THE LAW OF GOD
1 God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart,1 and a specific precept not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.2
Simply put, the law of God is what God requires of man. Among the things God expected of Adam were that he be fruitful and multiply, that he rule over the lower creatures, that he work in the garden of Eden to take care of it and that he not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even beyond the specific commands Adam knew right from wrong because of having been made in the image of God. If it could be said of Gentiles with a fallen nature that they had “the law written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15), how much more true would this have been of Adam when his life, unstained by sin, reflected more clearly the nature of his holy Creator. This is not to say that Adam had the Ten Commandments or God’s law in any written, codified form. It does mean though that there was a law, there were standards of right and wrong that Adam was to live by.
By this he bound him and all his descendants to personal, total, exact, and perpetual obedience. God promised life on fulfilling it, and threatened death on breaching it, and he endued him with power and ability to keep it.3
Adam and his posterity were obligated to live in accordance with the nature he had given them. To obey God’s law meant life for Adam, to disobey meant death. Whereas we come into this world incapable of perfect obedience to God’s commands, Adam was created with the power and ability to keep his law. This is confirmed by the account in Genesis that says after God created man he saw all he had made and declared that it was very good. There was no bent towards evil, no sinful nature, no inclination to choose wrong over right. All that was needed for holiness and life was provided, everything from a righteous nature (Eccl 7:29) to a perfect environment in which to live.
2 The same law that was first written in the human heart continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall.4 It was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai5 in ten commandments (written in two tables) the first four containing our duty towards God, and the other six our duty to our fellow beings.6
5 Ro 2:12a, 14-15
6 Ex 32:15-16
The image of God in man was marred and distorted, but not completely erased so that the law of God written on his heart continued to serve as a guide to right and wrong. Those from Adam to Moses may not have sinned like Adam in that they did not break a directly revealed command (Rom 5:14), but they nevertheless did sin by disregarding the guidance provided by the conscience that served to confront them with God’s law. Men like Enoch and Noah knew what righteousness was and practiced it in such a way as to be pleasing to God. Scripture provides evidence that the moral law was in force between Adam and Moses in that killing was condemned, adultery was punished, etc. (cf Waldron, 239). Finally, this law took concrete written form in the days of Moses when the Ten Commandments were handed down to the people at Sinai. When the law written on man’s heart took written form it was seen to include his duties towards God (cf. Rom 1:20-21) and towards man. The ten commandments give a summary of what is often called the moral law. The moral law is based on the character of God himself as it has left its mark on those made in his image. It is sometimes called natural law by theologians because it is impressed on our mind by nature, and not merely by social contract or tradition.
3 Besides this law, commonly called the moral law, God was pleased to give the people of Israel ceremonial laws containing several typical ordinances. These were partly concerning worship, and in them Christ was prefigured—his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits.7 They also gave instructions about various moral duties.7 All of these ceremonial laws were appointed only until the time of the New Testament, when Jesus Christ abrogated them and took them away, for he was the true Messiah and only law-giver, and was empowered to do this by the Father.9
God handed down to his people laws other than the moral law. These are not based on God’s nature, but on his will. This did not make them any less binding, but only indicates that they could have been different if God had so chosen. “You shall not steal” is based on the just nature of God, but paying back five head of cattle for one stolen (Ex 22:1) could just as easily been made four head or seven head. This kind of law based on God’s will has been called positive law by theologians. This law would not be known except by special revelation. The term most often used to describe this kind of law as it relates to the externals of Jewish worship is the ceremonial law. The ceremonial law can be further divided into two categories. The first group deals with those laws that serve as types and symbols of Christ and his redemptive work, e.g. the vestments of the priests and the various sacrifices that were offered. The other group includes instructions about moral duties, e.g. confession of sin and laws concerning proper sexual relations. This latter group especially shows us how the ceremonial law is subservient to the moral law. When the types and shadows were fulfilled in Christ they were abrogated. They were a part of “the regulations for worship” that were applicable only “until the time of the new order” (Heb 9:1,9). With the coming of Christ, and particularly in his death, “the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14).
4 To the people of Israel he also gave various judicial laws which lapsed when they ceased as a nation. These are not binding on anyone now by virtue of their being part of the laws of that nation,10 but their principles of equity continue to be applicable in modern times.11
A third category of laws, those that governed the political and social life of the Jewish nation, was also given through Moses. The principles of equity and justice contained in these laws still provide useful guidance for us today. Monetary remuneration for property crimes, the participation of the offended party in the justice system, and equity in judgment for personal injury cases are among the lessons we can learn from the civil law God gave Israel. These principles are valid because they reflect the just character of the holy God who gave them. They are, however, the laws given to the nation of Israel and as such lost their binding nature when that nation ceased to exist. Just as the sacrifices of the ceremonial law ceased to be relevant when the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus was made, so these civil laws ceased to be relevant when the theocracy they were supposed to govern went out of existence. There are some called reconstructionists or theonomists who argue that the civil law of Israel is still relevant today and ought to be enacted into the statutes of our secular government. The basic problem with this idea is that these laws were enacted for the Israelite theocracy and no such nation now exists.
5 Obedience to the moral law remains forever binding on all, both justified persons and others,12 both in regard to the content of the law, and also to the authority of God the Creator who gave the law.13 Nor does Christ in any way dissolve this law in the Gospel, on the contrary, he strengthens our obligation [to obey the moral law].14
13 Jas 2:10-11
14 Mt 5:17-19, Ro 3:31, 1 Co 9:21
The Christian is no longer obligated to keep the ceremonial or civil law given to the Jews under the old covenant. We are, however, bound by the moral law that is summarized in the Ten Commandments. We have been freed from the curse of the law and the death it pronounces on all sinners, but its authority is no less binding on us than it was on the Jews of the Old Testament. Because we remain creatures, even though redeemed, we remain subject to the authority of the Creator. Redemption does not diminish his authority in the moral realm in the least. Through the centuries there have been Antinomians who said that justification by grace completely freed us from all duty to obey the law. They claimed that to be bound by the law in any way was to make one a slave to the law. Even Paul was confronted with those who taught that freedom from the law’s condemnation meant freedom from its authority. For them to be under grace meant to be free from the law in every respect. Paul expressed horror that anyone should mistake him to have taught this (Rom 6:2, 15). In the place where Paul confronts this problem he makes it clear that believers are delivered not only from the guilt and punishment of sin, but also from the practice of sin. A more subtle form of this error teaches that we are not bound to obey the law, but that we comply with the law simply out of gratitude for Christ’s work in our life. While this does tend to lead people to lead more moral lives, it locates the motivating force for obedience entirely within the individual (his gratitude) rather than in God’s authority (the binding nature of his law). This “makes faithful exhortation to duty difficult, because those who hold this teaching always object that you are bringing them back into slavery. If anyone speaks to such people of duty and obligation, their response is that such exhortations are legalistic. [Christ] does not eliminate they obligation to obey our Creator, but adds the obligation of gratefully obeying our Redeemer” (Waldron, 241-242).
6 Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works to be justified or condemned by it,15 yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, because as a rule of life it informs them of the will of God and their duty, and directs and binds them to walk accordingly.16
16 Ro 7:12, 22, 25, Ps 119:4-6, 1 Co 7:19, ith
True believers can neither be condemned nor justified on the basis of how well they have kept the law. Simply put, we are not saved by works. Our righteousness is grounded in our union with Jesus who perfectly kept the law and the condemnation of our sins was executed in him on the cross. The law can never serve as a way to salvation, but it continues to serve as a rule of life. It is useful for both the believer and the unbeliever. Because the law is a summary of the perfect will of God for all men it serves as the only infallible rule of practice for those who would follow in the narrow way of righteousness.
It also exposes the sinful defilement of their natures, hearts and lives, and as they use it to examine themselves, they come to greater conviction of sin, humiliation for sin, and hatred against sin. They also gain a clearer sight of their need of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience [to the law].17 Similarly, it is of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruption in that it forbids sin. The threatening of the law serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what troubles they may expect in this life because of their sins, even though they are freed from the curse and undiminished rigors of the law.18
Because it reveals the holy character of our Creator and Redeemer it serves to show us how far short we fall of true holiness. When properly used, then, the law brings about in us an ever deepening sense of humility along with an ever increasing sense of our need for Christ and gratitude for his grace in rescuing us from its penalties. Once it has convicted us of our sin it provides the only sure guide for how to avoid sin and walk in holiness.
The promises of the law also show believers God’s approval of obedience, and what blessings they may expect when the law is kept,19 although these blessings are not due to them through the law as a covenant of works.20 If someone does good and refrains from evil simply because the law encourages the former and deters from the latter, that is not evidence of one’s being under the law and not under grace.21
20 Lk 17:10
21 Mt 3:7, Lk 13:1-5, Ac 2:40, Heb 11:26, 1 Pe 3:8-13
The last sentence of this paragraph is aimed against those who tell us it is wrong to do something because the law promises reward or threatens punishment. They say that to be motivated by these is nothing more than legalistic obedience and unfitting for those who live by faith. Paul says that it is the carnal mind, the mind set on the flesh, that does not, indeed, cannot subject itself to God’s law (Rom 8:7). Far from seeing the Law as something for less spiritually minded people, Scripture, including the New Testament, everywhere uses both threat and reward to encourage proper response to God’s word (e.g. Mt 3:7, Lk 13:3,5; Acts 2:40, Heb 11:26, 1 Pt 3:8-13).
7 These uses of the law are not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but are entirely in line with it, for the Spirit of Christ subdues and enables the human will to do freely and cheerfully what the will of God revealed in the law requires to be done.22
The law comes into conflict with the grace of the gospel only when it is used as a means of establishing our righteousness before God. Used to reveal our sinfulness and show us the way of holiness it is not only consistent with the gospel, it is crucial for those who are to live as saints. It can be no other way for at the heart of the gospel as expressed in the new covenant described by Jeremiah is God’s promise that he will write his law on our hearts. What other law could he be talking about that the one which reflected his own holiness that had already been revealed to his people? It was one of the purposes for the death of our Lord on the cross that we should be redeemed from all lawlessness (Tit 2:14). How could we then say that the law is no longer needed for Christian living?