Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Uses of the Moral Law

The law is God’s revealed will for the life of angels in heaven and humans on earth. As such, it is called the moral law. Three great summaries of the moral law have been given in history. First, God charged Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it,” adding that, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,  you shall not eat of it: for in the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen. 1:28; 2:16, 17).

God gave the second summary to Moses at Sinai in the Ten Commandments, writing it with His own finger on stone tablets (Ex. 31:18; 32:16). This summary is reported in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The whole body of Mosaic legislation, including the directory for worship known as the ceremonial law and the various civil laws given to Israel “as a body politic” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.3–4), is only the outworking of these “ten words,” as they are called in Hebrew.

Finally, the Lord Jesus Christ, challenged to identify the great commandment of the law, reduced all to just two commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:36–40).

Under the gospel, the ceremonial law has been abrogated and the civil law has expired. But the moral law—written on the human heart at creation, ratified as the covenant of works, and confirmed by Christ—continues to bind all human beings to obey it. Of what use is the law to mankind in general? 

Before the fall, the law directed Adam to a blessed way of life. Since the fall, it can only serve to restrain sin, expose human sinfulness, condemn every sinner, and show how much we need Christ as the only Savior. Paul writes, “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20); “I had not known sin, but by the law” (Rom. 7:7).

So the moral law teaches us the reality of sin. Fallen, sinful human beings remain moral agents by nature, accountable to their Maker. Their conduct must be judged by His law. “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 14). This definition frees us from slavish conformity to the laws and commandments of men, but it brings us face to face with the righteous demands of a holy God.

Because Christ blotted out “the handwriting of ordinances that was against us … and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:14), some have taught that the moral law is no longer binding on Christians as “justified persons.” But this “handwriting” was the law’s sentence of condemnation on all who disobey. Christ died to atone for our sins, thus voiding that sentence of condemnation.

But the law is still of great use to the Christian. It teaches him to know his own sinful nature, to be earnest in seeking forgiveness of sin and righteousness in Christ, to hate all sin, and to delight in all righteousness. It is a mark of grace to love God’s law as a rule of life (Ps. 119:97). The child of God wants to please his heavenly Father by doing His will on earth. Faith moves him, grace enables him, love constrains him, and the law of God directs him in the new life of obedience in Christ.