"Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)
Rightly dividing the Word of truth involves more than just interpreting each passage in a way that agrees with what the Bible says elsewhere. It also involves rightly dividing the law from the gospel, or as Paul put it, the law from the promises (Galatians 3:16-21, Isaiah 8:20). This distinction is important because the law is God's message to the unrepentant, while the gospel is His message to those who repent (1 Timothy 1:9).
When this is explained to some people for the first time, they react by saying, "saved people need the law too." What they fail to understand is that when saved people use the law God is not speaking words of condemnation to them, instead they are using the law to condemn their own unrepentant thoughts and desires. That is what the Bible is talking about when is says, "if we would judge ourselves we would not be judged." (1 Corinthians 11:31) Our entire life should be a life of repentance. We should daily use the law to put to death the old Adam, by condemning and putting to death any sinful feelings or desires that arise in our heart (Romans 7:16-17, Colossians 3:1-5).
There are times when saved people fail to do this and fall
into sin. On such occasions the law does condemn them as it condemned David
when he sinned (2 Samuel 12:7-12). However, it condemns them because they
are unrepentant, so the rule still holds true. The law is God's message
to the unrepentant, while the gospel is His message to those who repent
(1 Timothy 1:9).
Because the law and the gospel are two separate messages, they seem contradictory to those who do not understand the way of salvation. For example, Romans 6:23, first tells us that sinners receive death, and then tells us that God gives sinners life. Those who do not understand, wonder which is true. Do sinners receive life or death? This is confusing for them, but perfectly clear to those who understand the way of salvation. The key is repentance. Those who do not repent receive death, while those who do repent receive the gift of eternal life. The phrase, "the wages of sin is death," is God's warning to the unrepentant, while the phrase, "the gift of God is eternal life," is God's promise of mercy to those who repent.
Because the law and gospel are two distinct messages we must
rightly distinguish between them, and use them as God intended. We must
never use the law to comfort the unrepentant. We must never tell them that
God is pleased with them, or will bless them, because of their own works,
tithes, or other efforts. No blessing of God comes to us by the law, for
it is written, "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified
in His sight." (Romans 3:20) On the other hand we should never burden the
repentant with the law, by telling them that God's favor depends upon their
works, tithes, or other efforts (Galatians 1:6-9). God's favor is a free
gift. It does not depend upon our ability to live a sinless life, give
a certain amount, or obey some mystic leading of the Holy Spirit. Those
who teach otherwise are not approved of God (2 Timothy 2:15, Romans 9:30-31,
Those who do not rightly divide the Word of truth, often use
Christ's words, "neither do I condemn thee," (John 8:11) to comfort the
unrepentant. They make adulterers and homosexuals secure in their sins
by telling them that God will not condemn them. However, nothing could
be further from the truth! John 8:11, was never meant for the unrepentant.
Christ did not condemn the woman taken in adultery for one reason, and
one reason only. He did not condemn her because she was already sorry for
her sin. If she had remained unrepentant, He would have been sinning had
He not warned her of God's wrath (Ezekiel 33:8). The very fact that the
words which He spoke to her were gospel, not law, is proof that she was
sorry that she had ever committed adultery. The law warns all who commit
adultery of God's wrath, and tells them that they cannot inherit the kingdom
of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). The gospel, on the other hand, assures all
who repent that God has washed them and justified them in the name of Christ
(1 Corinthians 6:11).
We are to divide the law from the gospel, not mix them together. We must never compromise them in a vain attempt to make them agree. They were never meant to agree! The law must be taught in its full sternness, the gospel in its full sweetness. God sees no good in the unrepentant (Isaiah 64:6), and no bad in those who repent (Romans 4:7-8, 1 John 1:9).
We must never comfort the unrepentant by leading them to believe
that God has made His law easier to keep. They need to be warned that as
long as they try to earn God's favor by keeping the law, they are debtors,
"to do the whole law." (Galatians 5:3) As it is written, "Cursed is every
one that continueth not in all the things which are written in the book
of the law to do them." (Galatians 3:10) Only those who keep the whole
law can be justified by the law (Romans 2:13). And the Bible makes it perfectly
clear that no one can keep the whole law (Romans 3:10-20, Galatians 2:16
and 3:11,21, James 2:10). Therefore, we should never lead them to think
that they can keep the law, or worse yet, that they can earn God's blessing
without doing all that the law requires. [That is one reason why I object
to the song, "Trust And Obey"]
The gospel is summed up in the words, "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23) Salvation is a free gift. Our salvation does not depend upon our ability to cooperate with God, keep His law, or keep ourselves saved. It is a free gift from beginning to end. That truth must never be mixed with the law (2 Timothy 2:15, Romans 11:6, Philippians 3:9).
We must never burden the repentant by leading them to believe that God's blessing depends upon their ability to keep the law. Righteousness comes to us apart from the law (Romans 9:30-31). Having the righteousness which is by faith, not works, we do that which is pure and holy and good, not to earn God's blessing, but because we love all that is pure and holy and good and hate evil (Romans 12:9, Romans 6:6-16, 1 Thessalonians 5:22, Hebrews 1:9).
While not even one jot or tittle has passed from the law, the
law has no power over those who believe (Matthew 5:18, Luke 16:17). Just
as a woman whose husband has died is free from the law forbidding her to
marry another, so likewise all who repent are freed from the law and all
of its condemnation, by the blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 7:1-4).
While the law and gospel are two separate messages, they are to be taught together, side by side. We should never condemn sin without offering forgiveness, nor should we offer forgiveness without condemning sin. The law is to be used to warn the unrepentant, the gospel to comfort those who repent. The two go hand in hand.
The law and gospel are not rightly divided when baptism is portrayed as a work. Portraying baptism as a work gives false comfort to the unrepentant. Baptism is gospel, not law. Baptism is God's message of forgiveness to all who repent (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:38 and 22:16). Because baptism is gospel, the forgiveness connected with it comes only to those who repent and believe that Christ has washed away their sins (Romans 5:2, Mark 1:8, Acts 22:16, Acts 2:38). Baptism will never remove the sins of the unrepentant, no matter how many times they are baptized. It will not remove their sins because it is not the ceremony but the gospel message proclaimed by the ceremony that washes away our sins (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 11:6).
The law and gospel are also not rightly divided when those who were once saved are told that they can live in sin and unrepentance and still be saved. Such teaching only helps to harden the unrepentant in their sins. God's warning to the unrepentant is twofold. To those who knowingly do what is evil He says, "If we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins," (Hebrews 10:26). To those who look to works to make them righteous He says, "Christ has become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace." (Galatians 5:4) God included these warnings in His Word in order to bring the unrepentant to their knees. He wants us to warn the unrepentant, and those who are approved of God will warn them of the danger to their souls. God keeps people saved by keeping them repentant, not by letting them sin. And these warnings are part of God's plan to bring the unrepentant back to faith.
The warnings of Hebrews 10:26, and Galatians 5:4, are law,
not gospel. Therefore, they are God's message to the unrepentant. In contrast,
the words of Philippians 1:6, "He who has begun a good work in you will
perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:" is gospel, not law. As gospel
it is God's message to those who repent. In order to rightly divide the
Word of Truth we must warn the unrepentant while comforting those who repent
American churches are rich in the things of this world, but poor in the things of the Spirit. Instead of rightly dividing the Word of Truth many churches either comfort the unrepentant or warn those who repent. Americans swim in Bibles yet care so little about the truth that they regard what the Bible says as just a matter of opinion. Few seek to learn the intended meaning of God's Word, and fewer still rightly divide the Word of Truth.
For further study I recommend the book, "THE PROPER DISTINCTION
BETWEEN LAW AND GOSPEL" By C.F.W. Walther