Why I Am Not Reformed (3): The Law and the Gospel

One thing I appreciate about many Reformed theology teachers is their concern for genuine conversion – a true salvation is bound to impact an individual’s life. We should be thankful for this emphasis. Ironically, though, for a movement that champions sola gratia, their concern to uphold true, biblical repentance sometimes leads to teaching that diminishes grace. A second reason, then, that I am not Reformed is that its language on law and works can confuse the gospel.

The End of the Law

Salvation has always been received exclusively by faith (Rom 4). Under the law, believers offered animal sacrifices, but those sacrifices did not take away their sins (Heb 10:4). God saved them on account of their faith in Him, knowing that the then-future sacrifice of Christ would satisfy Him in relation to their sins (Rom 3:25). While Old Testament believers lived out their faith under the law, New Testament believers do not. We “are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14),[1] and “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4).

Reformed Theology and the Law

While some Reformed teachers would wholeheartedly echo the paragraph above, some would not. Many of them maintain that the Old Testament law continues to be our “rule of life.” That is entrenched within the standard confession of Reformed theology: “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 as a rule of life.”[2] While good Reformed teachers will take great pains to highlight the grace contained in the law and how the law meshes with the gospel, they are rooting out seeds of confusion sown by their own theology.

The New Testament and the Law

The covenant of Mount Sinai is bound to bear children for slavery (Gal 4:24), so we should not speak of the law as our rule of life. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7:6). Both Romans and Galatians teach us that the Law of Moses did not justify and does not sanctify. The Christian’s pattern of life is Christ, a life that is empowered by the Spirit. That does not mean we are antinomians[3] – living under Christ’s headship obviously means we are subject to Him. But the law of Christ (Gal 6:2) does not bind us to a legal code – the law of Christ is to love. When “faith is working through love” (Gal 5:6), the Spirit will produce in us the righteous living that the law intended but could not produce (Rom 8:4). In other words, we will fulfill the law (cf. Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14) – not by focusing on keeping its provisions, but by love.[4] Remember our Lord Jesus’ teaching to love God and love your neighbour, and then: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mat 22:37-40).

The distinction may seem subtle on the surface, but it is vitally different from saying “Christians must keep the Ten Commandments,” as some Reformed teaching implies. It is not without significance that only nine of those ten are repeated in the New Testament.[5] To teach the law as the Christian’s standard of living is both problematic (which parts of the law?) and contrary to its purpose (cf. 1Ti 1:8-9). This does not mean we unhitch from the Old Testament; it means we look to Christ, not to Sinai, as both our pattern of life and our basis of salvation assurance.

Factors Behind the Confusion

One factor in Reformed theology’s desire to keep the law is that it fails to see the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, and the distinction between Israel and the Church.[6] I judge a second factor is likely their doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints.[7] The insistence that people who are justified are to be practically sanctified is commendable. And it is true that “high degrees of Christian assurance are simply not compatible with low levels of obedience.”[8] But exhorting Christians to keep the law for sanctification or assurance is emphatically not the approach of New Testament apostolic teaching.

Too often Reformed teaching implies that people who do not persevere in godliness are lost because of their failure to persevere – that is misleading. People are lost due to their never having been united to Christ. To teach otherwise is to add a human contingency to salvation that mangles grace, but this implication is rampant in Reformed teaching. “The testimony of Scripture is clear; we must persevere to the end in order to obtain salvation.”[9] That statement places an unscriptural burden upon people to work to gain assurance and life. “We still must take seriously the warnings of apostasy that frequently occur in the New Testament. Paul himself talks about how he has to pummel his body to subdue it, lest he, in the final analysis, becomes a castaway.”[10] The implication is that Paul didn’t have assurance of final salvation and there is a possibility he wasn’t saved.

We can appreciate the heart of Reformed teaching that urges people to holy living, yet we must be clear that Christ fulfilled the law (Mat 5:17; cf. Rom 3:31), not so that we would keep it, but to give us a true gospel of grace. The law is not irrelevant, but it is not our rule of life.


[1] All Scripture references in this article are from the ESV.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.6. Quoted approvingly by Sinclair Ferguson in “The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 115.

[3] Antinomianism, a term coined by Martin Luther, is living without law and conveys permissiveness. It is a charge often unfairly leveled against Dispensationalists.

[4] For a good summary of some common points of confusion about the law, search Matthew Ferris’ “10 Things About the Law of Moses.”

[5] Though Sabbath teaches us valuable lessons about rest and time to focus on the Lord, Israel’s Sabbath is not a law for us today and Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath.

[6] See previous article in this series.

[7] This is the “P” in the TULIP of Calvinism and is not how I would explain eternal security. Calvinism will be addressed in the next article in the series.

[8] Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 201.

[9] Burk Parsons on Mat 10:22, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/preserved-god/

[10] R.C. Sproul, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/more-conquerors/