Category Archives: Law
The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.
Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.
Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.
Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.
In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.
In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.
The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).
“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.
And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).
What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.
There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).
To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.
But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.
And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).
During the late medieval period there was a significant shift in the nature of Christian moral teaching. Since the time of the apostles moral instruction had centered on the Sermon on the Mount and the writings of the apostles, but in the later part of the middle ages the emphasis shifted to the law, especially the Ten Commandments. I’ve written on the causes of that shift here and here.
The result was that both Catholic and Protestant ethics came to characterize the Christian life as being fundamentally about duty and obligation. Classic Christian teaching on happiness and virtue was left undeveloped, if not ignored entirely. Even the concept of charity, or love, in principle understood to be the essence of Christian morality, was in practice often reduced to a theoretical abstraction whose true content simply consisted in the commandments of the law. And Immanuel Kant’s hugely influential ethics raised the significance of commandment – of the categorical imperative – to a whole new level, while secularizing it at the same time.
Eventually, and inevitably, this led to a reaction. Utilitarianism – with its emphasis on consequences, happiness, and the ends justifying the means – came to dominate western ethics. And Christian ethicists – including both Catholics and liberal Protestants – called for a return to the ethics of love.
In his book The Sources of Christian Ethics Servais Pinckaers describes the way this worked out in Catholic moral theology.
On the one hand, traditional ethicists find it hard to set aside their instinctive mistrust of love and passion … Today an opposite reaction can be observed among ethicists and Christians. There is a strong attraction for love and spontaneity, without due regard for the demands of integrity and truth. For some, love has become the ‘Open, Sesame,’ the cure for all problems. They misapply St. Augustine’s magnificent expression, ‘Love, and do what you will,’ as if warmth of emotion liberates a person from all commandments and restraints. For St. Augustine, however, the greater the love the greater the adherence to commandments, for they are the expression of God’s love. Without the rectitude ensured by the commandments, love will not be true, will not survive.
We are faced, therefore, with a kind of sickness induced by the morality of obligation. The symptom is allergy to all obligation or authority in the name of the primacy of a naive and confused love.
So we have gone from one extreme to the other:
A moral theory of obligation depicts God as an all-powerful legislator issuing his law in the midst of thunder and lightning… The contemporary reaction to such a picture has the advantage of highlighting the goodness of God. Yet there is a risk of devaluation. In removing from God all power of judgment and punishment, and in focusing exclusively on his universal pardon, we are left with a soft and spineless God. Here we encounter one of the major problems of Christian ethics today: how to reconcile God’s love and justice.
The answer, of course, is in the gospel of Christ, and it is only being Christ-centered that Christian ethics can really be truly Christian. This is what far too many traditionalists who imagine that the need of the hour is a return to the law of God fail to understand.
On the other hand, what characterizes modernity’s (and much of contemporary Christianity’s) “naive and confused love” is a failure to grasp “one of the conditions for authentic love”: renunciation and sacrifice. In the gospel, Pinckaers reminds us, “radical self-renunciation is a necessary condition for love of Christ.” And it is that sort of love, a love shaped by cross-bearing discipleship in conformity to the image of Christ, that is so desperately needed today.
If you would be my disciple, Jesus tells us, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Mark 8:34). It’s a hard truth, but that is what Christian ethics must be all about.
My series of posts on the law during the past few weeks (starting here) have sparked some healthy and welcome discussion in various places. I’ve already addressed some of the questions that arise regarding the third use of the law, Jesus’ teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and the use of the Ten Commandments in Christian worship. Here I want to address a fourth follow-up question. Here’s how one questioner put it:
It would seem to me problematic, however, to say that Christians are not bound in any sense to obey the law – for instance, breaking the commandments against murder or theft would clearly be a sin for a Christian. So, while the focus of the Christian life is not obedience to the law, surely obedience to the law is a necessary part of the Christian life. Thus, my question is whether it is appropriate to speak of Christians being bound by, or obeying the law in any sense?
It’s an excellent question, one made all the more difficult to answer by declarations like this from the Apostle Paul:
Or do you not know, brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:1, 6)
Let me start by saying that the primary object of our obedience is God, not the law. Run a word search on the word ‘obey’ in the New Testament and you will find this to be the case. Still, it is also the case that we are to obey God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15), and the Apostle John writes, “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)
The question is, does the New Testament equate God’s commandments with the law? James comes the closest to doing so when he writes that a person who commits adultery or murder becomes a “transgressor of the law,” and he says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10-11). At first glance this seems to run directly contrary to the way Paul consistently talks about the law. For instance, in Galatians Paul uses precisely the same point to emphasize that Christians are not under the law. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4).
Did James support the Judaizers? Did he somehow renege on his support for the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), over which he presided, that the Gentiles were not bound to observe the whole law? That is highly doubtful, and in fact, James’s argument in his letter suggests greater nuance than at first meets the eye. For James does not typically refer to the law without qualification. Rather, as he puts it in James 2:12, Christians are to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”
It’s hard to know exactly what James means to accomplish by adding the phrase “of liberty,” because he does not explain his use of the term. But it seems likely that either 1) he uses the term to remind us that we are not in fact under the law nor bound by all of its decrees, but only by some of them (i.e., the Ten Commandments), or 2) he is using the phrase to remind us that we are subject to the law in a non-covenantal way, a free way, along the lines of what the Reformed tradition has traditionally meant by the third use of the law. I think the latter is more likely.
So where does this leave us? It suggests that when Christians read the law we come to it in a spirit of liberty – of freedom from the law – but nevertheless with a heavy dose of respect, since the law remains profitable for correction, rebuke, instruction, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, we still learn from it something about God’s will, what Christian theology has traditionally called God’s “moral law.” And given that we are called to obey God’s will, we are called to obey his will wherever it is revealed, including in that law as it is rightly interpreted through Christ. That’s what it would mean to speak rightly of obeying God’s law, and that’s why we can say that when we murder, or commit adultery, we transgress the law. The point is not that we are now under the law once again, but that we have transgressed against its teaching regarding the will of God.
Is this how the New Testament ordinarily speaks? No, and that should give us great caution. I believe there is tremendous value in using the language the New Testament tends to use and approaching ethics the way the New Testament tends to approach ethics. Still, as long as we understand what we are saying, there is no reason why we could not speak this way. My chief concern is that we often do not understand what we are saying, and that even when we do, our hearers do not.
There is, then, a right way to incorporate the Ten Commandments into our preaching according to the third use of the law, which is why I, for instance, will be preaching this Sunday on the sixth commandment, You shall not murder, through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. Christ came to fulfill the law and it is the moral substance of the law as fulfilled in Christ that God is writing on our hearts by his Spirit (Hebrews 8:10). David Murray captures this way of approaching the Ten Commandments in his recent blog post on the Ten Pleasures. Christians come to the law in a spirit of liberty, delighting to obey God’s will as revealed there, and as interpreted in light of Christ. That’s how we fulfill the law.
I am regularly asked what I think about the tradition followed by many Reformed churches of reading the Ten Commandments in worship every Sunday morning. As a means of answering that question, let me offer a few thoughts here.
First a few preliminary observations:
- It is important to remember that giving the Ten Commandments so much emphasis in Christian ethics (let alone Christian worship) is a relatively modern phenomena in church history. It was not a practice followed by the early church (see here and here). It is indelibly tied up with the emergence of Christendom.
- It is worth noting that among Reformed churches the Ten Commandments are used in various ways. Sometimes they are read according to the first use of the law (i.e., as a teacher of sin to drive us to Christ), to be followed by a corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness. At other times they are read according to the third use of the law (i.e., to teach us about God’s moral law as a means of serving him in gratitude for our salvation), following the corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness.
- It is safe to say that the people in the pews often don’t understand the significance of how the law is functioning. Based on conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, regardless of where it is used in the service, many people have the impression – fostered in part by the practice of simply reading the law in worship without explanation or commentary – that Christians are, in fact, under the law, with the weight of its promises and threats hanging over them.
So what do I make of this practice? I believe most Reformed churches do not read nearly enough scripture in their services. Worship should be saturated with scripture – in the prayers, the songs, the sermons, and the liturgy in general. How else will Christians learn to take scripture seriously, and how else can we be confident that our worship is the sort that God desires?
On the other hand, scripture should not be read at random, without explanation or commentary as to its role. For instance, it would be inappropriate to read a passage requiring various sacrifices from Leviticus without making it clear that this passage does not bind Christians. Similarly, it would be inappropriate to read a passage warning of God’s judgment upon sin without accompanying that with some sort of proclamation of the gospel.
How does this apply to the reading of the Ten Commandments in worship? I am a strong believer in the value of a “covenant renewal” portion of a service, an exercise where the congregation can confess its sins and hear God’s assurance of forgiveness. What I would suggest is that the Ten Commandments, like many other passages, can play a valuable role in this part of the service. Given their role in scripture as the paradigmatic expression of the law, I think the Ten Commandments are most naturally read according to the first use of the law, before the confession of sin. This enables the congregation to hear the curses found in the law, confess its sins, and then hear the gospel as the true paradigm for the Christian life. A healthy practice is then to read a gospel-based passage that calls Christians to conformity to Christ, such as Colossians 3, Romans 6, or Romans 12. This helps Christians to grasp the fact that although they are not under the law, the gospel itself empowers them for Christlike service.
This is my preference, though I should say that there are many other passages from the law I like to read before the confession of sin (for instance, Psalm 15, or Deuteronomy 27:15-26), and I think it is dangerous for any congregation to get into a rut – falling into the reading of the same passages over and over such that they lose their meaning to the congregation.
I do appreciate the fact that the Ten Commandments can also be read according to the third use of the law, after the assurance of forgiveness. However, given that this use does not reflect the covenantal function of the Ten Commandments in their scriptural context, I would argue that it needs extra clarification on the part of the pastor or liturgist. The pastor needs to observe, when reading the Ten Commandments in this way, that Christians are not under the law as were the Israelites who first heard the Decalogue, but that we can still learn from it and be reminded of God’s moral will from it as long as we read it in light of what Christ has done. For instance, Christians need to be taught that we will not necessarily receive earthly blessing by keeping this law, nor are we under the covenantal wrath of God where we fall short. Likewise, it needs to be clarified that we are not obligated to cease from work every Saturday because the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. In short, if we are using the Ten Commandments according to the spiritual (i.e., third) use of the law, according to 2 Timothy 3:16, and not according to its Old Testament function with its blessings and curses, we need to explain that.
My primary emphases, then, would be:
- Use a variety of scripture passages in worship. There are so many excellent ones out there that we never use. Why do so many churches use the Ten Commandments all the time?
- As much as possible, allow the passages you read to function in the service in a way that communicates their covenantal role in scripture. Use law passages in a law way, gospel passages in a gospel way, sanctification passages in a sanctification way, etc. This will help your congregation better understand how to read, interpret, and follow scripture in their own lives.
- Where you depart from this usage, make sure you explain it to your congregation. Do not assume that your hearers understand the gospel and the way it radically alters our use of the law.
- Make sure that the ultimate thrust of your service is always to drive people to Christ, and not simply that they might know that their sins are forgiven, but that they might embrace the call of discipleship, to take up their cross and follow him.
A second objection sometimes raised when I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not conformity to the law (see my previous articles on the law here), is taken from Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). It is sometimes paired with Jesus declaration in John 14:15, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And it is assumed that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” or “my commandments” he is talking about the Mosaic Law, or at least about the Ten Commandments.
But that is clearly not the case.
Take a look at the Sermon on the Mount again. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, as is well known, by proclaiming the blessings of the kingdom of God and calling his disciples to be salt and light in the world. Then, knowing that his hearers will find his teachings radical and fresh, especially in comparison with the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, he clarifies that he is not overturning the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) but fulfilling them. In other words, his hearers ought not to play the novelty of his words off against the Old Testament, as if the Law and the Prophets were the final and complete revelation of God. Rather, as the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is the greater revelation, the one to whom true followers of the law must now listen. In short, if you claim to want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you must follow Jesus.
Consider Jesus’ words in this light:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
Theonomists like Greg Bahnsen claimed that when Jesus spoke of “these commandments” he was referring to all the commandments of the Mosaic Law, and many of us have heard this claim so many times that, no matter how contrary to the rest of the New Testament it seems (think of Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 2:15 that in his work Christ was “abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances”), we have trouble reading the text any other way.
And yet, interpreted in context, it is clear that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” he is speaking of “these my commandments,” as in, “these commandments that you are hearing from me right now.”
Ask yourself, why does Jesus even find it necessary to clarify that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets? Because when his hearers hear his teaching, so different from that of the scribes and Pharisees (the teachers of the law), they will assume just that. After all, Jesus’ constant formula in the Sermon on the Mount is to quote the law or the rabbinic commentary on the law and then respond with an appeal to his own authority: “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …” (5:21; 5:27; 5:31; 5:33; 5:38; 5:43).
Given Jesus’ repeated contrasts between his teaching and that of the law and of the teachers of the law, given Jesus’ call to his followers to embody a greater righteousness than that of the teachers of the law, it is necessary for Jesus to remind his followers that the law pointed forward to his greater righteousness all along. Neither the law nor the prophets were ever ends in themselves. Jesus is saying that if you really want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you need to follow him. In fact, later in Matthew’s gospel he will portray representatives of the law and the prophets (Moses and Elijah) meeting with Jesus in the Transfiguration, and what does the voice of the Father in heaven say? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). It’s arguably the central theme of Matthew’s gospel.
If you are in any doubt about it, consider how the Sermon on the Mount ends. Jesus closes the sermon not with an exhortation about the importance of the Law of Moses, but with a parable about the importance of hearing Jesus’ words and doing them:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)
Needless to say, the rock Jesus is talking about here is not the law but the teachings of Jesus. And his hearers understood that. As Matthew puts it, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). The scribes, for obvious reasons, had to quote the law or the tradition of the law for everything that they taught. They had no authority in and of themselves. But Jesus not only invoked his own authority; he explicitly placed that authority above that of either the law or the tradition of the law. “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …”
There is no doubt that Matthew intends us to view the Sermon on the Mount as the revelation of one who is greater than the law because he fulfills the law. This teaching, from this mountain, is far greater than the teaching that came from Mount Sinai in the wilderness. As Paul observes in Galatians, the law “was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (3:19), but the promise has come through faith in Christ. Or as the author to the Hebrews goes to such great lengths to explain, in past days God spoke to his people through prophets, through angels, and through Moses, but “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:2-3; Cf. Hebrews 1-3). That is the basis for the theme of Hebrews from start to finish: “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1), but in Christ the true form has come.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:17-18)
Whenever I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not the law, I typically hear the objection that I am forgetting the third use of the law. The typical proof-text offered for the third use of the law is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
The concept of the third use of the law was first articulated by the Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (although the spirit of it is found already in Martin Luther), but it was through Calvin that it became so important to the Reformed tradition. Calvin distinguished between three uses of the law:
- the pedagogical use of the law, which is to teach human beings that they are sinners under a curse, and so prepare them for the gospel
- the civil use of the law, which is to order the life of human society, with the civil government’s use of the sword if necessary
- the spiritual use of the law, which is to teach and exhort those who are no longer under the law (i.e., Christians) what righteousness looks like
Calvin argued that in its proper sense the Old Testament law served primarily to fulfill the first use of the law, the pedagogical use, to teach people their sin and drive them to Christ. But he argued that for Christians, who have received the gospel, been justified, and are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14), the third use, the spiritual use, becomes primary.
Most Reformed Christians understand this, I think, but what I fear many do not understand is how this spiritual use actually works. Many Christians seem to think the third use of the law means that once we have believed the gospel we are placed right back under the law again. Christ has forgiven our sins and given us his Spirit, so now we can get back to following the law. It’s a paradigm of law-gospel-law. Sometimes these same Christians continue to view the law as the one eternal covenant that God has made with his people. For them, the Christian life doesn’t look very different from the life of an Old Testament Israelite. True, we know about Jesus, and we have the Spirit in a greater measure than they did, but the basic form and content of the Christian life is not very different from that of a faithful Israelite.
The problem with this perspective is that it fails to grasp the fact that for Israelites the first use of the law was the primary one. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, the Israelites were under the law as a tutor to lead them to Christ. It was to teach them their sin and drive them to a savior. Israelites were under the law because they were subject to its curses and obligated to perform its sacrifices in order to be right with God. When Israelites heard the Ten Commandments, they heard it as a statement of their covenantal relationship with God:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
This is what some theologians have called the “works principle” of the law, but which we might more accurately refer to as its covenantal or legal force. It is the principle that those who are under the law must do the works of the law in order to receive its blessing and avoid its curse. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Galatians 3:10,12 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ … But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” To be “under the law” for Paul is to be subject to it in this covenantal or legal way.
What is crucial to understand is that when Calvin said that the third use of the law is the primary use for Christians he was sharply distinguishing it from this legal sense. As he puts it in the Institutes, “the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive” (2.7.13).
In short, Christians are no longer under the law in a legal or covenantal sense. We are no longer subject to its penalties should we fail to measure up to its standards. It cannot be enforced against us. In that sense, we don’t even experience it as a law anymore. Whenever we read it, or hear it read, we need to translate it in light of what Christ has done. Christ is now the primary paradigm for our life, not the law.
Where the third use comes in, however, is in its ongoing role for education and exhortation, as Calvin explains in Institutes 2.7.12. We are not be under the law in a covenantal or legal sense anymore, but we can still learn from it and be exhorted by it. When we study the law in light of its fulfillment in Christ, it helps us understand the righteousness to which God has called us. Although we are thankful that it is no longer a “burden” that weighs upon us (Acts 15:10), we are free to peruse its stipulations to understand better why Jesus had to come, what he accomplished, and what he continues to accomplish in us by his Spirit. We are free to read its stories and hear its curses and blessings from a safe distance, using them to spur us on to greater conformity to Christ.
That’s why Paul could be emphatic throughout his writings that Christians are no longer under the law, and yet still say to Timothy that all of Scripture, including the law, remains profitable for Christians’ instruction.
What Paul did not say to Timothy is that Christians are once again under the law. What he did not say is that the Christian life consists in law-keeping. On the contrary, he insisted that he was “not myself under the law,” though he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Paul is emphatic throughout his writings that the Christian life consists not in a return to the law but in spiritual union with Christ (in whom the law is fulfilled) and conformity to Christ’s image (by which the law is fulfilled). To continue to make the law the paradigm for the Christian life is to dwell upon the shadow rather than the substance (Colossians 2:17). It is akin to requiring circumcision rather than baptism, or to modeling our worship after the temple sacrificial system rather than Christ’s instruction in the new covenant. As Paul puts it so clearly in Romans 7:6:
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
I once heard the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Atlanta proclaim from his pulpit that “the essence of the Christian life consists in one word: lawkeeping.” It was a statement that reflected that pastor’s consistent emphasis in his ministry, and over time it devastated his congregation. I am yet to meet another pastor who agrees with the claim that the essence of the Christian life consists in lawkeeping.
And yet, I find the spirit of the claim reflected in sermons, books, and online articles over and over again: The heart of the Christian life is obedience to God’s law. The purpose of our justification is sanctification to God’s law. Christians need not fear putting God’s law at the heart and center of our lives because now that we have been saved, we can obey that law out of heartfelt desire rather than out of fear.
Now, let me be clear. There is an element of truth to all of these statements if they are understood correctly. Jeremiah promised that in the new covenant God would write his law on his people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31), and Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The problem with the constant emphasis on the law, however, is that too many Christians utterly fail to grasp the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus. And no, I’m not talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as far as our justification is concerned. I think most Reformed Christians get that. I’m talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s moral character and will.
Jesus, not the law, is the ultimate expression of God’s will for humanity. Jesus embodies what it means to be a true human being. In his character and virtues we see what true human flourishing looks like. We see the sort of love and sacrificial service that creates genuine communion. We see the mercy and justice that brings reconciliation. We see the piety and patience that testifies to peace with God.
The New Testament pounds away at this theme so often it continues to baffle me that so many Christians miss it. On the one hand, some Christians worry that shifting our emphasis from the law to Christ constitutes some sort of antinomianism (lawlessness). On the other hand, some Christians fail to grasp just how thorough of a transformation the gospel calls us to, as individuals and communities, as the Spirit makes us like Jesus.
Take a look at a passage like 2 Corinthians 3, on which I heard an excellent sermon by Tom Groelsema just yesterday. Paul explains in vivid language how we are no longer under the law written on tablets of stone, what Paul calls the “ministry of death,” a covenant whose glory was terrifying even as it was ultimately fleeting. Rather, we have received the far more glorious ministry of the Spirit, the Spirit who gives us freedom as he transforms us, not according to the law, but into the likeness of Jesus. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
This is just one passage, but the New Testament pounds at this theme over and over. We could literally cite dozens of statements. We might as well declare that our prooftext is the entire New Testament. So why do so many Christians – and so many Christian pastors – miss it? Why does the “so what?” portion of so many Christian sermons sound like a return to the law? Why do so many Christians reduce their engagement with nonbelievers to witnessing to the law?
We are living in a time when most of our neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens no longer receive Christian moral teaching – especially when it pertains to matters revolving around sexuality – as conducive of a good life. When they hear Christians talk about life they primarily hear a message about arbitrary rules and judgment. God’s wrath is upon us because we have disobeyed his law, they hear, and only believing in Jesus can save us so that we can get back to the business of obeying his (seemingly arbitrary) law once again. The narrative starts with law and ends with law, and though there is some profound talk about Jesus and grace in the middle, it’s not with Jesus that this story usually ends.
People don’t become Christians because they fall in love with the Ten Commandments.
If we expect nonbelievers to hear the gospel as good news once again we need to recover our focus on Christ from the beginning to the end of our message. The Christian life does not consist in a story of law-gospel-law. We aren’t saved simply so that we can be placed back under the law once again. And the essence of the Christian life and of Christian witness does not consist in a witness to God’s law. The misery of sin need not have any dominance over us because we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). We can experience the fruit of the Spirit through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” because “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). We can walk in faith, hope, and love, rather than according to the desires of the flesh, which “keep you from doing the things you want to do,” because “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18).
This freedom is what the Christian life is all about. It’s what so many of our family members, neighbors, and coworkers so desperately need to hear, because from beginning to end, it is truly good news.
Reformation 21 has published the third part of my series on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race. It is entitled “Gospel Politics” and seeks to contrast King’s tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the gospel to the segregationists’ tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the Old Testament. At the heart of it lies King’s critique of the southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, a doctrine that had a lot in common with a certain contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine. As King put it,
I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’ … In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
What was King’s alternative? Whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God’s natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted that same law in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being.
Christian political activists from across the political spectrum sometimes speak and act as if Christians should brook no compromise with the state on the particular issue with which they are concerned. Whether the issue is sustenance for the poor, protection for the unborn, the punishment of what scripture calls sexual immorality, or something else, the argument is made that on this point there can be no compromise: A Christian cannot vote for a libertarian or a Tea party candidate, or for a pro-choice politician, or for a politician who supports gay rights, etc. So the argument runs. I suppose we are all supposed to write in our favored names, be it Jim Wallis, Pat Robertson, or Doug Wilson.
It is certainly true that when it comes to proclamation and witness Christians should preach the whole will of God. As Timothy P. Jackson points out, no faithful Christian would willingly sacrifice fidelity to God to her own political or personal interests. We are disciples of Christ first and foremost. A Christian pastor is obligated prophetically to proclaim the whole word of God.
But that doesn’t mean civil government should enforce the whole will and word of God, as the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin have all recognized. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity offers no divine blueprint for politics. It sharply delineates the kingdom of Christ from political authority, the restorative ministry of the gospel from the limited preservative power of civil government, and divine law from human law. To put it another way, Christian theologians distinguish the perfect standard of God’s natural moral law from the way in which Christians, in service to their neighbors, apply that law to politics according to the virtues of love and prudence (not to be mistaken for self-serving pragmatism). As Jacques Ellul put it,
“Our task, therefore, is not to determine what law with a Christian content is; rather, it is to find out what the lordship of Jesus Christ means for law (law as it exists), and what function God has assigned to law.”
All of this may sound an awful lot like moral relativism. Wouldn’t it be best simply to advocate the implementation of the law of God, come what may? In fact, John Calvin pointed out, even the law of God itself, the Torah, limited the civil enforcement of God’s will to what sinful human beings could be expected to fulfill. Its severity was relaxed due to the hardness of human hearts, and it even regulated unjust practices in order to minimize their destructive consequences.
OK, you might think, we all know that civil government can’t enforce certain laws, such as the prohibition of coveting, or lust, and that Israel’s laws tolerated things like slavery. But surely government must enforce the big prohibitions, like the ones against murder, adultery, or theft, without compromise. In fact, Calvin recognized the limits of Israel’s civil law even here. The prototypical case was the Torah’s law of divorce, which Jesus himself said is ordinarily unjust even though Moses tolerated and regulated it due to the hardness of human hearts. But Calvin extended the principle to a myriad of other laws in the Torah, including laws that tolerated adultery, murder, and the abuse of slaves, that he believed failed to measure up to the standards of God’s natural law. These include:
- the law that permitted men to enslave and force into marriage women captured in war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10)
- the law that minimized the penalty for a man who committed adultery with a slave (Commentary on Leviticus 19:20-22)
- the law that permitted soldiers to murder prisoners of war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:12)
- the law that permitted a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Commentary on Exodus 21:7-11)
- the law that permitted a slave to divorce his wife in order to attain his freedom (Commentary on Exodus 21:1)
- the law that minimized the penalty for slave-owners who mistreated their slaves (Commentary on Exodus 21:26)
- the law that tolerated and regulated polygamy (Commentary on Leviticus 18:18)
In all of these cases Calvin argues that although the conduct in question was patently unjust, God nevertheless tolerated it due to the hardness of human hearts, and even provided for its regulation in Israel’s civil law. His point is not to defend these laws. On the contrary, Calvin is more than willing to suggest that the Torah’s civil laws can and should be improved upon by in the laws of nations. The objective is not to seek the lowest common denominator, but to recognize that there are limits on what the state can do and should try to do. While the gospel may accomplish what is impossible for human beings, politics remains the art of the possible.
All of this suggests that many Christians would do well to reconsider their dogmatism when it comes to contemporary American politics. The questions facing citizens and politicians alike are complex. It is no easy matter to determine what forms of injustice or immorality government should tolerate, let alone how it should regulate them to minimize abuse. It is not always easy to determine which politicians hold their convictions about the limits of law in good faith.
Christians desperately seek certainty in these matters, but when it comes to politics certainty is a luxury. Here we do not have a clear divine blueprint for law or policy. Here we are in the arena of the virtues of love, prudence, and humility, which each person must seek to put on, in conformity to the image of Christ, as best she can, in good conscience.
In the meantime, Christians must remember that what the state is able to accomplish is not the limit of what human beings are expected to fulfill, let alone what the church should proclaim. Christ demands perfect justice and holiness from all human beings, in every area of life, and it is to that standard that he will hold us all accountable when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).