A Study By
Gary Ray Branscome

 “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. // Take heed unto yourself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this you shall both save yourself and them that hear you.” (2Timothy 2:15, 1Timothy 4:16)

    Since those who teach God’s Word have a responsibility to rightly divide what is said, it is essential for them to understand the difference between the law and the promises (Galatians 3:18-22). Briefly put, the law is God's warning to the unrepentant, while the promises all relate to forgiveness in Christ (1Timothy 1:9, 2Peter 1:4 and 3:13, 1John 2:25).

    When this is explained to some people for the first time, they react by saying, “saved people need the law too.” However, what they fail to understand is that when saved people use the law as God intended, He 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” (1Corinthians 11:31). We should continually put the old Adam to death by condemning our own sinful thoughts and behavior (Romans 7:16-17, Colossians 3:1-5). Nevertheless, 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 (2Samuel 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 a correct understanding of law and gospel is vital to the work of salvation, Satan is continually trying to confuse law with gospel. His aim, of course, is to give the unrepentant a false assurance of salvation, while leading those who repent to doubt their salvation. In contrast, God wants us to convince the unrepentant of their need to repent, while assuring those who do repent that God now accepts them for Christ’s sake. [Luke 11:52, 1Corinthians 5:1-2, 2Timothy 2:15.]

    Far too often, Christian teachers wind up doing exactly what Satan wants, without even realizing it (Matthew 13:25, Acts 20:29-30, 2Peter 2:1). By trying to get people to keep the law, they burden the conscience of those who have a repentant heart, when they should be exposing sin and calling the unrepentant to repentance. At the same time, they give a false comfort to those who trust in works. In either case, they are not approved of God (2Timothy 2:15).

    Satan wants nothing more than to convince people that having begun by faith, they need works to make them truly righteous (Galatians 3:3). However, the Bible pronounces a curse on those who teach that doctrine (Galatians 1:6-9). If works cannot make us righteous to begin with, they certainly cannot improve on the perfect righteousness that is imputed to us through faith in Christ. [Galatians 3:21, Romans 3:20, Romans 4:6-7 and 10:4, 1 John 1:7, Galatians 5:4.]

    I have encountered pastors who would agree with everything that I have said so far, yet confuse law and gospel in the same way by insisting that a believer must perform certain works, join a certain church, or dress in a certain way, before he is truly converted.

    Another trick of Satan is to claim that grace saves by producing works, rather than by absolving us of guilt. Or, that faith saves by producing works, rather than receiving the forgiveness that Christ died to obtain for us. Nevertheless, the Bible clearly defines grace by telling us that we are saved by grace in one place, while telling us that we are saved by mercy in another place (Ephesians 2:8, Titus 3:5). In other words, the grace by which we are saved consists of mercy. Likewise, the Bible defines faith when it tells us that, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). Our faith consists of believing God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ.

    While God wants us to assure those who are sorry for their sins that they have forgiveness in Christ, Satan wants just the opposite (2Samuel 12:13, Psalm 51:17). Satan wants to see believers burdened and condemned with the threats of the law, and he wants to see them trying to keep the law in order to escape that condemnation. Likewise, he would rather see them praying and pleading with God to save them, than trusting in God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Galatians 3:22).

    People are robbed of assurance of salvation when faith is described in a way that does not fit all believers, when salvation is made dependent on membership in a certain denomination, or when faith is portrayed as a condition for receiving God's grace. The same holds true when people are told that they must make themselves believe, or that they cannot be sure they are saved unless they know the exact day they were saved on.

    Others have undermined assurance by telling people that the preservation of their faith depends upon their works, rather than God's grace. One false teacher might condemn those who are in terror because of their sins, demanding that they become godly instead of pointing them to Christ for forgiveness. Another might dun new believers with demands that they produce certain works, tithe, or dress in a certain way. However, because they make God’s favor depend on the law, they are not approved of God.

    While the Ten Commandments were given to Moses as the standard for governing a nation, the outward righteousness required by civil law falls far short of what God requires (Matthew 5:48, Romans 3:10-23). For that reason, God wants us to condemn and expose sin, while pointing people to Christ for forgiveness (Ezekiel 33:8). At the same time, Satan wants the opposite. Satan wants the unrepentant to feel no fear of judgement. He wants them to have excuses for all of their sins, to pass lies off as “white,” to pass some sins off as venial, and to think that they can sin with impunity because they once asked Jesus into their heart. He wants them to believe that the sins they intend to commit have already been forgiven, and to believe that they are saved when they are not. And, he wants them to think that salvation depends upon belonging to the right church, or going through certain rituals, even though they have never really trusted in Christ.

    In order to lull people into a false sense of security Satan teaches them to rationalize and excuse their sins. He wants them to convince themselves that a particular sin was not all that bad, instead of repenting and looking to Christ for forgiveness. He wants homosexuals to think that a “loving God” would never condemn them. He wants men to undermine the truth of Scripture by convincing themselves that the Bible is full of errors or out of date. Yet the Bible makes it clear that such self-deception will never deliver the guilty from God’s wrath. [To explore this subject further, read, “Law and Gospel” by C. F. W. Walther.]


    When the Word of God is rightly divided, the law will be preached in its full sternness and the gospel in its full sweetness. The law will show that we have no righteousness of our own, while the gospel assures us that our faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 3:10-23 and 4:3&13). To the uninformed, preaching that rightly divides the Word of truth might appear contradictory. However, that is because the law and gospel give us two different messages, which are directed at two different groups of people. The law is God's word of warning to the unrepentant, while the gospel is His word of comfort to those who repent.

    Because the Law was given to reveal our need of forgiveness in Christ, it must never be watered down. Specific sins should never be rationalized, and no sin should ever be excused. We must make it clear that God's law demands perfection, that God will accept nothing less, and that without forgiveness even our righteousnesses bring condemnation (Matthew 5:48, Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10-20). We must make it clear that the wages of sin, and that means every unforgiven sin, is death (Romans 6:23). There is no such thing as being partly righteous! We are either sinners or not sinners, there is no middle ground. Either we are perfect or we are guilty of all (James 2:10). And, the Bible makes it clear that we are all guilty of all (Romans 3:19). Furthermore, because the carnal mind wants to excuse many sins, we must make it clear that all unrighteousness is sin including unrighteous thoughts, urges, and desires (1John 5:17, Matthew 5:28). In short, we must make it clear that when it comes to works no one is righteous, and it is not possible for any law to make us righteous (Romans 3:19-20, Galatians 3:21). At the same time, we must also make it clear that without righteousness there is no salvation (Romans 6:23, 1Peter 4:18).

    When the law is preached in its full sternness it prepares the heart to receive the gospel, and for that reason it is vital to the salvation of souls that the gospel be preached in conjunction with the law (Acts 2:37, 2Corinthians 4:3). The one doing the preaching must never fail to point his hearers to Christ. Preaching condemnation without hope brings only despair, the same sort of despair that led Judas to commit suicide (Matthew 27:5). Our emphasis must be on the gospel! Our reason for preaching the law must be to show men their need for Christ and for the forgiveness He died to secure for them. Those who preach the law in a vain attempt to make men righteous through works, are not rightly dividing the Word of truth and are not approved of God. At the same time, the gospel is only preached in its full sweetness when we make it clear that salvation is a free gift, that Christ has done it all, and that we have access to God’s grace through faith alone without the works of the law (Romans 3:28). He “is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 4:6 and 10:4).

    When law and gospel are rightly divided, the law will never be used to motivate people, for every attempt to motivate people by the law begins with the assumption that works make us righteous. While God's Word warns us that willful sins will bring God's wrath, it never tells us that we can obtain His favor by avoiding willful sins, yet that is what the carnal mind naturally assumes. However, what the natural man fails to understand is that God’s wrath is revealed against the unrepentant, not those whose works are not good enough! And, we are to deal with unrepentance by condemning sin and warning people of God’s wrath, not by urging them to keep the law. At the same time, those who have a repentant heart are to be exhorted to good works by the love of Jesus, not by the threats of the law (1Timothy 1:7). It is fine to urge believers to show love to fellow believers and to help those who are less fortunate, but they should be motivated by the love of Christ, not by the delusion that their works will somehow bring God’s favor. [1Thessalonians 5:14, Galatians 5:6, 16 & 22, 2 Corinthians 5:20, Philippians 2:14-15, Ephesians 4:1-3 & 32, Colossians 3:5-25, Romans 13:8-14, Romans 6:11-22, 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Hebrews 10:26.]

 [For a sample of preaching that rightly divides the Word of Truth, I recommend the sermons of Doctor Walter A. Maier, several of which are available at my web site.]


    When dealing with people who lack assurance of salvation because they fear that their sin is too big to be forgiven, we need to assure them that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20). Since Christ is true God (and God is infinite) the atonement Christ provided for us is infinite. Therefore, no sin is too big to be forgiven! Furthermore, because God sees wrongdoing in terms of hardening of the heart (unrepentance) not size, His main concern is not what you did, but whether you are sorry you did it (1Samuel 16:7). Even blasphemy of the Holy Ghost remains unforgiven only because it involves a hardening of one’s heart in unbelief, not because it is too big to be forgiven (Matthew 12:24-31).

    Many people fail to fully understand God’s grace because they think of themselves as righteous (or fairly righteous), and the gospel can only be understood correctly by those who see themselves as totally sinful (Romans 7:18). In other words, it is only as we come to the point that we can say with the Apostle Paul, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing” that we can see that the law cannot make us righteous (Romans 7:18). And, It is only as we come to that point in our spiritual growth that we will be able to understand that freedom from the law is not freedom to sin, but freedom to be righteous. The freedom to do what is good and right and praiseworthy without being constantly condemned (Romans 10:4, 1 John 1:7, Romans 3:28).

    In order to illustrate what I have been saying, think of a small boy who has been playing in the mud, is filthy from head to toe, and is too young to clean himself up. In fact, no matter how hard he tries to clean himself up, he is still a mess. Therefore, his mother gives him a bath, washes his hair, puts clean clothes on him, and tells him to stay out of the mud. Now, because the boy did not make himself clean, and staying out of the mud will not make him any cleaner, in a spiritual sense we are all like that boy. We could not make ourselves clean, and once we were cleansed by the blood of Christ there was nothing that we could do to make ourselves any cleaner (Romans 10:4). It is the blood of Christ and the blood of Christ alone that makes us righteous, we simply accept His gift by faith (Romans 5:2, Psalm 13:5, Romans 3:28, 1 John 1:7).


    In His wisdom, God has designed the Bible so that the unrepentant will find much that condemns them, while those who trust in Christ are assured of God’s mercy. Moreover, He wants those who preach His Word to use it to point people to Christ for righteousness, not to harden them in the delusion that their works please Him (Romans 10:4). Therefore, the purpose of going to church is not to be nagged to keep the law, but to be reminded of our sin and reassured of God’s mercy in Christ. In that way, the Holy Spirit feeds us spiritually, and bestows on us His gifts of faith and eternal life (1Peter 1:5, Romans 10:17).