Law and Gospel


And God spoke all these words, saying, 

I am the LORD your God, who brought you 

out of the land of Egypt, 

out of the house of slavery. 

(Exod 20:1-2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The giving of the law occurred in the context of divine disclosure and covenant articulation, which makes the law itself an important extension of the divine image and community identity. Which God? The God who brought you initially out of Egyptian slavery, but ultimately brought you out of slavery to sin. Which you? The people of Israel initially but ultimately the people who honor the covenant.

The law itself offers concrete boundaries to the covenant community and, by inference, boundaries to the freedom offered in Gospel. In this sense, I often refer to the law as to what healthy spiritual boundaries look like from God’s perspective. Outside the faith community the Ten Commandments appear as a list of dos and don’t, while inside the community the Commandments simply define who we are (we are the people that honor the commandments). 

When Jesus offers the double love command (love God, love neighbor), the Ten Commandments loom in the background (Matt 22:36-40). The dichotomy often made between law and Gospel simply disappears. Jesus becomes the more important extension of the divine image.

Law as Image Writ Large

When God identifies himself as the God that freed the Israelites of Egyptian slavery, he introduces the  primary reason that the people of Israel should sign off on the Mosaic covenant.  In other words, I freed you so you owe me and here is how you can repay your debt: obey the Ten Commandments. The dramatic destruction of the Egyptian army as they crossed the Red Sea was fresh on their minds (Exod 14) so this reasoning makes sense. Concrete salvation; concrete law.

The  Israelite people quickly forgot their obligations under the covenant, as evidenced in the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:19). The second giving of the covenant and God’s appearance to Moses in Exodus 34:6 therefore lends credence to the view that God views the law as an extension of his divine image. One way to view the law and the disclose of the divine attributes as mirror images of one another; one for the left brain people and the other for the right brain people, recognizing that different people learn differently.

Defining Identity and Community

The Exodus remains a defining event in Jewish history and religion. The Old Testament makes repeated references to it (e.g. Isa 43) and the celebration of Passover continues to this day. Jesus underscores the importance of the law for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) 

The law is so fundament to our identity as Christians and the defining of the community of faith that it goes without saying.

Healthy Spiritual Boundaries

Because the law is often discussed in opposition to grace, the role of the Ten Commandments in answering the question of what to do is sometimes confusing. Jesus said that love of neighbor and God summarized the Law and the Prophets (Matt 22:36-40). Why then do I need law? Aren’t I free from law under grace?

The Apostle Paul gives the most direct answer to this question. Our freedom in Christ is the freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves (Gal 5:13-14). If we take Paul’s statement seriously, do you think that your neighbor will notice? If time and money are involved, do you think that your spouse and kids will notice?

The Ten Commandments remind us what love looks like from God’s perspective, not ours. God created a community of individuals—not just you or me—in his image. If God created and loves my neighbor, perhaps I too can learn to love them. God’s love means honor our parents; love means do not murder . . .We need reminders; we need clear boundaries.

Uses of the Law

Reformer John Calvin said that the law had three chief purposes: to teach us about God’s will, to aid civil authorities, and to guide our daily lives (Haas 2006, 100).

Our rebellion against God is called sin. Sin takes at least three forms: falling short of expectations (sin), breaking a law (transgression), and not doing something we should do (iniquity). I sin when I try to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, but fail to do so consistently. I transgress the law when I murder someone. I commit iniquity when I ignore (dishonor) my parents in their old age, leaving their care to my siblings when I am able to help but refuse to. Although these three words are used interchangeably, these distinctions remain helpful.

Law and Gospel

The dichotomy often made between law and Gospel is a false dichotomy. One way to reconcile this interpretation is to think of law as a rules-based approach and the Gospel as a principle-based approach to offering the same guidance.

One reason that people make the distinction between law and Gospel is that the Pharisees worked to narrow the law so that it could be accomplished while Jesus sought to widen the law by considering the origins of sin in the heart. Jesus disputes the Pharisaic view repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount when, for example, he equates anger with murder (Matt 5:21-22) and lust with adultery (Matt 5:27-28).

We see the Apostle Paul contending with the Pharisaic view explicitly when he writes:

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:4-6)

The motivator for this interpretation is to be proved righteous and blameless under the law. Paul goes on to discard this interpretation in the next verse: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Phil 3:7) 

You hear a variation on this pharisaic argument today when people deny the applicably of original sin and argue that people are basically good. The implication is that we have no reason to ask for forgiveness and, by inference, we have no need for Jesus to have died for our sins.

The New Covenant in Christ

When we talk about the divine image, we should not stop with the Old Testament because Jesus Christ becomes the more tangible expression of the divine image in the New Testament. I often refer to Jesus as my denominator, the measure of all things in life. If God is my first priority and Jesus is my denominator, then the law becomes less important as a extension of the divine image.


Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Law and Gospel

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

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