I still remember one of the trick questions asked by Dr. Derek Thomas in seminary. He asked, "What do we call the overemphasis on the law of God?" The expected answer was "legalism." Dr. Thomas then corrected our understanding. You cannot overstate the importance of God's law since His law is a reflection of His own character. To claim a possible overemphasis on the law of God is to claim that it is possible to overemphasize the importance of God Himself. Instead, like God Himself, it is possible to misunderstand and misuse the law.
The goodness of the law appears throughout the Bible. The key passage where the goodness of the law appears most is found in Psalm 119. The longest chapter of the Bible also proclaims the greatness of the law of God and the word of God in every verse. "And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved." (Psalm 119:47) "The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver." (72) "O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day." (97)
In Psalm 19, the greatness of the law appears as well. "The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward." (Psalm 19:7-11) We find here the great value that the psalmist sets on the law and its benefits.
The Types of God's Law
While the law in general is good and useful, the law is more complex than a simply monolithic idea. Theologians divide the law into three types: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Each has their own focus and use. To begin with, the civil law dealt with the nation of Israel. As we read in the Westminster Confession of Faith, "To them [Israel] also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require." (WCF 19.4) God gave Israel laws on how to conduct themselves as a nation, a legal code. These expired on the dissolution of that nation, and only apply so far as the general equity would require. For instance, the law required the home builder to erect a fence around the roof of the house. (Deuteronomy 22:8) The reason for this was that they roofs of the houses of that day were flat and regularly had people upon them. In order to prevent people falling off and hurting them, the law required the fence. Modern building regulations for balconies would present a modern day analog where the general equity would apply. However, for the most part, we rarely interact with the civil law.
The ceremonial law includes the feasts and sacrifices of the Old Testament. Again, we find in the Confession of Faith, "God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament."(WCF 19.3) The ceremonial law pointed forward to the person and work of Jesus. After the ascension, Jesus had fulfilled all that those laws pointed toward. Thus, the ceremonies of the New Testament are different but no less important. Again, the Confession of Faith describes the ceremonies under the gospel as, "fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles." (WCF 7.6) The ceremonial law will play little part in this study.
The moral law concerns us most and general attracts our attention when we talk about the law of God. The Confession of Faith defines it this way. It is, "a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man." (WCF 19.2) The moral law then it the definition of righteousness and appears in summation in the Ten Commandments. It's regulations remain upon men for all time. "The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation." (WCF 19.5) All the moral law still applies to us and functions as the manner in which we live Christian in an unchristian world.
The Three Uses of the Law
Theological distinction can be helpful even if capable of confusion. I remember struggling to understand distinction between the types of law and uses of the law for the reason that some share the same name. Since the Reformation, theologians have identified three uses of the moral law. The first is often called the "civil use." Therein lies the confusion. It is not the civil law that finds a civil use, but the moral law that has a civil use. Here, the Reformers reflected on how the law applies to society at large. They concluded that it has a restraining effect on sin. Unregenerate man is less likely to sin when the moral law is proclaimed. A study done in 2008 showed that simply writing down the Ten Commandments reduced the incidence of cheating whether or not the student remembered the commandments or professed any belief in God. (Nina Mazar, On Amir, Dan Ariely (2008) The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research: December 2008, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 633-644.) Even the society being affects acknowledges the impact of the moral law. One must then speculate regarding the consequences or connection between the crusade to remove the moral law from the public square and the increase of societal fraud.
The second use of the law appears in Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia. "But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." (Galatians 3:23-25) This is called the pedagogical use of the law. This comes from the idea of the schoolmaster. The word in Greek is "παιδαγωγὸς". This word does not simply mean school teacher like we think. It was a tutor slave responsible for the education of the child. That is why it is leading us to Christ, the final teacher. Here, the Bible speaks of the law as that which leads us to Jesus. The Confession describes it this way. The law "[discovers] also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience." (WCF 19.6) The law shows us our sin and our need of Christ's righteousness.
The third use of the law comes from the theologian John Calvin. Other reformed traditions do not see the importance of this use of the law. We may observe the distinction in the use of the Ten Commandments in reformed worship. In Lutheran liturgy, the reading of the law appears before the confession of sin and assurance of pardon. Luther believed only in the second use of the law, showing us our sin, leading us to repentance and the righteousness of Christ. Calvin put the reading of the law after the confession of sin and assurance of pardon, signaling that after pardon, the moral law still had a role to play in the life of the believer. This also appears in the Westminster Confession. (WCF 19.6) The third use of the moral law means that the law shows us how God's people live. We have already spoken of this in the previous lesson. As those who are part of the family of God, we live according to the character of our Father. We have the privilege of living as Eden restored in us.
Why did Luther not appreciate this use of the law? To Luther, grace trumped the law. He placed the gospel of righteousness in Christ above any duty to the moral law. Any renewal of duty he saw as legalism, not applying the truth of adoption. The Westminster Confession discusses this battle between law and gospel. "Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done." (WCF 19.7) This is why adoption is so important in our theology. It allows the law and gospel to sweetly comply. Our adoption under the gospel permits a proper view of the law in the life of the believer. The law and gospel or grace never conflict. Those who think they do fail to understand aright either law, gospel, or both.
The Principles in the Law
If the moral law applies to the Christian, then it must provide definite principles that we must apply to live Christian in an unchristian world. As we consider the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments, we remember that they can be separated into two tables corresponding to the two commandments of Jesus: loving God and loving neighbor. The first table, consisting of the first four commandments deal with our duty toward God. The last six deal with our duty to love our neighbor. The direction of this study requires us to focus on the second table of the law.
The fifth commandment ("Honour thy father and thy mother" Exodus 20:12) means more than mere family relationships. "The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals." (WSC 64) The moral law requires the proper honor for superiors, the proper care of inferiors, and the proper respect for equals. This principle will apply to many events that confront us in life.
The sixth commandment requires us to respect life. ("Thou shalt not kill." Exodus 20:13) "The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others. The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto." (WSC 68-69) This respect for life includes the preservation of life and the avoidance of anything that tends to limit, hinder, or reduce life.
The seventh commandment deals with our duty to be faithful in our relationships. ("Thou shalt not commit adultery." Exodus 20:14) "The seventh commandment requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior." (WSC 71) This faithfulness is not merely in body, but in every aspect of our lives. It is not limited to marital commitments, but every relationship that requires fidelity.
The eighth commandment ("Thou shalt not steal." Exodus 20:15)and tenth deal with our relationship to property. ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s." Exodus 20:17) "The eighth commandment requireth the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others." (WSC 74) We are not to hinder the property of other, but also are called to use proper means to increase our own estate. "The tenth commandment requireth full contentment with our own condition, with a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor, and all that is his." (WSC 80) We are to be content with our property and not indulge discontent or longing after the property owned by others.
The ninth commandment deals with truth. ("Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." Exodus 20:16) "The ninth commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbor’s good name, especially in witness bearing." (WSC 77) We are to pursue the truth, to tell the truth, and to honor reputation. Justice places greater demands on truth in bearing witness.
If you noticed that many of the principles reflect principles we have already studied in the character of God, the reason appears easily. The moral law reflects many of the characteristics of God, since the foundation of the law is to be holy as God is holy. Bearing the name Christian means we are labeled with the name of the Savior. We must then live according to the character of God. This is what it means to live as a Christian. Being human means we must do this in the midst of an unchristian world.