Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
By “The Law” we mean the will of God for His redeemed in Christ. That will of God is expressed in the inspired, infallible Holy Scriptures and summed in the law of the Ten Commandments. There are, according to Scripture, two uses of God’s law or we could say, the law serves two purposes. It is the teacher of our misery (cf. Lord’s Day II, Heidelberg Catechism) and the law is the rule for the Christian’s life of gratitude to God for the salvation God has wrought in Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us that the .entire law of God may be summed in two words: We are to love the Lord our God with all that we are, and we are to love the neighbor as ourselves. (cf. Matthew 22:34-40) Standing before the law’s demand, the Christian learns his misery. That misery is that he is prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor. In no wise is the Christian able to keep the commandments of God. (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. II) The Christian’s only hope of salvation lies in Jesus Christ Who is: “. . . the end (fulfillment, R.D.D.) of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” (Romans 10:4) Thus the law functions as the teacher of the Christian’s misery.
It is, however, to the second use of the law that we wish to call attention in this article, the law as the rule for the Christian’s life of gratitude. By way of introduction we should notice that the form of the law suggests the idea of completeness and perfection. There are ten commandments and that number ten is ‘the number of completeness, of fullness of measure as determined by God. Those ten Words are divided into two tables. Commandments one through four teach us how we are to behave towards God; and Commandments five through ten teach us how we are to behave towards the neighbor. Thus our entire life in all its relationships is covered by the law. The law was written on both sides of two tables of stone. That it was written on tables of stone implies that it can never be erased. The law stands eternally as the expression of God’s perfect will. That those two tables are filled on both sides emphasizes once more that the law is the complete, the full expression of God’s will for us. Finally as to its form, the law is negative. Each commandment, with the exception of the fourth in part and the fifth, comes with a: “Thou shalt not . . .” This emphasizes the fact that we are by nature always inclined to transgress God’s Law. The law clearly points to our sinful natures according to which we are not able to keep God’s law.
But if the form of the law is negative, its content is positive. Some people, many in fact, never get beyond the form of the law. These consider the law to be a code of negatives which govern the outward actions of men. As long as one does not commit the act of murder or the physical act. of adultery he keeps the law. Jesus (cf. Matthew 5) taught otherwise! Our Lord points us to the fact that .murder is hatred of the neighbor and that adultery is committed in the lustful heart of a man. The law requires the inner obedience of love to God and the neighbor.
What is the content of God’s law? What does the law say to us? The law of God begins with these powerful, beautiful, and majestic words: “And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:1, 2) What is this if it be not the very gospel of God in Jesus Christ? The law came four hundred and thirty years after the promise and was added to the promise. But the law could not annul or make the promise of no effect. On the contrary, the law served as the schoolmaster to lead God’s Israel to Christ, in whom was all of their redemption. (cf. Galatians 3)
But what a tremendous word: “I am the Lord thy God.” The Lord reveals His unique relationship with His people, Israel. The Lord is saying: I am Jehovah THY God, i.e., in distinction from all other nations, I am THY God. You are my peculiar treasure. I will bless you and your children. Because I am thy God I have redeemed thee from Egypt’s bondage. God speaks that same word to us. He says to us: I have redeemed thee from bondage of sin and death. I have delivered you from the oppression of the Egypt of this world through Jesus Christ. I bless you with all spiritual blessings in Christ Who died for you and arose again. You shall be preserved by my Spirit and taken into the glory of the heavenly Canaan. Because I am thy God, the God of thy salvation, I come to you with my law. This is the path of perfect freedom for you as My children. This is the way you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, in thankfulness, and to my praise.
God is saying to us: because I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me Yes, the law is expressed in negative terms for reasons already cited, but positively the law says: thou shalt love the Lord thy God! This is the essence of the entire law, the issue at stake in every commandment. The love of God must be our motive in serving Him alone, in worshipping God as He has commanded in His Word, in reverencing His holy Name, in keeping the Sabbath holy, honoring father and mother and all in authority over us, in loving the neighbor in his person, in his marriage relation, property and possession, in his name. The love of God must fill our hearts with contentment so that we refrain from coveting. In every sphere and relationship of life God says just one thing: love me!
And, we must love God not just by outward conformity to His law, but with the heart, mind, soul, and strength. In the world outward conformity is sufficient. A man may covet as long as he does not steal. But God looks at the heart, and if the love of God is not there, we stand condemned. Here there is no compromise. The law is absolute. It is never: “both . . . and,” but always: “either . . . or.” If we do not love God, we hate Him. This is precisely what Jesus taught us in Matthew 22:37-40: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Into this freedom God brought us by the wonder of the cross of Jesus Christ.
In the light of this it is very difficult to understand why many deny the necessity of God’s law. Some object to the law by saying it conflicts with the Christian’s liberty of Christ. It is, according to these, contrary to the very nature of grace to confront the Christian with the law. The law is fulfilled in Christ. We are no longer under the law, but under grace. Neither are we any longer little children who need a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law so don’t preach the law to me,” these will say. Others place all of the emphasis on justification. We are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by grace. Hence the law cannot be the whole or even a part of our salvation. Preaching the law, these objectors claim, will lead to the heresy of Phariseeism.
What does the Bible say to this? The Bible says we are free in Christ! Never ought we deny or minimize this great truth. To do so is to fall into either legalism or antinomianism. And both are grievous errors which have caused much grief and harm in the history of God’s church. We are free in Christ! Free we are from the curse of the law, for Christ was made a curse for us. The law is not the way of salvation for us. We do not earn salvation by doing the works of the law. We are free in Christ. Jesus Christ is all of our righteousness, and the law is written in our very hearts.
But that freedom is not license. We are not free to trample God’s law under foot. We are not free to sin, that grace may abound. And we may not use our liberty in Christ as an occasion for the flesh. (cf.Galatians 5) We are free in Christ to live in the sphere of God’s law. We are free from the guilt of sin, free from the power of death and the corruption of sin. Free we are in Jesus Christ to love and serve the Lord our God and for His sake to love the neighbor as ourselves.
Now, it is a struggle. Daily we have to put off the old man and put on the new man in Christ. We need the admonition of God’s Word: “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage . . . only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Galatians 5:1, 13, 14)