Instead of adding another identical blog post to the sanctification debate, rehashing what others have said elsewhere, I am going to attempt to add something a little different. In case you are not familiar with the debate, it concerns the relationship between law and gospel, justification and sanctification, and passive reception of Christ’s work and our effort. When talking about the place of law and gospel in the Christian life I think it is helpful to define what those terms mean. First, the law. The law in the Christian life is one of the most complicated areas of theology. The most helpful resource I have found is Brian Rosner’s Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. He makes sense of Paul’s seemingly contradictory statements about the law by stating, “The question is not which bits of the law Paul is referring to in a given instance of nomos, but the law as what” (29) He separates its uses into three categories: law-covenant, prophecy, wisdom. Paul rejects the law if used in terms of a law covenant, but affirms its use as prophecy and wisdom. Here are some relevant verses of affirmation of the law as wisdom:
Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
1 Corinthians 10:11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Paul never says that believers are to walk according to the law, but he does use the law to support his apostolic commands. He also makes his own apostolic commands, which he expects to be obeyed. For example, 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
In fact, numerous commands are found in the NT. The NT is roughly four times more command dense than the OT. When people talk about law vs. gospel please remember that the new covenant came with lots of commands (law); we are not just talking old covenant law when we debate the necessity of preaching God’s commands.
Defining the Gospel
One of the refrains in this debate is “to not forget the gospel” and “to daily come back to the gospel.” Yet another reason understanding the gospel is important. A popular definition of the gospel in this debate is “justification by faith.” I’m not sure if this view is shorthand for the gospel or their whole understanding, but it’s just wrong. Do people really believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not mention the gospel in their letters that came to be called “Gospels?” Michael Bird has the most complete and yet succinct definition I have encountered:
The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical Theology (52)
The key thing here is that the gospel is fundamentally about Christ and his kingdom. It works on us to produce salvation, but that flows from the gospel as the Spirit works on us and joins us to Jesus. In my opinion, this totally changes the meaning of “do not forget the gospel” and “daily come back to the gospel.” The focus is not on ourselves, but on Christ. And when we do come to our salvation, it is not just justification, it’s union with Christ, justification, sanctification, adoption, etc. This prevents us from truncating the gospel to our favorite bit or bits.