The Twofold Testimony of Scripture

The Two-Sided, Double-Edged Witness of Law and Gospel.

Mockingbird / 4.16.21

It is sometimes said that the distinction between law and gospel, demand and good news, is a little too simplistic — if not reductive — of a guide for interpreting the Bible. While there is more that could be said of scripture than these two words, that does not also imply that law-gospel readings are somehow un-biblical or irresponsible. As outlined by Francis Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, the law-gospel distinction is precisely how the apostle Paul understood his scriptures. Commenting on the first three chapters of Romans, Watson writes:

The law is that divine address to humankind which not only commands and prohibits, but also pronounces the divine verdict on those who transgress. Its sphere is universal. If, at an earlier stage in his argument, Paul distinguished between those who are “without law” and those who are “in the law” (Rom 2:12), his aim even there was to relativize this distinction by showing how the law is operative even in the Gentile world which does not know the Law of Moses (2:13-16; cf. 1:32). In 3:9-20, the gap between Jews and Greeks is finally closed: for Jews and Greeks alike are within the sphere of the law’s address, which brings “knowledge of sin” by proclaiming that “there is no one righteous, not even one …”

By the time Paul’s argument reaches its conclusion in Romans 3:9-10, a hermeneutical dilemma has come to light. In the introduction to that argument in 1:16-17, we heard the prophetic testimony that the one who is righteous by faith will live. Yet this testimony, with its correlation of righteousness and faith, was thereafter left in suspense, and we have found ourselves listening instead to the testimony of the law, interpreted, and summarized in words adapted from Psalm 13 LXX: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” […]  It is written that the one who is righteous by faith will live, but it is also written that there is no one who is righteous, not even one. Paul has set up this dilemma with a view to its resolution. The negative statement is assigned  to the voice of “the law,” in accordance with its role in bringing about the knowledge of sin. In no sense has this negative testimony been superseded or consigned to the past. Although a written text, the law is still said to “speak,” here and now in the present, and what it now says is what was once written (cf. Rom 3:19-20). And yet this utterance of the law is not the whole of the scriptural testimony. Scripture also speaks of a human being who is righteous, but with a righteousness that is by faith. It seems that the scriptural testimony is two-sided, double-edged. It is indictment and promise, judgement and grace, law and gospel. This construal of the basic shape of the scriptural testimony is distinguished sharply and polemically from one in which scripture is law and nothing but law, understood not simply as indictment but above all positive, promising demand. That is what is ruled out in the claim that “by works of the law shall no flesh be justified before him …” (3:20). To see the Law of Moses as defining the way to righteousness and salvation, for the Jewish people but potentially for the whole world also, is to misunderstand the testimony of the law and of scripture as a whole. […]

Faith serves to establish the law because it enables us to hear the law’s true voice not in the promise that those who observe it will live thereby but in the declaration that, “works of the law” notwithstanding, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one.” (p. 48-49 emphasis added).