God’s Law - what role does is play today for Christians? What role does it play for non-Christians? That is the goal today, namely, to defend the third use of the Law in the New Covenant as it pertains to New Covenant obedience. This is a terribly important topic now days, especially in light of the very divergent theologies running around unmasked in Western Christianity. You have the antinomian tendencies of the Fundamentalists, followed by the legalistic ideas of the Holiness churches (and pretty much every other offspring of John Wesley), to other ‘softer’ forms of legalism that I’ll address later.
So what about obedience? What about holiness? Aren’t we supposed to be conformed to the image of Christ? If you asked the average professing Christian today about God’s Law, the majority of them would probably brush it off completely because it’s in the Old Testament, and well, that Law was only for national Israel. Now to be fair, there is an element of truth in that statement. But dig deeper and it usually reflects a decided Marcionite (the Marcionites pretty much rejected the entire OT. The early church condemned this as heretical. Rightly so.) tendency to not think too much about the Old Testament, and an antinomian tendency that doesn’t grasp the nature of Christ’s salvation.
Thus, I am hoping to labor not in vain here, but to show a few things regarding God’s Law that Scripture clearly teaches.
Number 1, We’ve Just Begun…
God’s Law does not function in a vacuum. What I mean by that is that God’s Law does nothing but condemn us if it stands alone. So, functioning in a vacuum, all the Law can ever do is make demands. Thus, making God’s Law the central tenet of the faith is a major error. Judaism does exactly this, attempting to gain favor from God simply by following Law. Jewish rabbis have determined there are 613 laws (I think…) in the Torah. The New Testament, in fact, says a whole lot about this. Paul, especially, speaks at length that no one can be justified by works, and the majority of the time he speaks in this manner, he has the Law in mind. The reason Paul uses the Law when condemning justification by works is because the Law defines sin and therefore also defines good works. To be obedient to God is to follow His commands. His commands are found mainly in the Law, but also throughout other places in Scripture (law in the broader sense, as law equals command). Thus, the Law functioning by itself condemns us.
Number 2, Whatcha Gonna Do…
But, does this mean there is no grace at all in the Mosaic Covenant (the Law)? Is the Law all works and no grace? God forbid! By revealing His Law (Exodus 20-24), God has not only hammered down commands, but since God is perfectly holy and perfectly just, by extension His commands given at Sinai are seriously gracious! Why? Because in giving them, God has revealed some of His very moral character. Thus, when God says you shall have no other Gods before me, it’s sinful and disobedient to have another God before Him. But, it’s good and not sinful if you do not have any gods before Him. Thus, God is being gracious by allowing us to know that.
But another gracious aspect of the Sinai Covenant is that it (just like every other OT Covenant) points us directly at the true Israelite and fulfiller of this covenant, the God-man Jesus Christ Himself. Israel, God’s people, swore they would do all of the Law (Ex 24:3). Of course, this is impossible and breaking of the Law just once makes you accountable for all of it (Js 2:10). Thus the Law condemns us, since humanity are universal law-breakers. Ah, but Christ! Christ had to come to Earth as a human. This topic is debated (whether or not He had to come), but I am firmly in the camp that He had to, not only because God decreed in eternity past that He would and it was therefore part of His plan, but also because humanity is unsavable without a human representative. We are law-breakers and the only manner in which God can pardon sinners in violation of His Law is for them to have a perfect human representative who has not violated His Law. Of course, this human representative who is the law-keeper is Jesus Christ. Hence, you must be in Christ.
Number 3, Buzzin’ Like A Bee…
Since God’s Law doesn’t function in a vacuum it must function along with something else to find its true purpose. This something else is the promise. Thus, when law is viewed through the lens of promise, we get the proper definition of New Covenant obedience. God has not done away with His Law. It is eternal and unchanging. He certainly has acted in different manners in different eras as revelation was progressively given, but God Himself is unchangeable. Thus, even now, His Law still stands. Likewise, Old Testament saints were not justified by law any more than we are. Law must function under the umbrella of promise.
Now, let us address three errors that are made in this regard.
Error 1 - Screw God’s Commands, We’re Under Grace!
This is, of course, what is called antinomianism (anti-law). This error is very prevalent in Western evangelicalism today. No disrespect to my fundamentalist brethren, but they are perhaps the biggest culprits in this regard. Ironically, they are big culprits of error number three as well (we’ll get to that). Essentially, the error of antinomianism has a very high view of grace (which is good!) but a very wrong view of the nature of salvation. Zane Hodges, of free grace (let us not lump all of free grace theology into this category) theological fame, is extreme in this regard. He basically is of the opinion that once a person ‘says the sinner’s prayer’ or some other concocted device, they’re in, and then nothing else matters. Now while I fully agree with Hodges regarding salvation - when God saves He saves forever - I disagree vehemently regarding the nature of salvation. A saved person is not going to say a prayer and have no change of life. How can that happen when the Holy Spirit indwells a person? At the root, this error betrays a very trichotomist flavor. That is, the spirit (our spirit) is what receives spiritual truth and it’s opposed to the body and mind. Thus, the body and mind are bad and might just keep on living a brutally sinful lifestyle. The person must allow the spirit to control the mind. If not, the person is still saved, but a ‘carnal Christian’ emerges. This of course, bases salvation on nothing but a bare profession. That’s quite foolish in light of Scripture.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ have been baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. -Romans 6:1-4 (ESV)
Error 2 - God, You Owe Me Life For Following Your Commands!
Legalism. When a person tries to draw spiritual life through their obedience to God’s commands, this is classic legalism. The holiness churches are generally guilty of this. They’re so concerned about holy living that they’ve missed the main point - the Gospel is pushed to the side or neglected altogether. Apart from Gospel, following God’s commands is nothing but condemnation, since apart from Gospel, even the best works a person does are filthy rags. Apart from Gospel, justification is impossible. Pretty much any theology that teaches salvation is something that can be lost falls into legalism by default, since it naturally follows that a person must do certain things in order to gain or keep salvation. Normally these things you must do are follow God’s commands. Thus, life is attempted to be gained through obedience.
The problems here should be obvious. The first obvious one is that it denies that Christ did enough to save us apart from our striving. Thus, Christ ultimately will save us, but only as a result of how well we do. This isn’t much different from other false religions. Second, the view of grace is far too low and very incorrect. It views grace as God’s part, and now I have to do mine (faith, works, whatever). That of course is only a small amount of the whole story. Not only does grace alone save a person, but grace alone gives the person the desire to please God. If you hear someone pitching obedience, obedience, obedience, and that's what they preach, and it's never connected to the Gospel, chances are you've found yourself a practicing legalist.
Error 3 - God, I Just Know You’ll Like This!
The third error is something we all do to an extent, but some churches are more blatant than others in this regard. That is, we invent laws and add them to God’s Law. This is amounts to a soft form of legalism. Here are some examples. The ten commandments end and the eleventh says that certain styles of music are wrong and sinful. Sinful music then leads to the idea that you must use only the King James Bible and all other translations are Satanic. Even more so, perhaps the KJV is inspired just like (or more than!) the original autographs! After that, the 13th commandment is that alcohol cannot be consumed in any form and as all good fundamentalists know, Jesus didn’t really turn water into wine, He turned it Welch’s grape juice. And He certainly didn’t use wine at the last supper! How about the 14th commandment? Women can’t wear pants and if they do they’re probably unsaved. And men, you better wear your best black suit to church on Sunday! The ironic thing is that the actual ten commandments get pushed off as a peculiar national Israel thing. That’s just the Old Testament, they’ll say. The Old Testament is just a bunch of stories, someone else will opine.
How disgustingly patronizing of us to invent things that we think God will like and ignore everything He has told us that He does like! Scripture plainly gives us insight into what please God. It is none other than obedience to His Law. I like Mike Horton’s comment here in this regard. He says,
“So if we all agree that Christians as individuals and communities require certain standards for how we should live, the question is whether those norms should originate with us or with God. I evidently still have not been married long enough to overcome my penchant for buying presents for my wife that she doesn’t actually want. Instead, I often will buy her what I want her to have or think she wants. When I don’t get the response I’d like, my response (even if unstated) is frequently something like this: ‘Look, if you tell me what you want every time Christmas or your birthday rolls around, I’ll never be able to be spontaneous and creative in expressing my love for you.’ Of course, there are countless ways in a given day in which I could express my love in spontaneous and creative ways, but it is not, at the end of the day, a sign of love but of selfishness if I do not consider her likes and dislikes when it comes to present. How much more are our pretensions to pleasing God actually displeasing when we willfully determine for ourselves - out of our own desire for expressing spontaneity and creativity - what kind of response to His grace brings Him joy. My wife is a sinner just as I am, but God is holy. He has not simply revealed personal preferences, but the law that expresses His own moral character. He has not commanded anything of us that is not required by the core of His very being. His commands never spring from a whim, but come from a will that is rooted in His unchanging nature.”
Now isn’t that the truth? How much more patronizing of us when we invent things we think God likes because we’ve sovereignty determined they please Him, instead of simply following the things that He Himself has said.
So What’s The Point, Grasshopper???
Well, I’m glad you asked, dragonfly. I took the liberty of drawing a theological basis for the normative (or third) use of the law before I got to the main point. Moreover, I tried to establish the idea that the Law is unchanging and eternal and is not abolished. God hasn't changed His mind. New Covenant obedience is important. It’s all over Scripture in the New Testament. First, we must keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is the Gospel. Obedience cannot function in a vacuum any more than God’s Law functions in one. Obedience can only function properly in light of the Gospel. How often do people go flying off into the world fired up for Christ only to burnout and suffer despair? I am convinced one of the major reasons for this is that people get the false idea that the Gospel is only for evangelism of the unsaved. Then, after we believe the Gospel, we move on to something else. BB Warfield once said, "Christian, you cannot move beyond the Gospel." That idea, I am convinced is severely incorrect. It leads to nothing but burnout as the Gospel is neglected and the void is filled by self-effort. On the other hand, if the Gospel is kept the main thing all the time, we will have a never-ending well spring to draw from. Our obedience will be a joy and will be done for the primary reason that we want to please God by following what He has commanded precisely because of what He has done on our behalf. Not to earn, not to merit, but out of sheer love. Only the Gospel can truly drive heartfelt joyful obedience.
What defines our obedience? The answer to this is the Law. Specifically, the 10 commandments, when fleshed out, cover all of our actions in life. It drives me bonkers when folks invent goofy ideas that God's Law has no place whatever in the Christian life and then anytime you even say the word "law" you get called a legalist. But when you press it further and ask them how Christian obedience is defined, you get shoddy answers like, 'Well, I just follow my faith,' or something like that. They end up with absolutely no basis for obedience. Now we must be careful with this idea here, because if it is defined incorrectly, we end up with the idea of justification by grace and sanctification by law-keeping. And that’s just not true. We must then, understand how the New Covenant works. To do this, we simply need to look at what God gives us in His New Covenant. In the broader sense He gives us the ultimate gift of salvation. That being said, salvation has different parts. Let us look at a couple Old Testament passages that prophecy the coming New Covenant in Christ.
Jeremiah 31:33-34 (ESV) (cf. Hebrews 8:8-13): For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 (ESV): I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Thus, we see from these two passages that the New Covenant is not going to do away with obedience, and God’s Law is still going to stand. The New Covenant promises a new heart. It promises the Spirit. It promises that the law will be written on our hearts and that God will graciously give us the desire to please and obey Him.
Where then, do we find these statutes? We find them on our heart if we’re saved, but since God doesn’t change, His commandments likewise do not change, and His statutes and rules are found in Scripture under the terminology of His law.
Thus, God’s Law can be said to have a ‘normative’ usage. That is, God’s commandments, found in His Law, function as the ‘norm’ for the Christian life. They are the guidance for our obedience. This does not fall into the category of justification by grace alone and then sanctification by law-keeping however. This is because we are sanctified by God Himself, given to us in the form of the Holy Spirit. God does not save us from the curses of the law just to drive us back to the law to save ourselves by our obedience. We obey by following the Spirit, who causes our obedience to conform to the law (specifically the 10 commandments). The Spirit does not cause us to follow some nebulous idea we have concocted ourselves. The Spirit points us to Christ and causes us to desire to please God according to the terms He has set forth, not according to ours, however well-meaning we might be.
Since we have been set free from the Law’s curses, we are viewed as perfect fulfillers of it, but only because we are in Christ, our substitute. This is the essence of justification. It's a legal trade and it's wholly one-sided. Christ gets our sin and we get His perfect righteousness credited to our account. Therefore, because the Law no longer threatens us, we can joyfully obey God’s commands, knowing that Christ has died a covenantal substitutionary death on our behalf, taking upon Himself the Law’s curses. We are now free to obey God according to the greatest intention of His Law. Jesus sums up the entire Law in one fell swoop while speaking to the Pharisees in Matthew 22:37-40, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…And…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” We also know from above that the New Covenant promised a new heart. Jesus also tells us that, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matt 12:34) Paul tells us in Romans 10:9 “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” We must be born again. We must have a new heart.
Therefore, we cannot disjoint heartfelt obedience from the Gospel itself. Law can only function in its greatest intent if it is viewed under the umbrella of the Gospel. Holiness preaching for the sake of holiness preaching misses the point severely, just like the Pharisees missed the point in the Gospels. It leads to legalism, and worse, works-righteousness. It pitches nothing more than a human centered false Gospel that we can somehow make ourselves good enough before God. We must be clear in our preaching of the Gospel about what Christ did and all of the promises that come with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. We need not preach Christ AND holiness. What we need to do is preach Christ correctly, because holiness is an inseparable part of that. We preach all Gospel all the time, as holiness is inextricably wrapped up in this proclamation. How can we who died to sin still live in it? Paul asks. Indeed. How can we? We have been given a new heart. We are a new person. We have been crucified with Christ. Let us not separate our obedience to Christ into a sub-category. Let us recognize that the New Covenant promises the entire package. God gives us everything. We must see that everything involving salvation is comprehended in Christ and Him alone. We are not saved by following Christ. Neither us nor our obedience is the Gospel. We are saved by what Christ has done. Alone. Period. Our following Christ is a result of being saved, not an instrument of our salvation. A person that does not follow Christ has no reason to believe they're regenerate. A regenerate person desires to follow Christ.
Therefore, let us press on toward the final and ultimate goal of glory with Christ, remembering always what He has done so perfectly and completely on our behalf, joyfully obeying Him with this alone in mind.