God’s Gracious Law

“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:7-11)

Not long ago I heard an evangelical pastor posit that the moral law’s role is to convict of sin towards repentance and faith, but not to enact a positive requirement for Christian living. The position reflected some of the current debates and discussions about the relationship of God’s grace and His law (and the relationship of justification and sanctification) in the evangelical and Reformed community. The debates are nothing new: they have played out in various streams of the Christian church, including distinctions between streams of Lutheran and Reformed theology, debates within English Puritanism, and the Marrow controversy in Scottish Presbyterianism. From the New Testament itself they appear to be perennial questions of the human heart.

What is the answer? A short blog post can’t deal with all of the details and nuance of a full and good answer, but here’s a beginning: views that hold the law places no requirements on Christian living are difficult–impossible–to reconcile with Scripture and Reformed confessions. Not only that, they also rob the church of divinely authoritative, continuing precepts, God-given directions for a holy, happy life in sweet fellowship with him and fellow believers. Scripture, as also summarized in historic, confessional Reformed theology, clearly presents the law (understood here as the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments) as having three enduring roles:

(1) God’s law convicts men of his holiness and their sin. In doing so God’s law also points them to Christ, who in his exposition and application of the law in the Sermon on the Mount said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) In Christ the law is perfectly and completely fulfilled on behalf of believers; his perfect obedience is for them, his righteousness “robes”, or clothes them; he took on himself the penalty of their law-breaking.

(2) The law of God serves as a means of common, partial restraint of evil, and allows for a limited realization of justice in a fallen world prior to the final judgement.

(3) God’s law is the rule of thankful, holy living, and a life growing in this kind of conformity to it is a sweet evidence of spiritual transformation, of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2-3)

To dig into this more deeply I’d recommend starting with the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q.&A. 91-152), the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism, which focuses on the Christian life of gratitude (Q.&A. 86-129), and tracking back the numerous Scripture references given with both. Also worth reading is the good summary given in the Belgic Confession of Faith (Articles 23-25). For those who want to go beyond these basic summaries or expositions, the second part of The Marrow of Modern Divinity is a classic English Puritan work which presents a three way dialogue between Evangelista (an evangelical pastor), Neophytus (a new believer), and Nomologista (a legalist) on the nature of the continuing role of the law of God in Christian life.

Two more contemporary starters you might find helpful are:

Ernest Kevan’s The Grace of Law (Soli Deo Gloria, 2003) – a good historical theology of English Puritan discussions on grace and law, with plenty of practical applications.

Philip S. Ross’s excellent new work From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Christian Focus, 2010) wades in more deeply from an exegetical and biblical theology angle. Commended by numerous theologians, including Sinclair Ferguson, Doug Kelly, and R. Scott Clark, From the Finger of God interacts exegetically and theologically with contemporary and historical scholarship on the historic Reformed understanding of the division of Old Testament law into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories – a significant foundation for a biblical, Reformed understanding of the continuing roles of the moral law.