In my last few posts, I’ve tried to briefly address the question: “What is the purpose of God’s moral law?” This is a difficult topic for many believers, not a few of whom fall into one (or perhaps both) of the two most common errors.
The first error is to think that our salvation is to be found through our successful obedience of God’s moral law, or that our status as ‘good Christians’ comes from how well we meet its demands. This is the error of legalism.
The second error is to ignore God’s moral law altogether. After all, if Christ died to set us free from sin, then the law has no place in our life–we can do what we want. This is the error of lawlessness (or, more technically, antinomianism).
So what is the purpose of God’s moral law for those who believe that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4)? Let’s review where we’ve been so far before wrapping up this thread.
First, in these discussions, “law” refers to God’s moral law, which finds its expression in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-17). Rooted in the very character of God and given to us directly by him, it is timeless and irrevocable, and binding upon everyone everywhere.
They are distilled expressions of the way in which we are to relate to God (commandments 1-4) and the way in which we are to relate to others (commandments 5-10). Their beauty is in their brevity–they do not allow for loopholes or appeals. Everyone who hears or reads them can understand them, yet no one is able to keep them perfectly.
Christian thinking often refers to the various “uses” of the law. The “first use” is to expose our sin and drive us to the Savior (see my “Law 101″ post). The “second use” is to restrain sin in society and provide a template for divinely approved human interaction (“Law 201”).
The “third use” of the law is sometimes called the ‘normative’ use of the law, and is the one most closely associated with Calvin and the Reformed tradition. Simply put, it is this: the law serves to show us how to live in grateful response to God’s grace as we grow in righteousness.
Luther had a hard time seeing any positive function for the law in the life of the believer. Calvin, on the other hand, produced a signature contribution in that he emphasized the ‘positive’ function of the law, provided this was rightly understood.
The thinking goes like this: once we have been convicted of our sin, shown our need of a Savior, and driven to take refuge in the work of that Savior, we then return to God with a desire to please him and–for the first time–the ability to actually do so. But we need to be shown how, so we turn again to the moral law, not only to find out what not to do, but also to find out what we are called to do.
For example, in the first command (“You shall have no other gods before me”) the rampant idolatry of our sinful hearts is exposed–yet at the same time we are shown that our proper response to God’s saving grace is to love, worship, and glorify him alone.
This use of the law is clearly displayed in the Heidelberg Catechism. This document has three main sections, often called “guilt, grace, and gratitude” (or somethings similar). The first section discusses our guilt and need of deliverance. The second expounds upon God’s salvation in Christ, and the third shows how we are to respond to this grace.
It is instructive that the exposition of the Ten Commandments is found in the third section. This is typical of many Reformed confessions and catechisms. The moral law is seen as the place to which we turn as a way to show us what a life of obedient discipleship and growth in grace looks like. Think of it as a blueprint, if you’d like, for the Christian life.
This approach to the moral law, then, looks not only at the prohibitions but also at the corresponding prescriptions that are derived through ‘good and necessary consequence’ (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.6).
Here is a specific example from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. 110. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?
A. He forbids not only the theft and robbery which civil authorities punish, but God also labels as theft all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or under the pretext of right, such as false weights and measures, deceptive advertising or merchandising, counterfeit money, exorbitant interest, or any other means forbidden by God. He also forbids all greed and misuse and waste of his gifts.
Q. 111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?
A. That I work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and do my work well so that I may be able to help the poor in need.
The intent is to consider not only what God does not want you do to, but also what God does want you to do. Our motivation for living this way is nothing other than the recognition that we are sinners saved by grace and that ordering our lives in this way is not only pleasing to the God who rescued us, but also helps to reflect Jesus Christ to others as we ourselves grow in his likeness through the work of the Holy Spirit.
When we come to know the grace of God in Christ and the salvation that is ours in him, our response should be, “Lord, how can I now live in ways that are pleasing to you and reflect your righteousness to others?” The answer is to walk in the ways that he has set before us, and the ways he has set before us are summarized in the Ten Commandments.
Now, some closing thoughts on the past few posts as I wrap up this thread.
–The three uses of the law are not sequential (i.e. you move from the first to the second and then to the third), but overlapping and often simultaneous. It is not as if the first use of the law only applies to unbelievers. Even mature Christians need to examine their heart and motives before the Lord by using the ‘mirror’ of the moral law.
–I’m not under the illusion (nor should you be) that this was anything more than a brief sketch of what are some very rich themes. Hopefully I can unpack some of them later in other posts.
–The moral law of God, while not the means by which we merit salvation, is also not something to be discarded or disdained by Christians. It has enduring and abiding relevance and should be viewed accordingly.
–The Ten Commandments have long been one of the three things (along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed) that the Church has affirmed as necessary for believers to know. Do you have them memorized? It’s not that tough–there are only ten!
Take some time to prayerfully examine your own life, to give thanks for the Savior who did what you could not, and to seek to honor God as you live a life of grateful obedience to him.