This article is about the need for the preaching of the law. The author looks at four consequences of not preaching the law, and then looks at the importance of the law for knowing our sin and the will of God for our life.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1989. 4 pages.

A Gospel Without Law

Somehow modern evangelicalism has got itself into a false position on the subject of God's law. We mean here, of course, not the ceremonial law, which passed away at the death of Christ, but the moral law, which is permanent.

If a church loses the moral law, it will not be long before it loses the gospel. The law is the 'schoolmaster' to escort us to Christ for salvation (Galatians 3:24). The law cannot give us the salvation we need. But it drives us to the cross of Christ where salvation is to be had. It is the unconscious mentality of too many in our day to think that, if the law cannot save us, we can get along well without it. There is something very plausible in that. It has the appearance of saving time. After all, it seems to simplify the preacher's work. It also has the appearance of enhancing the sufficiency of Christ as our Redeemer, who may be thought capable of saving men without law.

All that appears to be necessary, if we are to have men converted to Christ, is that the preacher should emphasise the need to believe, to look to the Saviour, to be born again, to come to Christ. To spend much time expounding the moral law appears, at best, to be cumbersome and time-consuming and, at worst, to be an interference with the great commission of the church to make disciples of men.

Life is short enough, after all. We cannot afford the luxury of preaching on themes which are no more than a theological minuet or bagatelle. Men are perishing. The end is coming fast. Ought not the church to be preaching Christ only? Besides, no stigma is more dreaded by evangelicals today than that of 'legalism'. The historical reasons for that fear are all perfectly understandable. But we must not be browbeaten by an unthinking misuse of theological terms.

If no other reason existed for having second thoughts about our modern neglect of the moral law, it must be found in the fact that Christ's preaching laid considerable stress upon it. The Sermon on the Mount devotes a large space to a detailed exposition of the commandments. To love Christ is, by the Lord himself, defined to be a keeping of the commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23, 24). The parable of the Good Samaritan was told in illustration of our duty to obey the commandments. Certain of our Lord's responses to his Jewish critics were with an eye to showing the great importance of the commandments (Mark 12:28-34). The enquiry of the Rich Young Ruler was met by a rehearsal, not of the gospel, but of the commandments. Most amazing of all, Christ insists that the commandments, even in respect of their jot and tittle, have a greater permanence than the material universe itself (Matthew 5:18).

It is surely incongruous that the head and founder of the Christian Church should give so important a place to the moral law and that modern preachers of the Christian faith should, generally speaking, give it little or no place at all.

Much chronic anaemia in the modern Christian Church is traceable to its neglect of the moral law. This is apparent in several ways.

  • First, there is the problem of the low view of sin which is to be found in the churches at the theoretical level. It is very easy for us all to yield to temptation at any time. Sin is too powerful for regenerate man unless he watches, prays and walks in the Spirit. What we draw attention to is not human frailty but faulty Christianity. There is today a fear among mature Christians everywhere that many who profess Christ have small sense of the sinfulness of sin. What man thinks of sin will be reflected in his face, his talk, his ambition, his use of leisure time, his clothes, his everything. Low views of sin can exist, sad to say, among those who name the name of evangelical religion. One root cause is ignorance of the moral law.

  • Secondly, there is the problem of shallow professions of faith which leave discerning Christians perplexed. It ought to be the case that, when men profess conversion to Christ, they live a life different from the world. But there is too much reason to observe up and down our churches that experienced believers are often silently aghast at the lightness and shallowness of many present-day converts. No-one expects to find old heads on young shoulders. But one has every right to expect that those who claim to love Christ should love what He loves and hate what He hates. Ignorance of God's law has a great deal to do with this problem also.

  • Thirdly, there is the major problem of chaos in the public worship of God. If half of what we hear or read is true, evangelicals have got themselves into the position, in many cases, of imagining that no rules or principles govern the worship of God except the rule of absolute and unconditional freedom. If so, then it has escaped their notice that the first four commandments of the law are entirely devoted to the subject of the worship of God. They all have a bearing on this one great theme of worship and they approach it from every point of view necessary. Whom should we worship? How? In what attitude? and When?

  • Fourthly, there is the closely related problem of what we might call 'heresy of spiritual character'. The real gospel produces not only converts but character. The development of Christian character consists in the shaping and re-shaping of conscience, emotion, intellect and will. There is, inevitably, a 'common denominator' of Christian character among all those who know Christ. This is not the result of culture, colour or age. It is the image of God in those who are regenerate. Of course, this family likeness does not eliminate those endearing qualities which men have as the result of culture, colour or age. But it is the mark of Christ's indwelling in the heart. Those who have learned Christ and been taught by him cannot help showing in some degree that they bear this image. But ignorance of the moral law gravely impairs the image. Many churches of today are more nearly like hospitals of the spiritually sick than battalions of the spiritually valiant. There is a deep-seated weakness of character, emotional instability, anti-intellectualism; whereas we need to find maturity, wisdom, dependability, good judgement — and (at least in leaders) sound learning.

There are at least two very pressing reasons why we need to go back to greater emphasis on the moral law of God.

  1. For one thing, men need to be more thoroughly wounded in soul than is generally the case at present. When did our elders, deacons, or congregations last see tears of self-loathing in those who have come to profess their first faith in Christ? It is to be feared that many take Christ as a healthy man takes up a walking stick. It adds a flourish to their otherwise happy and healthy life on earth. It will doubtless be of use to them somehow. But it is accessory to their felt needs at the moment. They take it because they are informed on reputable authority that they ought to do so, rather than because they are helpless to do otherwise.

    But watch a man who comes to Christ under the bruising of the law and the whole spectacle is very different indeed. He does not regard himself as fit to live on the earth. He fears to offend heaven by drawing his breath too fast, by speaking too boldly, by his very appearance. His past life is an agony to recall; his present experience is as of one in a furnace; his future is dire and full of foreboding. He comes constrained to ask for church membership like a man who has felt the first terrors of coming judgement. When questioned by the minister about his soul, he is so afraid to lie against the truth that he rather aggravates the account of his own sinfulness than soften it to make a convincing testimony.

    To such a man Christ is welcome on any terms, no matter how holy and demanding. He is not the one to ask, 'How far into the world and its pleasures may I go now that I am a church member?' He is too keenly aware of his guiltiness before God to make nice calculations as to how close to the edge of temptation and sin he may go without falling off the ledge entirely. See how he washes the tears off his face! See how his breast heaves as he vainly suppresses his sense of the love of God towards sinners in the gospel! Listen to those first faltering words of prayer in the prayer meeting a few weeks later and you know that his love for a crucified Saviour comes from a renewed heart.

    There is nothing on earth so sacred as hearing the prayers of those healed by Jesus who recently knew the wounding power of God's law.

  2. For another thing, we need to teach Christians that the rule of their daily life is to be found in the moral law and what that law involves and implies. This statement will not find favour with everyone. But this is the only kind of evangelicalism worthy of the name. Those who question the correctness of this assertion would do well to re-examine our older theologians. It would do them no harm to read Calvin's Institutes over again, and also the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

    In these classic documents it will be seen that a remarkable amount of space is devoted to an exposition of the moral law, as a rule of life for the believer.

    But we need not turn to human authorities. The Word of God itself lays down this very point with indisputable clarity. We need look no further than the First Letter of John.

Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.1 John 2:3-4

He that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him.1 John 3:24

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous.1 John 5:2-3

In case we should suppose that the Apostle John has something different in mind from the ancient moral law, he informs us explicitly: 'Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning' (1 John 2:7). This law is the ancient decalogue. It is an 'old commandment' as to the form of it; and it is a 'new commandment' (v.8) in that we now live in the gospel age and are partakers of the grace of Christ to keep it 'in newness of spirit' (Romans 7:6). That is not so say that any man can in this life keep it fully or perfectly. But we are to keep it sincerely and deliberately. We are to keep it because it is the rule of our duty to God and man. We approve of it as right, holy and good.

It is at this point that confusion is widespread. The objection to the above assertion is often heard: 'But surely we ought not to keep an old law so much as act out of love to Christ'. There is a flaw in this kind of reasoning. It drives a wedge between love to Christ and obedience to law. They are two sides of the same coin. Both are essential aspects of the Christian's duty. To keep the law will be legalism if we do not do it out of love to Christ. To 'love' Christ will very soon become antinomianism if we do not consciously follow the path of the law. Love is the subjective aspect and law the objective. Law is love in its definition; love is the law in action. But if we dispense with the external code we shall end up in a fog of subjectivism.

Subjectivism, sad to say, is where many Christians have been for a very long time when it comes to the question, 'How do I please God?' The proof of this is all around us. When faced with a moral decision, the typical response of many Christians is either, 'Let us pray for guidance' or 'What would Jesus do?' There is nothing wrong with either response in itself. The difficulty is that both responses are subjective and do not present the enquirer with a clear directive as to what to do. When all our prayers have gone up, what principle are we to act upon? Not, surely, just upon inward impulses, feelings and 'leadings'.

Again, when we have made out our list of what Jesus would be likely to do in a given situation, does there not remain the lingering uncertainty that we may have conjured up a Jesus out of our own imagination, rather than constructed the real Jesus of the Scriptures? It may well be the case that this very subjectivity of modern evangelicalism is the thing which could drive people into the arms of the Roman Catholic religion, where 'certainty' and dogma and canon law exist in plenty. Rome stands ready to guide our confused people with its firm note of authority. Rome will look after their problems for them.

Surely what we need to do is to appreciate what the moral law is, above all else. It is not an arbitrary code of practice plucked out of the air. It does not even depend on the bare will of God. If it were that, it would still be our duty to keep it, since the naked will of the Creator is the rule of man's duty. But the moral law is a transcription of the character, attributes and holiness of God. It is for that reason perfect and permanent. If the character of God could be altered, then and only then might there be irrelevance or impermanence in the moral law. To dislike the law is to dislike the holiness of God. To love the law is the language of a regenerate man. To keep it with the whole heart is the secret desire and study of the most mature believer.

But; it will be answered, the law came only by Moses; grace and truth have now come by Jesus Christ.John 1:17

True. But the grace of Christ is to make us able and willing to love and obey the law. We are not saved by keeping the law. Nor does salvation make us exempt from the law. We are saved in order that we might keep it. Hence, there is a reciprocal relationship between Christ and the law.

The law is given to lead us to Christ that we may be justified by faith. But as soon as we are justified, Christ takes us back to the law as our rule of life, that we might go on to 'perfect holiness in the fear of God' (2 Corinthians 7:1])

Hence, when we face a moral decision, one of the most pressing questions to ask is: 'What does the law, and all that is implied in it, require in this situation?' There is where guidance ought to be sought above all. There is the answer to the question 'What would Jesus do?' He would keep the law now, as he did perfectly when on earth. We shall never err if we succeed in doing likewise.

But, the query comes, is this not a legal spirit? Law-keeping and legalism are not the same. The fault of legalism is in its low level of motivation. The law lays down the outward form. We must go to God to find grace to keep the law and to keep it in the spirit which he requires of us. This we are to do affectionately and not slavishly. What is done out of love to God cannot be legalism, whatever else it is. The Pharisees were not rebuked for keeping the commandments but for trying to turn them into a means for obtaining salvation. They made a gospel out of the law, as many still do. But we must not make a gospel without law. If the Pharisees had kept the law strictly and dutifully from a regenerate heart and love to God they would have been highly commended, not rebuked. How could a holy God rebuke a child of the faith for endeavouring to keep the commandments strictly and conscientiously? Whoever else may rebuke our diligent obedience to his revealed will, God will not.

In conclusion, let us observe that, if Christians grow serious again about keeping the moral law and all that it involves and implies, certain changes are sure to occur in their lives and in the lives of those who observe them. We shall notice a change of mood in many church people from a careless 'joy' to heartfelt repentance. Repentance and further conversion to God are our life-long duty. Regeneration is an act; conversion (in its true sense) is a process.

Then, we shall see momentous alterations in some life-styles. What a change in reading habits! What a discarding of the cheap and the sordid in music, fashion and viewing! What a vetting of their children's programmes! What a taking up of the practice of family worship and sanctified conversation! In short, what an adorning of the gospel with good works!

Finally, we believe that a renewed interest in practical obedience among the people of God would be likely to result in new credibility for the church's message of salvation. The world can afford to scoff at us when we appear to live only at their own moral level. But when the church suddenly emerges from sleep and shows herself in beautiful garments, society is compelled to sit up and take notice. Society today may not have much interest in our theology. But moral law is today a burningly relevant theme. Let society once be convicted by God's law — and men may well start to come back to our churches to find the gospel.

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