How should we read the Bible? How do we know we’re understanding it correctly? Even many who believe that the Bible is God’s word ask these questions.
Some people believe it’s simple. Anyone can just open their Bible and understand what it says. It’s true that God wants all Christians to read and hear his word. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We can and do misread Scripture. And misunderstanding the Bible means misunderstanding God and his work of salvation.
One of the most fundamental—and common—ways of misreading the Bible is failing to see the difference between God’s law and God’s gospel. If we don’t distinguish them, we lose the gospel—God’s good news of salvation.
Isn’t the Law Basically Just the Old Testament?
It’s common to associate the Old Testament with the law and the New Testament with the gospel. But this can quickly lead to confusion when we read the Bible.
For example, the New Testament includes many commandments. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensifies the Ten Commandments: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:27). If we think this is the gospel—and many people have thought so—it seems like bad news. Isn’t Jesus setting the bar even higher than Moses? Even sinful intentions that we don’t act on condemn us. Is this God’s free gift of grace?
Commandments are everywhere in the New Testament, and if we don’t recognize their purpose, we may think our salvation depends on obedience. Alternatively, we may think the commandments contradict the passages that announce God’s grace. How does the Sermon on the Mount fit with a passage like this: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, ‘For the righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11)? Here Paul says that we can’t find peace with God through obeying the law. Is Paul contradicting Jesus?
God’s law was in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16–17) and it’s present throughout the Bible. If we don’t understand its nature and purpose, we won’t understand the core message of God’s word.
Is the Gospel Just in the New Testament?
Through his death, Jesus established the new covenant. It’s through Christ alone that we receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So, it’s not strange that we associate the New Testament with the gospel.
But God’s grace toward sinners began long before Jesus’ birth. In the Old Testament, God promised to make a way for Adam and Eve’s children to be reconciled to him. Those who believed God’s promises looked ahead to Christ. The apostle Paul writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). Abraham lived thousands of years before Christ, but Paul says he heard the gospel. Paul’s point is that God has always offered only one way of salvation: faith. We look back to what Christ has done; Abraham looked forward to what Christ would do.
The Bible also describes Moses’ faith in the gospel. The book of Hebrews says, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:24–26). When Moses trusted God’s promise, he was putting his faith in Christ.
The Old Testament tells us countless stories of disobedience: Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David all disobeyed God’s law. Yet the Old Testament also recounts many acts of faith in God’s promises.
What Does It Mean, Then, To Distinguish the Law and the Gospel?
God gave us the law, and God gave us the gospel. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and God “gave us his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Both are part of God’s revelation to us and woven throughout Scripture. So, how do we distinguish them in order to read Scripture well?
Galatians 3:11–12 helps us answer this question. Paul writes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” Paul quotes the Old Testament twice here: “The righteous shall live by faith,” (Hab. 2:4) and “The one who does them shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5). These are two different ways of seeking “life.” Throughout the Bible, God punishes sin with death (Gen. 2:16–17) and rewards righteousness with life. So, if these are two ways to find life, then they’re two ways of trying to be righteous before God. The first is the gospel (Hab. 2:4) and the second is the law (Lev. 18:5).
The gospel promises righteousness and life as free gifts. We don’t earn them; we receive them by faith. The gospel is the good news of what Christ has done for us.
The law says that through our righteous actions we can earn life. But, Paul says, it’s impossible to obey God’s law perfectly. That’s why “no one is justified before God by the law.” The law reflects God’s perfect righteousness and holiness. He gave it to us so we’d know his nature and will for us. But we’re sinful, and when we hear the law, we rebel (Rom. 7:7–12).
Reading Well, So We Hear the Good News
If we hear God’s commands in the Bible and think God’s favor depends our obedience—which is our natural instinct—we’ve misunderstood God’s word. Instead, hearing the law should leave us desperate for grace. God reveals the law so we’ll know we need the gospel.
If we’ve trusted in Christ, then we see God’s commandments as a call to live in harmony with what we already are through Christ: children of God. We obey God out of gratitude, trusting that he’ll give us all he’s promised through grace alone, and this includes holiness.
Misreading God’s word, then, can leave us in despair. If we think our salvation depends on obedience, what hope do we have? But reading God’s word rightly—guided by passages like Galatians 3:11–12—allows us to hear and receive the gift of the gospel. Distinguishing the law and the gospel reveals the true nature of Christ so we can know and treasure him. He fulfilled the law so that those condemned by the law could receive righteousness and life.
What Does the Bible Say?
- The Law: Gen. 2:16–17; Exod. 20:1–21; Lev. 18:5; Deut. 28; Matt. 5:17, 7:12, 22:34–40; Rom. 2:14–16, 3:20, 7:7–12
- The Gospel: Gen. 3:15, 12:2–3, 15:7–18; John 3:16–17; Acts 2:38–39; Rom. 1:16–17, 5:1; Gal. 3:7–9; Eph. 2:8; Heb. 11
- The Relationship of the Law and the Gospel: John 1:17; Acts 15:7–11; Rom. 5:12–15, 7:1–6; Gal. 3:10–29; 5:3–6
- The Law of Perfect Freedom by Michael Horton