The law of God is like math. It doesn’t care about anybody’s hurt feelings. It is straight, and hard, and cold, and altogether righteous. But at the same time, when this cold, very cold law is resurrected in the body of Christ back from the darkness of the tomb, it comes to us as burning love. And this is why I am preaching cold law and hot gospel.
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal 2:16).
Summary of the Text:
This passage comes in the context of Paul’s rebuke of Peter at Antioch. Paul says that we know that a man cannot be justified by the works of the law. If we know that, then it is imperative that we act as though we know it. Peter knew that truth, but he had started to wobble in his actions concerning it. We are justified by the faith of Jesus Christ, and not by our own works. There is debate among interpreters as to whether this is referring to “the faith of Jesus Christ” (as in, His faith) or “faith in Jesus Christ” (as in, our faith in His obedience). We are not going to go into that because, fortunately, it amounts to the same thing. We are justified by Christ, and not by our own labors. We have believed in Jesus so that we might be justified, and not by the works of the law. Justification through our own efforts is nothing but a pious pipe dream.
The Threefold Use of the Law:
God is one, and this means that His Word is unified. But His unified Word can have multiple applications. His law is one, but there are three crucial applications. In Reformed theology, we are accustomed to speak of the threefold use of the law.
The first use is to make us aware of our need for salvation (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13; 7:7-11; Gal. 3:19-24). In this application, it is impossible to keep.
The second use is for the maintenance of civil order. The magistrate can use the guidance of the law as he fulfills his duty of restraining evil (1 Tim. 1:9).
The third use helps the regenerate understand what love looks like in particular situations. In this sense the law is a guide for us in our sanctification (Rom. 13: 8-10).
You can see how individuals who are jealous for the purity of the first use of the law would be suspicious of those who make much of the third use. In other words, there is real legalism, but we want to make sure that we don’t define a legalist as someone who loves Jesus more than we do.
Where the Law/Grace Divide Actually Is:
There are some believers who want to think in terms of a law/gospel hermeneutic. Now the word hermeneutic has to do with how we interpret a text, like the Scriptures, and so what this means is that they want some passages in the Bible to be “law,” condemning us in our sin, and other passages to be “gospel,” offering us a gracious way out of bondage to sin. But this won’t do.
We couldn’t really color-code a special edition of the Bible in law/gospel categories. What is more “law-like” than the Ten Commandments? And how do the Ten Commandments begin? “And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:1–2).
And here is an odd statement about “the law.”
“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).
And what is more gracious than the gospel of our Lord Jesus?
“Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:14–16).
And this gracious gospel is what? To those who are perishing is the aroma of death.
So this tells us that the fundamental law/gospel divide is not to be found in the text of Scripture. It is found in the difference between regenerate and unregenerate man. For the regenerate, everything from God is sweeter than the honeycomb. All of it is grace. For the unregenerate, the whole thing is the stench of death, including the good news of Christ on the cross. All of it is law and condemnation.
Objective Guilt, Not Hurt Feelings
When we are held up against the law of God and measured by it, the measurement is always constant. It does not show partiality, and does not adjust anything on the basis of how we feel.
It is true that sinners are a tangled mess of spiritual bruises, but that is simply a symptom of the problem. It is not the problem. The objective problem is objective wrath.
When we stand before the tribunal of God’s law, our trial there is deliberate, careful, meticulous, and altogether just. This is what I mean with the reference to cold law. But the sentence? The sentence is not cold and clinical.
“Who can stand before his indignation? And who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him” (Nahum 1:6).
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).
This is just where the gospel comes in. Our evaluation by the law of God is deliberate and judicious. But the sentence is a fireball, and yet there is no grounds for complaint. Every mouth will be stopped before Him. And here is where the wisdom of God overwhelms all the pretended wisdom of man. The reason there can be a hot gospel is because in the cross of Christ, the hot wrath of God was poured out upon Christ, and He took it all in. The word propitiation refers to the fist of the Father, striking the Son, so that you might be struck down in Him, and raised again to life in Him. “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).