July 10, 2017

Law and Gospel in Puritan Thought

For most of Western history, the law of God has occupied a critical and central place in the life of the family, church, and society. It has been recognized by many as God's charter for sanctification, justice, liberty and life.

Very few Christians in my experience, and sadly even many trained theologians, are not conversant with the Puritan perspective on the law and gospel, despite the fact that their vision shaped our legal, political, social and economic landscape decisively in Great Britain and North America. The liberties, freedoms and rule of law that remade much of Europe, England and Scotland – essentially inventing North America – cultivating Christendomic consciousness in the three centuries following the Reformation, are due to the direct application of Scripture to family, church and state, yet many of us remain blissfully ignorant of this fact.

This theological amnesia has opened up a gulf between old and new evangelicalism with respect to the relationship between law and gospel and as a consequence the relationship between the gospel and culture. In a typical statement of Puritan doctrine, in his exposition of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly on the Ten Commandments (from A Body of Practical Divinity, 1692), Thomas Watson, a famed and popular Puritan preacher in London, wrote that “the moral law requires obedience but gives no strength; but the gospel gives strength; it bestows faith on the elect; it sweetens the law; it makes us serve God with delight.”[1] Having discussed the senses in which the law cannot be seen or applied by the believer (that is, as a means of justification, or as an indictment of condemnation against us) he states:

But though the moral law be thus far abolished, it remains a perpetual rule to believers. Though it be not their saviour, it is their guide.  Though it be not foedus, a covenant of life; yet it is norma, a rule of life. Every Christian is bound to conform to it; and to write, as exactly as he can, after this copy. ‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid.’ Rom III 31. Though a Christian is not under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its commanding power…this I urge against the Antinomians, who say the moral law is abrogated to believers; which, as it contradicts Scripture, so it is a key to open the door to all licentiousness. They who will not have the law to rule them, shall never have the gospel to save them.[2]

Because our forebears believed and practiced such an integration of law and gospel, they necessarily integrated faith and life, biblical truth and culture-making – it was both inevitable and natural to them. If Christ is our saviour and his law the rule of life, then law and gospel must be proclaimed to every creature and put into practice in all areas of life. Historian John Coffey writes of the Puritan mind: “Like the reformed, they typically qualified Luther’s antithesis between law and gospel, emphasizing the role of God’s law within the Christian life and local community, and trying to recreate godly Genevas in England and America.”[3]

Yet, even in the centuries prior to the Reformation, the centrality of the law of God to the church and to culture was unquestioned by believers. Consider Berman’s analysis, which carries far-reaching missiological implications:

The Church…would work for…the reformation of the world through law, in the direction of justice and peace…. Law came to be seen as the very essence of faith. “God is himself law, and therefore law is dear to him,” wrote the author of the Sachsenspiegel, the first German law book, about 1220…. Law was seen as a way of fulfilling the mission of Western Christendom to begin to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth.[4]

Whilst I would not articulate the church’s mission in quite the same vocabulary as these scions of biblical faith, the point is well taken. Law, as an aspect of the church’s teaching mandate, was seen as central to the building of the kingdom of God bringing justice, peace and blessing to the nations.

A major question to be considered then, if we are to see a recovery of the gospel in our time, is the place of the law of God in the mission of God, expressed in and through the Christian’s work and witness to the gospel of the Kingdom of God? It is a sad fact that this question has been, in recent times, the source of much confusion and controversy.

Many contemporary Christians are so accustomed to hearing and interpreting the term ‘law’ as a negative and repressive category (a completely modern phenomenon), that the notion that God’s law might have a central role in the Christian life and the mission of God and his church appears bizarre and even alien. Yet for most of Western history, the law of God has occupied a critical and central place in the life of the family, church, and society. It has been recognized by many as God’s charter for sanctification, justice, liberty and life, and it was the Puritans who stated and applied this most effectively amongst our evangelical forebears. It is time we remember their legacy and consider its relevance for us today.

Joe Boot, Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (Toronto, ON.: Ezra Press, 2016), 94-96.

[1] Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (East Peoria, IL: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 44.

[2] Watson, The Ten Commandments, 44.

[3] Coffey and Lim, Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, 3.

[4] Berman, Law and Revolution (1983), 520–521.

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