I knew I had to drink more water. My skin was dry, my stomach was queasy, and I had more headaches than usual. I bought a planner with a monthly habit tracker and set a goal of drinking two bottles of water each day. But the boxes on my habit tracker didn’t get checked as frequently as I would have liked. Some days I still had half a bottle of water left to drink as I curled into bed. What went wrong?
Unfortunately, I believed my planner could change my water-drinking habits. But the planner was never capable of actually changing me, nor was it created to. The planner was a tool to help me build the habit. But ultimately, it is my choice to fill my water bottle each day, keep it nearby, and consistently drink from it.
As believers, we often give ourselves to things that can’t change us. Too often, we mix up the tender relationship between the law and the gospel. And just like my failed attempt at mastering water intake, when we confuse law and gospel it leads to frustration as well as discouragement.
What Are Law & Gospel?
What’s the difference between the law and the gospel? Very simply, the law says, “Do this,” and the gospel says, “Christ has done this.” The law is what we were supposed to do perfectly without the slightest falter. But the gospel is the good news that Christ has done that for us and bore the wrath of God we deserved. The law humbles our proud hearts—it shows us that we can’t do everything God has commanded. But the gospel lifts that burden by giving us Christ who already fulfilled it.
In his book Ordinary, Miachel Horton wrote, “The gospel is not about what we have done or are called to do, but the announcement of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.”1 The two are distinct, yet often we act as if they were synonymous.
This doesn’t mean we aren’t called to obey the law. Rather, Paul wrote in Romans 7:13–14, “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” In other words, Paul reminds us that the law is good for unmasking sin in all its wickedness.
The Gift of Grace
But as believers, we have received the gift of grace. In Christ, our sins are forgiven despite how undeserving we are. We are given gift upon gift—and one of those many gifts is the Holy Spirit enabling us to obey the law that once condemned us. We have new hearts that desire to obey out of gratitude to God for what he has done. We obey because we love him (John 14:15). But we’re only able to because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). As Michael Horton wrote, “Saving faith is not the enemy of good works, but their only possible source. Before God, we are always receivers of gifts. Before our neighbor, however, we are both receivers and givers.”
Unlike the legalist, obeying the law with gritted teeth with trembling hands, we serve out of gratitude. I love and tend to my fussy baby not because God will in turn love me more, but because he already does. We set up meal-trains for new moms to show how God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In love, we care for our spouses selflessly because we are thankful for Christ’s selfless work on the cross. Sharing the gospel with our unsaved family members brings us joy, not the promise of a greater reward. We move throughout our daily lives in gratitude and freedom, doing each task to God’s glory rather than earning our own.
Law and Gospel for Ordinary Life
This isn’t just a theology lesson for theologians, pastors, and Bible teachers. It matters for us not simply on a personal level but also in our interactions with fellow siblings in Christ. If we confuse law and gospel, we distort the gospel. But if we proclaim the gospel as law, we drag our brothers’ and sisters’ feet to the fiery pit, telling them to trust in their own works. Change comes by the gospel, so we must first remind one another of the gospel rather than pressing on the burden of the law.
If we confuse law and gospel we will wrongly rely on the law to make us better people. Much like how I wrongly relied on my planner to make me a more hydrated person. The law can’t change us. It can show us how we have fallen short and our need for Christ—but it can’t make us holy. Only the Holy Spirit can as he works inside us.
Each day as we go about our ordinary work of serving our churches, loving our families, and caring for our friends, we will be faced with the choice. We will either restlessly work in the law or rest in the gospel. The first is defeating and the other is hope-filled. As we clean tables, carry children on our hips, cook meals, host get-togethers, go to work, and greet our spouses at the door, will we do so to prove our worth before God and earn our keep? Or will we live as children with whom he is already well-pleased because of Christ?
Each day as we teach one another through singing, fellowship, conversations over coffee, breaking up bickering, and counseling brokenhearted friends, will we point one another to our hope in Christ and our identity in him? Or will we fall back on the law and tell one another how they need to do more and do it better?
Bearers of the Good News
Law and gospel distinctions are important for us to recognize—not so we can sift through every Christian’s words and call them out for confusing law and gospel. It’s important for our own hearts’ peace. It matters how we teach one another. We want to come with our feet dressed in the sandals of the good news (Ephesians 6:15).
But we so quickly forget the gospel and trudge through the tangible work of our own hands. We need to be reminded to fall back into the grace of God. This is why we need to be gospel-reminders. The law burdens us often to the point of giving up—the gospel gives us faith to step forward in obedience, no matter how frail and imperfect it may be. The gospel keeps us from throwing obedience away because it humbles us to grateful service. Let’s be bearers of this Good News.
Meet the author:
Lara d’Entremont is a Biblical Counselor-in-training, and her desire in writing is to teach women to turn to God’s Word in the midst of daily life and suffering to find the answers they need. She wants to teach women to love God with both their minds and hearts. Lara is married to Daniel and they live in Nova Scotia, Canada.
1 Michael Horton, Ordinary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), p.40.