21 January 2011

One Key Difference Between Law and Gospel, Properly Understood

by Phil Johnson

The law makes sin appear exceedingly sinful; the gospel makes sin feel exceedingly painful.

Phil's signature


Phil Johnson said...

I almost forgot today was my turn to post. Sorry. I've kept it short for everyone's convenience.

donsands said...

Nice quote for the heart to ponder.Thanks.
Have a blessed weekend, and Spirit-filled Lord's day.

Rachael Starke said...

... but the law and the gospel together helps the saved sinner to be properly hopeful in the power of Christ to defeat it.

Stefan Ewing said...

I thought it was the Law that made sin seem both sinful and painful.

The Gospel is the crimson salve that, when received, delivers us from our pain.

Stefan Ewing said...

Then again, perhaps we don't appreciate the awfulness and all-reachingness of sin until we come under grace.

Zachary Bartels said...

I just read this like thirty times and I totally don't get it. The Law magnifies sin in the believer's heart and mind, even INCREASE the trespass... The Gospel takes the power of sin away. Please help me understand how the "painful" part should be associated with Gospel.

-Rev. Bartels

Sir Brass said...

At first I thought this was another brilliant Frank post with few words. Then I read the by-line. I think some of centuri0n is rubbing off on you, Phil :).

JG said...

I think I get what you're saying. Relying on the law for comprehension of sin is the intellectual side of it. Like, I "know" technically that going 5 over the speed limit is breaking the law, and by breaking the law I'm rebelling against the authorities God placed over me...but I know that intellectually, and it doesn't affect me enough to stop it. Whereas the Gospel shows us just what sin is and what it costs - Jesus's death on the cross in MY place - and that is what makes is personal and real to us internally. If I really comprehended both intellectually and emotionally (for lack of a better term) how my sin affected God, it would produce real change in my life.

Am I even close? Or did I just frustrate you?

donsands said...

"Please help me understand how the "painful" part should be associated with Gospel."-ZSB

I have a thought.

When I sin, I undertsand what It cost my Father, and especially Christ my Savior, to forgive me of that sin. The Holy Spirit allows us to experience hurt at times, when He knows it will help us become more like Christ. It's not a constant pain, of course.

I like how John Newton put it:

"Let us love and sing and wonder,
Let us praise the Savior’s Name!
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder,
He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame.
He has washed us with His blood,
He has brought us nigh to God.

Let us love the Lord Who bought us,
Pitied us when enemies,
Called us by His grace, and taught us,
Gave us ears and gave us eyes:
He has washed us with His blood,
He presents our souls to God.

Let us sing, though fierce temptation
Threaten hard to bear us down!
For the Lord, our strong Salvation,
Holds in view the conqueror’s crown:
He Who washed us with His blood
Soon will bring us home to God.

Let us wonder; grace and justice
Join and point to mercy’s store;
When through grace in Christ our trust is,
Justice smiles and asks no more:
He Who washed us with His blood
Has secured our way to God."

So, it's exceedingly painful, yes. But for the more overwhelming portion of our hearts and lives, it is immense joy!

Dean Olive said...

Excellent statement in my book. The pain that the gospel makes us feel is from the awareness that our sin, our transgression of the law, is what brought Jesus to the cross. And that's what makes us run to the gospel, to Christ himself for relief!

Matt Aznoe said...

Another possibility:

The law makes sin appear exceedingly sinful;
the gospel makes sin feel exceedingly conquerable.

Through the blood of Jesus Christ, sin and death have been conquered, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can conquer sin in our lives.

It is, after all, good news.

NoLongerBlind said...

@Matt - you wrote:

"the gospel makes sin feel exceedingly conquerable."

and, "we can conquer sin in our lives."

Able to conquer sin in our lives?

Apparently, the Apostle Paul didn't agree completely - "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." (Romans 7:15, 24-25 ESV)

Phil Johnson said...

All of you are right, of course. I didn't anticipate how confusing the thought might be. Here's my exposition of it:

The first part is obvious. The law shows how egregiously evil sin is. It confronts us with sin's consequences. It removes the vestiges of hope from sinners. It also affirms what my conscience tells me. But the law is powerless to change my nature, remove my appetite for sinning, or instill in me any desire other than the self-interest that makes me a sinner in the first place.

But the gospel is the power of God that saves me (Romans 1:16), and it leaves me with a regenerated heart capable of truly feeling the shame of sin, sorrow for what it cost Christ, and anguish for the dishonor I bring on God's name when I sin.

So whereas the law is an external constraint that in the end can't keep me from sinning or remove my pathological self-love, the gospel provides an internal motive that engenders my love for Christ, elicits worship from my heart, and truly makes me feel the existential pains of my sin--thereby transforming me from glory into glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So much for pithiness and one-sentence posts.

Matt Aznoe said...

And in the following chapter, Paul writes:

"So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."
(Rom 8:12-13 ESV)

We may never completely conquer all of the sin in our lives, but by the power of God, we can begin to conquer sins and strive toward holiness. But if we are truly abiding in the Christ and filled with the Spirit, I believe we will have all of the power we need to actually defeat the temptation as it arises. After all,

"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
(1Co 10:13 ESV)

If no temptation is beyond our ability to resist, then would we not be able to conquer sin?

donsands said...

"..the gospel provides an internal motive that engenders my love for Christ"


Thanks for expounding on your original quote.

"Love is the fulfilling of the law."

Rachael Starke said...

"So much for pithiness and one-sentence posts.

...and what is apparently a busy day for you. :) Thanks for the elaboration - very helpful and encouraging.

I'd offer up a question about the relationship between the objective truth of the gospel and how the indwelling Holy Spirit works to bring it to bear on our lives, but maybe another time, on a quieter day. :)

Matt Aznoe said...


That makes sense. Thank you for explaining it further.

Barbara said...

I know it. It's the pain that comes through being indwelt by the Spirit of the Holy One of Israel, it is His heart that breaks and so my own breaks as well because He has given me a new heart, a fleshly heart, His own heart. Spurgeon put it so beautifully in one of his Park Street sermons, and I recognized his words at once as like unto my own bleeding, raw, brand-new fleshly heart after it was scourged clean, and it let me know that I wasn't being crazy or hypersensitive to the same things that I used to either wallow in or just skimmed right over me unnoticed. Suddenly it was painful to see, to know, to experience, and especially to see inside me. I had a new heart, see. And that heart was broken by sin around me, in me, and through me. Anything to drive it out.

Here it is, from "A Caution to the Presumptious":

Again, light thoughts of sin will engender presumption. When we are first converted, our conscience is so very tender, that we are afraid of the slightest sin. I have known young converts almost afraid to proceed a step, lest they should put their feet in the wrong direction. They will ask advice of their minister, and difficult cases of moral casuistry will they bring before us, such as we hardly know how to answer. They have a holy timidity, a godly fear, lest they should offend against God. But alas! very soon the fine bloom upon these first ripe fruits is removed by the rough handling of the surrounding world. The sensitive plant of young piety turns into a willow in after life, too pliant, too easily yielding. It is sadly true, that even a Christian will grow by degrees so callous, that the sin which once startled him and made his blood run cold, does not alarm him in the least. I can speak from my own experience. When first I heard an oath, I stood aghast, and knew not where to hide myself; yet now I can hear an imprecation or blasphemy against God, and though a shudder still runs through my veins, there is not that solemn feeling, that intense anguish, which I felt when first I heard such evil utterances. By degrees we get familiar with sin.

Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...


Thank you for your elaboration. That makes a lot of sense. We can't fully appreciate the cost of sin until we are brought to contemplate the price Jesus Christ paid for it on our behalf.

Your colleague Dan gets around the confusion by embedding links to relevant verses in his "Next!" (e.g.) posts, which still forces us to think, but at least gives us the background to his reasoning.

Anyhow, I feel your pain. My own tendency towards verbosity caused confusion when I wrote a one-line comment last week, the supposed witty pithiness of which turned out to be a figment of my imagination.

And this proves we're not mindless sycophants, simply rubber-stamping everything that comes from the hand of you esteemed gentlemen.

Sir Brass said...

Barbara, I am finding in my own life the opposite to be true.

At first I was not as sensitive to sin. But as I grow more and more in Christ, I am made more and more tender to my own sin and sin around me. I am seeing more and more my own inward natural depravity (that is, if I were left to myself instead of being persevered by the author and finisher of my faith, Christ Jesus) and am more and more offended and disturbed by the sinfulness of this dying world.

It is not that at first I was overly pious and afraid of sinning myself because I was ignorant. I knew of some great sins I had committed and my own inward tendency to sin and that alone scared me very much and caused me to run to Christ, but I did not see or even realize the depths or the other sins I harbored at that time. And as time has passed, God is peeling back the layers of dross.

Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...

Yes, like layers of an onion. Same here. And isn't there that deep, awful sense of conviction and dread as yet another layer gets peeled back?

Dread made more dreadful, and awfulness made more awful, when we think of Him who has forborne so much in us, and who has condescended to apply the shed blood of His own beloved Son on our behalf.

...Which, I suppose, was the point of the original point.

It seems that both you (Sir Brass) and Barbara are touching on the same point, but in different ways.

For the record (for all of us), the sermon Barbara referred to looks to be a particularly good one: A Caution to the Presumptuous. He even explicitly addresses (somewhat critically) us "Calvinistic Christians."

Anonymous said...

Yes, the gospel makes sin feel exceedingly painful because we so hate to disappoint the Lamb slain for us who is watching us from His throne.

James S said...

I think that what we saw before the gospel as big sins in our life, we see after the gospel to have been but mere symptoms of the our total depravity.

Now that we have The Holy Spirit opening our eyes to see clearly, we come to despise our depravity, which we couldn't fully comprehend before our new birth.

And with the new kind of supernatural love that we now have, we can now see it's opposite in the way that we lived before. We could not have perceived that without the Gospel and becoming born again (or 'born from above', the translation I prefer).

Jackson said...

I'm sorry, but this is the worst quote about the gospel I've seen in a while. It has a sort of hopeless, depressing quality that shouldn't be associated with the Good News.

"My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!"

donsands said...

"It has a sort of hopeless,.." -Jackson
It's not hopeless to feel pain. The loveliness and worthiness of Christ to endure such pain for our sins; -to have thorns pushed into His holy brow; to have spikes hammered through His holy wrists; and to have His feet nailed togther on a Cross, should cause our hearts out hearts to hurt, because it was our sin, our blasphemies, our pride, our rebellion that brought about His excruciating physical pain. And that would have been pain enough, yet He experienced even greater, and more intense pain, in His spirit, and especially when His father forsook Him.

"What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace."

Have a blessed Lord's day!

slave4Christ said...

The Law helps us see the hopeless effect sin has on us, and the Gospel helps us feel it. I believe it was Pastor John MacArthur who said that as we grow in our Christian walk, we will sin less , but it will hurt more.

Barbara said...

Just for the record, and in reference to what I was speaking about above, it is not just my own sin that causes pain, but the sin in the world around us as well. I remember very well in those early days, as the veil was being pulled back and I could see with new eyes for the first time, literally standing in the middle of the local "Christian" bookstore and just weeping at all the triteness and lies being sold in that place. Even running out of there. I don't go back. Sin - its existence, its celebration, its own worship, and its tendency to set up idols - causes pain to the soul that belongs to the One who died to save us from it. And part of that grace is to allow us to see it for what it is and to know something of His pain in coming to deal with it, and to weep.

So that the sin inside continues to be exposed and dealt with, layer by layer; but the fresh rawness of one scourged when received by Him (Heb. 12)grieves over the sin that abounds in the world and the world that continues to wallow so gleefully in it, so pained by its existence that to partake in it anymore is just utterly unthinkable. Maybe it's because He plucked me from the jaws of hell after 40 years of living for myself - a lot of things had to go, and by His grace He allowed me to see that just by looking at my life and the world around me through the lens of His word.

Phil Johnson said...

Jackson: "It has a sort of hopeless, depressing quality that shouldn't be associated with the Good News."

Really? What's the alternative? That the gospel suddenly makes sin totally enjoyable and shame-free? Personally, I think that would be a gross misundersanding and perversion of the grace of the gospel.

Jackson said...

Phil: "Really? What's the alternative? That the gospel suddenly makes sin totally enjoyable and shame-free? Personally, I think that would be a gross misundersanding and perversion of the grace of the gospel."

No, I certainly don't mean that. I did post an alternative - the stanza from "It is Well with my Soul." How about rejoicing in our forgiveness instead? If I were trying to make a similar quote, I would say something like this: "The law makes sin appear exceedingly sinful; the gospel makes us realize we are loved in spite of our sin."

I apologize if I came across too strongly. I see where you're coming from, certainly. But I think the gospel should be portrayed in a happy light; it is, after all, Good News, as ZSB and Matt Aznoe have said before me.

donsands said...

"But I think the gospel should be portrayed in a happy light"

The good news of our forgiveness does make us happy. Our sin?

We sang a hymn in church today, and the 2nd stanza says this:

"Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness."

My undeserving soul is what causes brief pain, and the touch of Christ brings joy.

I just thought of the Apostle John, who laid upon his Master during supper, when he saw Jesus, fell at his feet fearful.

And Isaiah who said, "I am undone."

I wuld think our heart will have moments of pain because of our sin in this age.
Maybe some don't. I do. But the pain, when touch ny Christ's love is that much more lovely.

Matt Foreman said...

I've really profited from these words by Tim Keller -

"Legalistic repentance takes sin to Mt. Sinai, gospel repentance to Mt. Calvary. Legalistic repentance is convicted by punishment, gospel repentance becomes convicted by mercy. Repentance out of mere fear is really sorrow for the consequences of sin, sorrow over the danger of sin – it bends the will away from sin, but the heart still clings. But repentance out of conviction over mercy is really sorrow over sin, sorrow over the grievousness of sin – it melts the heart away from sin. It makes the sin itself disgusting to us, so it loses its attractive power over us. We say, “This disgusting thing is an affront to the one who died for me. I’m continuing to stab him with it!”

"The gospel creates the only kind of grief over sin which is clean and which does not crush...How can this be? The sight of Christ dying for you is at once both the one thing in the world that most convicts you to be holy and yet most assures you that you are infallibly loved. If he died for you – that is the conviction. But if he died for you – that is the comfort."

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Mental gymnastics of this sort always lead to a discussion of what one thinks, impressions and supposed feelings and experiences in their life. These things can be incomplete or even false. When looking at law and gospel we can only gain an understanding through God's word --- this phrase is not scriptural.

Paul is the apostle that brings us the gospel of grace. Indeed, the gospel can only be understood in terms of grace. To discuss the gospel in the absence of a discussion of grace is misleading and unprofitable. In searching through Paul's epistles "Grace" appears 85 times. Not once does our apostle connect grace with pain. As is evidenced by our persecuted brothers and sisters, there is peace in God's grace that is also evidenced in their witness. I am reminded of these scriptures when there is discussion of law and gospel.

Matthew 11:29-30 (KJV) Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Galatians 3:23-25 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

Galatians 2:19-21 For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Romans 6:14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

2 Thessalonians 2:16 Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace,

Ephesians 2:8,9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

To live in grace is to rest assured in the knowledge of our salvation and personal forgiveness of sin. We are new creatures in Christ. We should not confuse physical or emotional pain or regret with the grace we have been given. They do not mix.

Finally Paul settles this whole question by pointing us to focus on eternal things and calls the troubles and persecutions of this world a light affliction. This is to be our focus and our guidance.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18  For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

donsands said...

"We should not confuse physical or emotional pain or regret with the grace we have been given. They do not mix."-BJ

Jesus wept. Jesus sweat drops of blood.

What an example for us all, how God's grace is with us even in our sorrow and pain.
Not that we are perfect in our sorrow and anguish, though Christ was.