Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Nomology: Lesson 1 – The Law of God
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2000, 2010, 2013
The Nature of Law
The Place of Law in God’s Creation
The 10 Commandments
Categories of Law
Does God’s Law Apply Today?
The Sum of Saving Knowledge
Law and Grace
Westminster Confession of Faith XIX
I. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
II. This law, after his fall, continued to be 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.
III. Beside this law, commonly called moral, 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.
IV. To them 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.
V. 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.
VI. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering 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. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.
VII. 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.
The Nature of Law
A right understanding of law must begin with a right understanding of the infinite, eternal and unchangeable God. His nature unlike our own depends upon nothing outside of himself. Some have used the term asceity to define this self-existence of God. The Latin term asceitas implies the self-origination of God. L. Berkhof (Systematic Theology pg 58) points out that “Reformed theologians quite generally substituted for it the word independentia (independence), as expressing, not merely that God is independent in His Being, but also that He is independent in everything else: in His virtues, decrees, works, and so on.”
That God is independent is most fundamentally evident from his own self-revelation preserved for us in Scripture. He alone is eternal, and is the origin of all things that exist outside of himself. He does not change with the progress of time as to his being, his knowledge, and his decrees. Therefore God is complete in himself. He is not becoming anything more than he always is.
This self-completeness of God confirms the unity of his being as One God who is indivisible into parts which could be conceived as existing independently from any other part. Therefore his attributes themselves are individualized only in their revelation to us finite beings who cannot comprehend his nature as an infinite and seamless whole.
Nothing in God can be separated out for independent study and examination without considering this unity. If we do, we would be violating what he is. In God there is no doctrine of mercy in distinction from the doctrines of justice, holiness, eternality, truth, and the other characteristics of the godhead.
When we study about God it is our information that is organized into categories that can be labeled and fit together into a system. Our finite minds must handle masses of data this way to simplify concepts for us componentally divisible creatures. To the degree that our study agrees with what God has said about himself in Scripture, our understanding corresponds with absolute truth as the Eternal Lord knows it.
Law is a concept many tend to isolate and examine as if it had an existence of its own. We tend to think of individual precepts and rules that bind us morally or civilly as various conditions arise. However, law ultimately has its origin in the unified and independent nature of God. It is what pleases him. It is what is consistent with his purpose as Creator and Sustainer. It defines what is moral and right.
Since God alone is eternal there was a moment in time, as we perceive it, before which nothing else but God existed. Since no other beings existed there was no sin except in its abstract definition. Since there was no one to whom God could communicate his truth and glory, there could be no revelation except in its decreed potential. Since there was no need for boundaries to be set so that others would understand what pleased God, there was no law in the sense of precepts and rules. Yet in the eternal mind of God moral principles persisted with no change. These moral principles that exist forever in the godhead provide the only absolute foundation for the idea of law.
The Place of Law in God’s Creation
When God created the universe, regardless of what parts of it we comprehend as being first, the infinite began to make itself known in the finite. With the appearance of rational creatures moral law appeared as part of the Creator’s handiwork reflecting his eternal and indivisible nature. The purpose of creation is made clear in Scripture as being declarative of the glory and nature of God:
Psalm 19:1 “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament is declaring the work of His hands.”
Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
From the moment other thinking and moral beings came into existence, it was right that they should have and honor no other gods than the one who made them for his own glory. The spirit nature of God being revealed in what was made ought never to be confused by making physical images of him. The name of God became something that was to be guarded against vain use. These first three summaries of moral law in the Ten Commandments are therefore not mere temporal rules. They flow from the very nature of God himself and are based upon eternal and unchangeable principles. It is impossible that any created moral being should exist upon whom these principles were not binding.
With the completion of the material creation, God ceased bringing new things into being and commanded that the Sabbath Day be sanctified to remember his work. Since all things were made to reveal his divine glory it would be immoral for any moral being not to respond to that revealed glory in worship that fits the ways in which God says he is to be worshiped. Therefore the Sabbath law is also creational and proceeds from the nature of the Creator as he relates to his creation. It is not a redemptive revelation given much later to only Israel. There were applications of the Sabbath principle that were revelatory of redemption, but the Sabbath concept itself is a principle that persists as along as creation itself exists.
When man was created other things had to be regulated to preserve the perception of the mark of the eternal Artist upon his handiwork. God told him that he must work to exercise his appointed and representative dominion over the rest of creation.
God commanded that one man and one woman should become one flesh in a special covenantal union to produce children and to populate his world. This precepts was also not temporal, but flowed from the eternal nature and plan of God revealing himself as Creator to those made in his image. Up to this point mankind had not fallen into sin. Again, this aspect of law is not limited to the progressive revelation of redemption which came after the fall. It is a precept that applies as long as men and women populate the earth prior to their death or the final resurrection. This union of a man and a woman was not intended to continue to reveal God’s nature beyond the present union of body and soul.
A Covenant of Works
God Sovereignly revealed his promises to Adam as the one appointed to federally represent all his posterity descending from him by natural generation. Since the nature of creaturely obligation proceeds necessarily from the nature of God and his purpose in creation, obedience must be complete and individual. Adam was bound to various creational ordinances revealed to him. These included the observance of the Sabbath Day which also required six days of faithful labor to exercise dominion over creation, fidelity to his wife. and the producing of godly offspring to fill the earth. He was also commanded to abstain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God promised life to Adam as our federal head if he obeyed; and threatened death if he transgressed. These elements confirm the use of the term covenant (the Hebrew word berit means “a bond in blood sovereignly administered”) in describing this imposed relationship. We generally call this the Covenant of Works. Meredith Kline and O. Palmer Robertson prefer the term Covenant of Creation. (on the Covenant of Works see our Syllabus, Unit Three, Objective Soteriology.)
There is nothing to lead us to believe that the duty imposed upon Adam was beyond his capacity in his original created state. As we see in the events that followed, he also had the ability to transgress. In the sin of Adam we behold the greater plan of God in creating man as a finite, mutable, and fallible creature. We also see the principle of federal headship which treats mankind representatively, not only in the fall, but also in the federal redemption by Jesus Christ in the Covenant of Grace.
The Law After the Fall of Man
The sin of Adam corrupted the moral inclinations of all mankind. To present an objective record of the moral corrections to his impaired perception God made known various specific precepts. In a much later time the Creator himself dispensed them in summation statements handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. What we call the Ten Commandments did not originate any new moral principles. They state in summary form the moral principles that ought to prevail in God’s creation so that it will reflect the glory of his holiness.
Some have debated the meaning of the term moral law. By it we don’t mean an independent set of rules imposed at some point in human history. The well known Ten Commandments are a summation of larger principles that exist eternally and unite into the concepts of righteousness and holiness in the infinite mind of God. They are expansions of principles revealed at creation and related later to the fallen estate. To limit the concept of moral law to the Ten Commandments is to misunderstand the term.
The 10 Commandments
The Ten Commandments are recorded in Exodus 20:3-17 and again in Deuteronomy 5:7-21. Since these precepts are revelatory of moral principles in the eternal nature of God as Creator, their violation is a crime against the purpose of the universe which is to glorify God.
When challenged, Jesus further summarized the moral law in two statements. He used the words of Moses to show that his summary was not a new concept but had already been clearly revealed. His answer to his critics came from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
Matthew 22:37-40 “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets.”
The first four commandments show our creaturely obligations toward God. They are reflected in Jesus’ summary from Deuteronomy 6:5 “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
The last six commandments show our obligations toward one another as God’s creatures. They are summarized in Jesus’ quote from Leviticus 19:18 “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”
In our modern society where the God of Scripture is denied and his law is despised the moral principles are inverted. The following corruptions of the Ten Commandments represent the moral values that are growing in today’s culture:
1. They say you shall not recognize one God only.
Any opposition to Pluralism is considered bigotry and is seen as wickedly immoral. The only religion deemed unworthy of toleration by the lost world is one that considers that there is but one true God who alone deserves obedience and worship.
2. They say the physical universe is all that is to be treated as real.
Since only what can be physically measured meets the test of man as the highest judge of truth, the concept of spiritual reality is ridiculed and despised. What is thought of as spirit is necessarily reduced to physical representations as seen in the modern view of angels, Satan, and the person of Jesus. They imagine that making images of God is not only acceptable, but is in fact necessary.
3. They say the name of God is not to be held in special honor.
Profanity, blasphemy, and crude language have become the expected and accepted idiom of the day.
4. They say the Sabbath is a human-centered day not a God-centered one.
Since the creature is honored over the Creator (Romans 1:25) the memorial to creation is denied and hated. The Sabbath becomes a prime day for commerce, particularly in support of restaurants, special sales of merchandise, professional sports, and entertainment. The day aside from commerce is to be taken up in personal recreation and self-gratification.
5. They say there is no right for some people to have authority over others.
Children become answerable to the state and society rather than to parents. Headship in the home is not to rest particularized in the husband. They say that leadership in the church must include both sexes and those of various sexual orientations. Extreme egalitarianism is considered mandatory, applying it to all people in every station and situation.
6. They say that human life is only honored when it serves a person’s or society’s interests.
The unborn are put to death if they are not wanted or would cause a burden upon the parents or the community. Inconsitently criminals who have taken the lives of others for their own selfish reasons are set free rather than executed as God’s principle of Justice requires.
7. They say that sexual freedom is not to be regulated.
Marriage has become optional if not archaic. It is seen merely as a romantic or legal event. If that’s all it is, those who want alternative unions to be called “marriage” cannot understand why anyone would oppose that modification. Divorce is granted upon the simple desire to abandon our oaths and vows.
8. They see private ownership as economic immorality.
Theft is treated as the fault of society or of the victim’s own greed for possessing things while others do not have them. The state, not the individual, strives to control the rightful distribution of wealth and ownership.
9. They deny that truth is ever absolute.
Lies are seen as an artifact of perception. Even what is perceived as truth ought not to be told if it causes an unpleasant outcome.
10. They promote coveting as a necessary means for personal growth and advancement.
Self-esteem has become the highest good. Aggressive self-centered greed is the attitude most prized and rewarded in our economy and culture.
For a more biblical exposition of the Ten Commandments see my commentary on the Westminster Catechism, questions 45-81. Also you may wish to study good commentaries on The Westminster Larger Catechism (questions 91 – 148), The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 34 – 44), and various authoritative commentaries on those historic symbols.
Conclusions about the moral law
1. It is necessary: Moral principles derive from the nature of the Creator. Therefore it is not possible for these principles to be unimportant or optional in a creation intended to declare the Creator’s glory, eternal power, and divine nature.
2. It is perpetual: Since the nature of God is eternal and unchangeable, so also must the moral principles of his creation which flow from his nature be perpetually binding.
3. It is revelatory: Since God made all of Creation to declare his glory, which includes his holiness and justice, therefore God makes known his moral principles obligating all moral creatures to obey them perfectly and personally.
To honor God, and to live at peace with his creation (including other humans) requires that God’s revealed moral law should be obeyed.
Categories of Law
Moral Law as it originates in the eternal and holy nature of God and as it relates to the nature of creation in its various moral estates is the foundation for all other categories we speak of in connection with law. It is common to divide the law into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and judicial (civil).
These are the categories used in the Westminster Confession as well as in many other historic statements of faith. It should not be assumed that these represent three independent and separable types of law. If moral law is the principial base of all ethics and reflects the holiness of the Creator, then we should presume that the other categories are designated to show how it applies in creation from various considerations. The ceremonial laws were instituted to reveal the redemptive work of Christ in restoring fallen men to a right standing under the moral law, and the judicial is exemplary of how moral law ought to govern human society.
The moral law shows us what is holy and condemns us when we are unholy. God decreed that not all humans would continue in their fallen condition. To display his grace, he determined that a Messiah would come to take the place of his people in suffering their penalty and in meeting all the demands of divine holiness and justice for them. The details of that work were revealed progressively from the time of man’s expulsion from Eden all the way to the completion of the New Testament. In this sense the Ceremonial Law readies us for God’s work of redemption.
To prepare his people to understand what he would do to rescue them from sin, God imposed a whole set of regulations at Sinai. These temporal laws prefiguring the work of Jesus Christ as Redeemer are often called “Ceremonial Laws”.
Some of those temporal laws were to set apart the people of Israel as distinct from the rest of humanity. These laws included dietary regulations, purification methods, ordinances about the design of their clothes, and other daily matters that marked them out from the Gentiles. The distinguishing of Israel illustrated God’s election by grace of some to salvation. It was not the same as that election, and regeneration. It exemplified it.
Other temporal laws were imposed to regulate a system of sacrifices and temple worship. These were designed to demonstrate the special work of the Messiah as the Lamb of God who was to come to suffer, to live a perfectly holy life, and to give his life as a payment for sin on behalf of those God had decreed to save. The purpose of these temporal laws was to show the work of redemption from the consequences of violating moral law, and to show how God would restore some who had fallen into sin.
When the work illustrated by these laws was accomplished in history, the temporal regulations no longer had a purpose, and were set aside by direct revelation from the God who imposed them. These abrogations are recorded in objective form in the New Testament. They are not left up to being derived by Theologians, or by Theological Models.
The Westminster Confession describes a category of law which God gave to ancient Israel as a body politic. They were for the ordering of a godly society. These regulations were called judicial because they directed the civil magistrates in determining the guilt or innocence of those accused of crimes, and in imposing just penalties upon those found guilty.
These regulations are not in themselves moral law. They were to show what moral law should looked like when applied to specific cases of abuse. They are not ceremonial because they were not specifically illustrative of the work of redemption except in showing the need for satisfying the eternal principle of justice.
The Confession states that various judicial laws expired along with the the special place of Israel as God’s covenant nation. They were given at Sinai in the context of the Levitical order of the rule of Elders and Priests who served on both spiritual and civil courts as shepherds of God’s people. Many of the procedures described in them relate to the unique authority structure of the sacrificial system and the specific tribes assigned duties within the covenant nation.
With the completion of the work of atonement and the rejection of Israel as God’s special covenant people, many of the details of these laws which were connected with the ceremonial system became obsolete.
The Confession adds that though some details of certain judicial laws expired there remains an obligation required by general equity.
General equity is a legal term taken from English law. It was a concept recognized judicially at the time the Westminster Confession was written. It has to do with the principle a particular law intends to preserve. A law is written in a particular form and with a particular wording so that it will enforce some more general principle equitably in various situations that are anticipated to arise in a society. A court is obligated to consider the intent of a law so that its specific wording could not be used to excuse the violation of its purpose by taking it too narrowly, or by limiting it to just certain groups of citizens.
These larger principles expressed in and applied by the judicial laws of the Bible were not linked to Israel as a body politic and were not themselves tied to the structure of the sacrificial system. By the judicial laws, the eternal moral principles of the Creator were applied to the daily life of living as neighbors. They directed the community in its obedience and in its judgments, and in its punishment of disobedience by those bearing rightful authority to do so.
There are obvious difficulties that arise in identifying the principles of general equity that are expressed in particular judicial laws, and in properly knowing how to put them into practice today.
Some details of the laws were bound to the technological situation of the time. The specific form they took had to do with particular methods of construction, means of transportation, standards of measurement, tools for agriculture, and other similar matters unique to the age in which the laws were written.
It is our duty to identify and maintain the general principles expressed in judicial law while recognizing the changes in specifics that must take place. To discover those general principles of equity, consider the following:
1. Consider the demise of the civil structure of ancient Israel when God finally judged her as a nation, and removed her place as his covenant people.
2. Consider the completion of atonement by Jesus Christ which eliminated the sacrificial system and the priestly authority structure associated with it.
3. Consider the changes that have been made in technology and customs regarding the particular practices regulated.
Does God’s Law Apply Today?
There are statements in the New Testament that explain how certain aspects of God’s law are now fulfilled with the completion of the work of Jesus Christ and the removal of Israel as God’s special covenant people. Some have taken these passages in ways that confuse the issue. Either they degrade the whole of God’s law by excusing things today that were not abrogated by God’s word, or they retain fulfilled aspects of law which would deny our Savior’s full satisfaction of what these laws depicted.
To deal with all such passages would take many volumes of analysis. For the purposes of this study we will examine a few of these passages to establish the principles that guide us an understanding how the law of God continues to be important for the New Testament believer.
The ancient sects of the Scribes and Pharisees had departed from a right understanding of God’s law and confused its use. They made it into a superficial set of regulations which they saw as a means of salvation, and as a cause for personal pride and judgmentalism. Jesus explained to them how their attitude toward the law was wrong. The context of Matthew 5 contrasts their perversions of moral law with what God had actually said and intended. He also countered the charge that he in any way degraded the ancient law given through Moses. He said …
17. Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.
18. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.
19. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus denied that his coming was intended to abolish or to destroy the law or the words of the prophets. The Greek term he use in 5:17 is kataluo (καταλυω), which means to throw down, destroy, demolish, abolish, or annul.
He immediately added the positive side showing what his purpose was regarding the law. He came to fulfill it. The word he used for fulfill is plaerosai (πληρωσαι), which means “to fulfill, accomplish, complete or to bring something to its full measure.”
John Calvin stated in his commentary, “Christ, therefore, now declares, that his doctrine is so far from being at variance with the law, that it agrees perfectly with the law and the prophets, and not only so, but brings the complete fulfillment of them.”
Jesus accomplished this in his three offices. As Prophet he brought the law to it fullest revelation by showing us the meaning underlying the symbols and practices of the ceremonial law. As Priest he was the Sacrificial Lamb satisfying the demands of the law in the place of his people. He represented them by keeping the law perfectly, and by suffering and dying to satisfy the demands of divine justice for their sin. As King he pronounced the curse of the law upon those who remain the enemies of God and of God’s Kingdom, and he declared the redemption of those chosen by his own sovereign powers.
The perpetuity of the law is compared with the persistence of the created universe. Beginning with the solemn declaration “truly” (αμην), he said that the law would last as long as the universe lasts. It would remain until the heaven and earth pass away. Those who imagine that Jesus was declaring the elimination of the law should observe the stars and mountains and conclude that such an end to the law has not yet taken place.
He then showed that the law as a whole persisted. Not even the smallest parts were being canceled out. He illustrated with references to the forms of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the language of the law and the Old Testament. The Hebrew references are represented in Greek by the gospel writer.
The smallest letter in Greek is called the iota (ι). It is like our letter “i”. Matthew uses this to represent the Hebrew letter yodh (י) , (translated “jot” in the KJV). It is a small mark raised above the line representing the letter “y”, or as a helping consonant to lengthen the vowel “i”. The “stroke” he spoke of is the keraia, a Greek word representing the little extension on some forms that distinguish between certain Hebrew letters. For example the “b” (ב) in Hebrew and the “c” (כ) look similar. The difference is the hook or projection on the bottom right which is called the “tittle” in the KJV.
The analogy in English would be to say that not a dot over an “i” or a cross on the “t” would pass away from the law until all has been accomplished. That is the attitude of Jesus regarding the stability of God’s law.
To clarify even further Jesus condemned as least in the Kingdom of Heaven anyone who would dare annul and teach the annulment of even the least of these commandments. The rabbis had divided the law into 613 commandments. They identified 248 of them as stated positively and 365 as stated negatively. They debated which were the heavier or lighter commandments. According to many the lightest was found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7 which says that if you find a bird’s nest with young or eggs, and the mother of the bird is with them, you may take the eggs but you may not take the mother. The most weighty was generally agreed to be Deuteronomy 6:5 which requires that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might. In Luke 10:27-28 Jesus accepted the answer about the weightiest law when it was offered to him by an expert in the law.
The comments of Jesus clarify what he meant by not coming to destroy the law but to fulfill it. All the points of God’s moral law expanded upon in the context of Matthew 5:21-48 are perpetual and are not annulled or set aside in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus came to complete the law for us, not to take it away.
We must lay hold of the law in its true sense as a moral and perpetual revelation of God’s commanded holiness. This ought to make us live more honorably to the Lord who has transformed us by grace, than those hypocritical critics, the Scribes and Pharisees.
John Calvin comments, “If we intend to reform affairs which are in a state of disorder, we must always exercise such prudence and moderation, as will convince the people, that we do not oppose the eternal Word of God, or introduce any novelty that is contrary to Scripture. We must take care, that no suspicion of such contrariety shall injure the faith of the godly, and that rash men shall not be emboldened by a pretense of novelty.” (Calvin’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, table 1-43)
Though Jesus seemed to disobey the law, it was really only the perverted interpretations of the law that he disobeyed. He did not abolish the law by fulfilling it. This is directly denied by his own words. Instead of abolishing the law he fulfilled it.
In this verse the Apostle Paul makes the following statement, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
If Jesus did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17), then what does Paul mean when he said that Jesus Christ is the end of the law? Does Paul take a different view than Jesus himself? Does he somehow understand that the coming of Christ has canceled the requirements of the moral commandments summarized for us on Mt. Sinai? Is there some way that sin is no longer to be defined by the law of God? Absolutely not!
While Jesus used the word plaerosai (πληρωσαι) meaning that he came to fulfill the law, Paul uses another word. He says that Jesus, in his accomplishing his work or redemption, has become the telos (τελος) of the law. It is in that one sense that he is the end of the law. This word means to bring something to its goal, to arrive at the intended end product or final state of a plan. This fits exactly with what Jesus said in Matthew 5, that he had come to bring the law to its full measure.
This same word “telos” is used by Peter in his discussion of saving faith in 1 Peter 1:9, “Obtaining as the outcome (telos) of your faith the salvation of your souls.” The King James Version translates it, “Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”
Certainly Peter did not mean that the salvation of our souls comes by ending or eliminating our faith. That meaning of the word “end” would be completely out of place. The translators rightly have used the word “outcome” to show that faith, when brought to its full work in us, is God’s means of salvation. Salvation is what faith issues as its fruit in us. It is the goal of our belief in the promise of the gospel.
Jesus is no more the eliminating of the law, than that our salvation comes by the eliminating of our faith. That is simply not the meaning of the word used here. Jesus may be said to be the outcome of the law. He is that toward which the law was directing us who love and obey it. He is the goal of the law.
The law shows our sin and failure to have righteousness on our own. It shows us how Jesus lived a holy life in our place. It convicts the regenerate soul, and drives it to the Savior.
Jesus used this same word on the cross. John records how Jesus completed the work the Father had given him. He had reached the goal of the promise of the covenant of redemption. In John 19:30, when Jesus had received the sour wine (vinegar), He said, “It is finished!”
The word used by Jesus for “finished” is tetelestai, a form of this same word telos. Jesus was not indicating that its over. But that the work he came to do was “finished”, completed, consummated.
The writer of Hebrews uses the same word for the completion of our salvation in Christ in Hebrews 6:1 and 10:14. Jesus is the perfection of the law. He is its goal and end product. As Savior he accomplished what the law promised and made it possible that redeemed sinners would be enabled to live obediently with the glory of God as their true motivation.
Verse four of Romans ten carries this same meaning. Jesus is not the cancellation of the law, he is not its cessation. He is its completion, its goal, its consummate enablement, its perfecter. By his completed work he brings righteousness to all who believe. The law is exalted by Paul. It is in no way degraded.
In what sense does God’s law persist?
Clearly these examples show us that there are some aspects of God’s law that are temporal and some that continue throughout this age. The moral principles that represent the Creator’s holiness can never be eliminated, but the redemptive foreshadowings of redemption cannot continue in the same form after their completion by the Savior. Regarding the application of moral law to society, this must continue to reflect the same eternal moral principles in every era, though the circumstances to which they apply and the details of their practice, necessarily change.
Moral law clearly must apply to every moral creature in every era. This category of law is the revelation of eternal principles as God’s nature shows itself in creation. Therefore these principles cannot become obsolete or be laid aside. It can never become acceptable to worship other gods, to dishonor God’s name, to bear false witness against a neighbor, to murder a human created in the image of God, or to violate any of the other moral necessities imposed at creation and summarized at Sinai.
The only sense in which moral law is fulfilled is that Jesus paid its eternal penalty in place of his people. He kept the law perfectly for them granting them perfect holiness in God’s eyes, and by regeneration and sanctification he enables them to be dying daily unto sin and growing more and more into personal obedience.
Ceremonial law is primarily redemptive and points toward the coming of the promised Messiah and the atonement he would make for his people. The New Testament, particularly the books of Hebrews and Galatians, directly point out how that which is ceremonial is done away in the completion of the work of Jesus Christ. It persists in value for us today as a lesson to demonstrate and to confirm how the promises of God were fulfilled at the cross.
Judicial law as it applies to the temporal details of Israel as God’s covenant people has been done away by being completed in the establishment of the New Testament Church. But the general equity of the judicial law must apply in every era since it is an application of eternal moral principles. It is our duty in studying the judicial laws of the Old Testament to understand the moral issues applied in them, and to responsibly bring our own judicial laws into agreement with those moral principles.
John Calvin writes, “With respect to doctrine, we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed. The coming of Christ has taken nothing away even from ceremonies, but, on the contrary, confirms them by exhibiting the truth of shadows: for, when we see their full effect, we acknowledge that they are not vain or useless. Let us therefore learn to maintain inviolable this sacred tie between the law and the Gospel, which many improperly attempt to break. For it contributes not a little to confirm the authority of the Gospel, when we learn, that it is nothing else than a fulfillment of the law; so that both, with one consent, declare God to be their Author.” (Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew 5:17)
The Sum of Saving Knowledge
Along with the Confession of Faith and its Catechisms several attachments were drawn up and appended to the Westminster Standards. Among them was The Sum of Saving Knowledge. It is believed to have been authored by David Dickson with the cooperation of James Durham. Though The Sum has often been printed with the standards, it was not formally adopted by the Westminster Assembly to become part of their official work. This document shows how important and practical the law continued to be in the understanding of the scholars of Westminster.
The formal title is: “The Sum of Saving Knowledge; or, A Brief Sum of Christian Doctrine, contained in the Holy Scriptures, and holden forth in the fore said confessions of faith and catechisms; together with The Practical Use Thereof.”
The document was divided into four main sections, each divided again into four sub-headings as follows:
1. The Sum of Saving Knowledge
a. The woeful condition wherein all men are by nature, through breaking of the covenant of works.
b. The remedy provided for the elect in Jesus Christ by the covenant of grace.
c. The means appointed to make them partakers of this covenant.
d. The blessings which are effectually conveyed unto the elect by these means.
2. The Practical Use of Saving Knowledge
a. For convincing of sin by the law.
b. Of righteousness by the law.
c. Of judgment by the law.
d. For convincing of sin, righteousness, and judgment by the gospel. Of righteousness to be had only by faith in Christ. For strengthening a man’s faith, &c.
3. Warrants to Believe For building our confidence upon this solid ground
a. God’s hearty invitation.
b. His earnest request to be reconciled.
c. His command, charging all to believe.
d. Much assurance of life given to believers, &c.
4. The Evidences of True Faith
a. That the believer be soundly convinced, in his judgment, of his obligation to keep the whole moral law, all the days of his life: and that not the less, but so much the more, as he is delivered by Christ from the covenant of works, and curse of the law.
b. That he endeavor to grow in the exercise and daily practice of godliness and righteousness.
c. That the course of his new obedience run in the right channel, that is through faith in Christ, and through a good conscience, to all the duties of love towards God and man.
d. That he keep strait communion with the fountain Christ Jesus, from whom grace must run along, for furnishing of good fruits.
Summary of the Practical Importance of God’s Law
To summarize the practical importance of the law of God for believers living in this age of the ascended Savior, a few principles may provide a helpful guide.
1. God’s moral law reveals what is pleasing to the Eternal King.
It shows us what is right and true. The revealing of the nature of God is presented in Scripture as the prime purpose of all things made (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). Therefore making himself known must also be a prime purpose of his specially revealed moral law. The more we understand God’s law, the more we will respond with proper worship regarding his glory.
Psalm 119:27 “Make me understand the way of Thy precepts, So I will meditate on Thy wonders.”
2. God’s law exposes our fallen nature and inability to please God.
The more we understand God’s law, the more we are humbled before the perfectly pure holiness and justice of our Heavenly Father. It shows how unworthy we are of his blessing, and how impossible it is for us to keep the law sufficiently to please God, even in one little point.
Romans 7:7 “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ ”
Romans 7:12 “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
3. God’s law foreshadows the work of Jesus as the Messiah.
The ceremonial law illustrates dramatically that our sin deserves death. It teaches that unless God provides a substitute for his people by a gracious covenant, there is no hope for anyone. The symbolic animal sacrifices of the Old Testament foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Since his death for his people has been completed, the rituals of the Levitical code have ceased to have a purpose. But what was required by divine justice remains: Death for sin is required of everyone descending from Adam by ordinary generation. The only satisfaction in place of the sinner would be a perfect Redeemer who was also the infinite God who was the party offended. The ritual laws continue to drive us to Christ as we study the principles underlying them which are now made clear in the New Testament.
Galatians 3:24 “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”
2 Corinthians 5:21 “he became sin for us .. that we be made the righteousness of God in him”
Hebrews 9:12 “and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”
Hebrews 10:4 “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
4. God’s law is a perfect guide for showing us how we ought to live.
The believer is made alive spiritually. This compels him by the renewed disposition of his heart to give thankful obedience to his Savior. The law of God shows what is pleasing to the object of our love. Otherwise we would not know how to honorably show our gratitude.
Psalm 119:9 “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Thy word.”
Psalm 119:97 “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day.”
Psalm 119:171 “Let my lips utter praise, For Thou dost teach me Thy statutes.”
5. God’s law restrains sin for the benefit of the covenant people.
The general effects of the law are applied by God to society in general to provide a restraining effect that keeps depravity from expanding into total moral chaos. Ungodly societies have laws against murder, civil violence, theft, and such crimes that would disrupt societal tranquility. These laws are not imposed by them to honor the true God, but to benefit their own peace and prosperity. There is no true benefit to this kind of obedience for the unbeliever. The beneficiary of this restraint is the redeemed people of God.
Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the Lord, it will stand.”
Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.”
God’s law continues to have great uses and benefits today. Though some legal duties may have only temporal applications, there is an eternal element to all of God’s law. The moral principles underlying the revealed precepts are never done away. We need to learn to honor that law and to be holy even as the Lord our God is holy (Leviticus 19:2).
Law and Grace
There is often a tragic false opposition set up between law and grace. Some speak of grace as if it was a new principle introduced for the New Testament era to replace the previous idea of law. Those holding to this Dispensational concept fail to rightly understand Paul’s statement to the Roman Christians that they are no longer under law but are under grace.
Our previous studies have shown that both concepts flow from the nature of God and neither can be set aside. Law is an expression of the eternal principles of holiness, justice, goodness and truth. Grace is that unmerited redemptive favor which is also a divine attribute. At no time since creation is the moral law of God unimportant. Its uses are clearly valuable to us today as they have been in every previous era. Only the temporary ritual laws foreshadowing the work of Christ are set aside as no longer obligating us since the purpose for which they were given has been completed. Grace has always been operative since the fall of Adam. Otherwise not one of his descendants would have been able to have become a believer.
In Romans 6:14 Paul expands upon how sin is no longer to be considered our master. That verse reads, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.”
The obvious question is, “in what way are we under grace and not under law?”
In the context of this verse Paul had been talking about being under the mastery of either sin or righteousness. So while under law may mean other things in other places, here it seems to have to do with mastery. But why then explain being under sin or righteousness in terms of being under law or grace? Paul was bringing his whole argument together to unite his themes.
He had made a reference to law in the previous chapter. There he was explaining that since sin was imputed to mankind ever since Eden, long before the giving of the Law of Moses, therefore law itself must have been in the world from the beginning. It could not have been something that began at Sinai. The law’s work of condemning sin was ancient. Romans 5:13 “for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.”
The Apostle’s concern in chapter six was to encourage believers to stop sinning as defined in the law of God. Clearly this could not mean that somehow we are to do what the law says, while at the same time the law has stopped saying anything to us.
The problem was that some had come under the heavy burden of legalism, the idea that a personal keeping of the law qualified a person for forgiveness, that salvation was the result of human merit. Paul did not want to encourage that view. Merit was never a way of salvation for fallen sinners.
Paul was showing that the true purpose of the law is to reveal what is holy and to expose by contrast what is not holy. It condemns all who violate the eternal moral principles God has made known to us by his word. So to be alive to sin, is to be condemned under the judgment of the law. To be struggling in futility for a salvation by works, which can never be, is to be under a most cruel mastery, a mastery of sin and death. This is the pain of being under the law’s condemnation and without hope.
God’s grace through the death of Christ is what makes us righteous. His atonement declares us to be free of the condemnation we learn that we deserve through our study of the law. So to be under the mastery of righteousness, means to come under the liberating power of grace.
Paul isn’t saying that once we were obligated to obey God’s law, and now we are not. That could never be. We are always commanded to do what is right in God’s eyes. Rather he’s saying that at one time we were under the law which justly condemns us for our attempts to be saved by our own merits. But now we are forgiven by grace so that righteousness becomes our master. We are now therefore under grace as our eternal hope. The unmerited redeeming favor of our Lord and Master has set us free from the bondage of an impossible task.
Law should not be viewed as an inferior form of religion. It is a God given form which displays his nature and glory, exposes our own need, and points us to the amazing accomplishment of our Redeemer’s victory.
When believers sin, instead of looking at their failures as if they were still in bondage to them, they need to remind themselves of this promise.
We need to consider ourselves to be dead to sin, separated from its mastery, and made alive to God as slaves to the mastery of righteousness. We need to remove every opportunity for sinning and press on to improve holiness. We need to expect the promise of our Savior to bring progressive victory using our prayers and honoring the grateful obedience he stirs in our hearts.
(The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)