Interview With Mike Horton: Part One

The ongoing conversation regarding the nature of the gospel, the role and purpose of God’s law, the relationship between justification, sanctification and union with Christ, and how all of this impacts preaching and the life of the Christian, is super-important (see here). These are big issues. I’ve devoted my life and ministry to working these things out.

One good friend of mine who has been instrumental in helping me think these things through is Mike Horton (when I recently referred to him as my personal theological “Yoda”, he responded by saying, “Yoda only in body shape and odd speech patterns”).

Mike is the author of of over twenty books including his recently published one-volume Systematic Theology entitled The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. He is Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California. In addition to his work at the Seminary, he is the president of White Horse Inn, for which he co-hosts the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated weekly radio talk-show exploring issues of Reformation theology in American Christianity. He is also the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

Recently, I asked Mike a series of questions with regard to the issues that I mentioned above. Over the next week I’ll be posting his answers to my questions in the hopes that he might bring theological help and clarity to those of us who long to see a gospel revolution sweep the church.


In what sense has the current conversation been merely a matter of different emphases, and in what sense are there genuine disagreements?

I have only had opportunity to read bits here and there. However, I can speak to your question more generally. Sometimes it’s no more than emphasis. However, faithful preaching includes the law and the gospel—never assuming that believers know either well enough that one can be heard without the other. Of course, we do have to be sensitive to different contexts of pastoral ministry, but every believer and therefore every church is simultaneously justified and sinful. Not only at the beginning, but always, every believer needs the law and the gospel.

It would be a lot simpler if we could say that congregations tending toward legalism need more gospel and those leaning toward antinomianism need more law, but I question that this is how it works.

In the first place, I’m not sure that “legalism” and “antinomianism” are the best categories for what seems to me at least to dominate contemporary “Bible Belt” religion in the U.S. today.  Sure, there are some antinomians (in theory) who believe that you can be justified without being sanctified—even without continuing in faith. Sure, there are some who say that the third use of the law (guiding believers) is no longer in effect. In their view, referring to the Ten Commandments as normative for how we should live would be going back “under the law” in the sense that Paul condemned. I’m also sure that there are legalists out there. But the portrait of the preacher threatening card-players with the fires of hell is a distant memory, replaced by the smiling motivational speaker telling you how you can have your best life now if you follow his seven easy principles.

That’s where I think it all gets so tricky. We’re using theological categories when one of the most transformative events in our churches has been cultural: namely, what Philip Reif called “the triumph of the therapeutic.” What we’re dealing with today in the majority of cases, I believe, is not accurately described as either antinomianism or legalism, but a pragmatic and narcissistic appeal to moralism. It’s not “stop going to parties or you’ll go to hell,” but “follow these ten principles and your life will be a party.” It’s “principles for living” on any number of life management topics, mining the Bible for quotes, but for the most part ignoring the interests of the text itself.

So you can’t really call this diet antinomian: it’s full of imperatives (rules, steps, principles, motivational tips—some kind of “To Do” list). But you also can’t call it legalistic, because the reference point isn’t really salvation or damnation—or even God,  but me and my happiness or unhappiness. God only makes a cameo appearance. The whole paradigm is what sociologist Christian Smith defines as: moralistic, therapeutic deism. Say what you will about the legalists and antinomians of yesteryear, but despite their heterodoxy, they were more interested in the Triune God and in interpreting and applying Scripture than a lot of what passes for evangelical preaching today.

Can you explain the law-gospel distinction for those who may be unfamiliar with it? And why is this so important?

It’s important to recognize that in Scripture “law” and “gospel” can be used in two different senses.

First, there’s the redemptive-historical transition from “the law” as an era when the church was under the supervision of the Mosaic types and shadows, to “the gospel” as an era in which the old covenant is fulfilled and is therefore obsolete.  In thise sense, law and gospel are not opposed, even though the latter is greater than the former.

Second, “law” and “gospel” refer to radically opposed principles for gaining the covenantal inheritance.  The Mosaic covenant was strictly conditioned on Israel’s obedience: “Do this and you shall live.”  It was about long life in the land, not about everlasting life.  It was about salvation from the nation’s enemies, as a type of the deliverance from God’s wrath and the powers of darkness.  Paul’s agitators had confused these two covenants—the Abrahamic and the Mosaic—and were trying to secure the everlasting promise by way of the temporal covenant (something never intended in the Old Testament).

So in this second sense, “law” and “gospel” refer to two antithetical answers to the question, “How can I be saved?”  This is what most people have meant by the need to clearly distinguish law and gospel.  There is basic continuity between law and gospel in the redemptive-historical sense (as Old and New Testaments), but radical discontinuity between law and gospel in a covenantal sense.  That’s why the law-gospel distinction was espeically developed in Reformed theology by way of the differences between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Law is everything in the Scriptures that commands and gospel is everything in the Scriptures that promises God’s favor in Christ. If we confuse these, we’ll weaken the law, lowering the bar to something that we can (or think we can) actually clear, and we’ll make the gospel anything but good news.

The Triune God directs us by his law, but delivers us by his gospel. This distinction was not only crucial to Luther and Lutheranism but to Calvin and Calvinism. The gospel is never an exhortation for us to do something, but an announcement of something that God has done for us.  We are called to obey the gospel—that is, to embrace it, but the gospel itself is the good news about what God has done for us in Christ.  Beza said that “confusion of law and gospel is one of the principal sources of the corruptions in the church.”  Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said the same. So did the great Elizabethan Puritan William Perkins, as well as John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and Charles Hodge.  On and on we could go. So when some say that that this is merely a Lutheran distinctive, it is ill-informed. It’s routine in our standard theological works and, as I said, it’s woven deeply throughout our whole Reformed system in the covenant of works-grace scheme.

It’s easy to see when law and gospel are being confused when Rome says, “Do penance and you will be saved,” or Charles Finney says, “Perfect obedience to the law is the necessary condition of present justification.”  It’s more difficult to recognize that the gentle, affirming, smiling stream of exhortations and life coaching in our day is also a form of law (not necessarily biblical) that is often presented as if it were the gospel.

The word “antinomianism” has been thrown around a lot in this conversation. Can you explain what it is?

It means, literally, “against law.” One branch of the ancient Manichean (Gnostic) movement taught this in the second century. It survived in various sects during the Middle Ages. It’s usually part and parcel of “enthusiasm”: the contrast between the Spirit speaking to me in my heart, directly and immediately, versus the Spirit speaking through an external Word, preaching, sacraments, or church officers. So it has often gone hand-in-hand with extreme forms of mysticism.

In 17th-century England, that was certainly true. Basically, the “Calvinistic” antinomians believed that the elect were justified from all eternity (otherwise their faith would be a condition of salvation). Not only in regeneration, but in conversion and sanctification, the believer does nothing (even by grace) but is always acted upon. It was the “let go and let God” philosophy that became especially prominent in the Keswick or “higher life” movement (despite its more Arminian underpinnings).  Many within this group denied the third use of the law. Because we are in Christ, the law has no place in the believer’s life.

We see antinomianism today, as I mentioned above, especially in the “carnal Christian” teaching.  However, it should be said that many very sound people (like Thomas Goodwin and John Owen) were charged with antinomianism by legalists (like Richard Baxter and John Goodwin).  The “Marrow Controversy” in early 18th-century Scotland was an example of this.  A great theological textbook, written by a formative Reformed orthodox theologian (Edward Fisher) in the late sixteenth century, was rediscovered by preachers like Thomas Boston. Yet now, this standard Reformed teaching was regarded by many ministers in the Church of Scotland as “antinomian.” That wasn’t because it actually was antinomian, but because the Church had become increasingly dominated by legalism.

To be continued…

  • Jared O. says:

    Thank you for this interview. In the recent discussions at Ref21, Rick Phillips clarifies that

    “4.Justification is logically prior to progressive sanctification.”

    Is Horton speaking here of definitive or progressive sanctification when he says that justification is logically prior to it?

  • Tullian Tchividjian says:

    Hi Jared,

    Mike will answer that in a later part of the interview.


  • Don Sartain says:

    This is the sound of my head exploding…great stuff, but too much before my second cup of coffee, lol.

  • dan says:

    hi pastor tullian,

    been reading and benefiting greatly from your thoughts on all this (along with KDY’s insights as well as the stuff on ref21). i’m based in asia and in my context, have encountered what appears to be antinomianism being taught as “God loves you, grace is everything, and that’s all you need to know.” there’s such an aversion to the law that it’s not even proclaimed as part of the gospel message (as the means of highlighting one’s sin and inability to be perfect as God is perfect). sin is minimized, john 1:9 is reinterpreted so that Christians no longer have confess sin and be “sin-conscious”, and the law is treated as something to be avoided, not delighted in as an expression of our perfect God.

    what i like to tell people is that grace doesn’t nullify the law, it empowers us to obey it. and we don’t obey to be accepted but rather we are accepted in Christ and therefore have the power to obey. antinomians (in the sense that i described) exist and i think we need to be careful that when emphasizing grace we don’t give people the idea that somehow sin doesn’t matter to God anymore. salvation still requires repentance; sanctification still means resting in the finished work of Christ while hating sin.

    your thoughts?


  • Brian W. says:

    Thanks for keeping this conversation going; this generation needs to wrestle with this subject for itself, even though others have done so before.

    I had spent 25 years, as a Christin, in misery because I was living as if my sanctification was all up to me and my strength. I vacillating between hating myself for being so wicked to hating God for demanding the impossible. Thanks to many years of great teaching from my former pastor (Tim Keller), my heros over at The White Horse Inn, and other great teachers, I have come to see the completeness of Christ’s work on my behalf. Living under the law did not produce Christ-likeness in me, but the gospel of grace truly did. Just ask my wife. . .

    The Good News would not be very good if it did not include sanctification.

  • […] to sanctification. He recently posed a series of question to Mike Horton and has begun posting the answers on his blog. I’m sure that I’m biased, but I think there’s some good information […]

  • Gary H. says:

    I have had the same experience, Brian. Wrongly understood, Christianity can be a curse, resulting in bondage to depression and despair.

  • I think Dr. Horton should read the exchanges between TT and DeYoung, at least. Maybe he has. If so, then I think he should read the stuff on Ref21. :-)

  • Tullian Tchividjian says:


    Mike did read the exchanges between Kevin and me thoroughly and the two of us interacted quite a bit during that time.


  • […] here’s the first part (of four) as Tullian Tchividjian asks Michael Horton some questions on antinomianism, legalism, law […]

  • Chris Julien says:

    I think another excellent resource on this topic is an article by John Frame entitled “Law and Gospel” that can be found here: Enjoy :)

  • John Thomson says:

    Good idea to interview M Horton. Much he says I agree with though not with his law=command and gospel=promise. I believe this is simply not nuanced enough. Be that as it may.

    I am one of those that MH appears to regard as ‘antinomian’ and certainly in the most technical sense he is right. I am one of the some who ‘ that the third use of the law (guiding believers) is no longer in effect. In their view, referring to the Ten Commandments as normative for how we should live would be going back “under the law” in the sense that Paul condemned’

    Of course, I would affirm that the whole of Scripture is profitable for ‘training in righteousness’ but that is somewhat different from seeing the law as binding on the conscience and a rule of life.

    My really big issue, however, is the notion that Christian imperatives should be termed ‘law’. This is legalistic (just as I am antinomian) and engenders a legalistic mindset that creates a psychology of condemnation and accusation in the believer. Paul does not urge imperatives as law.

    Actually he urges godliness in its various manifestations through God revealed in Christ and the gospel. It is in this sense, while concerned that Tullian appears at least to be chary about urging imperatives, that I applaud his gospel focus.

    On another site I expressed how I may go about urging believers to eschew adultery. Here is my approach. Is it antinomian? Is it biblical?

    ‘Don’t you know the law of Moses condemned adultery and even demanded the sentence of death for adulters..Does this not tell us how seriously God viewed it? Indeed it was only codifying and making concrete in a legislative form what men universally know in their hearts.

    But brothers and sisters, unconverted folks may need to be reminded adultery is a sin and will bring judgement for they harden their hearts but we should not. We have the life of God in our souls. That life finds adultery unthinkable. Every instinct of your renewed nature is repelled by adultery. We have been justified in Christ. Why did we seek justification? We did so because we wanted to be cleared of sin. We wanted to be done with it. We saw how sinful and offensive it was and how deserving of judgement. How then can we allow ourselves to be attracted to that same sin that we died to, and died to be freed from? How can you abuse your body in this way? Your body is not yours. It is bought with a price and belongs to the Lord. Glorify God with your body do not use it to bring disgrace on his name. Christ’s death was precisely because of the horror and ugliness of adultery. He died that we may be cleansed from sins like this and lives that he may enable us flee them. The Kingdom of God and Christ is a kingdom of righteousness and loyalty and truth and faithfulness. Adultery is the very opposite of this. Don’t you know that no adulterer will inherit the Kingdom of God. And so on…’

    • stevebanzai says:

      John, I’m lost a bit here. When you say “We have the life of God in our souls. That life finds adultery unthinkable. Every instinct of your renewed nature is repelled by adultery.” And yet David though regenerate, of course committed two high handed sins, including adultery. Many as we all know today in Christian service (reformed as well BTW) and leaders of the same, have fallen. So although you stated “But brothers and sisters, unconverted folks may need to be reminded adultery is a sin and will bring judgement”, the Rom 7 man still knows and fights against but doesn’t always (in the moment) experience victory. To be sure, wouldn’t you say because of justification (or for that matter sanctification as well), he is still tempted, seduced with hearts still prone to wonder but of course hates the very reality of that seduction? But and yes, he’s fighting!

  • I have not found Frame that helpful on this issue.

  • […] Interview With Mike Horton: Part One by Tullian Tchividjian (Gospel Coalition Blog) Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • […] Interview With Mike Horton: Part One by Tullian Tchividjian (Gospel Coalition Blog) […]

  • Clay Shelor says:

    Thomas Boston argued that the antinomian in reality has a legal spirit:

    This Antinomian principle, That it is needless for a man, perfectly justified by faith, to endeavour to keep the law, and do good works, is a glaring evidence that legality is so engrained in man’s corrupt nature, that until a man truly come to Christ, by faith, the legal disposition will still be reigning in him; let him turn himself into what shape, or be of what principles he will in religion; though he run into Antinomianism he will carry along with him his legal spirit, which will always be a slavish and unholy spirit. He is constrained, as the author observes, to do all that he does for fear of punishment, and hope of reward; and if it is once fixed in his mind that these are ceased in his case, he stands still like a clock when the weights that made her go are removed, or like a slave when he is in no hazard of the whip; than which there cannot be a greater evidence of loathsome legality.
    (Thomas Boston, “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”, 207)

  • Perhaps this discussion should back up to Genesis 8:21b-22 as a starting point. In these verses, God makes a significant concession based on pervasive human depravity. His assessment of human condition might appear to be an overstatement borne out of frustration. “‘Every’ inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” Really? “Every?” This is an accurate assessment of the human heart and whatever happens in history after it, happens in the context of divine concession. The concession is not based not on a compromise of God’s character but a merciful restraint of it. God chooses to accept the grief and pain that brought His judgment in Genesis 6 “even though…”

    It is on this account that, ““He does not treat us as our sins deserve… ” because “He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:9, 13-14).

    The OT days are summarized as times when “He let all nations go their own way” (Acts 14:15); times “when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past ” (Romans 3:25-26); times when “endured with much patience vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:22-23) and times when He “overlooked such ignorance” (Acts 17:30-31). Unpack the significance of these statements.

    When we look at the OT we must keep this truth before us. God works with people where they are starting with those in strange Ancient Near Eastern cultures. He gives them instructions, precepts and laws in the context of their fallen social structures and hardened hearts. In countless ways, the Old Testament law is concessionary to ANE social structures. It is also self-admittedly incomplete (See: Jere. 31; Ez. 36, the NT book of Hebrews). and those who ask why we do not follow the apparently strange laws in it can be assured that it was never meant to govern believers today. We live under the law of Christ. We do not want to be guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” when looking at laws that to us appear strange. God graciously worked with OT people in the cultures they lived in and made laws to govern certain realities that were contextually specific to them. Concession? Yes! Again, if you start with Genesis 8:21b-22, the whole project involves degrees of concession.

    When Jesus was questioned about divorce (Matthew 19:3-9), he started with God’s ideal for marriage from Genesis. He arguably added “punch” to the ideal when He said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (v.6). He then explained what Moses permitted due to the hardness of human hearts (concession). Finally, he made his own concessionary exception to the strengthened ideal of Genesis but this time based on marital unfaithfulness. We simply must keep these things in mind as we discuss OT law.

    I develop this further here:

  • Laura says:

    Thank you for providing this. Horton provides us all with some much needed historical context. And so much can be accomplished by simply defining terms. In this discussion, what do we mean by “law” and “gospel”? So helpful.

  • Steve Martin says:

    If you’ve ever lusted after anyone…then in your heart you are an adulterer.

    So many Reformed do NOT take the law seriously enough.

    The sermon on the mount was supossed to remedy that, but I can see that many still believe they are doing a good job of it (the law).

    Some things never change.

  • […] This is a continuation of my four-part interview with Mike Horton on the nature of the gospel and sanctification. You can (and should) read Part One here. […]

  • […] between justification and sanctification and the relationship of the law to the gospel. Part one is here. Part two is now available […]

  • […] of law and the Christian and so ends up with a bit of a dog’s breakfast for an argument (see here and here).  His basic problem is that his thinking is controlled by confessions and not […]

  • […] with Mike Horton on the nature of the gospel and sanctification. You can (and should) read Part One and […]

  • […] between justification and sanctification and the relationship of the law to the gospel. Part one is here and part two can be found here. The third installment was posted today and can be read […]

  • […] Interview With Mike Horton: Part One – Tullian Tchividjian. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • […] whats-his-name talks with Michael Horton, part 1, part 2 and part 3. And there’s more to […]

  • […] whats-his-name talks with Michael Horton, part 1, part 2 and part 3. And there’s more to […]

  • […] in the blogosphere concerning legalism and license among other important distinctions. Part one is here, part two can be found here, and the penultimate installment can be read here. The fourth and final […]

  • […] For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Horton, Tullian Tchividjian has posted a superb four-part interview with him over at The Gospel Coalition, in which the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is hashed out […]

  • […] Tullian Tchividjian’s Blog: Interview With Mike Horton: Part One  […]

  • […] Distinction Between Law & GospelMichael Horton The Law & The GospelMichael Horton Tullian Tchividjian’s Interview with Michael Horton(Offsite) WHI Discussion Group QuestionsPDF […]

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