Law and gospel should not be separated. This article shows why this is so by explaining that the law was given to convict of sin, restrain evil, and to lead the Christian.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2004. 3 pages.

Fulfilling the Law God has Carefully Intertwined Law and Gospel

The problem of law in the modern world is highlighted by the com­ment of Jean Paul Sartre that “val­ues are not recognised by man but determined by him”. Such an outlook has led to a variety of approaches to the law, none of them very inspiring. An actress from the early 20th century, Mrs Patrick Campbell, said that people can do what they want as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses. Something akin to Mrs Campbell’s sentiments has operated for quite some time as a philoso­phy of law and government in most Western cultures.

We often hear claims that we should be morally neutral. This has moved Lesslie Newbigin to summon the muse:

Among chattering classes in Rhodes
The New Morals make rapid inroads.
At the mention of Moses
They look down their noses
And scoff at all ethical codes.

In the Church, this approach led to sit­uation ethics whereby law was abolished and replaced by love. All you need is love, sang the Beatles, and this was echoed by Joseph Fletcher who said: “Only love is a constant; everything else is a variable.” Paul Tillich added his prosaic chorus: “The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law.” More simply, Jerry Rubin told a generation that was all too ready to listen to him: “If it feels good, do it.”

In fact, moral neutrality is a myth. One does not often hear the claim that we ought to be morally neutral over racism or paedophilia. The result has been increas­ing moral chaos, so now society faces a new enemy: a plethora of regulations as we attempt to fill in a spiritual and moral vacuum by means of law, law, and more law. The result has been a breakdown in order and a decline in freedom. As Tacitus remarked: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”

In the original Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are given to us in only 173 words whereas, according to Brian Edwards, there are almost 30,000 words in the European Common Market’s regula­tions on the importation of cauliflowers. Having departed from God’s law, the West has entered the age of lawyers. Anti-Discrimination Boards revel in this kind of approach. The grievance industry is highly subsidised, and a whole host of lawyers are able to make a killing while pretending to be chivalrous knights acting on behalf of weak minorities. Small won­der that Shakespeare’s Henry VI contains the memorable, albeit less than poetic, lines: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

To the Christian, the matter of the law of God may appear straightforward ­ obey it and be blessed, disobey it and be cursed (Deut. 28). However, it is more complex than that, and it can be a bit bewildering to the Christian. In the book of Romans, for example, Paul says that the law does not justify anyone (3:20), it reveals sin (3:20), yet it is upheld (3:31), although we are not under the law but grace (6:14). All these things are true together! Heikki Raisainen and E. P. Sanders respond to such statements by claiming that Paul contradicts himself regarding the law. Pointing to a passage like Galatians 5:13-14, James Dunn says that Paul was trying to have his cake and eat it, so far as the law was concerned.

Christ says that he came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfil them (Mt. 5:17). Yet he also says that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:17). He offended the Pharisees by eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1-2), allowed himself to be touched by a bleeding woman and then pronounced her healed (Luke 8:43-48), and declared that he is greater than the temple (Mt. 12:6) and Lord of the Sabbath (Mt. 12:8).

To the theonomist, the Old Testament law is simply ratified in the New Testament. Greg Bahnsen, for example, says that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, “Jesus restores the original demand of the law”. On the other hand, the thorough-going Dispensationalist considers that the law has no ongoing application. In fact, the first edition of the Scofield Bible declared that the Sermon on the Mount belonged not to the gospel age but to the supposed millennium to come.

The Christian’s starting point is that both law and gospel come from the same God. It has become a commonplace in modern biblical scholarship that the threefold distinction of moral, ceremonial and judicial law set forth in chapter XIX of the Westminster Confession of Faith is not valid. Michael Hill is one who claims that the Bible does not divide the law into moral, cultic, and civil elements. F. F. Bruce too says that these distinctions have to be read into Paul. In reply, it might be said that it is difficult to see how the vari­ous strands of Scripture can be reconciled unless something very like such a distinc­tion is maintained.

In Romans 2:26 Paul writes: “If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?” Since cir­cumcision was a requirement of the law (Lev. 12:3), Paul’s question only makes sense if a distinction is made between the moral and ceremonial law. The same can be said for Paul’s declaration that “Circumcision is nothing and uncircum­cision is nothing. Keeping God’s com­mands is what counts” (1 Cor. 7:19).

Law for the Christian is not simply the mosaic law (1 Cor. 9:20-21, Gal. 6:2). Christ fulfilled the law, which effectively abolished the cultic part of it (Heb. 5-10). It is true that the law is unified (James 2:8-11), but here James is referring to the abiding relevance of the moral law. In short, law makes grace necessary, and grace confirms law (Ps. 40:8, 119:97, John 15:10, 1 John 2:3-5, 3:21-22, 5:3). The great apostle of grace is not afraid to appeal to the law of Moses (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:9, Eph. 6:1-3). In seeking to please God in his daily life, the Christian is armed with more than the moral law of the Old Testament, but he is certainly not armed with less.

We do not try to make the law stand on its own, as in Immanuel Kant’s scheme of things. Motive is as crucial as the act (Mt. 6:1, Mk 12:43-44). So too is context ­ those who are going to misuse the truth have no right to hear it (Ex. 1, Josh. 2, 1 Sam. 16:2). The Christian is purified as he maintains his hope of seeing Christ in glory (1 John 3:2-3). Law is vital but it is not to be treated in isolation. We receive Moses, as it were, through the revelation of the grace of Christ.

The Bible endorses love as the fulfilment of the law (e.g. Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13­14), but love requires some spe­cific content. The law is never separated from God’s love but flows from it (Deut. 33:2-3). The heart is des­perately deceitful (Jer. 17:9), and the lan­guage of love can easily be used to disguise deep-seated selfishness and immorality (note the example of Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:1-15). Moral law remains valid. Those who love Christ will keep his command­ments (John 14:15).

The apostle Paul wrote that “we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). The 16th century Reformers — more particularly, John Calvin — dis­cerned three major uses of the Mosaic law.

The first is to convict the sinner of sin. Paul declared that the law did not acquit any sinner before God but by the law came the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20). In Paul’s own case, it was especially the 10th commandment, which forbids cov­eting (Rom. 7:7). The law is no man’s saviour, but it shows us that we need to be saved. The natural man sees no need of Christ as redeemer until the Spirit con­victs him or her of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). He does this partly by revealing the full depth of God’s holy law (cf. Mt. 5-7).

The second is to restrain evil. To use Samuel Bolton’s graphic image, the law chains the wolf while the gospel changes him. The law does not make us good but usually — albeit not always (Rom. 7:8-9) — acts to curb our sinful instincts. We are “kept under guard by the law” (Gal. 3:23). If a man does not burgle my house because of the law against stealing, that hardly makes him a new creation in Christ, but it does mean my house is not burgled. Sin is not eradicated, but the expression of it is restrained.

The third is to guide the Christian. Love fulfils the law; it does not abolish it (Rom. 13:8-10). As Anthony Burgess wrote, in the vivid style that is typically Puritan: “The tamed horse needeth a spur, as well as the unbroken colt.”

The Christian does not rely on the law for justification nor even for sanctifica­tion. Tolstoy in his 28th year wrote: “It is really absurd that, after beginning to draw up rules at 15, I should still be doing so at 30, without having adopted or applied a single one.” The solution to lawlessness is not necessarily more law.

Nevertheless, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put forward the biblical view: “There can be no preaching of the law without the gospel, and no preaching of the gospel without the law.” Law needs to be distinguished from grace and love, but to sepa­rate these three is to rend asunder what God has joined.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.