are moved to call up their local Catholic parish and ask to be baptized. It might also happen invisibly. That in their heart Jesus might meet them anonymously and they might receive His grace and be saved. 

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