Law vs. Gospel: An Unnecessary Conflict

There is a church I know that is still meeting even though it’s bad for the people in our current COVID-19 season. What’s worse, they are making people feel bad about not going. They preach and teach that a person is saved by grace, but must do something. Every Fundamental Baptist Church I have engaged pretty much preaches the same incoherent message and is works-based like the one described above. It is heavy on Law. Don’t worry, I won’t only pick on Fundamental churches in this sermon. I will also warn the reformed community. There is another type of church, which seems to forsake the Law and err only on the side of the Gospel. In our society, we sense this tension between moral uprightness and free grace such that they are pitted against each other. Both types of churches, or worldviews if we want to broaden our consideration, miss the Bible’s message entirely because they ignore one-half of the Bible in favor of the other. I won’t mention the names of these churches during a sermon, but if you contact me and ask about your church’s health or legitimacy according to Scripture, I’ll help any way I can inconspicuously for your good.

When we sincerely walk through Scripture verse-by-verse, we must deal with both the Law and Gospel. How do they relate? Is the Law pitted against the Gospel in Scripture, or is there some other relationship between the Law and Gospel that underlies and drives proper Biblical interpretation?

Saul is trying to kill David because he is paranoid. Let’s continue in the story together.

1 Samuel 19:11-17

Then Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, in order to put him to death in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, told him, saying, “If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be put to death.”

So Michal let David down through a window, and he went out and fled and escaped. Michal took the household idol and laid it on the bed, and put a quilt of goats’ hair at its head, and covered it with clothes.

When Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.”

Then Saul sent messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me on his bed, that I may put him to death.”

When the messengers entered, behold, the household idol was on the bed with the quilt of goats’ hair at its head.

So Saul said to Michal, “Why have you deceived me like this and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?” And Michal said to Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go! Why should I put you to death?’”

David’s escape (v. 11-12)

Then Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, in order to put him to death in the morning.

Following David’s battle against Goliath (Chapter 17), Saul has been paranoid of David even though David served him faithfully. David has become Saul’s new Goliath even though David poses no threat to his reign. Whereas he once tried to have David killed secretly, not Saul is open about his vendetta. David and Michal, Saul’s daughter, have married and moved in together. Saul now sends his people to their house in order to assassinate David in the morning. We can visualize Saul’s assassins staking out David’s property, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

But Michal, David’s wife, told him, saying, “If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be put to death.”
So Michal let David down through a window, and he went out and fled and escaped.

Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife, knew about her father’s order. She took the initiative to warn David and help his escape. 

David’s household idol (v. 13-14)

Michal took the household idol and laid it on the bed, and put a quilt of goats’ hair at its head, and covered it with clothes.

Household idol? David and Michal had a household idol? The word translated “household idol,” here is תרפים. The Hebrew word is always in the plural and literally translates “image,” the type of image Laban had in Genesis 31:19, 34-35—images Laban referred to as his gods (Genesis 31:30). Household idols, the family gods, were common at this time, even in Israel, and had persisted from Abraham’s time. Even Abraham came from a land where Yahweh was not heard of. History tells us that both in Ur and in Haran, the early Mesopotamian god Sin or Nanna. Abraham most likely had not hear about Yahweh until Yahweh called him to leave Haran, his family, and his gods.

David and Michal had a household god. Though the idol is used in a comical way to save David, we recognize the idolatry in David’s household. Idolatry is thematic through the Old Testament. In the cases of both Abraham and David, God did not punish them for their adultery. God chose David like He chose Abraham. God is David’s deliverer like He was Abraham’s. If God has chosen any person for Himself, there is no idolatry that isn’t passed over in Christ for the sake of God’s glory. If we are in Christ, we should find great comfort in the doctrine of election.

In the Law God commanded, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3-5a). After giving this command in the Law, God predicted His people would not be able to keep the Law and remain pure from idols (Deuteronomy 31:29). He also promised to be the sole deliverer of His elect people from their unrighteousness and sin (Deuteronomy 32:35-36).

This Law-Gospel motif is evident throughout the Bible. God gives commands, imperatives, to reveal His righteousness and our unrighteousness. He tells us we won’t be able to keep His perfect Law. He carries out His judgment on Christ as a substitutionary atonement on behalf of His elect. He delivers His elect by clothing them in His righteousness alone. Saul’s life shows what it’s like to remain under the Law. David’s life shows what it’s like to come under the Gospel. There are many people today who presume to be religious who are still under the Law, trying to be righteous and teach others to be righteous. Few people ever come under the freedom of the Gospel. This is why many churches or “Christians” seem legalistic—they only see the Law. Other “Christians” are antinomian because they only see the Gospel. No single part of God’s word can be understood well without understanding the Law-Gospel motif throughout. In the Old Testament, Law precedes Gospel to reveal God’s righteousness and human unrighteousness—showing us our need for grace. In the New Testament, Gospel precedes Law—showing us that the new heart provided to us bears godly fruit through sanctification. If we ignore Law or Gospel, we come to teach unsound doctrine. Simply put, the Law reveals who God is and the Gospel brings us to know Him who is entirely holy. God’s grace is so amazing in light of the Law. Without the Law, there is no real grace. Without the Gospel, people die in their sins under the Law. We need both.

We can’t have the Gospel without the Law. Neither can we come to obey God’s Law without the Gospel. So, we reject any worldview that preaches anything like only Law (Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Islam, Traditional Roman Catholicism, Fundamentalism, some reformed churches, some evangelical churches, etc…) or anything like only Gospel (Popular Protestantism, some Evangelicalism, Unitarianism, Universalism, Religious Progressivism, Neo-Catholicism, etc…). Any church or religion that teaches we have to do anything to be saved is Law-centered and a false church or religion. Any church or religion that teaches simply “love wins” or centers everything on simple love and grace as unifying and saving factors forsakes Law and proves to be a false church or religion. Doubtless the Bible says God is Love, but that’s not the only thing the Bible says about God. Sadly, this means most human religion is bogus. We desire God’s entire word and work, not one half or the other. That is why we preach through God’s word, not skipping a verse. We are forced to consider both God’s Law and Gospel. I hope you are in a church that preaches through the Bible well instead of nitpicking verses, explaining parts of Scripture away, or adding to the text what isn’t actually there.

When Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.”

David did not come out of his home. Michal, who initiated David’s escape, lies to her father’s assassins, telling them David is sick and can’t come out to play.

Michal’s deception (v. 15-17)

Then Saul sent messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me on his bed, that I may put him to death.”
When the messengers entered, behold, the household idol was on the bed with the quilt of goats’ hair at its head.

You’ve seen those movies or television shows. A teenager sneaks out of the house and lays pillows in his bed to keep from being found out. David gets found out! 

So Saul said to Michal, “Why have you deceived me like this and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?” And Michal said to Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go! Why should I put you to death?’”

Like what we’ve seen as characteristic of Saul, Saul appropriates his relationship with his daughter for his own ends. Saul consistently views his relationships as means for self-gain.  Michal lies to her father. She initiated David’s escape, but tells her father that David threatened her life in order to force her to help him.We don’t know what motivates her lie because the story does not reveal her heart, but we can imagine. What do we see in this passage? Here, a sin. There, a sin. Everywhere, a sin, sin.

Saul, David, and Michal all sin because all people are unrighteous by nature. Again, the Law reveals human unrighteousness, and no one is good. All people have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). What’s the difference between Saul and David? Saul has not been justified. David has. People are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24). This was to demonstrate His righteousness alone (Romans 3:25). God alone is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Law-Gospel, Gospel-Law. We cannot be justified by our works or rejection of sin. We are justified only because Christ atoned on our behalf at the cross. Such is true for David, who will never have to answer for the idolatry of his household. Saul must answer for all his sin because, like Hophni and Phenehas, he will never be atoned for forever  (See notes on 1 Samuel 3:14).

The Law and the Gospel are not at odds. The Law exposes us and reveals God. The Gospel causes us to come into relationship with God despite our depravity, which is exposed by the Law. That is why Paul will later write:

Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on the law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Galatians 3:19-22).

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