What does it Mean to “Obey the Gospel”?

What does it Mean to “Obey the Gospel”? May 28, 2014

In traditional Reformed theology there is often posited a strong contrast between Law and Gospel. Gospel tells you how to receive eternal life, Law tells you how to do God’s moral will. Don’t confuse the two, cause you might end up as a legalist. Now if you read Galatians (esp. 3.1-5), you can see how this is exegetically based, as salvation is about God’s work not our own works (though I think the Christ/Torah tension in Galatians is more about redemptive-history than personal soteriology, but that’s another matter). Michael Horton has a great piece on Law and Gospel where he gives a classic Reformed position on the rationale for the Law and Gospel distinction.  Most of what Horton says here is sound and well expressed in terms of both the witness of Scripture and the Reformed tradition. However, Horton does go on to make some claims that I would query:

[W]e often hear calls to “live the Gospel,” and yet, nowhere in Scripture are we called to “live the Gospel.” Instead, we are told to believe the Gospel and obey the Law, receiving God’s favor from the one and God’s guidance from the other. The Gospel–or Good News–is not that God will help us achieve his favor with his help, but that someone else lived the Law in our place and fulfilled all righteousness. Others confuse the Law and Gospel by replacing the demands of the Law with the simple command to “surrender all” or “make Jesus Lord and Savior,” as if this one little work secured eternal life.

He adds:

Does that mean that the Word of God does not command our obedience or that such obedience is optional? Certainly not! But it does mean that obedience must not be confused with the Gospel. Our best obedience is corrupted, so how could that be good news? The Gospel is that Christ was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification. The Gospel produces new life, new experiences, and a new obedience, but too often we confuse the fruit or effects with the Gospel itself. Nothing that happens within us is, properly speaking, “Gospel,” but it is the Gospel’s effect. Paul instructs us, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (Phil. 1:27). While the Gospel contains no commands or threats, the Law indeed does and the Christian is still obligated to both “words” he hears from the mouth of God. Like the Godhead or the two natures of Christ, we must neither divorce nor confuse Law and Gospel.

Evidently, Horton does believe that the gospel leads to transformation and he rightly cites Phil 1:27 about living a life worthy of the gospel, so he’s not peddling some easy believism. However, I think the distinction is just too neat. I think the gospel does threaten judgment and call for obedience because Scripture explicitly says that it does.

First, Paul refers to a day when “according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:16). So the gospel is not merely the offer of salvation, it is also a declaration that Jesus is the appointed Judge.

Second, we hear that unbelievers are held accountable for not obeying the gospel. In explaining Israel’s current unbelief in the Messiah, Paul says: “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?'” (Rom 10:16). Paul tells the Thessalonians about the future day when: “The Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:7-8).  And in 1 Peter we are similarly told, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1Pe 4:17). It could be possible that the word “obey” is used synonymous with “faith” since there is a shared overlap in pistis and akouo in terms of semantic domains. However, the impression I get is these texts is that the gospel is something that persons do not just believe or assent to, but something they are meant to become loyal to and submit to.

Texts like these prove in my mind that the gospel is an offer of salvation, but it is also – in Wrightian and McKnightian terms – a royal summons to come under the aegis the lordship of Jesus Christ. The royal announcement is that Jesus is the King who offers deliverance to all who cling to him and he is the judge of those who would resist and resent the reign of God. So while a Law and Gospel antithesis is not invalid, nonetheless, its concerns need to be met without narrowing the biblical presentation of the gospel which does warn of judgment as well as call people to obey its pronouncement about the person and work of Christ.

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