Is the law/gospel distinction uniquely Lutheran?

In reply to my recent post on Beza’s distinction between law and gospel, Richard wrote (see comment section under Theodore Beza on the Law and Gospel, Part 2),

    “You know–I was just told by my (PCA) pastor that this distinction is a “Lutheran” thing (and that, by the way, is a way to write off the guys at Westminster West). This is what he was taught at RTS in Jackson. Do you sense a hostility to the Law/Gospel distinction in Reformed circles?”

Without question, a law/gospel distinction is very prominent in Lutheran theology. But, it is simply wrong to suggest that a law/gospel distinction is uniquely Lutheran. This common but misguided notion is one reason (to be sure not the only reason) why I posted Beza’s teaching on the law and gospel. And it is without question that the law/gospel distinction has come upon hard times within Reformed circles (e.g., New Perspetives on Paul and Federal Vision).

A law/gospel distinction has been a very prominent and important feature within the Reformed tradition. Calvin’s disciple and successor was not the only Reformed theologian to distinguish between law and gospel. To begin with, a law/gospel hermeneutic can be found in Beza’s mentor, John Calvin and other notable Reformed theologians and pastors such as Zacharias Ursinus (see Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism), Caspar Olevianus (see A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism), Richard Sibbes, Thomas Boston and Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine (the Marrow Men) to name just a few.

In Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry, Dr. R. Scott Clark writes, “As a matter of history, the assertion that the law/gospel distinction is really Lutheran and not Reformed flies in the face of the overwhelming testimony of the Reformed tradition and confessions,” (Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry, p. 340).

Dr. Clark offers a very helpful, brief response to Richard’s comment (for a fuller, more detailed response see, Dr. Clark’s excellent essay entitled, “Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching,” in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry). Dr. Clark writes,

    “Hi Richard,This is a common and false claim. I addressed this at some length in an attempt to refutie this myth in a chapter called, “Sprit and Letter” in the volume Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry.The book is available on Amazon or here:

    The Bookstore at Westminster Seminary California

    There are many more examples of this “Lutheran” distinction in Reformed theology here:

    On Law and Gospel

    As a matter of fact, the classical Reformed theologians would be shocked to learn that the law/gospel distinction is now regarded as solely “Lutheran” by modern Reformed pastors. They would wonder how we could possibly remain Protestants since the entire Reformation was premised upon this distinction.

    You would do your pastor a great service by giving him a copy of CJPM and by pointing him to these resources. I should like to see someone argue that Calvin, Ursinus, Olevianus, Perkins, Wollebius, Fisher, Twisse, Beza, Machen, Berkhof, the Synod of Dort, and Murray were all Lutherans!

    If those fellows are “Lutherans” then I’m one too. As to RTS/J well, Lig Duncan is a Lutheran just like the WSC faculty as is Guy Waters, so I guess Lutheranism has infected RTS/J too. That would be true for our friends at Greenville and MARS and Knox.”

The importance of maintaining a law/gospel distinction cannot be overemphasized. As Beza writes,

    “We must pay great attention to these things. For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.”

Not only is a law/gospel distinction Reformed but most importantly, the law/gospel distinction is thoroughly Biblical and fundamental and essential to proper Biblical interpretation, proclamation and Christian living.


2 Responses to Is the law/gospel distinction uniquely Lutheran?

  1. Richard says:

    John, I hope this can generate some discussion with the Reformed who are not of this opinion. I wonder if this comes from a Puritan/pietism strand of Reformed thinking?

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