Law and Gospel and Application

This is the third and last entry in a series on ‘meaning and application.’ See Part 1 and Part 2.

William Perkins’ book, The Art of Prophesying, is a gem. It is written as a means of instruction for preachers, but Perkins’ principles of interpretation can be used by anyone. With that said, here is what Perkins writes about biblical application:

Application is the skill by which the doctrine which has been properly drawn from Scripture is handled in ways which are appropriate to the circumstances of the place and time and to the people in the congregation (p. 54).

For an individual who is not a preacher, we would simply say that application is drawing out the teaching of a passage in such a way that it is instructive (in any number of ways, both negative and positive) to himself and his world (including his family, church, culture, etc.).

Perkins then goes on to describe what he considered to be the most important element of the application of Scripture:

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect stimulates and stirs it up. However the gospel not only teaches what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. When we are regenerated by him we receive the strength we need both to believe the gospel and to do what it commands. The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel (p. 54).

He also notes that

…Many statements which seem to belong to the law are, in the light of Christ, to be understood not legally but as qualified by the gospel (p. 55).

This is how the Israelites should have understood the Law – as qualified by redemption. But, the Apostle Paul writes,

Brothers,my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them (Romans 10:1-5).

They did not properly qualify the Law by the Gospel. If you take “do this and live” to mean that you are actually capable of gaining life through obedience, then you’ve missed the qualification of the Gospel, which tells us that Christ obeyed the Law in our behalf that we might be counted blameless through him.

This is an aspect of what Perkins recognizes as ‘rightly dividing the Word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2:15). It has been widely observed that the Apostle Paul uses a Greek word (Ὀρθοτόμεω) relating to his ‘second job’ as a tent-maker when he speaks of the art of ‘rightly dividing.’ He wants Timothy to ‘cut straight the Word of Truth.’ Perkins relates the word to the Old Testament sacrifices:

Right cutting is the way in which the Word is enabled to edify the people of God…

The idea of cutting here is mataphorical language possibly derived from the activity of the Levites, who were required to cut the limbs of the animals they sacrificed with great care. It is of this skill that the Messiah speaks: ‘The Lord has given Me the tongue of the learned, That I shoul dknow how to speak a word in season to him who is weary’ (Isa. 50:4).

There are two elements in this [right cutting of the Word]: (i) resolution or partition, and (ii) application.

Resolution is the unfolding of the passage into its various doctrines, like the untwisting and loosening of a weaver’s web…Sometimes the doctrine is explicitly stated in the passage…On other occasions a doctrine not specifically stated is correctly drawn from the text because, in one sense or another, it is implied in what is written…Note, however, that doctrines ought to be deduced from passages only when it is proper and valid to do so. They must be derived from the genuine meaning of the Scripture. Otherwise we will end up drawing any doctrine from any place in the Bible (pp. 48-51).

Perkins will go on to make his argument that the key principle of application is discerning between Law and Gospel, and a proper qualifying of the Law by the Gospel – this is a part of ‘cutting straight the Word of truth.’

Let me summarize: If you are going to apply the Scriptures well, you need to know the difference between law and gospel and you need to be able to understand how the law is qualified (i.e. how our position in relation to the law is qualified) by the gospel. Once you understand the law as law, and your inability to gain righteousness through it, you are well on your way to a proper application of the law. But if you stay there, if you fix your eyes on the law as if you will be able to produce righteousness in your own power, then you have failed to properly distinguish law from gospel. The Holy Spirit (read Romans 8) works through the gospel and gospel principles. You must therefore take the law and qualify it according to the gospel. This can be as simple as: I have failed, I know that in my own power I will still fail, but Christ has succeeded and paid for my sins, therefore I will walk by faith in him. This is the attitude the Spirit promises to bless. This is the “mindset of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:6) – always looking to Christ as he is offered in the gospel. (Read more about that HERE).

The main point here, from Perkins, is that in order to apply a passage legitimately, which also implies a proper understanding of the meaning of the text, you must train yourself diligently in what Walter Marshall calls “the rare and excellent art of godliness.” That is, obedience motivated by gospel principles. And in order to seek holiness by gospel principles, you must be able to discern the Scriptures’ distinction between Law and Gospel, which includes the qualifying of the Law by the Gospel.


Making Bricks Without Straw (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

Seeking a pure life without a pure nature is building without a foundation. And there is no seeking a new nature from the law, for it bids us make brick without straw, and says to the cripple, ‘Walk,’ without giving any strength.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 14

I’ve written about this same theme in detail ELSEWHERE. For the sake of those who won’t click the link, let me share a similar statement by John Owen on the subject of sanctification:

This is the work of the Spirit; by him alone is it to be wrought, and by no other power is it to be brought about. Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world (Mortification of Sin in Believers, ch. 1).

On Not Being Righteous Overmuch

That precept of Solomon, ‘Be not righteous over much’ (Eccles. 7:16) is very useful and necessary, if rightly understood. We are to beware of being too rigorous in exacting righteousness of ourselves and others beyond the measure of faith and grace. Overdoing commonly proves undoing. Children that venture on their feet beyond their strength have many a fall, and so have babes in Christ when they venture unnecessarily upon such duties as are beyond the strength of their faith. We should be content at present to do the best that we can, according to the measure of the gift of Christ, though we know that others are enabled to do much better; and we are not to despise the day of small things, but to praise God that He works in us anything that is well-pleasing in His sight, hoping that He will sanctify us throughout and bring us at last to perfection of holiness through Jesus Christ our Lord. And we should carefully observe in all things that good lesson of the apostle: ‘Not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith’ (Rom. 12:3).

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 12

This section demonstrates Marshall’s pastoral heart more than any other section of the book. Anyone who has worked in the ministry likely realizes that you cannot set the same bars for everyone – even in regards to holiness.

Chesterton once quipped something to the effect that the Puritans wanted to turn the whole world into a monastery. This is a caricature, but it has some teeth. There are those who have misused Puritanism in that way. I would prefer to think that the Puritans wanted to open up the windows of the monastery and let some fresh air in. They didn’t think anyone was strong enough to be a good monk (much less a good Christian) under that suffocating air. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that the tone of the early Reformers and Puritans was one of relief and buoyancy. If our Christianity doesn’t follow that trajectory of relief and buoyancy, then we’re headed down an inverted, yet somehow genuine, primrose path.

So much for the anecdotal, let’s get to a couple of actual points.

First, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 exist for a reason. Elders and deacons are called to a higher standard than others within the church. If the are quick-tempered, for instance, they are disqualified from the ministry. If other Christians are quick-tempered, they might be disqualified from partaking of The Lord’s Supper from time to time. The Apostle James made a similar point: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Those texts tell me that I should hold teachers (including myself)/elders to a higher standard of holiness than I would hold someone else in the same congregation. For instance, I probably can’t count the number of times I have let church members get away with saying things (without a rebuke) that I would have chided an elder for. If God judges the teacher with greater strictness, then we should as well.

Allow me to anticipate an objection: this does not mean that ministers never sin and should never be shown grace. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 do not say that the minister must be perfect. But they do set a certain standard. They still get grace, but there are sins that disqualify them from office. Such sins do not necessarily mean that they are not a Christian; but it does mean that they are not called of God to be elders or deacons or what have you.

Second, the world is not a monastery. We want our people to live holy lives to be sure, but we do not want them to be stiffs. We don’t want to destroy their personalities, but we want their personalities to be submitted to the person of Christ. We want them to live in this world, to have fun, to learn from their mistakes, and ultimately to live a life of repentance. And, sadly, a life of repentance implies a life that includes sin. This does not mean that they will live in constant sin, but it does mean that they will fall. The Christian doesn’t stay in sin, but he certainly will fall into sin. Yet he keeps turning from it.

Third, speaking of living their lives, Christians should not feel under constant oppression. God does not have his thumb on us. As Spurgeon said, not a drop of water gets inside the ark; likewise, not a drop of wrath gets near the Christian. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Christians are serving a loving Father, not a tyrannical despot. Luther wrote something to this effect: sin boldly, but let your faith in Christ be bolder. I want the people I teach to be unafraid of screwing up. I don’t want them to be looking over their shoulders, constantly in fear that the hammer is about to drop. I want them to know what sin is, and I want them to know when they sin, but I also want them to know the feeling of gospel relief on a daily basis.

In his great hymn, Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face, Horatius Bonar described his desire in partaking of The Lord’s Supper in this way:

Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with Thee the royal wine of heaven;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.

The calm of sin forgiven, tasted afresh. That’s it.

Fourth, I’ll bottom line this line of thought. I know what it is like to put yourself under tremendous pressure to live in holiness. I read books about sanctification and talk about Law and Gospel a lot. The reason I do so is this: I am a closet Legalist. I’ve known this for years. I distinctly remember the relief I felt a few years ago upon reading The True Bounds of Christian Freedom and realizing that I am not under the Law as a covenant. But, you see, I already knew that. I just hadn’t experienced the relief of that fact up until that point in time.

An amazing thing happened at that point. My preaching improved, and so did my life – my wife can attest to it. I tell people that the gospel frees us up to be screw-ups without fear of not being loved. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t have lasted this long. There are days when I will fight myself on and off for hours at a time over sinful thoughts and temptations – even stupid temptations that 99% of the world isn’t the least concerned about (like how many hours I sleep and how many minutes I spend reading the Bible in a given day). When I do this in my own strength I only beat myself down. When I remember the grace of Jesus Christ, I find myself built up. If that is my own experience why would I put that sort of pressure on other people? I don’t want them to think that sin is ‘okay.’ But I want them to know that God is gracious and forgiving to those who are trusting in his Son. And I want them to know (as I want my children and my wife to know) that I don’t expect them to be exactly like me – or exactly like Christ (and I am by no means exactly like Christ).

To expect perfection is to have an over-realized eschatology. We won’t be eternal splendors until we get to eternity. We are, says Peterson, in the midst of a long obedience in the same direction. That direction implies a destination that we haven’t reached. Don’t expect yourself to be there when you’re still en route. You know what it’s like to wish you had the magic button so that your tedious car-ride would be over. But no magic button exists this side of death. The good thing is that there are radios and audio books and fun games that can be played in the car along the way. I’ve learned more on some car-trips than I did in seminary classes. You’ll get there, Lord willing. The road has bumps and can be tedious, but you’ll get there.

As for how we treat others: we want to encourage one another in holiness, but we want to do so in a godly way. To encourage people to godliness in an ungodly way is the height of hypocrisy. So then, how does God encourage his people to godliness? By gospel means. Go and do thou likewise.

Ordering the Soul through Prayer (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

Strive to bring your soul into order by this duty, however disordered by guilt, anguish, inordinate cares or fears…A watch must be often wound up. You must wrestle in prayer against your unbelief, doubting, fears, cares, reluctancy of the flesh to that which is good; against all evil lusts and desires, coldness of affection, impatience, trouble of spirit; everything that is contrary to a holy life and the grace and holy desires to be acted for yourselves or others…Stir up yourselves to this duty…

– Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 13

I like Marshall’s language of ‘ordering’ the soul by prayer; it’s very much true to my experience. I wake up every morning, more or less, a disordered mess, and find that prayer is the only means by which I can get my mind, and frame of mind, in the right condition to face the day.

For this reason, prayer is highly instructive. It not only grabs ahold of God’s promises; it is a means God uses to teach us to love what is good and hate what is evil. For in it we pray against what is evil within us and seek after good; we repent of sin and seek grace; we turn from self-centeredness and seek to align ourselves with God’s purposes.

The Rare and Excellent Art of Godliness (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

We are said to walk according to either of these states [flesh/spirit, law/gospel], or to the principles and means that belong to either of them, when we are moved and guided by virtue of them to such actings as are agreeable to them. Thus kings act according to their state in commanding authoritatively, and in magnificent bounty; poor men, in a way of service and obedience, and children, indiscriminately…So the manner of practice here directed to consists in moving and guiding ourselves in the performance of the works of the law by gospel principles and means. This is the rare and excellent art of godliness, in which every Christian should strive to be skillful and expert.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Loc. 2705-10 (Get a free copy for Kindle HERE).

I love the phrase “the rare and excellent art of godliness.” This art, Marshall says, is “the performance of the works of the law by gospel principles and means.” He adds that Christians should exert themselves to become skillful experts in the practice of this art.

William Perkins called theology “the science of living blessedly forever.” This is the Puritan notion of biblical application: We study the Scriptures in order to understand and apply (though you cannot separate understanding and application) the Law and the Gospel. And the one who understands/applies the Law and the Gospel properly will be driven to the gospel by the law and then empowered by the gospel unto obedience; that is, to “perform the works of the law by gospel principles and means.”

There are three quotes that I always go to in order to illustrate this principle:

First, Samuel Bolton, in The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, put it this way: “The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life.” Second, Isaac Watts put it this way:

The Law commands and makes us know
What duties to our God we owe
But ’tis the Gospel must reveal
Where lies our strength to do His will

Third, Ralph Erskine wrote,

The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done.

Each author is making the same point; and it is a point that we need to heed if we want to be “skilled and expert” in the “rare and excellent art of godliness.”

Holiness is a Purpose (Not the Cause) of Salvation (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

Though we are not saved by good works, as procuring causes, yet we are saved to good works, as fruits and effects of saving grace, which God has prepared that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). It is, indeed, one part of our salvation to be delivered from the bondage of the covenant of works; but the end of this is, not that we may have liberty to sin…but that we may fulfill the royal law of liberty, and that we may serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Gal. 5:13; Rom. 7:6)…

They would be free from the punishment due to sin, but they love their lusts so well that they hate holiness, and would not be saved from the service of sin. The way to oppose this pernicious delusion is not to deny, as some do, that trusting on Christ for salvation is a saving act of faith, but rather to show that none do or can trust on Christ for true salvation, except they trust on Him for holiness.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 8, Kindle Loc. 1702-19 (Get a free copy for Kindle HERE).

The choice of the name ‘Jesus’ had a purpose: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is a Greek play on the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yeshua – Yah Saves. Jesus is announced as the salvation of Yahweh. But what does he save his people from? The angel puts it plainly: he saves his people from their sin. This could be taken to mean a number of things: he saves them from the wrath and curse of God against man due to their sin. He saves them from the consequences of sin. But, Walter Marshall reminds us, salvation includes salvation from sin itself.

Jonathan Edwards put it like this:

The most remarkable type of the work of redemption by divine love in all the Old Testament history, was the redemption of the children of Israel out of Egypt. But the holy living of his people was the end God had in view in that redemption, as he often signified to Pharaoh, when from time to time he said to him by Moses and Aaron, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” And we have a like expression concerning Christ’s redemption in the New Testament, where it is said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, . . . to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68-75). All these things make it very plain that the end of redemption is, that we might be holy (Charity and Its Fruits, Chapter 11).

In our justification we are counted as righteous for sake of Christ. In sanctification we live out the trajectory of our justification as we are actually being made righteous through the continuing work of his Spirit within us. This work will culminate in our glorification, as all remnants of sin are wiped out and we are made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God for all eternity. So then, justification is the beginning, actual holiness is the end. Justification is the inauguration, glorification is the culmination. Sanctification is the road in between.

RC’s believe in a purgatory in which sins are purged. We follow the teaching of the apostle Paul: the purging of sin (along with positive living unto righteousness) is present-life sanctification. I once had a (Reformed) professor who recommended that we read (specifically) Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Purgatorio. He hypothetically asked himself the question we were all thinking in our minds: ‘Why should a bunch of protestant seminary students read a book about Purgatory?’ His answer was this: apply it all to sanctification. That was great advice, and I used it as I read the book. I use it almost every day. God (as a loving Father) is purging me of my sins.

This does not entail that we will ever achieve sinless perfection in this life; but it does mean that we must believe in the promise of God: ‘He will save his people from their sin.’ Your salvation is of free grace. You did not earn a bit of it. And that grace toward you is not in vain. So get to work, for it is him who is at work in you.

The Third Use of the Law (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

…The Ten Commandments bind us still as they were then given to a people that were at that time under the covenant of grace made with Abraham, to show them what duties are holy, just and good, well-pleasing to God, and to be a rule for their conversation. The result of all is that we must still practice moral duties as commanded by Moses, but we must not seek to be justified by our practice. If we use them as a rule of life, not as conditions of justification, they can be no ministration of death, or killing letter to us.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 6, Kindle Loc. 1235-39 (Get a free copy for Kindle HERE).

The traditional Reformed understanding of God’s Law is that it has three continuing uses:

1. It is to restrain evil (Civil Use)

2. It is to reveal sin and lead us to the Savior (Pedagogical Use)

3. It is to direct the living of the Christian life (Moral or Normative Use)

Marshall nails the third use here: having been accepted by God the Father solely on the basis of the finished work of Christ, we are now to strive, by the power of the Spirit at work within us, for new obedience. The problem emerges when we slip into the idea that our obedience now somehow contributes to God’s acceptance of us. At that point the third use of the Law is wholly perverted and becomes an agent of death rather than life, disobedience rather than obedience.

What Does It Mean To Be ‘In the Flesh?’ (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

The true interpretation is that by flesh is meant the nature of man, as it is corrupted by the fall of Adam and propagated from him to us in that corrupt state by natural generation; and to be in the flesh is to be in a natural state, as to be in the Spirit is to be in a new state, by the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us (Rom. 8:9)…The corrupt nature is called ‘flesh,’ because it is received by carnal generation; and the new nature is called spirit, because it is received by spiritual generation. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6).

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 5, Kindle Loc. 977-81 (Get a free copy for Kindle HERE).

Marshall goes on to describe the properties of ‘the flesh’:

  • One thing belonging to our natural state is the guilt of sin, even of Adam’s first sin, and of the sinful depravation of our nature, and of all our own actual transgressions, and therefore we are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) under the curse of God…
  • Another property…is an evil conscience, which denounces the wrath of God against us for sin, and inclines us to abhor Him as our enemy, rather than to love Him…or, if it is a blind conscience, it hardens us more in our sins.
  • A third property is an evil inclination, tending only to sin, which therefore is called ‘sin that dwells in us,’ and ‘the law of sin in our members,’ that powerfully subdues and captivates us to the service of sin (Rom. 7:20,23)…
  • A fourth property is subjection to the power of the devil who is the god of this world, that has blinded the minds of all that do not believe (2 Cor. 4:4), and will certainly conquerall whom he fights with on his own dunghill, that is, in a natural state.

Marshall understands ‘flesh’ (in relation to salvation) to be the sinful nature of man. The sinful nature involves the guilt and power of original sin, total depravity (inability to do what is pleasing to God in our own strength), sinful actions, a marred conscience, continual and powerful inclination to sin, and subjection to the influence and power of Satan. To the degree that these things are being subdued and weakened, we are putting the sinful nature to death.

I would add here that Marshall will go on to argue that it is through gospel means that we put sin to death. Once we have believed the gospel and trusted in Christ as the means of doing away with the guilt of sin and our marred consciences, from there we will trust in him to work in us to subdue sin’s power and sway in daily experience.

Analogies of Union with Christ (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

We receive from Christ a new holy frame and nature, by which we are enabled for a holy practice, by union and fellowship with him, in like manner
-as Christ lived in our nature by the Father (John 6:57);
-as we receive original sin and death propagated to us from the first Adam (Rom. 5:12,14,16,17);
-as the natural body receives sense, motion and nourishment from the head (Col. 2:19);
-as the branch receives its sap, juice and fructifying virtue from the vine (John 15:4,5);
-as the wife brings forth fruit by virtue of her conjugal union with her husband (Rom. 7:4);
-as stones become a holy temple by being guilt on the foundation, and joined with the chief corner-stone (1 Peter 2:4-6);
-as we receive the nourishing virtue of bread by eating it, and of wine by drinking it (John 6:51,55,57),
-which last resemblance is used to seal to us our communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 3, Kindle Loc. 606-12 (Get a free copy for Kindle HERE).

The analogies are miraculous, covenantal, organic, and architectural:

  • Miraculous: hypostatic union
  • Covenantal: federal headship, marriage
  • Organic: mind/body, vine/branch, body/food
  • Architectural: cornerstone/foundation/building

All of these entail the idea of ‘indwelling.’



Four Motivations for Holiness (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

In the first place, I assert that an inclination and propensity of heart to the duties of the law is necessary to frame and enable us for the immediate practice of them…

The second endowment necessary to enable us for the immediate practice of holiness…is that we be well persuaded of our reconciliation with God…

The third endowment necessary to enable us for the practice of holiness…is that we be persuaded of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happiness. This must precede our holy practice, as a cause disposing and alluring us to it…

The last endowment…is that we will be persuaded of sufficient strength both to will and perform our duty acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of the heavenly happiness.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 34ff (Get a free copy for Kindle HERE).

In other words, we must have the Spirit dwelling in us (we must be born again), comprehension that we are justified (forgiven and accepted on account of Christ’s suffering and obedience), assurance of final salvation and joy in the presence of God, and awareness that we are not doing this on our own (i.e. in our own strength). Marshall calls these ‘endowments.’ This means that they are not things that we can work up. Rather, they are gifts from God given for the purpose of sanctifying us.

The Spirit, who wrote the Law, is in me, inclining me to do His will. The Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, lived and died for my failures (both past and present) to do so, with the result that I am completely reconciled to the Father. He promises me that I will be with him where he is, with His Father. He promises that He will help me on my journey there. That’s motivation.

I have a new nature;
I am forgiven and accepted;
I will enjoy God for all eternity;
I have the help of the Spirit.

Now go to war with sin.