Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Is the law of any use in the life of the child of God today? Now that Christ has come and fulfilled the law, has not the New Testament church entered into the age of grace without law? In other words, does not Christ through faith now reign in us so that there is no real and substantial need for the law? By the law, of course, is meant God’s moral law, the law of the Ten Commandments. The outward ceremony of the laws of Moses which ruled over the Old Testament church are no longer in effect today (Eph. 2:14, 15). These do not enter into the argument. But certainly the debate continues today: do those who are under grace need the moral law today, other than as simple instruction in the will of God?
To this question the Reformed church has always answered yes. There is a threefold use of the moral law for the church of Jesus Christ today. The first use of the law is that of a mirror into which a person looks to know his sin and misery (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2). When he studies God’s law for himself, that person in whom God works by His grace comes to the knowledge that by the deeds of the law no man is justified. Man cannot keep the law of God perfectly. Even his best works are tainted with sin. Out of the law of God is the knowledge of sin. The law therefore forces God’s people to look for salvation, not in the least sense in themselves, but always in the cross of Christ. Christ alone hasaccomplished in totality our righteousness before God.
The second use of the law is that it serves to “curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”1 God uses it in society in general and in the church, too, to hold the unregenerate in check that they might not run in their sin. It exerts a restraining influence on society in order that men in their external acts might not give full course to the corruption within. The work of the law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness (Rom. 2:14, 15).
It is the third use of the law, however, that concerns us here. Ursinus, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 115, states this use in this way: “Another use of the moral law is, that it may be a rule of divine worship and of a Christian life.”2 This use of the law deals with the believer’s life of gratitude before God. The law in no way contributes to the salvation of God’s people. They are justified before God solely on the grounds of the work of Christ on the cross. It is His righteousness that is imputed to them by God. Yet, the law remains for the believing child of God as a rule that governs him in his life of thankfulness to God for his salvation. The law instructs him in what the will of God is. It is a teacher and a guide to him in his life. But that law is also a rule. The law still governs him in his life as well.
This is implied already in the fact that these are commands. God does not simply give to His people a set of guidelines for their lives. The Commandments express the will of God. They set forth what He deems is necessary to live a life of holiness. They are, therefore, authoritative in the life of God’s children. Christ tells His disciples in John 14:15, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” He explains this a little later in John 15:10, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” Neither does this mean that the child of God can decide for himself whether these commandments apply in a certain instance or not. The Bible is filled with specifics on how God will have His people carry out His commandments in their lives. The Ten Commandments are written in short, concise form, nevertheless, the Bible explains them for us in detail. The seventh command may say, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but the Bible as a whole explains in detail what constitutes adultery. Before all of this the child of God must bow. Not because it will contribute in some way to his salvation, not because in the keeping of God’s law there is merit, but simply because the child of God knows the law to be God’s divine will for him in his life. And because he loves God and Jesus Christ it is his desire to do the will of God.
That the Decalogue is a rule for the life of the Christian today is evident also from the viewpoint of our citizenship in the kingdom of Christ. Christ has through His death and resurrection delivered us from the reign of sin and Satan. We are made to enjoy the freedom given to us as citizens of the kingdom of Christ (Eph. 2:19; Col. 1:13). But does this freedom mean that we need no law? On the contrary, freedom is protected by law. The citizens of Christ’s kingdom are under the rule of God’s law. We are not free to do our own will. This would result in spiritual anarchy. We would begin to do what is right in our own eyes, as during the time of the Judges in Israel. We recognize, however, that Christ is our Lord and King, and we bow humbly beneath His rule through obedience to the divine will of God expressed in His commandments.
Yet, we must not think that this rule of Christ over us is a forced rule. It is not as if we chafe under these commandments. On the contrary, these commandments are written upon the fleshy tables of our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). For that reason, we are willing subjects of Christ. We want to keep the laws of God. This is true of us because Christ has sanctified us. Through His work on the cross Christ destroyed the power of sin in our lives. Through His resurrection Christ has worked in us a new life. The Spirit of Christ cleanses our hearts from their filth and corruption. We have been set free from the dominion of sin and Satan. As a result of this saving work of Christ in us, we delight to do the will of God! We say of God’s commandments, “O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Or, “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103). The believer desires to walk in God’s commandments because of the work of God’s grace in Him. He walks in humble gratitude for the salvation God has wrought in Him and for Him in Christ. He knows from what he has been delivered. He knows the rebellion against God’s commands that once consumed him. Now, he sees those commandments of God as something that God has given him for his own spiritual good. And he runs in the way of God’s commands.
But if the child of God has the power of grace working in him, does he really need the law as a rule in his life? Is it not sufficient that the law serve only as a guide and teacher and nothing else? Through the Spirit of Christ, God’s people will naturally walk in the way of God’s commandments without being told to do so. To say that the law is a rule actually denies the work of grace in our hearts, does it not? Ah! Those who argue this way do not know the powerful pull that the sinful flesh, the old man of sin, still has on a child of God! How often, when confronted with the law of God, our sinful flesh seeks to find loopholes in that law. How often we wish to rationalize our sin so as to make it fit with the commandments of God. Paul describes it this way in Romans 7:22, 23: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”
Concerning this use of the law, John Calvin in his Institutes comments:
Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage of the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. In this way must the saints press onward, since, however great the alacrity with which, under the Spirit, they hasten toward righteousness, they are retarded by the sluggishness of the flesh, and make less progress than they ought. The Law acts as a whip to the flesh, urging it on as men do a lazy sluggish ass. Even in the case of a spiritual man, inasmuch as he is still burdened with the weight of the flesh, the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth.3
It is for this reason that the Scriptures are filled with exhortations too. Though we have within us the Spirit of our risen Lord, though we have a new life of grace flowing through our spiritual veins, nevertheless we need the exhortations of the Scriptures always and ever guiding us into the way of God’s commandments. And, though our sinful natures rebel against these, we are governed by the Spirit of Christ. As Christ dwells in us we take delight in the law of God, and God uses exhortation to work in us that life of sanctification.
There is, however, one other aspect to this third use of the law of God which needs careful attention. Luther points that out in his “Treatise on Christian Liberty.” He writes, “… for the commands show us what we ought to do, but do not give us the power to do them.”4 It must well be remembered that the mere outward keeping of the law does not give us life. We can go through all the outward motions of the law but fail in our obedience and gratitude to God. We can look exemplary on the outside and yet not be characterized by true thankfulness on the inside. It is by grace alone that we are able to keep the rule of God’s commandments in a proper way. Only when we are actuated by the Spirit of Christ are we truly going to walk in gratitude before God. All else is outward show.
Walking in God’s commandments, therefore, means walking in faith. If we do not know and trust God, then outward obedience means nothing. This also must be the focus of the preaching of God’s law: it must be directed toward faith. When a minister of the gospel preaches exhortation, as he must do, he needs to lead his flock to the doctrine(s) out of which such an exhortation proceeds. Surely, what you and I believe concerning God, Christ, man, and his salvation will influence the way we live as God’s people. God’s people must be well instructed in the doctrines of Scripture. They must be convicted of those great truths concerning God’s sovereignty in creation, in providence, and in salvation. They must know God as the faithful God who keeps covenant with His people for Christ’s sake. They must know the sinfulness, the total depravity of man apart from salvation. They must then know Christ as the only ground and foundation of salvation. But then, having learned these, God’s people must also hear how all of these great truths bear upon the way they live in this world, and how these truths govern marriage, family, recreation, one’s world and life view, etc.
Certainly, all of life is rooted in what we believe! Only when I bow before the sovereign authority of God, for example, will I be able to keep the command to honor father and mother. Only when I know and experience the inseparable bond that unites Christ and His bride, the church, in covenant fellowship will I be able to honor the institution of marriage and thus obey the seventh commandment. Always both the doctrine and its application must be understood in order that God’s people might know the importance of keeping the law as a rule of gratitude.
Before us is stretched out even to the distant horizon the highway of God’s law as a ribbon of the narrow way that leads to life. Along the way the devil points out to us appealing exits that lead to destruction. The world sets up her sign posts of her lusts and pleasures. Our own flesh rebels against the narrow confines of the law, seeking the license of sin. Often we go astray. Like foolish sheep we wander off, each in his own way. Yet by the power of His law God draws us back in sorrow and repentance. That law always remains the lamp before our feet. In the darkness of our present night it shines as a light upon our pathway. It is our sure Guide to eternity!
It is the perfect rule for a thankful life in obedience and prayer!5
So important is this third use of the law in the life of God’s children that to neglect it will result in the worldly mindedness of the church. To neglect it will undermine the discipline of the church. To neglect it will result in God’s cutting His people off in their generations. For that reason, the church must preach those commands strictly (Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 115), and God’s people must meditate on that law day and night (Ps. 1:1, 2).
Obedience to God’s commands and prayer: the sure way of gratitude!
1.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter VII, Paragraph 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 307.
2.Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1852), 614.
3.John Calvin, Institutes, Book II, Chapter VII, Paragraph 12, 309.
4.Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, vol. II, “Treatise on Christian Liberty” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 317.
5.Cornelius Hanko, “The Law of Liberty,” Standard Bearer, vol. 61:388.