The Key to Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth



By Gary Ray Branscome


Now the righteousness of God without the law is revealed,

being testified to by the law and the prophets.

Romans 3:21


            Everything that the Bible says every law, every command, and every promise of God’s mercy relates to two primary doctrines: The Law, and The Gospel. Therefore, understanding the relationship of those two doctrines is of key importance in understanding everything that the Bible says. For that reason, God has not left it up to us to figure out the relationship of those two doctrines. On the contrary, He explicitly tells us the relationship of those two doctrines in the third chapter of Romans.

            In verses ten through eighteen of that chapter the Apostle Paul quotes various passages from the Old Testament (Law and Prophets) which clearly teach that there are “none righteous”. He then goes on to say:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all who believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:


            Consider carefully what those verses say, for they set forth two key facts that are basic to understanding the proper relationship of Law and Gospel.

1- the Law cannot make anyone righteous. Verse nineteen tells us that whatever the Law says was written so that “all the world might become guilty before God,” and all who think otherwise might be silenced. Verse twenty then goes on to say that, for that very reason, doing the things that the Law requires (the deeds of the Law) can never make anyone righteous [i.e. just] in the sight of God.

            2- in the sight of God, only those who trust in Jesus Christ are counted as righteous. Verse twenty-one tells us that God has now revealed a way for us to be righteous “without the Law,” and that the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) testifies to this way of becoming righteous. In short, we are exonerated of guilt, pronounced innocent, and freed from the bondage of sin through faith in Christ. As it is written, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).


The Role of These Two Truths in Understanding the Gospel


            Everything that the Bible says needs to be understood in the light of the proper relationship of Law to Gospel! However, that is just where so many conscientious Christians go wrong. They go wrong because they continue to think that God is pleased with them, and blesses them, because they try to obey Him and do what is right. They may believe that they are saved through what Christ did on the cross, but they continue to believe that it is their own effort (obedience) that makes them righteous, and that is double-mindedness. Christ saves us by making us righteous apart from the law. As it is written, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes” (Romans 10:4).


            It is impossible for someone who is trusting in works to understand the Gospel correctly (2Corinthians 4:4). He may understand enough to know that he needs to trust in Christ. However, as long as he believes that his works make him righteous, or even partially righteous, he will believe that freedom from the Law is freedom to sin, and nothing could be further from the truth. Christ has not freed us from the Law so that we can sin, but so that we can be truly righteous. And, only those who believe that they have no righteousness of their own (Isaiah 64:6), will be able to understand what it really means to be free from the Law.

            The Law does not make us righteous. On the contrary, it condemns us. In fact, the Law is what keeps us from being righteous, because no matter how hard we try to be righteous the Law still condemns us (James 2:10). Because all of our own righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God, there is nothing good in us (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 7:18). And, it is only as we come to God feeling totally filthy from head to toe, that we can see that it is only the forgiveness that is ours in Christ that makes us righteous in the sight of God. As it is written, “For by one offering he has perfected for ever those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). Furthermore, the very reason we come to Christ to begin with is because we want to be delivered from sin. We do not want sin in our lives. Therefore, when we realize that it is only through faith in Him that we can be free from sin, we should be so happy to be free from sin that we want to honor Christ in everything that we do.

            Moreover, because Christ’s sacrifice makes us perfect in the sight of God, there is nothing we can do to improve on it. In fact, as long as we are trusting in our own efforts to make ourselves righteous, we are not trusting in Him. However, when we place our faith in what He did (rather than what we do) the Holy Spirit will subdue the evil desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-18).

Now, I have explained this to some people only to have them say, “What do we do then, just stop trying to resist the flesh, just let go and let God”. Therefore, let me explain that walking by faith is not a matter of not trying, but of believing that it is what Christ did (not what we do) that makes us righteous in the sight of God. It is only as we really believe that it is what Christ did that makes us righteous, that we will have the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Do not misunderstand me, as long as we are in the flesh we will need to resist the flesh, especially in something as strong as sexual desire (Romans 8:13 and 13:14). However, it is only as we stop deceiving ourselves by telling ourselves that our own paltry efforts are what make us righteous or obedient that we really experience the power of the Holy Ghost in overcoming the flesh.


The Role of Law and Gospel in Understanding Scripture


            It is only as we understand the proper relationship of Law and Gospel that we can understand many of the things that the Bible says. Consider, for example, the words of Matthew 5:48, “Therefore be perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect”. As long as we think that our own effort is what makes us righteous, we will assume that the perfection required by this passage is something we must achieve by our own effort. However, because few people are so hardened as to claim perfection, the first reaction of most people is to water down what Matthew 5:48 says. They try to interpret the passage to mean something less than perfection, something that they can do. But, that is exactly what the Pharisees did.

Instead of admitting their sin and seeking God’s forgiveness, the Pharisees explained away any passages that condemned them, thus making the Word of God of no effect (Mark 7:13). However, once we understand the proper relationship of Law to Gospel, and the fact that the purpose of the Law is to show us our sin, we can see that the words of Matthew 5:48 were intended to show us our sin (Romans 3:20). For that reason, those words should never be watered down. God’s Law requires perfection! That is why there is “no one who does good,” and why all of our efforts at righteousness are “as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:12, Psalm 14:3).

            At the same time, the fact that only those who trust in Jesus Christ are counted as righteous in the sight of God, tells us that the only way we can ever have the perfection that God’s Law requires, is through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21). As it is written, “For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).


            Another portion of Scripture that is often misconstrued by those who fail to understand the proper relationship of Law and Gospel, is the story of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-23).

            As we read what Christ said to the rich young ruler, it is helpful to remember that the Jews saw wealth as a sign of God’s favor. Because of that fact, those who had wealth often derived a false assurance of salvation from their wealth. And, by doing so, they placed their faith in those riches rather than in Christ [the Messiah]. That is why Christ said, “how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24).

            When the rich young ruler came to Christ, he greeted Him with the words, “Good Master”. However, since he did not believe that Christ was God, and knew that Psalm 14:3 says, “there is no one who does good, no, not one,” those words were nothing more than empty flattery, and Christ called him on it. Now, because the words, “there is none who does good” show us our sin, they are law, for the purpose of the Law is to show us our sin (Romans 3:20). Thus, Christ began by reminding this man of his sin.

            The young man then followed his greeting with the question, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” And, this is where those who fail to understand the proper relationship of Law to Gospel totally misconstrue Christ’s answer, “if you want to enter life, keep the commandments”. They always assume that Christ is telling the man to earn salvation by his works, and nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, because the commandments were given to show us our sin, the only people who keep God’s commandments are those who admit their sin (Romans 3:19-20). Those who deny their sin are simply blocking what the commandments say out of their minds.

            I am not saying that we should disobey the commandments. It is perfectly reasonable to expect people to outwardly comply with what they say. No Christian should ever be guilty of gross idolatry, murder, adultery, theft etc. However, the Law requires more than just outward compliance. The Law requires righteousness! And, only those who admit that they are not righteous, that they are full of sinful thoughts and desires, lust, anger, covetousness etc. are keeping God’s Commandments. Therefore, when Christ pointed the rich young ruler to the commandments, He was trying to show him his sin and need of forgiveness.

            Nevertheless, because the Jews had watered down the Law with their tradition, the rich young ruler thought that he had kept the commandments from his youth up. In short, he was blind to his sin (Matthew 26:24,26). Moreover, he could not conceive of salvation in any terms other than works. That is why he was asking Jesus what he had to “do”. Therefore, Jesus answered in language he could understand, by asking him to do something that he could not do without putting his faith in Christ. First He asked him to give all his wealth to the poor. That would remove one stumbling block because he would no longer be able to trust in those riches (Mark 10:24). He then asked him to follow Him, and that would not only require faith, it would also put the young ruler under His tutelage.

            Once we understand the proper relationship of Law and Gospel, and know that works cannot make anyone righteous, it is hard to understand how someone can be so blind that they actually think that Christ was telling the man that he could earn salvation. Especially when the Bible goes to such length to explain that works cannot save (Galatians 3:21, Romans 3:19-21, Isaiah 64:6). Yet such is the blindness of the human heart.




The Law cannot make anyone righteous, but was intended to show us our sin. For that reason, the Law is God’s message to the unrepentant (1Timothy 1:9). God uses the Law to bring us to repentance, by showing us our sin and need for God’s mercy (Romans 3:19-20).      In contrast, the Gospel is God’s promise of forgiveness to all who repent and look to Christ (Galatians 3:22). And, in the sight of God, only those who trust in Jesus Christ are counted as righteous.

            All who are truly repentant will be sorry for their sins. All who are truly sorry for their sins will not want to repeat them. And, all who have felt the burden of the Law and appreciate the freedom we have in Christ will want their lives to honor Him.