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Grace Conferred (4): The Sacred Precepts and Admonitions of the Gospel

Grace Conferred (4): The Sacred Precepts and Admonitions of the Gospel

The following is Part Four in the series "Grace Conferred by Means of Admonitions" by Martyn McGeown. Read Part Three here.


If you were paying careful attention to the Canons and looked them up, and I hope that you make a practice of doing that, you might have thought that I changed the Canons last time. In the English version of Canons 5:14 we read of “the hearing and reading of His (God’s) Word, by meditation thereon, and by exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof.” I wrote, “The exhortations, threatenings, and promises of the gospel.” Which is it, “the exhortations of the Word” or “the exhortations of the gospel”? And is there an important difference or distinction?

The answer is that the correct translation of the Latin is “gospel” and not “Word.” In English the words “thereon” (“meditation thereon”) and “thereof” (“exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof”) refer back to “the Word.” The original Latin does not have a word for “Word,” but only a word for “gospel.” The Latin reads: “Per praedicationem Evangelii (by the preaching of the gospel) in nobis (in us) inchoare” (to begin), where the reference is the means by which God is pleased to begin “this work of grace” in us. The Latin continues: “ita per ejusdem auditem, lectionem, meditationem, adhortationes, minas, promissa…conservat, continuat, et perficit” (so he preserves, continues, and perfects it [his work of grace in us] by the hearing, reading, meditating, exhortations, threats, and promises of the same), where the word ejusdem (of the same) refers back to the gospel (Evangelium). So, the correct translation is “exhortations of the gospel.” Thus in Canons 5.14 we have “exhortations” (adhortatio) and “threaterings” (mina), while in Canons 3-4.17 we have “admonitions” (monitus), both of the gospel.

We have learned so far that God uses means both to begin his work of salvation in us and to continue it; that God works grace in us by the Holy Spirit, which grace is a power by which God conforms us more and more to the image of Jesus Christ. Since the idea of the biblical word “grace,” is beauty, we can say that God works grace in us to separate us more and more from the ugliness of sin and corruption and to make us more and more beautiful with the beauty of the holiness of Jesus Christ. Or to express it in one word, he sanctifies us.

The means which God is pleased to use are these: “the sacred precepts of the gospel” (Canons 3-4.17) and “the hearing of His [gospel] … meditation thereon, and … the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by use of the sacraments” (Canons 5.14). The phrase “sacred precepts of the gospel” (Latin: sanctis Evangelii monitis) means the admonitions (Latin: monitus) of the gospel. That very same word monitus appears later in the article, “Per (by) monita (admonitions) enim (truly, verily, indeed) confertur (is conferred) gratia (grace)” (Canons 3-4.17).

But that brings us to another question: how can the gospel have admonitions, exhortations, and even threatenings (Canons 3-4.17; 5:14)? Surely, the gospel is good news, only good news, and nothing else but good news. Surely, to mix admonitions with the gospel is to make the gospel the law, maybe even to corrupt it. Yes, we might say, the gospel has promises, but no, we might object, the gospel has no admonitions, exhortations, and certainly no threats. Or perhaps we might concede that the only gospel admonitions or exhortations are the commands to believe and repent. “This promise (of the gospel), together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be published” (Canons 2.5).

This, of course, gets to the heart of the law-gospel distinction.

To put it very simply, the law tells us what we must do, “Thou shalt; thou shalt not;” while the gospel tells us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The Canons, which speak of the “sacred precepts (admonitions) of the gospel” and of the exhortations (Latin: adhortatio) of the gospel, and even of the threats (Latin: mina) of the gospel, make this law-gospel distinction.

On the one hand, the Canons speak of the gospel. The gospel is called “these most joyful tidings” (Canons 1:3): tidings are news, news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The gospel has a promise, namely “that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (Canons 2:5). The gospel is “the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it hath pleased God to save such as believe” (Canons 3-4.6).

On the other hand, the Canons speak of the law. The law is called “the law of the decalogue” in Canons 3-4.5. The word decalogue means “ten words,” or the Ten Commandments. That law, warn the Canons, “neither points out a remedy, nor imparts strength to extricate [man] from misery, and thus, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse” (Canons 3-4.5). The conclusion is, “Man cannot by this law obtain saving grace” (Canons 3-4.5).

If man cannot by the law obtain saving grace, and the law is a series of commandments, how can the same Canons teach that “grace is conferred by means of admonitions” (Canons 3-4.17)? How do the commandments of the decalogue (the law) differ from the admonitions, the exhortations, and even the threatenings of the gospel (Canons 5.14)?

The answer is that the law has a different effect upon a regenerate child of God than upon an unregenerate unbeliever. The unbeliever hates the law, detests the prohibitions of the law, and loathes the requirements and duties of the law. The mind of the unbeliever “is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). When the unbeliever hears the law, he rages inwardly—and often, if he can get away with it, outwardly—against it. But when the believer hears the law, which, after all, is written on his heart, he says, “O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!” (Ps. 119:5). The believer exclaims, “O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). The believer confesses, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19:7-8). Strictly speaking, the bare law, as set forth in Canons 3-4.6, never does that and cannot do that.

The law, then, does not confer grace by means of commandments. The law is like Pharaoh’s taskmasters, demanding, “Make bricks” without providing any straw. But the law to the child of God is very different. To the child of God I say, “You have heard the gospel, how Christ by his work of obedience has satisfied the law’s demands. You have heard the gospel that the law has no more words of condemnation for you. You have heard the gospel that the law cannot curse or damn you.” Now the law comes to the child of God who trusts in Jesus Christ, “I am no longer your enemy, but your friend,” the law says. “Your Father has given me to show you the right path in which you should walk, not to earn salvation—Christ has done that already for you—but in order that you should show gratitude to God.” Indeed, the preface to the Ten Commandments indicates that already: before one “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” is thundered from Sinai, we are told, “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2). The commandments of the law come to a redeemed people. The exhortations of God’s Word come to a people already redeemed and regenerated, and they—and they alone—have the ability to keep the law of God. “With a sincere resolution they begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 114).

Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, explains:

The law alone without the gospel is the letter, that is, it is the doctrine which merely teaches, demands obedience, denounces the wrath of God and death to such as are disobedient, without producing the spiritual obedience which it requires. But when it is joined with the gospel, which is the Spirit, it also commences to become the Spirit, which is effectual in the godly, inasmuch as those who are regenerated commence willingly and cheerfully to yield obedience to the law” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, repr., 1852], 617).

So, what exactly are the “admonitions of the gospel”? We continue our discussion of that important question next time.

Interested in the Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism quoted above? The RFPA will be publishing a brand-new, reformatted edition of Commentary before the end of 2023! Join our email list to be notified when preorder becomes available!

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