Believe the Law and Obey the Gospel
Imagine you’re taking a quiz with a matching section. On the left side are the words “believe” and “obey.” On the right side are the words “Law” and “gospel.” The instructions are simple: draw a line to match words with their pair.
Of course, the title of this article probably tipped you off, but I think we can recognize the tendency to conceive of Law as something merely to be obeyed and gospel as something merely to be believed.
But did anyone ever obey the Law of God if he didn’t believe it? The Old Testament externalist—like every legalist—wants to “obey” the Law without believing the Law. He is seeking righteousness through Law (cf. Rom 3:20–22; 4:9–16; 9:30–33; 10:3–4; Gal 3:21; 5:4; Phil 3:9) rather than through faith alone in the “righteous God” alone (Isa 45:21; cf. Matt 5:6).
Likewise, does anyone believe the gospel if he doesn’t obey it? The gospel appreciator—like every licentious—wants to “believe” in Jesus without obeying Him (cf. Ps 50:16–23; Isa 1:10–15; Jer 7:1–10; Mal 1:6–10; Matt 7:21–27; Titus 1:16). He is seeking “the desires of the flesh” (Eph 2:3) through his faithless construct of liberty.
This tendency to disassociate faith from Law and obedience from the gospel stems from a more fundamental problem: the way we think about the Word of God and the proper response to it. It is related to the tendency to make an absolute distinction between Law and gospel—as though the Law-giving of God were not gracious, and as though the gospel-giving of God were without mandates.
This schismatic way of looking at God’s Word proves expedient for the autonomous because it results in the convenient bifurcation between believing and obeying so that the externalist can “obey” without faith, and the double-minded can “believe” without obedience.
The Law and the gospel are the eternal Word of God (Isa 40:8; Luke 16:17; John 5:45; Rev 14:6), and God has always demanded the same of His Word—believing and obeying.
Regarding Law (i.e., divine fiat), notice that disobedience stems squarely from unbelief. People disobey the command because they do not believe the Commander: “When the LORD sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and possess the land which I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you neither believed Him nor listened to His voice” (Deut 9:23).
Again, the LORD commanded repentance and comprehensive obedience, but they did not obey because they were the same as their fathers, “who did not believe in the LORD”: “Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah…saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep My commandments, My statutes according to all the law which I commanded your fathers’…. However, they did not listen, but stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the LORD their God” (2 Kings 17:13–14).
Consistent with Moses and the Prophets, Paul teaches that faith and Law stand together in perfect harmony: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom 3:31). With the same emphatic denial of the contrary, Paul asserts that the Law is side by side with what is to be believed: “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!” (Gal 3:21a). Promises are to be believed; thus, both God’s Law and His promises operate for blessing in the realm of faith. (That is to say, in context [vv. 15–24], that imputed righteousness, being based on faith, preceded the Mosaic Law, and if the Law somehow nullified the necessity of faith, then the means of righteousness would have changed, betraying an unfaithful God. “May it never be!”) Divine Law is consistent with divine promises because the means of righteousness remained consistent (cf. Rom 9:31–32; Heb 4:2). Therefore, it is impossible that any of God’s commands contradict the necessity of faith.
The psalmist puts it plainly: “I believe in Your commandments” (Ps 119:66b).
Regarding the gospel, not only are we commanded to believe it (Mark 1:15), but also we are commanded to obey it by implication that “those who do not obey the gospel” reap “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:8-9; cf. 2 Cor 9:13; 1 Pet 4:17). Just as the gospel is not merely to be “believed,” but also to be obeyed, so the truth is something to be obeyed, and not just believed (Rom 2:8).
Disassociating faith from Law and obedience from the gospel reflects a more basic problem: bifurcating believing from obeying. In so doing, we miss the significance of both and commit fatal error—fancying the commands of God to be obeyed without faith and fancying the gospel of God to be believed without obedience.
The legalist and the licentious are both attempting a biblically impossible maneuver: prying faith away from obedience, and prying obedience away from faith. Why such bifurcation? The former wants righteousness through his flesh; the latter wants righteousness by faith—but not without the desires of his flesh.
Do you “obey” what you do not believe (cf. Col 2:20–23)? Do you “believe” what you don’t obey (Luke 6:46)? Scripture has always demanded the “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) to God’s gracious Law and His imperatival gospel.
Whitney Oxford is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and serves as a lay leader at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL.