Law and Gospel in Reformed Perspective -- By: Donald G. Bloesch

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 12:2 (Fall 1991)
Article: Law and Gospel in Reformed Perspective
Author: Donald G. Bloesch


Law and Gospel in Reformed Perspective

Donald G. Bloesch

Meaning of Reformed

The term “Reformed” has become almost as ambiguous as “evangelical,” but I am using it in a very specific sense. First it means anchored in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. To be Reformed means to claim the legacy of Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Bucer, and Bullinger. But Reformed people also acknowledge their indebtedness to Luther and Melanchthon, both of whom spearheaded the Lutheran Reformation. It should be kept in mind that Calvin signed one of the editions of the Augsburg Confession. In the old Evangelical Synod of North America, the church of my childhood, the guiding standards of faith were the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Small Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism. These remained confessional standards in the Evangelical and Reformed church, which came into existence in 1934 (now part of the United Church of Christ).

A second meaning of Reformed is the willingness always to be reformed in light of the Word of God. Our creeds and theologies remain under the witness of holy Scripture and therefore may be corrected and amended on the basis of new insight gleaned from the Word of God. New creeds can be written as new heresies arise to challenge the faith once delivered to the saints. Both Calvin and Luther placed the Word of God above the testimonies of sacred tradition.

Other theologians who have shaped the Reformed tradition and have influenced me personally in various ways are P. T. Forsyth, Charles Hodge, Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, G. C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, and Reinhold Niebuhr. My principal mentors in this study are Barth, Calvin, and to a lesser extent Niebuhr.

Contrasting Positions

In Roman Catholicism the gospel is often pictured as a new law, one that fulfills the Mosaic law of Hebraic tradition. Christ is envisaged as the eternal or final law of God. The teachings of Christ as well

as the ministry and acts of Christ constitute the gospel as the fulfilled law of God.

In Luther an antithesis is frequently drawn between the law and the gospel. The law is the hammer of God’s judgment, which brings about conviction of sin. The gospel is the balm of God’s mercy that assures us of divine forgiveness. Luther like Calvin also affirmed a political use of the law—to restrain our rapacity and thereby preserve us from injury in the order of creation. While Luther’s emphasis was on the spiritual use—to drive us to an awareness of our helplessness and need for God, it is debatable whether he held that the law always accuses. For the person with a stricken conscience, he says, “sin assuredly rules by th...

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