There are few theological issues more important and more difficult than the relationship of the Christian to the law. In recent years in particular there have been a lot of conversations and controversies about the proper use of the law in the believer’s progressive sanctification. We all know we are justified by faith apart from works of the law, but what is the place for obedience to the law after we are justified?
One explanation—and the best succinct one I know of—comes from Chapter XIX of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). For Reformed Christians in general, this ought to summarize what we believe. For Presbyterian office bearers in particular, this is what you swear to uphold. For Christians at large, there are plenty of Bible references in the WCF so you can see for yourself if these things are so.
I’ll ask the questions, and let Chapter XIX give the answers. Whenever the text is in italics that means I’m quoting directly from the Confession.
Me: Hey, thanks for being willing to meet with me WCF. I know you are busy and very old, so I’ll try not to take up too much of your time. I just have a few questions about the law. For starters, where did the law come from? Was it just added after the fall?
WCF: 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.
Me: Kind of wordy, WCF, but I think I get it. God gave Adam the law from the very beginning, even before sin entered the world.
Me: Too bad Adam had no way of keeping the law.
WCF: No, God endued him with power and ability to keep it.
Me: Okay, but after the fall, man was incapable of keeping the law.
Me: So what purpose did the law serve once sin entered the world through Adam?
WCF: 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.
Me: So does that mean we have to follow everything God told Moses to do, even all the food laws and sacrifices and stuff?
WCF: No, because beside this law summarized in the Ten Commandments—let’s call that the moral law, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws.
Me: And what were those?
WCF: They contained several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties.
Me: And do we need to follow these kinds of laws?
WCF: All ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
Me: And what about all the laws for Israel as a nation. I mean, we’re not a theocracy anymore, so how are we supposed to keep those?
WCF: 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.
Me: Makes sense. So we can pretty much ignore all those laws for the nation of Israel.
WCF: Not exactly. We still have to be mindful what the general equity thereof may require.
Me: If I’m hearing you correctly, then, these ceremonial and judicial aspects of Mosaic law are not longer required, at least not in the same way.
WCF: That’s right.
Me: But what about the thing you mentioned first, the moral law, you know, the laws summarized in the Ten Commandments? What happened to those?
WCF: The moral law doth forever bind all.
Me: Even after we are justified?
WCF: As well justified persons as others.
Me: But if I’m gospel-centered I can’t be obliged to keep the law, can I?
WCF: Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
Me: Wait a second. I thought I was set free from the law. How can I still be obliged to keep it then?
WCF: 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 others.
Me: You’re talking about how the law shows us our sin. I agree that’s important.
WCF: Yes, that’s one important way to us the law. It gives people a clearer sight of the need they have for Christ, and the perfection of his obedience.
Me: That makes sense. The law is all about revealing to us our failings so we can run to Christ.
WCF: True, but that’s not the only use of the law for Christians. It is also a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly.
Me: Okay, so the law simply tells us what is right and wrong.
WCF: I wouldn’t put it quite like that. The law is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatening 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.
Me: Wait a second. You’re saying even as believers we need to pay attention to the threats of the law and that even the regenerate may receive afflictions here and now for their disobedience? What is this, some kind of performance religion? I don’t think God wants justified believers to obey the law to try to please him.
WCF: 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.
Me: But come on, gospel Christians don’t obey because the law tells them to.
WCF: 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.
Me: But if we must still listen to the warnings of the law and the promises of the law, and if we may even be blessed for obeying the law and receive afflictions for disobeying the law, and if part of our motivation for doing good is because the law encourages us to do so—how is this not all anti-gospel?
WCF: Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel do sweetly comply with it.
Me: But this is just pulling ourselves up by our moral bootstraps.
WCF: Wrong. Christians obey the law by 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.
Me: So maybe there’s more of a place for the law in my life as a Christian than I thought.
WCF: That’s what Reformed Christians thought 350 years ago.