The Westminster Confession of Faith sets forth the classic Reformed view of the law of God as follows:
“God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him, and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
“This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty towards God, and the other six our duty to man.
“Besides this law, commonly called Moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a Church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances: partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.
“To them, also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired with the state of that people, not obligating any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
“The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
“Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned: yet it is of great use to them, as well as to others: in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect from them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works: so as a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law, and not under grace.
“Neither are the fore-mentioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God revealed in the law requireth to be done” (Chapter 19).
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the law in Christian theology. It impinges on the entire biblical revelation, and to misunderstand it is to lay oneself open to serious error on the subject of God’s gracious way of salvation in Christ.
The Confession lays down the usual Reformed construction that classifies the law in three categories: moral, ceremonial, and judicial, or civil. According to this classification, the moral law is of abiding force and can in no way be abrogated or altered. The ceremonial law found its fulfilment in Christ and the gospel and is therefore abrogated, though it is of great value in shedding light on the full biblical significance of the NT realities it prefigures. The civil law governed the theocratic state of Israel and expired with that state. It places no obligation on any other state “further than the general equity thereof may require.”
There is little dissention about the abrogation of the ceremonial law, but about the “expiring” of Israel’s civil law with the passing away of the theocratic state there has in the last thirty years or so been a raging controversy. In the traditional Reformed view, Israel’s civil law was part of the middle wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles that Paul said was removed by Christ. Christian Reconstructionists, espousing the theory of theonomy, have argued strenuously against this position. The father of Reconstructionism,* Rousas J. Rushdoony, held that the Westminster divines adopted their view “without any confirmation from Scripture.” He further alleged that it is impossible “to separate any law of Scripture as the Westminster divines suggested.” He did not hesitate to conclude that “at this point, the Confession is guilty of nonsense” (Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 551). This final charge is a cheap shot, for the Confession does not teach what he accuses it of teaching: namely that “Thou shalt not steal” is valid as a moral law, but not as a civil law; that stealing is wrong for the individual, but not the state. In fact, in teaching the temporary nature of the civil law, the Confession draws attention to the fact that both ceremonial and civil laws have moral aspects to them and that these aspects are permanently binding on all men. And it makes reference to the principle of “general equity”—that is, whatever in a civil law corresponds to the general principles of justice laid down in the moral law, or indeed in the law written on all men’s hearts, is of abiding force.
This reference to general equity is important, for by it the Confession means to set up the moral law as the determining standard by which we are to judge which elements of the civil laws are permanent and which are temporary. Reconstructionists reject this approach, claiming that Israel’s civil law was given as a divine interpretation of the summary statements of the decalogue.* Thus they reverse the hermeneutical principle of the Confession: instead of the moral law being the defining principle and determining standard by which we judge the civil law, the civil law is the standard by which we understand the moral law.
When pressed to admit that many of the actual enactments of this civil law obviously refer to local, temporary environments—e.g. , the building of a battlement for the roof of every house; refusing to sow different kinds of seed in a vineyard, or mix wool and linen in making a garment (Deut. 22:8, 9, 11)—Reconstructionists reply that only the manner of keeping the civil laws today may differ from ancient times. The essence of the law remains unchanged. But this is not a sufficient explanation. It is contradictory to allege, on the one hand, that the civil laws are of the same nature as the Ten Commandments, but on the other hand, that while the Commandments apply to men of every time and place in their original expression, the civil laws need to be divested of their temporary garb, so as to reveal their abiding principles. Obviously, there is no equality here. Civil law is case law and by its very nature case law is temporary, even though the moral principles it expounds are permanent. This is just another way of saying that the Confession is right in making the moral law the interpreter of what is permanent in case law, not vice versa, as Reconstructionism does.
This distinction has far-reaching effects. Reconstructionists hold that not only are Israel’s ancient civil laws still binding in nations today, but so are the penalties enacted by Moses. Greg Bahnsen wrote, “All theonomists affirm (while all non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation … are a standard for all nations of the earth” (No Other Standard, pp. 27–28, fn. 18). It was because Calvin rejected this very idea that Rushdoony labelled his views “heretical nonsense” (op. cit. , p. 9). Calvin did not have much regard for the the theory now espoused by Reconstructionists, calling such insistence on all national governments conforming to the Mosaic civil code “dangerous and seditious,” and “false and foolish” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:20.14). Calvin believed, as did the Westminster divines, that the moral law was that which God had first revealed to Adam, and is the very law that He writes on the hearts of men. This law, therefore, is universal as to time and place and is of permanent force. Since the civil laws were not given to all men, or written on the hearts of men by their Creator, they are not of universal application, except as they reflect an aspect of the moral law. That means that while civic rulers may gain insight into the just application of moral laws from them, the sanctions imposed by Israel’s civil code are not themselves obligatory.
The biblical evidence for the permanence of the moral law is plentiful, as the following ten lines of argument and their inescapable conclusions will make clear. (For a fuller treatment of the points made here see Alan Cairns, Chariots of God: God’s Law in Relation to the Cross and the Christian [Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald, 2000] chap. 2).
First, the Lord gave the moral law in Eden. His command, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17), would have made no sense had it not rested on the basis of moral law. In it was the obligation to love God above all else and to have no other gods before Him. Also, God gave Adam the Sabbath as part of his moral duty. Ecclesiastes 7:29 and Eph. 4:24 clearly suggest that man’s moral constitution at his creation was characterized by righteousness and true holiness. Holiness is conformity to God’s nature, and righteousness is conformity to His law. So the moral law was first given to man in Eden before the fall.
Second, the Lord maintained the moral law throughout patriarchal times. Despite the deepening darkness of apostasy that led to the flood, and later to the confusion of languages at Babel, God’s law continued to be known. The following laws were evidently known: the law against idolatry (Gen. 35:2); the law of parental authority (Gen. 9:24–27; 18:19); the law against murder (Gen. 9:5, 6); and the law against adultery (Gen. 12:18f; 20:3, 9).
Third, the Lord reissued the moral law at Sinai. Unlike the ceremonial and civil codes, which He later gave to Moses, Jehovah not only wrote the moral law of the Ten Commandments with His own finger on tables of stone, but He spoke them so that all the gathered hosts of Israel could hear them straight from His mouth. They heard the actual voice of God speaking out of the fire (Exod. 20:1; Deut. 4:15, 33, 36). This was the only time in the history of the world that God personally made such a public proclamation, making it an eloquent witness for the uniqueness and permanence of the law.
Fourth, the Lord maintained the moral law through the prophets. A basic burden of every prophet’s ministry was to call Israel back the God’s law. “Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:10). “Remember ye the law of Moses my servant,” (Malachi 4:4).
Fifth, the Lord established the moral law in Christ. Jesus said, “I am come not to destroy the law, … but to fulfil [it]” (Matt. 5:17).
Sixth, Christ summarized the moral law under two great commands. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40). These commands do not replace, but express, the moral enactments of the Lord.
Seventh, the Lord confirmed His moral law through the apostles. They repeat every one of the Ten Commandments (including the fourth—see Sabbath) and thereby establish their permanence.
Eighth, the Lord writes His moral law on the hearts of men. “The Gentiles, which have not the [Mosaic] law, … shew the work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14–15). Nothing more clearly witnesses the abiding authority of the law than this.
Ninth, the Lord puts His moral law into the hearts and minds of His people when His Spirit regenerates them. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Hebrews 8:10). The unregenerate man has the witness of the law in his heart to condemn him; the regenerate has it in his heart as a delight (Psa. 1:1–2; Rom. 7:22). No language could more clearly express the fact that the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but rather enshrines, the law—not as a basis of our justification or condemnation, but as our rule of life and as evidence of our union with Christ.
Tenth, the Lord will use the moral law as His standard of judgment. He will “judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31), and the standard of that righteousness will be His law. Paul makes this clear in Rom. 2:12: “As many as have sinned without [the Mosaic] law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.” The reason for this is that all men, even those who do not have the supernatural revelation of the written word of God, have the law written in their hearts (v. 5). For all men, Jew and Gentile, the standard of judgment will be the moral law.
The consequences of the truth of the permanence of the moral law are simple to state and essential to grasp.
1. God’s law is still in effect and no one, saved or unsaved, is beyond its authority.
2. The fall did not abrogate it.
3. Time does not erode it.
4. Grace does not annul it, for God puts it in the hearts and minds of all whom He saves according to the terms of His covenant.
5. Rebellion does not remove it (Hos. 8:12; Rom. 2:12–15).
The law includes a lot more than at first appears. Self-righteousness is satisfied with a surface obedience to the letter of the law but knows nothing of true obedience to the law in all its richness of meaning. Most of the law’s commandments are in the form of prohibitions. But every prohibition implies a precept, which is as obligatory as the prohibition. Thus the first commandment not only prohibits the worship of false gods, but requires the worship of the true God.
Each commandment represents a whole class of duties. The sixth commandment furnishes a good example. It prohibits murder. But the Lord Jesus Christ, interpreting it, says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt 5:21–22).
Each commandment requires us to attend to the means God has made available for us to obey its prohibitions and precepts. Proverbs 1:10, 15 commands, “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not … walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path.” It is popular, even among Christians, to hold that if we do not have a specific prohibition in Scripture of a particular activity, we are justified in engaging in it. “Where does the Bible say we must not watch this kind of programme, or listen to this kind of music?” This is the wrong way for Christians to frame their question. What they should ask is, “In the light of the plain commands of God’s law, will this activity help or hinder my obedience? Will it be a means to holiness or to sin?” We are duty-bound to attend, not only to the bare words of the precept, but to all the means available to enable us to obey it.
The relation of law to gospel is fundamental to any understanding of Scripture. Error here will have enormous consequence for our views of both.
Roman Catholicism defines the gospel and the “grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ” as the “New Law” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1965, 1966). This New Law refines, surpasses, fulfils, and brings to perfection the old Mosaic law. This view of law and grace lays the foundation for Rome’s emphasis on the place and merit of works in justification. The Catechism of the Catholic Church—the most recent official statement from the Vatican (copyrighted by the Holy See, 1994)—seems to make the bizarre claim that though the initial grace of justification has no reference to any works on our part, the actual attainment of eternal life depends on our obedience to the New Law (including the precepts of the Roman magisterium, ¶2037). It declares: “No one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit, for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” (¶2010; emphasis added). It is difficult to interpret this as saying anything other than that eternal life depends on personal obedience to the New Law. Thus Rome still converts even grace and faith into a system of works, reflecting the position laid down by the Council of Trent: “If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, … does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,—if so be, however, that he depart in grace,—and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema” (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, “Justification,” Canon 32).
Lutheran theology makes the distinction between law and grace its great organizing principle. While admitting “the third use of the law” (see below, “Purpose and Uses of the Law”), its basic position is that the law leads to repentance and the gospel leads to faith. The danger was that once people came to faith they would feel they had graduated beyond any obligation to the law. Luther and Melancthon opposed this antinomianism,* and Luther criticized his follower, Johann Agricola, for failing to stress the believer’s moral responsibility enough.
Neonomianism* and Arminianism,* in differing degrees, follow the Roman Catholic line of making the gospel the “New Law” and faith our obedience to it. This has serious consequences for their exposition of justification, leading to the denial of the imputation* of the righteousness of Christ.
Antinomians interpret grace as abrogating the law for believers. For them, as for dispensationalists (see section following), when Paul says, “Ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), he means to loose Christians from all obligation to the law, both as basis for salvation and as a standard of holy living.
Dispensationalism* has so divorced law and grace that at times it has degenerated into teaching two ways of salvation, one by works for the Jews under the old covenant and one by grace for the church age under the new covenant. C. I. Scofield’s seminal book for the Dispensationalist understanding of the Scriptures, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, states: “The sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ introduced the dispensation of pure grace—which means undeserved favor, or God GIVING righteousness, instead of God REQUIRING righteousness, as under Law” (p. 21). Though Dispensationalists have energetically sought to escape from the charge of teaching salvation by works, statements like this make their task impossible. Scofield’s words can have no other meaning than that under the law men were saved by providing by their works the righteousness that God required.
Scofield went even further. Despite the fact that he recognized in the ceremonial law gracious foreshadowings of Christ and His saving work, he wrote: “The most obvious and striking division of the Word of Truth is that between Law and Grace.… Scripture never, in any dispensation, mingles these two principles” (ibid. , pp. 50, 51). If all Scofield meant were that we cannot be saved or live by a mixture of law and grace, that would be well and good. But what he means is that law and grace cannot co-exist in any form, or to any degree, in the same dispensation, or in the life of a believer. “It is not, then, a question of dividing what God spoke from Sinai into ‘Moral Law’ and ‘Ceremonial Law’—the believer does not come to that mount at all” (ibid. , pp. 64–65). The antinomianism apparent in Scofield’s statement of the Dispensationalist position is obvious. While he avocates a “godly life” for believers, he denies that God’s law is in any way a rule or standard of life for them (ibid. , pp. 60–61). He scornfully refers to “nomolators,” law worshippers, who “wrench these holy and just but deathful tables [of the law] from beneath the mercy-seat and the atoning blood, and erect them in Christian churches as the rule of Christian life” (ibid. , p. 61). Inherent in all this complete divorce of OT from NT is the unwarranted idea that while the the OT types pointed forward to Christ, God did not under them actually apply any of the merit of Christ. If He did, Scofield’s notion that being saved by grace is utterly at variance with having the law as a rule of life would be shattered—for even Scofield had to admit that OT saints had the law as a rule of life. This is a point that those Dispensationalists who reject the idea of salvation by works for OT saints—rightly insisting that all salvation is by grace through the merits of Christ—must face squarely. If the OT saints were saved by grace and had the law as a rule of life, there can be no objection in principle to the idea of NT saints, who are also saved by grace, having it as a rule of life.
As may be expected, Dispensationalists generally reject the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer in justification.
Reformed theology, while doing justice to the differences between OT and NT , entirely rejects the principle of discontinuity that Dispensationalism builds on. It holds rather to the principle of continuity, seeing an organic growth from the one to the other. It developed the biblical relation of law and gospel under the rubric of covenant theology.* In the Covenant of Works God gave the law as the way of eternal life. Adam fell into sin and thus came under the condemnation of the law he had broken. Since then, all men have been born depraved, corrupted, and guilty—indeed, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), incapable of doing anything to effect their own spiritual recovery. They are responsible to the law but unable to perform it. So it stands as a witness against them. If sinners are ever to be saved, God must find a way to be just and at the same time to justify the ungodly, without violating His own moral law. His answer is revealed in the Covenant of Grace. In this covenant the law is not abrogated, ignored, or weakened. Rather, it is fulfilled and satisfied by Christ who stands as the “second man,” the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), the covenant head of His people. On behalf of these people, He discharged their entire legal responsibility, and for them He bore the complete penalty of the law to which they were liable. Thus Reformed theology sees the legal Mosaic economy as a phase of the covenant of grace. While the statement of the moral law alone could not be so viewed, its revelation in the context of the rich provision of types and shadows of Christ’s atoning sacrifice in the ceremonial law demands that we see the OT dispensation as an economy of grace. It was, indeed, grace under wraps, as it were, but nontheless it was grace. The Mosaic economy, properly understood, did not offer salvation apart from Christ or on the basis of personal righteousness. It offered salvation in Christ foreshadowed in the many sacrifices and rituals that Moses enacted. It was a phase of the covenant of grace suitable to a church under age (Gal. 3:24–25; 4:1–7).
The Reformers attributed three uses to the law. “Melancthon was the first to define the generally accepted Reformation position on the three uses of the law—as a curb, as a mirror, and as a rule of life. The first use is called ‘the social use.’ In this the law acts as a restraining influence in society. The second use is ‘the pedagogic use,’ in which the law points out sin and drives the sinner to Christ. In the ‘third use’ the law becomes a rule of life for regenerate believers, instructing them how they ought to live in praise of grace” (Robert D. Brinsmead, Verdict, vol. 2, no. 6, November 1979, p. 26, fn. 13).
With the second edition of his Institutes in 1539, Calvin introduced a full exposition of these three uses, describing the law first as a mirror, second as a curb, and third as a rule of life.
1. The law is a mirror: its first use is to convict sinners and drive them to Christ. “While it shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness.… The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both—just as a mirror show us the spots on our face” (Institutes, 2:7.6, 7). The NT justifies this use: “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20); “The law entered, that the offence might abound” (Rom. 5:20); “The law worketh wrath” (Rom. 4:15); and it is therefore a “ministration of death” (2 Cor. 3:7).
Calvin said, “Of itself the law can only accuse, condemn, and destroy. As Augustine writes: ‘If the Spirit of grace is absent, the law is present only to accuse and kill us’ ” (ibid. , 2:7.7). While “in this way the wicked are terrified,” the children of God derive a great benefit from this punitive function of the law. For them “the knowledge of the law should have another purpose. The apostle testifies that we are indeed condemned by the judgment of the law, ‘so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable before God’ (Rom. 3:19). He teaches the same idea in another place: ‘For God has shut up all men in unbelief,’ not that he may destroy all or suffer all to perish, but ‘that he may have mercy upon all’ (Rom. 11:32). This means that, dismissing the stupid opinion of their own strength, they come to realize that they are upheld by God’s hand alone; that naked and empty-handed, they flee to His mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit. For God’s mercy is revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder of perfect righteousness, which all of us lack, and conversely, the severe judge of evil deeds. But in Christ his face shines, full of grace and gentleness, even upon us poor and unworthy sinners” (ibid. , 2:7.8).
2. The law is a curb. It restrains and deters the unconverted so that society may function. By fear of the law’s punishment sinners are restrained to “keep their hands from outward activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged” (ibid. , 2:7.10). This restraint does not make them any more righteous before God. “Indeed, the more they restrain themselves, the more strongly are they inflamed; they burn and boil within, and are ready to do anything or burst forth anywhere—but for the fact that this dread of the law hinders them” (idem ). Nevertheless the restraint of the law is necessary for the existence of human society: “This constrained and forced righteousness is necessary for the public community of men, for whose tranquillity the Lord herein provided when he took care that everything be not tumultuously confounded. This would happen if everything were permitted to all men” (idem ). The Scriptures provide plain evidence for this view (see Common Grace).
3. The law is a rule of life for believers. This is what is termed “the third use of the law.” For Calvin, it was the law’s principal use, while for Luther the condemning use predominated. As we have seen, antinomians and dispensationalists deny this third use of the law completely. Calvin’s exposition of it is compelling:
“The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose heart the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God (Jer. 32:33; Heb. 10:16), they have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways.
“Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it.… Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.… The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.… These [references to Psa. 19:7–8; 119:5, 105] do not contradict Paul’s statements, which show not what use the law serves for the regenerate, but what it can of itself confer upon man.…
“Certain ignorant persons, not understanding this distinction, rashly cast out the whole law of Moses, and bid farewell to the two Tables of the Law. For they think it obviously alien to Christians to hold to a doctrine that contains the ‘dispensation of death’ (2 Cor. 3:7). Banish this wicked thought from our minds! Moses has admirably taught that the Law, which among sinners can engender nothing but death, ought among saints to have a better and more excellent use” (ibid. , 2:7.12, 13).
Calvin saw the abrogation of the law as an end of the Levitical ceremonial ritual, a release from the moral law’s curse and condemnation, but not from its influence to godly obedience. “The law has power to exhort believers. This is not a power to bind their consciences with a curse, but one to shake off their sluggishness, by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection. Therefore, many persons, wishing to express such liberation from the curse, say that for believers the law—I am still speaking of the moral law—has been abrogated. Not that the law no longer enjoins believers to do what is right, but only that it is not for them what it formerly was: it may no longer condemn and destroy their consciences by frightening and counfounding them” (ibid. , 2:7.14).
Protestant theology follows the insistent message of Paul’s epistles that there is no justifying power in our personal obedience to the law (cf. Rom. 3:19–20, 28; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:5). Luther at first saw James’s statement, “By works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24), as a flagrant contradiction of Paul. He therefore dismissed the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw.” However, maturer Protestant reflection showed that James was not contradicting Paul, but rather a distortion of Paul’s teaching. What he condemned was antinomianism. The faith he spoke against was “dead faith” (2:17) because it did not produce the fruit of good works. There is nothing different from Paul in this. As J. Gresham Machen pointed out, the works that James commends are not the works that Paul condemns, and the faith that James condemns is not the faith that Paul commends. Justification cannot be by personal obedience to the law but by the righteous obedience of Christ as our covenant head, imputed to us by grace, and received by faith alone.
Sanctification is another matter. Though distinguishable from justification, it cannot fail to follow it. And in sanctification the law has the vital role as a rule of life, as Calvin so powerfully described. But we must be careful here. In stating the law’s role in our sanctification, we must not make it the antithesis of grace or of faith. It convicts us and stirs us to see our duty, but it cannot empower us to do it. Rushdoony is wrong to state, “Man’s justification is by the grace of God in Jesus Christ; man’s sanctification is by means of the law of God” (Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 4). The Lord Jesus spoke to Paul of sanctification that is “by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:18), and this is the way of sanctification the apostle always preached (e.g. , Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). Sanctification, by conforming us to the image of Christ—who is our sanctification as well as our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30)—brings us to obey God’s law. But it is important to get the order right. Rushdoony claims, “Man grows in grace as he grows in law-keeping, for the law is the way of sanctification” (ibid. , p. 3). This inverts the order and can hardly do anything else but bring a believer under bondage. Sanctification, being a work of God’s grace by the operation of His Spirit applying the merits of Christ, stirs our hearts to faith and obedience, thus enabling us to grow in grace and thereby in conformity to the law as a rule of life.
What Paul said in another connection holds good here: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). It is by faith in Christ that we experience the several elements in our salvation. To make the law, as Rushdoony’s statements do, antithetical to grace is a retrograde step. For balanced Christian living, we need not only to give the law of God its proper place of honour, but we need to have it always drive us to Christ. We must “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and … run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1, 2).
Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
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