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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  • Xrucianus

    Nice intelligent article. Thank you.
    Jesus isnt about establishing law. He’s about establishing dominion. This is good news to a world that is held captive to the ravages of sin. The apostolic gospel of the New Testament is primarily the proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship – exhorting people of all nations to embrace His redemption and His rule in this age of grace.

    • Patrick

      If the Gospel is more than just the announcement of Christ’s success on the cross + resurrection and I think it is( Jesus is earth’s King and we ought to respect the King’s lead), then obeying it could mean simply doing as Paul taught say in Romans 12:1-2 about renewing our minds to come into = with Christ’s mentality over time.

      • Xrucianus

        Yes!
        We are conformed to the image & likeness of the King. Precisely that of the created order (Genesis 1:26) which we lost at the fall.
        “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our IMAGE, according to Our LIKENESS.”

  • I am not so sure Horton would disagree with you…you should ask him.

  • Your conclusion is quite right. We cannot OBEY a “how-to” message nor a doctrine of soteriology. However, we can perpetually obey a royal summons. If we confuse or collapse this message with the former, more traditional versions, we set people up for failure. In effect, we compromise the gospel by settling for truth. The latter implies the former, but not necessarily the other way around.

  • Michael Pahl

    I think also of the “obedience of faith” idea that frames Romans (1:5 and 16:26). Maybe, Mike, the best approach is simply to admit what you don’t seem to want to admit: the law/gospel antithesis is in fact invalid, at least in terms of (as you put it) personal soteriology, not redemptive history. There’s a truth being touched on (salvation in all its dimensions is a divine initiative) but portraying that truth in law/gospel or obedience/faith contrasts doesn’t reflect Scripture, and is simply unhelpful. Just ditch it.

  • The Roman Catholics seem to believe the gospel is a “written account of Christ’s words and deeds” which bring about salvation. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06655b.htm I’m not sure I would agree with the reformers on their depiction of the Catholic gospel. In particular they (the reformers) traditionally rule out the gospel as the story of Jesus from the start which the Catholics have always affirmed. I remember your Luther-Gospel quote Michael, but you have to look at the legacy left behind by the reformers and in particular Luther’s well known Preface to Romans where he talks about his understanding of the gospel.

    Basically I would go to someone like Tertullian to describe the early church’s understanding of the relationship between the law and gospel in Galatians. The reformers had misunderstood the relationship between Law and Gospel and imposed on it a framework I don’t think anyone believed between c.e. 100-1400.

    It would be interesting to see how Horton would apply this understanding of the gospel (gospel vs law) to Mk 1.1; 2 Tim 2.8; Phil 4.15; Acts 10.34-43…. Perhaps also to explain why many reformers today are keen to insist everyone preach repentance and forgiveness of sins as commanded at the end of Luke’s version of the gospel (Lk 24.47), but not to teach people to observe all Jesus has commanded us as in Matthew’s version (Mt 28.20).

    My gospel http://thescripturesays.wordpress.com/gospel/

  • Horton’s first comment is all that’s wrong with Reformed thinking (and I like much reformed thinking because it is biblical).

    ‘ Instead, we are told to believe the Gospel and obey the Law’ Romans explicitly calls us to obey the gospel (and the verses you cite) and we are never called to obey the law. Obedience to the gospel, I take primarily to believing and submitting to it; we need not choose between initial faith and ongoing faithfulness.

    ‘the gospel is…someone else lived the Law in our place and fulfilled all righteousness.’ Where are we told that the gospel is someone living the law in our place? The gospel is about someone dying under the penalty of the law and bearing its curse. It is the death of Christ that justifies.

    ‘make Jesus Lord and Savior,” as if this one little work secured eternal life.’ It is not in any biblical sense a work to ‘confess Jesus as Lord’ but according to Roms 10 such a confession (of heart of course) means we will be saved.

    On the bigger point Christ died and rose is no gospel (good news to me) unless I have a stake in it.

    This semi-lutheran gospel/law antithesis coupled to the more class Reformed ‘law as a rule-of-life’ theology is at the heart of Reformed theology’s achilles heel. There is simply a failure to face that the law is (in this debate) the Mosaic Covenant (not simply every biblical command) and to that covenant the Christian has no relationship as such. He is not ‘under it’ and therefore not obligated in any way to it; to make the law a ‘rule of life’ makes him a bigamist.

    Oh that confessions did not tyrannise interpretation.

    • Kenton Slaughter

      Agreed. The Reformed and Lutheran Law/Gospel antitheses, though running in different directions, have the same fundamental problem in extending the scope of the Law and limiting the scope of the Gospel.

  • LarryN

    Unfortunately professor, there was some begging the question argumentation in this piece. What it means to “obey the gospel” needs to be derived from places that the phrase is used, not stuck in at the end. If, no prejudice against it, obeying the gospel means pledging some kind of lifelong allegiance to Christ repeatedly without ceasing, then, that needs to be shown from those places. If obeying the gospel is synonymous with a never-definitive choice to “come under the “aegis” of the Lordship of Christ, then that needs to be shown from the text. If the only good Christian for sure, is a dead Christian, because they survived a lifelong test of their allegiance, and chose submission until and including the last breath in the nursing home in some kind of survival-of-the-fittest soteriology, then — no prejudice — please show that from the text!

  • Joe Rutherford

    Our entire experience as a saint is given by God by the Holy Spirit. Each individual In the church must be led by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise they will commit sin and live in darkness. The Holy Spirit reveals the will of God, which is the law of God.

  • Kenton Slaughter

    Could you expand on your take on Galatians? Or point me to an existing resource that takes up a redemptive-historical position on the law/gospel, Torah/Christ divide?

    • Kenton
      I have recently bought ‘Five Views on Justification’. At the risk of sounding sycophantic on this blog I highly recommend it principally for MB’s article and his responses to various others. He interacts with the flow of Galatians in some detail and does so very helpfully (though I agree with one or two exegetical criticisms made by Dunn, principally on Gals 2:15-18).

      As I remember the IVP commentary by Hansen on Galatians available on line from Bible Gateway takes a largely redemptive-historical position. Worth checking out anyway. Moo on Galatians will be good too.

      • Kenton Slaughter

        Thanks for the recommendations. I found the book particularly helpful, though Bird completely skipped over the significance of adoption-sonship-inheritance to Paul’s entire argument. That, I believe, is also helpful here when considering the gospel and it’s obligations. If one of the direct fruits of the gospel is adoption, one of the principle results in the relationship that follows is the discipline we receive from our Father (Heb. 12). Such discipline makes little sense if it is not the gospel to which we are to be obedient, a gospel which makes us sons – first legally/covenantally by our inclusion in Christ’s vindicating resurrection/exaltation and then experientially, both effected by the sealing and filling of the Spirit – and then calls us to live as sons (1 Peter 1).

        • Kenton

          You are right sonship issue is critical to the heart of Galatians and the nature of the new obedience. The blessing of the nations is the indwelling Spirit of sonship which in turn removes obedience from law-keeping (and slavery) to life in the Spirit.

          I find it interesting that the Gospel in Galatians 1 Paul’s authority is from a Christ ‘raised from the dead’ and his gospel is about his Son ‘who gave himself for our sins that he may deliver us from this world’. Justification in this era brings us into immediate relationship with a risen Christ and removes us from this world. Our relationships and responsibilities now come from the new creation we are and in which we live; the old is gone. For Paul deliverance from this present age is deliverance from the law which belongs to the old age and has authority there. We walk by the rule of a new creation where the old distinctions (which law created) have gone. But we do have responsibilities for every new position brings responsibilities, those of sons to be led by the Spirit of sonship (who led Christ) and display as sons the nature of the Father.

          • Kenton Slaughter

            Absolutely! Galatians is framed by an emphasis on the new age and the new creation into which we have been delivered. That Christ delivers us “from the present evil age” is, I believe, crucial for Paul’s rejection of observing the Torah’s “days and months and seasons and years” that belong to (even if not contaminated by) this present fleeting age (Gal 4:10), as opposed to following the Son of God who by the Spirit of the living God has ushered in the new age.

            But sonship occupies, I believe, a central place in Scripture, a centrality that is supported by Romans 8 and John’s writings. In the parallelism of Gal. 3:24-26, Paul makes this argument:

            A) The goal of Torah was to hold us until we were justified.
            B) Torah doesn’t hold us anymore because we have become sons of God.

            So there is a very close connection between justification and adoption, such that the Torah leads to the former and ceases with the latter. I’d submit that the two, though they can be distinguished, are in fact the same reality. This is confirmed by the fact that, while Gal. 4:7 and Rom. 8:17 base the inheritance on sonship, Titus 3:7 bases it on justification.

            Furthermore, both Romans and Galatians posit that possessing the Spirit signifies and realizes sonship. It is in this capacity that the Spirit confirms justification and positional sanctification (testifies that we are children of God). This connection appears in John’s writings as well, where he notably states that the result and aim of faith is “the right to become children of God”, and the requirement for entrance into the kingdom is rebirth by the Spirit. 1 Peter 1 revealingly indicates that the unspoken and often unrecognized meaning is that the new birth is specifically rebirth as children of God.

            Finally, maturity (what is styled “progressive sanctification) is specifically about Christ-shaped sonship. This is affirmed by Paul in Romans 8:29, Ephesians 4:13, and Colossians 3:10. The end of these things is glorification, which Paul explicitly states is about sonship in Romans 8:19-21. Interestingly, it is Jesus who, in Luke 20:36, connects sonship with the resurrection, which reappears in the writings of John, Paul, and Peter.

            As a result, when we read Romans 8:30, every step of this “ordo salutis”, connected severally to righteousness, regeneration, and eternal life, is defined by sonship and aims toward sonship. This indicates that the gospel can been seen as having to do essentially with sonship. This is evangelical, as the gospel is not about the Law and law-keepers, but about the Son of God and sons of God, and it is Trinitarian, because through the gospel we become sons of God our Father, within the identity and in the image of Jesus His Son, by the life-giving and covenant-sealing agency of the Spirit.

            And space would forbid me to show how the OT also aims at sonship as the means of the spread of God’s glory through image-bearers (Gen 5:1-3 and Mal. 2:15 for starters).

          • THANKS Kenton.

            I am very much on your wave length here. Over on my blog a wrote piece on ,,days,months etc that you may have some sympathy with.

            Can you suggest any good books that follow a similar perspective – I find them.thin on the ground.

          • Kenton Slaughter

            I too have found such books to be lacking. The ones that I’ve read tend to restrict “adoption” to a relational and emotional dimension, rather than recognizing the legal and covenant context in which Paul places.

            I skimmed your blog, and I particularly liked where you identified the resurrection as an act of righteousness. I think Ephesians 1-2 is revealing because though many Reformed scholars have taken “made alive” to refer to redemption, it is in fact referring to our inclusion in Christ’s resurrection. But, it is clear that justification is in mind (yet a justification expressed as exaltation to God’s right hand). Union with Christ is what Ephesians is all about, and yet Paul expresses this in the language of inheriting a kingdom at God’s right hand, which is not only a righteous act on God’s part (how could he abandon his son to death?), but also a position that testifies to the righteousness of the one seated (for who is more righteous than the one who sits at the right hand of the Righteous One?)