All of Christianity has discussed the relation of the law, gospel, and grace. “Throughout the ages Christians have discussed what Paul meant, articulating various views on the proper distinction between Law, Gospel, and Grace” (7). In Law and Grace Myron Houghton adds to the discussion with the understanding that “how one defines the relationship of Law and Grace becomes a crucial turning point for developing a systematic approach to theology” (8). His goal is to “help believers learn to interpret Bible passages correctly, gaining skill as they learn to evaluate theological ideas” (10). Writing from a dispensational point of view, Houghton desires to write in such a way that Christians can understand the categories and positions to build a theological framework that encourages them to live “under grace,” and understand what living under grace means.
He begins by explaining three positions on the relationship between Law and gospel/grace. These positions are Roman Catholic theology, Reformed theology, and Dispensational theology. By using these titles, he doesn’t mean to assert that dispensationalists are not “reformed”, but that the Reformed theology viewpoint is hermeneutically covenantal and the Dispensational theology is hermeneutically dispensational. He then moves to practical considerations resulting from a clear distinction between Law and grace including 1) justification as the primary benefit of salvation, 2) clear distinction between Israel and the church, 3) the Sabbath as a law-oriented observance, and, 4) speaking in tongues as an unnecessary practice under grace. Finally, Houghton identifies the outworking of life under grace with three principles: 1) Stewardship, 2) Divine Chastening, and 3) The Judgment Seat.
In his explanation of the Roman Catholic view of law and grace, he illustrates that Roman Catholic theology combines law and grace in a way that confuses and misrepresents the gospel and biblical teaching. He provides ample evidence from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to demonstrate misguided beliefs about the law, grace, merit, and justification. He concludes his treatment:
Catholic theology, in my estimation, fails to grasp the true purpose of God’s law as a mirror that reveals to us our sin and God’s condemnation, turning it into a new form of the gospel. Further, Catholic theology fails to see the forensic heart of justification, and because it denies salvific grace as a God-infused ability to do good works, it fails to understand grace for salvation as related primarily to the person and work of Christ rather than to a believer’s obedience. Finally, in my view, Catholic teaching on merit perpetuates and intensifies these errors (52-53).
Explaining the Roman Catholic viewpoint is valuable, even for conservative evangelical readers, because it delineates the importance of one’s view on the role of law and grace. Whatever view is held will hold tremendous ramifications for systematic theology.
He then moves to evaluate Reformed theology’s view of law and grace. As previously mentioned, this is more of an evaluation of Covenant theology (as a hermeneutical system) than of Reformed theology per se, though the reformers’ views on law on grace clearly impacted their systematic theology (e.g. Luther’s revolutionized theology was driven by his understanding of law and grace). He merges Reformed theologians and covenant theology—“Reformed theologians not only embrace the above five points [of Calvinism] but incorporate them into a system that is organized around two or three covenants” (59). He summarizes:
In Reformed theology, Law and Gospel are carefully distinguished; but in much of Reformed thinking, the gospel includes more than the death and resurrection of Christ. It also includes His perfect keeping of the law on behalf of believers. It is this human righteousness of Jesus that is credited, they teach, to the believer’s account in justification. Christ’s keeping the covenant of works (i.e., the law) on behalf of the believer is incorporated into the covenant of grace. And for some, this is also a blurring of Law and Gospel (138).
Houghton’s main critique of the Reformed distinction between law and grace is that it makes a distinction between law and gospel instead of law and grace. In so doing, it views the law as a means of salvation in the same way that the gospel is salvation accomplished.
The result, then, is that Christians are justified by the gospel and then called to live under the law as a standard for human morality. “Reformed theology teaches that the believer is not responsible to follow the ceremonial and judicial parts of the law, only the moral aspects,” he goes on to clarify, “It is the moral law that has a role in believer’s sanctification, in the sense that it is the perfect rule of righteousness” (78).
Clearly, it would be impossible to evaluate every view of the law and grace within Reformed circles, but it is probable that this explanation does not accurately describe all of Reformed theology’s view of the relationship between law and grace (e.g. in Progressive Covenentalism Tom Schreiner argues against the belief that the Sabbath is required for New Testament believers).
Next, he explains the dispensational view of the relationship between law and grace. In this section he clearly distinguishes between law, gospel, and grace in an exegetical analysis of 1 Corinthians 6. The law condemns, the gospel declares that forgiveness and victory over sin is available and possible, and grace is the guidance for the believer’s life.
Law and Grace in dispensational theology, as I understand it, teaches that the law is a ministry of death and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7, 9) to unbelievers, showing them their sins and producing feelings of guilt and terror of God. Gospel presents unconditional blessings of salvation. Grace as a guideline for godliness includes a healthy fear of the natural consequences for disobedience but excludes terror of eternal punishment and loss of salvation . . . The major emphasis in grace is the power of God available for victory over sin (125).
The primary value in explaining these three positions in a general way is that it illustrates the results of different understandings of the relationship between law and grace. In the remainder of the book, Houghton presents his exegetical summary of Romans, highlighting the themes of law, gospel and grace. He concludes, “while believers are not under Law, either for salvation or sanctification, they are, nevertheless, under grace (156). In this view the gospel and grace should not be confused, and, after a sinner comes to acknowledge their position as sinner, “the law ceases to function in any manner as part of the gospel” (156).
He then moves to list some practical considerations with the former conclusion in mind. He notes that whatever one’s view of the relationship of law and grace (or law and gospel) will impact their beliefs about Israel and the Church, the Sabbath, and speaking in tongues. Although he lists these views as resting on the interpretation of the relationship between law and grace, it seems as though he understands one’s position on the relationship between Israel and the Church to be more foundational for some points, especially for his argument against speaking in tongues.
The conclusion of the book brings consideration of what living by grace looks like in the life of the believer in three areas: 1) stewardship (especially tithing), 2) divine chastening of believers as opposed to divine punishment of believers, and 3) what will happen at the judgment. Certainly, Houghton could elaborate and explain his particular positions in these areas (primarily stewardship and the Judgment Seat); however, pontificating further on these areas lies outside the scope of the book.
This book provides insight into the discussion of law and grace (or law and gospel) in an introductory manner. Though he gives a helpful introduction, there remains much to be evaluated and explained about certain areas. In particular, the treatment of Reformed theology and Dispensational theology could be expanded in light of recent works, like Kingdom through Covenant and Progressive Covenantalism to evaluate more specific views within Reformed and evangelical circles.
In addition to this expansion of thought, Houghton mentions several positions without providing deep reasoning behind them. For instance, he posits, “justification is the primary benefit of salvation” (158). This is not to say that he errs here, but it is to say that deeper explanation would benefit the reader. He also takes a position on tithing that seems antithetical to his position on the distinctions between law, gospel, and grace: “It may surprise you to learn that I do not reject storehouse tithing, but I believe it should be placed in a New Testament context” (184). Though he goes on to explain grace principles for stewardship, he does not directly address the storehouse tithing position.
Houghton’s goal in writing Law and Grace was to help believers understand the importance of one’s view of the relationship between law and grace, and the importance of one’s definitions of law, gospel, and grace. His “prayer is that readers will grow in obedience by studying these grace principles for living” (17), and he evidences that desire throughout the book. Unquestionably, this book provides a helpful and manageable introduction to the discussion.