When John Locke Turned Gospel Into Law

It’s no secret that here at Mockingbird we like to talk about how the themes […]

Brandon Bennett / 6.25.15

It’s no secret that here at Mockingbird we like to talk about how the themes of Law and Grace play out in everyday life, so much, in fact, that there’s now a Mockingbird publication which bears its namesake.

When we say “law”, we tend to mean that the posture of the self in some way fails to be truly at rest. As the Glossary puts it,

In practice… the requirement of perfect submission to the commandments of God is exactly the same as the requirement of perfect submission to the innumerable drives for perfection that drive everyday people’s crippled and crippling lives (you should be successful, you must be skinny, you ought to be happy, etc). You might say that divine demand upon the human being is reflected concretely in the countless internal and external demands that we devise for ourselves, religious or not. Everyone is subject to it.

UnknownSo “law” often takes the form of command, accusation, or rule in which the self has to shore up its own energy, and the effects of that are anything but life-giving. On the other hand, grace is something that comes to us from the outside (extra nos), from God Himself, in which the human receives all that he has. It is not something that man must earn or can even find; rather, grace is totally free and invests its recipient with beauty and worth. And because the human is by definition a social being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), grace too can be mirrored in everyday life from human to human.

One of our favorite theologians from history, the Reformer Martin Luther, self-consciously placed the proper distinction between Law and Gospel high on his list of theological insights. Only a cursory survey of quotes from Luther’s Large Galatians Commentary  makes clear how important he understood this proper distinction to be: “Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.” Again, he writes, “The knowledge of this topic, the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine.”

The English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke apparently picked up on this insight, namely, that there must be a distinction of categories, though he referred to them as the “law of works” and the “law of faith.” That both bear the name “law” might be a trivial matter if it were not for his exposition of the two. In The Reasonableness of Christianity, he writes,

[T]he difference between the law of works, and the law of faith, is only this; that the law of works makes no allowance for failing on any occasion. Those that obey are righteous; those that in any part disobey, are unrighteous, and must not expect life, the reward of righteousness. But by the law of faith, faith is allowed to supply the defect of full obedience; and so the believers are admitted to life and immortality, as if they were righteous.

The proper distinction, then, amounts to this for John Locke: the “law” requires absolute perfection and its ironclad rule cannot be abated; on the other hand, the “gospel” (AKA “the law of faith”) makes room for a supplement to be added for those who believe what God says to be true. That is why Jesus Christ, the long expected Messiah, must come. In his words,

lockeGod dealt so favorably with the posterity of Adam, that if they would believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the promised King and Saviour, and perform what other conditions were required of them by the covenant of grace, God would justify them because of this belief; he would account this faith to them for righteousness, and look on it as making up the defects of their obedience; which being thus supplied by what was taken instead of it, they were looked on as just or righteous, and so inherited eternal life….

…[A]nd so their faith, which made them be baptized into his name (i.e. enroll themselves in the kingdom of Jesus the Messiah, and profess themselves his subjects, and consequently live by the laws of his kingdom) should be accounted to them for righteousness; i.e. should supply the defects of a scanty obedience in the sight of God; who, counting this faith to them for righteousness, or complete obedience, did thus justify… and thereby capable of eternal life.

So what does all this about John Locke have to do with anything in the 21st Century? Well, everything really, for this is precisely what we do not mean by Law and Gospel. Locke envisions Christianity primarily in terms of law-keeping. To be human, in Locke’s eyes, means to measure up to the standard, but sin has rendered that a tough project on man’s part. Thus, grace is all about a supplement, so Jesus is there to supply what is lacking. He has to give us that little bit of extra, that extra oomph to cross the finish line, the Red Bull to help us reach God that Great “Law-Giver”. Might it be that this is the message that American religion often substitutes for what the Reformers saw as central to Christianity?

Unlike Locke, Luther defines God not primarily as the “Law-Giver” but as the Self-Giver, which is expressed most chiefly in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. God in Christ is now the source from which the Christian derives his entire being: “…[W]ith Christ living in him, he lives an alien life. Christ is speaking, acting, and performing all actions in him; these belong… to the Christ-life,” says Luther. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has at last dissolved the identity of the old man and established himself as God. Christ is the New Man who has come to recapitulate the world in his image, for he is making all things new. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).