The matter of the Christian’s relation to the law has been a subject of debate in the church since the days of the apostle Paul. Both his Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians deal with this issue as it affected the Apostolic churches. Paul argues especially against those who desired to force the cruel bonds of legalism upon the New Testament churches. Not only did they propose to bring the churches back to the ceremonies and civil regulations of the Old Testament, but they also taught that these things were necessary for salvation.
Such legalism is still to be found in the church. It is found in its worst form in the Romish church where sacrificial rites and priestly ceremonies are regarded as the heart of true religion and the only way of salvation. It is also found in Protestant churches among those who find the essence of Christianity in regulations and rules, even among preachers who preach the law only as an endless list of “dos” and “don’ts.”
On the other hand, James and also Paul bring the Word of God to bear upon those who maintain either in their teaching or in their practice that the law has nothing any more to say to him who is justified in Christ Jesus by faith alone. Even today among those in whom this attitude has taken deep root, any reaching or application of the law to the Christian is strenuously resisted.
Now, it is not my purpose to attempt to add anything to the volumes that have been written in explaining, defending, or repudiating either the one or the other of these false doctrines. Rather it is my purpose to point out that fundamental to our understanding of the law and its place in our lives is the fact that God reveals Himself in His law. The basic principle of the whole law is that it is the law of God, not only or even especially in the sense that it is from Him, as it surely is, but in the sense that His glory, His perfection, and His holiness shine forth in every precept of the law. In this and in following articles I hope to show how this principle applies in connection with each of the Ten Commandments by showing what God reveals of Himself in each commandment. Then, too, we shall be able to understand how God’s law teaches us to fear Him as we ought.
This principle is implied in the common Hebrew word for the law, the word “torah.” The word meaning “teaching” or “instruction.” This is clear, for example, from Proverbs 1:8 where “instruction” and “law” are synonymous. This instruction which the law gives is not an arbitrary code of morality, but instruction in the very nature and being of God Himself as the only foundation for morality and right living. It is, to use the words of Scripture, instruction in “the praises of the Lord and His strength” (Ps. 78:4).
This principle is also clearly taught in Psalm 119. It is found especially in the first section of the Psalm because it is the most basic truth concerning God’s law, and the basis for all that David says in that Psalm about the law. In harmony, therefore, with the parallelism of these verses, we are reminded that “keeping His testimonies” is the very same thing as “seeking Him with the whole heart” (vs. 2); or that “learning His righteous judgments” is no different from “praising Him with uprightness of heart” (vs. 7). Later on, David returns to this thought when he likens the teaching of God’s statutes to God’s making His face to shine upon His servants (vs. 135).
It is, then, only because David understands this principle that he can say, “I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, as much as in all riches” (vs. 14). To rejoice in God’s testimonies is to rejoice in the riches of God Himself. So also he speaks of beholding wondrous things out of the law (vs. 18), and testifies, “Thy statutes have been my song in the house of my pilgrimage” (vs. 54). And when he comforts himself with the knowledge of God’s judgments, it is clear that this comfort is found in God and nowhere else (vs. 52).
That same principle lies behind the teaching of our Belgic Confession in Article XXV:
We believe, that the ceremonies and figures of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all of the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians, yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in Whom they have their completion.
In order to see here this principle of which we are speaking it is necessary to look at several other important truths taught in this beautiful confession.
First of all, we ought to note that the law itself is not abolished (cf. Matt. 5:17, 18), but rather that “the truth and substance” of it remain with us. Only the ceremonies and figures of the law have ceased. These ceremonies and figures are a reference to all the civil and ceremonial regulations which God used to teach Israel what is called here “the truth and substance” of the law. We no longer need to be taught by these regulations since we have the Spirit of the risen Christ as our great Teacher. These ceremonies and figures, then, must be abolished.
Yet, and in the second place, the truth and substance of the law do remain. An example of this is found in the law which forbade the Israelites to plow with an ox and an ass together (Deut. 22:10). The law no longer forbids this, but the truth and substance of that commandment still remain with us in II Corinthians 6:14, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” So it is with all the laws of the Old Testament.
That truth and substance of the law is God’s own revelation of Himself in the law. That is true even in connection with the passage from II Corinthians. That command to be separate from unbelievers is not an arbitrary requirement, but finds its source in the holiness and purity of God Himself. He is the Light and in Him is no darkness. We are light in Him, and therefore must be a separate people, for “what fellowship hath light with darkness?” (vs. 14). As Peter says in another place, we must be holy, not according to any standards of our own, but as the Lord our God is holy (I Pet. 1:15, 16).
We ought not forget either, in this regard, that there was law before Sinai, not in the sense of a written code, but because God reveals Himself in all of creation. Also that revelation of God is a law which governs the whole of man’s existence. To know Him is to be under obligation to serve Him. God’s law, then, is from the beginning and finds its truth and substance in the declaration of the heavens and all creation concerning His glory.
Paul makes it abundantly clear in Romans 1:19-25 that God’s revelation of His power and divinity in the creation brings all mankind under the obligation to glorify Him as God and to be thankful. Failing to do so, man is left without excuse and becomes worthy of death. This is also proved by the universal reign of death during the time from Adam to Moses. Without law there is no sin imputed, and without the imputation of sin death has no power over us, yet death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom. 5:13, 14). God’s law, therefore, as a revelation of His own glorious being was given first of all in the things that are made and later engraved in tables of stone.
Because of sin, however, that revelation of God, whether in creation or from Sinai, can only bring down wrath upon us. We are exposed in all our corruption by the law, for the law, shining with the glory and holiness of God, shows that we have “come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It is sin which kills us, and sin finds its power and opportunity in the law (Rom. 7:10, 11).
Of utmost importance, therefore, is the statement of our Confession that the truth and substance of the law remain with us in Christ. Apart from Him the law can only curse us and bring death upon us, but in Christ that power of the law is destroyed, for “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: as it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth upon a tree” (Gal. 3:13).
Nevertheless, in taking away the curse of the law Christ did not take away the law itself. He only changed our relationship to the law. Formerly the law was our master through its power to curse and destroy, but when that power is taken away through the suffering and death of our Lord the law becomes our servant and a means for our salvation.
It is our servant especially in two ways. First of all, it is our servant with its power to reveal sin. The law has not lost that power, only its power to curse when sin is revealed. Now, in revealing sin, it is a schoolmaster, and teacher to lead us to Christ. Always it reminds us through its revelation of God that we cannot stand before Him in ourselves, and that knowledge drives us, not once, but again and again all our life long to the cross. Understand, the law itself has no power to take away the burden of sin, but by grace its power is to lead us to Calvary where burdens are lifted. This it did also for Israel.
In the second place, the law serves as a guide in the way of gratitude. It organizes our life as those who are called out of darkness into light to show forth the Lord’s praises. And it does that exactly because it reveals the praises of Jehovah our Savior. That was the purpose of the law-giving at Sinai. Through the giving of the law Israel, redeemed by the blood of the passover lamb and the baptism of the Red Sea, eating daily the heavenly manna and drinking of the Rock Who followed them, was organized as the people of Jehovah to worship Him and to live before Him as the people of His care.
For Israel as for us, the law could serve this purpose only through Christ and the promise of His coming. Already at Sinai, in pictures and types, God showed Christ to His people, not only by reminding them of the blood of the passover lamb and the water of baptism, but also by giving them the law “in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:19). Moses as a mediator between God and the people, was a type and shadow of Him Who was to come. In Christ promised, therefore, Israel appears before God as washed and sanctified, to receive the law not as a way of salvation, but that in holiness of life, she might glorify Her Savior God. So also do we, the true Israel of God, receive the law from Him.
The law, then, teaches us to fear Him as we ought, not with the terror of the ungodly, but with a holy awe and reverence that will not allow us to glory in anything but in the cross of Christ; an awe which drives us to the cross for peace and pardon, and which causes us to return from the cross with a new resolve to live as children of the light for the praise of Him Who delivered us out of darkness. Thus the commandments become also for us, with their revelation of the majesty and holiness of God, “our songs in the house of our pilgrimage.”