God's Law & the Christian

Alan Jacobs, in his delightful little book entitled The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), challenges the notion that reading good literature improves a person’s character. He quotes the eighteenth-century scientist G.C. Lichtenberg who wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if a [donkey] looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out” (53).

A few centuries earlier John Calvin said something similar about God’s Law. “The Law is like a mirror in which we behold our impotence; secondly our iniquity, which proceeds from it; and lastly, the consequences of both, our obnoxiousness to the curse; just as a mirror represents to it the spots on our face” (Institutes II.vii.7). This is indeed the first function of the Law: it exposes our guilt and condemns us. It brings to light how wicked and corrupt we really are, and how far short we fall of reaching God’s holy standards. The Apostle Paul wrote that “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known [how sinful I am]” (Romans 7:7b).

As a second function, God’s Law restrains sin in the world, curbing what would otherwise be unsubdued wickedness and injustice. Through this use of the Law God protects His people from being completely overcome by their enemies, and keeps the world from spiraling down into utter sinful chaos. In other words the Law serves, “to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly raging lusts of the flesh” (Calvin, Institutes, II.vii.10).

The third use of the Law is that it functions as a faithful guide for the Christian life. The Psalmist asked, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The answer: “By guarding it according to your word” (119:9). He also wrote “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (119:105). The Ten Commandments not only expose our sins, they also teach us, His redeemed children, how to please our heavenly Father. Therefore, we must recognize the important role of God’s Law in the life of the Christian believer. Indeed, believing the Gospel does not abrogate the Law’s function in our lives. We do not receive Christ and all His benefits of redemption and then live according to the world and the flesh. No. Rather we receive Christ and then, by the power of the indwelling Spirit, seek to live according to His Word. Isn’t this why Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you”? (John 15:14) Isn’t this why the Apostle Paul’s letters were not filled with only indicatives (e.g. “Christ died for you”), but also imperatives (e.g. “Therefore, walk in a worthy manner”)? In Ephesians Paul writes that in light of God’s great salvation, “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:31-32).

These exhortations were not meant to be obeyed in order to merit salvation. A thousand times no!!! Paul had already made crystal clear in chapters 1-3 that salvation is a sovereign work of God, accomplished through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ alone and applied by the Holy Spirit. Rather, this “law” section was set forth in order to teach us to how to live as grateful, obedient children. We do not seek to obey in order to be saved. We seek to obey because we are already saved–– and desire to glorify God.

The Gospel is the good news - the mind-blowing news - that God sent His only Son into the world to redeem sinners. Jesus fulfilled all righteousness by perfectly obeying God’s law in our stead. On Calvary’s cross He satisfied God’s unbending justice by becoming a propitiation, that is, a wrath-bearer for our sins. By rising from the dead He gloriously triumphed over all His and our enemies. Therefore, those who - by grace through faith - receive Christ as their Lord and Savior are fully pardoned for all their sins, robed in Christ’s imputed righteousness, and made inheritors of everlasting life. This is the wonderful news that motivated Horatio Spafford in 1873 to write:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

But this marvelous news of salvation by grace, apart from the works of the law, does not excuse us from living in conformity to God’s Law as kingdom disciples. In various quarters of the evangelical world - even in some sections of the Reformed camp - there seems to be a conspicuous de-emphasis upon God Law as a guide for the Christian life, as if underscoring the importance of Christian obedience would compromise the gospel. There is much talk about the Law as that which convicts, condemns, and drives us to Christ (i.e. first use). But less attention is given to “the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among the nations” (Romans 1:5b - third use).

Therefore, Christ Church, let us not minimize the wonderful and crucial role that the Law is meant to play in our lives as Christian believers. Not only does it expose our sin and point out our need for Christ, it also shows us how to live as redeemed sons and daughters of God. Justified in Christ, we are called to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). In conclusion, let us take heed to the instructive words of the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6:

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it 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 for 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 encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law: and not under grace.

- Pastor Jon