One of the ways to help understand the emphasis of Scripture is to think of Law and Gospel. This division is usually attributed to Martin Luther, but has been helpfully used by many theologians through history.
Law is God’s perfect law. Law is beautiful. It reveals what we should be, a standard that is necessarily immovable and unflexing because it is perfect. And so Law rightly reveals our lack, our need, our imperfection, our failure.
Gospel is God’s good news revealed in Christ. Jesus paid for our sin and extends the free gift of forgiveness and righteousness in him alone . If the law proclaims “do,” the gospel cries “done!”
These are helpful distinctions because we tend to blur and confuse the context of the Bible, both in who is being spoken to, and what is there for us to do in salvation. The law reveals the requirements; Jesus, in his work alone, has met the requirements and by his work we are not under the law, but in union with him.
To some, this seems too good to be true.
One objection to a full-throated proclamation of the Gospel is that it is too free. Proclaiming Christ alone as a free gift, the objection goes, encourages people not to work themselves.
To help with that objection, here’s a classic treatment from John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. This excerpt is from another of his books, The Doctrine of Law and Grace Unfolded, pp. 183-184. The questioner has some concern that the gospel is too free, and Bunyon is the answerer:
Question: “Do you think that I mean that my righteousness will save me without Christ’s? If so, you mistake me, for I think not so: but this I say, I will labor to do what I can, and what I cannot do, Christ will do for me.”
Answer: Ah, poor soul, this is the wrong way too! For this is to make Christ but a piece of a Saviour. Thou wilt be something, and Christ shall do the rest; thou wilt set thy own things in the first place, and if thou wantest at last, then thou wilt borrow of Christ. Thou art such a one that does Christ the greatest injury of all. First, in that thou dost undervalue his merits, by preferring thy own works before his; and secondly, by mingling his works, thy dirty ragged righteousness with his.
Question: “Why, would you have us do nothing? Would you have us make Christ such a drudge as to do all, while we sit idling still?”
Answer: Poor soul! Thou mistakest Jesus Christ, in saying thou makest him a drudge, in letting him do all. I tell thee he counts it a glory to do all for thee, and it is a great dishonor unto him for thee to so much as to think otherwise. And the saints of God that have experienced the work of grace upon their souls, do count it also the same; (Rev. 5:9,12) “Saying, thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof.” “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” And why so? Read again the 9th verse; “For thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy (own) blood.” See also Ephesians 1:6-7: “To the praise of the glory of his grace: in whom we have redemption through his blood.”
Reply: “All this we confess, that Jesus Christ died for us, but he that thinks to be saved by Christ, and liveth in his sins, shall never be saved.”
Answer: I grant that. But this I say again, a man must not make his good doings the lowest round of the ladder by which he goeth to heaven. That is, he that will and shall go to heaven, must wholly and alone, without any of his own things, venture his precious soul upon Jesus Christ and his merits.