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  • Writer's pictureBrett Bonecutter

The Gospel Upside-Down

Many of my brethren have the entrenched and intractable idea that God's program is always Law (bringing condemnation) followed by Gospel (bringing promised grace of redemption). They carry this "Law / Gospel" hermeneutic into every Bible text, every sermon, and every pastoral situation they encounter. One prominent teacher in this school of thought claims that people who don't embrace this particular paradigm teach a distorted "glawspel."

The problem is that their "Law / Gospel" formula is backwards and simplistic in the face of the Biblical evidence. God's program always BEGINS with gracious promise and is then followed by law. When that law is broken, God restores us to the promise (and faithful obedience) through His Son. That is His program, and getting it right is important to understanding how the Gospel "works."

Consider Adam. He was not placed OUTSIDE of the garden and told to work his way in (law, then promise). He was graciously placed INSIDE the garden of promise (tree of life from which he was not prohibited) and given a single prohibition from the tree that would teach him wisdom which begins with the fear of the Lord (knowledge of good and evil). In the garden it was gracious promise first, then law - kept by faith.

Consider Noah. He was shown God's favor and then instructed to build an ark and given post-flood law(s). God didn't say, "if you build an ark, I will show you favor." No. Because God had favor on Noah, He showed Noah the way of faithfulness and life. Gracious promise first, then law - kept by faith.

Consider Abraham. He was promised a Seed, and then given a law of circumcision for himself and his posterity. He was not given the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith so that he could inherit the promised land, he has granted the inheritance and then given the sacramental law. Gracious promise first, then law - kept by faith.

Consider Israel. God brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (promise / grace), and then told them who they were to be as His people (Exodus 20). God didn't say, if you do thus and such you will be My people. He said, BECAUSE I have made you my people, you will do thus and such. Gracious promise first, then law - kept by faith.

Consider Jesus! In John 17, we see that Jesus had "work" to do, but that work flowed from a prior gracious promise within the Trinity. Jesus would be given a people in His image, therefore he would submit to the will of the Father. Again, even in the Godhead, it is gracious promise, then "law" - kept by faith (Phi 3:9 should read, "and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith").

Some might take verses out of context to try and fight against this, for example, "Yet the law is not of faith..." (Gal 3:12). They take a verse like this and say, "See! The Law isn't an expression of gracious promise - it functions to condemn!" The problem is that soundbites like this don't capture the whole picture. Galatians 3:11 says, "But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for 'the just shall live by faith.'" The point is that raw moral achievement is never the aim of the law - law without faith in God's promise (Jesus Christ) reveals us as condemned sinners. When Paul says the law is not of faith, he is speaking to a Jewish conception of law-keeping that puts law before promise, instead of promise before law. Far from negating my point, Paul reinforces it.

You may ask - so what? Why does this matter? It matters because God doesn't start as the great Legislator in the sky who creates arbitrary rules to trip us up so He can save us! He is always a gracious Father who begins with promises and then lays out terms of a right relationship (law) so we can be holy like He is holy. As the sons of Adam fail to keep the faith, God restores us to this relationship through His own faithful Son - Who never broke fellowship with the Father.

So we see that God is always gracious, faith in God's promises is always the foundation of righteousness, and Jesus is the great Man of faith(fulness) on our behalf. The Bible doesn't teach a "Law / Gospel" hermeneutic the way my brethren have conceived of it. That's not how the Gospel "works."

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