A thoughtful reader emailed a question regarding Theonomy and “law and Gospel.” Specifically, in light of Theonomy, the call for Christians to acknowledge the law of God as the pattern of our sanctification, both personal and social, and the call to obedience to that law, “What place does the gospel have in the believer’s life moment-by-moment?”
This is an excellent question for more than one reason. One reason is that those who are new and first developing a foundational understanding of such theological issues often come from a background of general evangelical theology. This theology generally neglects the role of God’s law almost entirely, except as a tool to drive us to Christ and the Gospel. The law is rarely spoken of in its role of providing a guide to godly behavior for Christian good works (Eph. 2:10). Even though the Reformed Confessions acknowledge this role of the law, and even though many Reformed and Evangelical theologians mention this role, it is rarely developed even for personal life, and even more rarely developed for social life and institutions.
The reader who sent this question understands Theonomy well enough to know that it is “not just about reconstructing a society where the glory of the Lord is displayed in toto, but at heart it is the flip side of justification, i.e., sanctification,” and “that through sanctification we are being conformed to the image of Christ.” Great! But there is a lingering issue regarding what role the Gospel plays “moment-by-moment” in conjunction with this “in toto” sanctification.
The first thing we need to acknowledge is that this is hardly an issue pertaining to Theonomy or Reconstruction alone. It is an issue that needs to be developed and emphasized by all Reformed theology (indeed, all theology, period). Readers should acknowledge that even if Theonomy were incorrect, this question would still persist for all general Reformed theology, for all general Reformed theology asserts both the constant need for the Gospel and the abiding progress of sanctification—even if that sanctification pertained only to personal piety.
I addressed these issues in reference to Theonomy somewhat elsewhere in a certain polemical discussion. The relevant meat of that discussion is how the relationship between “being saved” and ongoing sanctification is nothing more than basic Confessional Reformed theology. I’ll repeat the points in more general (non-polemic) form in what follows.
The Confessional view of santification
Rushdoony once made the comment: “The purpose of Christ’s atoning work was to restore man to a position of covenant-keeping instead of covenant-breaking, to enable man to keep the law by freeing man ‘from the law of sin and death’ (Rom. 8:2), ‘that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us’ (Rom. 8:4).” The thing to note here is a necessary connection between the believer’s personal relationship with Christ and his or her ongoing sanctification. This is a Gospel-filled, Spirit-filled life which, because of these things, goes on also to be an obedient life filled with good works.
Is this a novel teaching? Hardly. The London Baptist Confession (LBC) teaches exactly the same thing. LBC Chapter 13 on “Sanctification” makes clear that as the saints grow in grace, they also grow “in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed them.” Obedience? Obedience to commands? What could this mean? Let a more traditional Reformed Baptist commentator, Sam Waldron, answer this for us: “In general good works are those which conform to the law of God as revealed in the Scriptures (see chapter 19).”1
See Chapter 19 indeed. Consider sections 5, 6, and 7 of Chapter 19:
The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
Contrary to zealous critics who presents this view of the law’s binding obligation for the life of the believer after the Gospel as being “under the law,” the LBC teaches the exact opposite:
Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; . . . [M]an’s doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.2
Section 7 goes on to speak in the exact same terms as Rushdoony:
Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.3
Remember what Rushdoony said? “The purpose of Christ’s atoning work was to restore man to a position of covenant-keeping instead of covenant-breaking, to enable man to keep the law by freeing man ‘from the law of sin and death’ (Rom. 8:2), ‘that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us’ (Rom. 8:4).” It is without any surprise, then, that we find among the LBC’s scripture proofs for this section none other than . . . Romans 8:4.
Here again, Sam Waldron’s comments, coming from a more mainstream Reformed view, are helpful. He concludes this section with a statement almost identical to what Rushdoony said above: “The very purpose of the gospel is to deliver men from lawlessness and cause them to obey the law of God (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27; Rom. 8:4; Titus 2:14).”4 Note also not only the same exact sentiment and language, but the same reference to Romans 8:4.
I have found Waldron’s extended comments on this section very helpful, particularly in providing a more traditional Reformed alternative to the idea that it is “insidious and dangerous” to suggest that believers are somehow bound to the law after having received the Gospel. For example, Waldron comments:
Some apparently were saying that while we ought to do what the law says as to its content or matter, we should not do it because the law says it, but simply because of gratitude to Christ. Several serious problems may be pointed out in such a sentiment. It is unscriptural (James 2:10-11; Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31; 1 Cor. 9:21). This is a subtler form of the error that justified persons are not bound to obey the law, since ultimately it is not the authority of the law they regard, but only their gratitude to Christ. Its practical effect is to convey to the popular mind a lessened sense of the majesty of the law of God and of the seriousness and absolute necessity of law-keeping. It makes faithful exhortation to duty difficult, because those who hold this teaching always object that you are bringing them back into slavery. If anyone speaks to such people of duty and obligation, their response is that such exhortations are legalistic. Christ strengthens the original authority of the law. He does not put the content or the matter of the law on a new foundation. He does not eliminate the obligation to obey our Creator, but adds the obligation of gratefully obeying our Redeemer.
Waldron’s point is that a diminished view of law-keeping for the believer leads not only to complacency, but to the type of complaints against Theonomy we have heard from critics for some time: it is legalism, slavery, “under the law,” etc.5
What this “under the law” error does is illustrate the dangers of overreacting to the claims of Theonomy. In something that is actually quite common, people overreact to “the law” so much they end up arguing like liberals, or even antinomians. When one carries their anti-theonomic critiques—especially in straw man form—to their logical extremes, they actually start speaking against the basic Reformed theology of sanctification, and thus, become like antinomians.
Or, looked at from the positive side of the argument, there is as direct and organic a relationship between salvation in Christ sola fide and Theonomy as there is between salvation in Christ sola fide and general, personal sanctification according to the Confession. Answer the more fundamental question, and you’ll answer the question in regard to Theonomy as well.
The “moment-by-moment” role of the Gospel
So how does the Gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus relate to all of this? I think answer lies right there in the Reformed Confessions (particularly, the Westminster Confession and the LBC). Chapter 13 of the LBC (to which the WCF is substantially the same), addresses the nature of our Sanctification:
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them. . . .
Section three concludes that “although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed them.”
For our purposes here, we need to make three observations. First, the means by which we are sanctified is the exact same means by which we are saved in general. The confession is at pains to note that our sanctification is “through the same virtue” as our union with Christ, effectual calling, regeneration, and renewal. This virtue includes Christ’s “death and resurrection,” as well as “His Word and Spirit dwelling in them.” It is by His finished work and by His Word and Spirit dwelling in us that we are brought to believe the Gospel, and it is by these same means that we are brought to believe, love, and seek to obey the Law.
Whatever differences theologians have posited rightly between “law and Gospel” for all of history, the role of Christ, Word, and Spirit in animating and empowering the believer in both cannot be one of them. By the same token, then, we must acknowledge that Reformed theology affirms obedience to the Law as a Gospel-driven, Spirit-filled reality.
Second, we deduce, therefore, that the very reason for which we need the Gospel “moment-by-moment” is also the very reason we strive to grow more faithful in obedience “moment-by-moment” (and perhaps the same could be said, vice versa). There is no separating the faith by which we apprehend forgiveness for our sins through Christ’s atoning work and that by which we mortify the flesh and conform our lives to his standards of living—even though we distinguish between them for several reasons.
Again, the reason for confusion on this issue is most likely because of a failure to teach on the sanctification and obedience side of the equation. Indeed, it is very likely that all the recoil against application of God’s law has left a vacuum in Christian teaching that begged to be filled with something theological, or theological-sounding. Some quarters have returned to various liturgical niceties to fill this void. Some have created a type of neo-hyper-confessionalism. Some have turned to church growth tactics of all sorts. Others—probably most of conservative Reformed circles—have been left to do nothing more than continually emphasize only justification by faith and our need for the Gospel every moment of our lives.
I believe this latter emphasis, which I hear from many non-Theonomic and anti-Theonomic Reformed Christians, is what has created the difficulty for people like the reader who asked this question. The continual drumming of our continual need for the Gospel combined with the continual neglect of applying God’s law (i.e., sanctification), has created a dissonance in the minds of people who begin to contemplate what sanctification is and how it works. The moment they begin to ask the sanctification question, and thus the Theonomy question, they begin to fear they may be departing from that which they have been taught (rightly) is the all-crucial doctrine: our continual need for the Gospel. The obvious answer does not appear readily as it should: both Gospel and law are processed in us by the same power, virtue, agency, and means, and that is Christ, His Word and His Spirit dwelling in us.
Third, our obedience (sanctification) must be to “all the commandments” Christ has given us, and this means sanctification has a much larger scope than just our personal devotions and prayer closet. This is where Theonomy begins to get real, because this is where sanctification begins to get real. What happens when we contemplate radical obedience in the areas of education or business? Debt?
This is not even to ask about the so-called “civil” use of the law which applies to society and non-believers also. That is also a major Theonomic topic. But here we consider only “all areas of life” concerned with the personal and social aspects of believers. This is a huge category, but it is no less confessional than any other, and we must embrace it just as much as we embrace salvation by grace alone through faith alone, as well as the basic understanding of sanctification through those same means and power as described above.
So, for a Theonomist, “What place does the gospel have in the believer’s life moment-by-moment?” The answer to that is simple. It has the same place, moment-by-moment, as it does for any general Reformed theologian, and as it should for any Christian. It has a central, crucial, and absolutely necessary place in our life of saving faith in Christ. But our sanctification unto obedience has exactly the same requirement. We need affirmation of the forgiveness of sins and full, free, gracious acceptance by the Father because of Christ’s finished work every moment of our lives. We also need the outlook, direction, and corrective influence of God’s law every moment of our lives. And we require Christ’s Word and His Spirit every moment of our lives for either to have even one moment’s effect in us.
- Waldron, Samuel E (2013-03-27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 3526-3527). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)
- Waldron, Samuel E (2013-03-27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 3958-3975). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)
- Waldron, Samuel E (2013-03-27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 3981-3983). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)
- Waldron, Samuel E (2013-03-27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 4127-4128). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)
- See Waldron’s further comments at Waldron, Samuel E (2013-03-27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 4088-4128). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)