Must the Law Be Preached Prior to the Gospel?

A Brief Examination of Proof-texts for “Law Preaching”

 by Jon Zens

I would not pretend to do full justice to these three contexts in such brief compass. But I do believe that the points raised below are sufficient to challenge the unqualified Reformed dogmatism which says that law conviction “must occur” in one’s conversion experience (John Murray, Romans, Vol. 1, p. 255), and that one cannot experience evangelical justification without “the work of the law in the conviction of sin” (John Owen, “Justification,” pp. 74-76). Also, I believe we need to be more cautious in how we relate Romans 7:7-25 to Christian experience.

 Romans 3:9-20 — “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

Verse 20 has been often used to show that the Ten Commandments must be preached to convict of sin: “God’s law is an essential ingredient of Gospel preaching, for ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin’” (Walter Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?, p. 36)

Historically, “the law” in 3:20b has been equated with the Ten Commandments. But there is nothing in the context to warrant this conclusion. In v. 9, Paul states that Jews and Gentiles are all “under sin” (Greek, hupo hamartia). He proves this by quoting from the Psalms and Isaiah (vv. 10-18).

In v. 19, Paul uses the term “law.” Here, he has in view the entire Old Testament (John Murray, Romans, Vol. 1, pp. 240,105). The phrase “under the law” in v. 19 is incorrect. The Greek is en nomos (“in the law”), not hupo nomos (“under the law,” cf. v. 9). Whatever the Old Testament says, it says to those described in it, namely, Jews and Gentiles. The Old Testament reveals the universality of sin, and the accountability of all men to God. Thus, when Paul says in 3:20b, “by the law is the knowledge of sin,” would the context lead us to believe that he means the Ten Commandments, or the entire Old Testament?

In v. 21, the word “law” is used again with reference to the whole Old Testament. Thus, while the Ten Commands are a part of the Old Testament, the “law” in 3:20b certainly cannot be equated with the Ten, and contextually it refers to the Old Testament. If anyone read Genesis through Malachi, he will come to a full knowledge of sin — the sin of Adam, the sin that brought the flood, the sin that brought fire upon Sodom, the sin that caused Israel to be cast out of the land.

But the Old Testament also witnesses to righteousness by faith (3:21, 4:3, 6-8). Thus, the “through faith” principle does not nullify the Old Testament — as the Jews might accuse the gospel of doing — but establishes the teaching of the Old Testament (3:31), which Paul goes on to illustrate in 4:1-8.

A peculiar use of the Ten Commandments in preaching is not in view in 3:20b. In fact, as F.F. Bruce observes, “there is no evidence that Paul ever used the law in this way in his apostolic preaching” (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 192).

Romans 7:7-13 — “I would not have known sin except by the law. . .”

This context has been used to prove that before one comes to Christ, he must experience a “law-work” which prepares him for the gospel. Walter Chantry says, “. . . every true saint would have to agree with Paul, who attributed his own conversion to the agency of the law: I had not known sin, but by the law’ (Romans 7:7). It is God’s law that convicts of sin” (Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?, p. 39). However, such a use of Romans 7 appears to be improper. To show this, please consider the following points, moving from the more general to the more specific:

1.  Romans 1:14-25 has been viewed as normal Christian experience. But Paul’s description of the Christian before (6:14) and after (8:12) Romans 7 would indicate that the descriptions in 7:14, 23-24 are, in some way, abnormal. Paul nowhere else in his writings describes the Christian as the frustrated, miserable person of Romans 7:14.

2.  When John Murray says that Paul in 7:7-13 “is writing thus as a representative of what must occur in the experience of others” (Romans, vol.1, p. 255), he fails to reckon with the distinctive character of this context. In 7:1, Paul speaks to those who “know the law,” which fits only the status of Jews. The condition of being “under law” is descriptive of Jews, not Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:20; cf. John Brown, Galatians, p. 258). Could a Gentile have written of the experience in 7:1-10? Does not “oldness of letter” (v. 6) suggest an old covenant setting?

3.  “Romans 7:1-6,” says Murray, “is to be connected with what the apostle had stated in 6:14” (Romans, vol. I, p. 239). It is interesting that Paul used a particular Greek verb (kurieuo, “lord it over”) in 6:9, 6:14 and 7:1. In 6:9, because of the resurrection, death can no more “lord it over” Christ. In 6:14, Paul states that sin shall not “lord it over” the believer. The reason given for why sin cannot have “dominion” is because “you are not under law, but under grace.” In 7:1, then, Paul goes on to illustrate the “lordship” of law over a man, which is equivalent to the state of being “under law.” Union with Christ is the marriage which “discharges” one from the lordship of law (v. 6)

4.  It seems, then, that Paul’s main point in this context is to show that union with Christ breaks the “lordship” of sin (6:14), and eliminates the “lordship” of law (7:14). The undesirable situation of the “dominion” of law is described in 7:7-24. This is descriptive of what occurs when any man goes one-on-one with the law. This is, unfortunately, a typical Christian experience — as the Galatian Epistle shows (2:21; 3:5; 5:4, 18 — but not a desirable experience. In light of 6:14, 7:11 and 7:4-6, one issue seems to emerge which is of critical importance’ Romans7:7-24 does not appear to be descriptive of an “under grace” experience, but an “under law” experience. How can the “sold under sin” (7:14) experience be correctly squared with the non-dominion of sin experience of 6:14?

5.  There is nothing in the context to suggest that the “law-work” Paul describes drove him to freedom in Christ. This is a man under law, sold under sin, finding all manner of lust produced in him by the commandment. Hardly a description of the joy found by “walking in the Spirit.” Paul nowhere in this context attributes hisconversion to the agency of the law.

6. Consider the following contrasts which are suggested in this context:

“under grace”

“under law”



“died to sin”

“in the flesh”



“no longer slaves”

“lust of every kind”

“alive to God”


“non-dominion of sin”

“sold into bondage”

“slaves of righteousness”

“prisoner of the law of sin”

“freed from sin”

“wretched man”

released from law – fruit to God

under law – fruit unto death

In light of these considerations, must we not at least be hesitant to look upon this portion of the New Testament as the kind of Christian experience we want? And if Romans 7:14 fits our experience, then is this not perhaps a signal that we are in need of realizing how we stand in Christ under grace?

It is not denied that the Ten Commandments bring conviction of sin, and that certain people have been so convicted in connection with their conversions. But that is not the issue. The Reformed position states that the Holy Spirit convicts men only by the law, and every truly converted person must experience a “law-work.” But if such a thing is mandatory, it is strange that no examples of “law-preaching” can be found in Acts or the Epistles. Rather, the Old Testament was used to preach Christ (Acts 17:2-3; Luke 24:21, 44; John 5:39).

James Buchanan observes: “It may be safely affirmed that it is by the Spirit’s witness to Christ that he [the sinner] is first brought to see the magnitude of his guilt . . . Christ’s exaltation . . . is sufficient . . . to carry home conviction of sin . . . Hence we believe that the Gospel of Christ, and especially the doctrine of the cross of Christ, is the most powerful instrument for impressing the conscience of a sinner . . . And this because the Gospel . . . contains in it the spirit and essence of the law.”

Galatians 3:24 — “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.”

The “to bring us” is in italics in the King James Version. These words are not in the Greek text. It should read, “the law was our schoolmaster unto Christ.” The “to bring us” rendering makes it appear that Paul has in view our personal calling into salvation. Galatians 3:24, based on this idea, has been used to teach that in the process of salvation, men must first be convicted by the Ten Commandments, and then are driven to Christ.

For example, Archbishop Usher said, “First, the covenant of the law is urged, to make sin, and the punishment thereof, known . . . After this preparation the promises of God are propounded (quoted by Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, pp. 233-234).

Walter Chantry states that gospel preachers should “exposit the Ten Commandments until men are slain thereby (Romans 7:11). When you see that men have been wounded by the law, then it is time to pour in the balm of Gospel oil. It is the sharp needle of the law that makes way for the scarlet thread of the Gospel” (Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?, p. 43).

But, clearly, this is not what Paul is teaching. Rather, he is showing the advance of history from the Abrahamic Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant, to the coming of Christ. He does this to show that salvation is of faith, not of law (3:18), and that salvation is connected with promise, not law (3:17).

Notice the following historical terminology in this context: “the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ (3:17a; cf. Genesis 15) . . . the law, which was 430 years after, cannot disannul (3:11b) . . . [the law] was added [after the Abrahamic Covenant] . . . till the seed [Christ] should come (3:19) . . . before faith came, we [Jews] were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed (3:23) . . . the law was our schoolmaster unto Christ . . . But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster (3:24) . . . under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father (4:2) . . . the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son (4:4).“

Ernest DeWitt Burton says concerning 3:24 — “Nor is the reference to the individual experience under law as bringing men individually to faith in Christ. For the context makes it clear that the apostle is speaking, rather, of the historic succession of one period of revelation upon another and the displacement of the law by Christ” (Galatians, p. 200).

Only the Jews are described in the New Testament as being “under law. “ Thus, this text cannot be used to apply to all men. This text, probably more than any other, has been used to prove that law must be preached before gospel (cf. John Owen, “Justification,” pp. 74-76). In fact, the Puritans built a whole theology of law-preaching on this text.

But this is a misunderstanding of the mind of the Spirit. That the Ten Commandments must convict Jews and Gentiles prior to gospel preaching is the last thing in Paul’s mind in this text. If the Galatians had come to the gospel through the law in the beginning, would not his point that they are not “made perfect” through the law after salvation lose its punch?


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