the miracle cure
Recognizing the difference between law and gospel is critical to reading the Bible correctly. Learn why this distinction matters and how to discern the difference as you read the Bible.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Mark 2:17
Imagine a friend casually mentioning a newspaper headline about a miracle cure for a rare disease. It’d be pleasant, passing information, but likely not the hot topic of conversation.
Now consider a different scenario.
You’ve had puzzling health problems and been in and out of the doctor’s office for invasive testing. The diagnosis has turned utterly grim. You are going to die, with no hope of a cure.
Imagine the devastation of this news. Utter depression sets in as you await the inevitable. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, and no one can snap you out of your despair. Suddenly, your doctor barges into the hospital room holding a newspaper, pointing to a headline. Scientists have discovered a sure-fire cure for your disease, and you can start treatment immediately!
To be at death’s door and to hear about a miraculous, life-saving medical cure would cause a joy-filled response.
So it is with God’s law and the gospel.
THE DIAGNOSIS AND THE CURE
Due to indwelling sin, the law functions as a mirror to show us how incomplete, sinful, and flawed human beings are. To stand next to a holy God (Isa. 6) is to be keenly aware of our failure and need for mercy. Because of sin, God’s law brings a curse (Gal. 3:10); it brings wrath (Rom. 4:15); it promises life, but delivers death (Rom. 7:10); and it judges (Rom. 2:12). If the law were the last word, there would be no hope.
The diagnosis has turned utterly grim. You are going to die, with no hope of a cure.
The law and the gospel are like the diagnosis and the cure in the story above. The law is like the indictment coming from a doctor reading lab results. It can seem cold, calculated, and cruel. But we need the medical charts (the law) to properly diagnose the problem, so that the medicine of the gospel can be administered and nurse us back to health. The gospel is the miracle cure.
As 1 Timothy 1:8 says, “we know that the Law is good, if one uses it rightly.” This is a short sentence, but it tells us a lot.
First, the law is good, and it has a proper use. The law shows us what is righteous. But we can’t stop at the “what” question. The more important question is, how do we become righteous? The answer is, through trust in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Never do we receive righteousness from being law-abiding (Rom. 3:28). Only Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law. We receive righteousness as a pure gift (Eph. 2:9). Once a believer is in Christ, he or she is then free to live a worshipful life of faith in response to Jesus’ finished work.
A MIRROR REFLECTS, BUT IT CAN’T FIX
Everyone can think of a time they’ve undertaken a project, but lacked the proper tools. Different tools have different functions, and you can’t use them improperly and expect the right outcome. If what I really need is a screwdriver, a hammer isn’t going to do me one bit of good.
As 1 Timothy 1:8 says, “we know that the Law is good, if one uses it rightly.”
Here’s an illustration I overheard from Justin Holcomb. Let’s say you wake up in the morning, go to the mirror and notice your beard is getting scraggly. At this point you think it’s time for a shave. How bizarre would it be to lather up your face and start rubbing it against the mirror? The mirror shows you your problem—that you need a shave. But the mirror isn’t the correct tool to shave your face.
No doubt the law is needed in order to properly diagnose hearts. But once the law has done its intended mirroring work, to continue with law is not only the wrong tool for the job, it’s cruel to keep taking someone to the woodshed with it. When people are rightfully crushed by the demands of the law, continuing to heap on the law is like kicking someone when they’re down.
If you’re a doctor, once you’ve explained the dire lab results (you’re going to die) to your patient, don’t hold out on giving them good news of the cure. Likewise, if you’re a preacher, give them the gospel! Emphasize that Jesus has died in their place for their sin, and that God now sees them not as filthy, vile, and under judgment, but perfect and spotless in Christ!
WHY THE LAW AND GOSPEL DISTINCTION MATTERS
If you have ever sat through a sermon and been unsure about your standing with God as you were leaving your seat, chances are the law and gospel were intermingled, and the message was spoiled. When the law is doing its good, proper work, it will convict you and send you into the arms of Jesus.
For preachers of the word, once you’ve explained God’s just, holy demand, give your hearers the way out. Give them Jesus’ unconditional promise of forgiveness, pardon, and the hope of resurrection. If you continue to hammer people with God’s law beyond its intended purpose, you may squeeze some results out of them, but it will be short-lived. Demands and threats of punishments may curb behavior, but they can’t change hearts. Only Jesus can.
READING THE BIBLE IN LIGHT OF THE LAW AND GOSPEL
Recognizing the difference between law and gospel is crucial to reading the Bible. In fact, both Luther and Calvin wrote much about this distinction, and Calvin’s successor, Theodore Bezawrote, “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.” With this in mind, we need to keep the law and gospel distinctions clear as we study the word. As Luther said: “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him we place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Here are some questions to help you discern law and gospel as you read the Bible:
- Is what I’m reading a command to follow, or a promise of a finished work from God?
- If it’s a command, what does it reveal about my life?
- In what ways has Jesus fulfilled this command on my behalf?
- How does the good news of Jesus’ perfect, finished work empower obedience in my life going forward?
- For teachers and preachers: how is my message going to convey both God’s demand and God’s pardon in Christ?