by Richard Phillips
“We know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8).
Last week, I wrote a pastor’s letter on the proper definition of legalism – what it is and what it is not. A related and vitally important matter for Christians is how rightly to use God’s law. Some Christians wrongly believe that since Christ has come, we have nothing to do with God’s law. But how wrong this is! “Oh how I love your law,” David sang (Ps. 119:97). James refers to it as “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (Ja. 1:25), and those who love the law increasingly may live in the freedom of godliness and love.
God’s law is a multi-use tool, much like the famous Swiss knife. Reformed theology understands three principle “uses” of God’s law. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin helpfully (and biblically) identified three uses of the law of God.
The first use of the law is to convict us of our guilt. Calvin writes, “It warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness.” This is why we read the law before confessing our sin in the worship service: to make clear the commandments we have transgressed. Paul writes, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Calvin compares the law to a mirror that shows us what we really are like. A mirror does not clean your face, but it shows you that your face is dirty. In this manner, the law drives us to the gospel, which is able to cleanse us from our sin. Let me encourage you, then, to make good use of this first use of the law: look into this mirror and see that you are a sinner, and then turn your heart in faith to the forgiveness offered by God in the gospel.
The second use of the law is to restrain sin. In other words, the law helps to keep people from sinning. Paul wrote: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19). His point was that God wanted to preserve Israel until the coming of Christ, so he gave the law to push back the influence of sin in their society. Calvin points out that even unsaved people are restrained in their sin by the law. But it is also true among believers. Therefore, it is important for the well-being of the church and of every Christian family that its members be impressed with the Ten Commandments, which remind us that it is wrong to blaspheme, to rebel against God-ordained authority, to injure others, to be unfaithful to covenants, to take what is not ours, to speak falsely or loosely, and to covet the blessings that others have. American society increasingly bears testimony to the pain and destruction that takes place when the restraining influence of godly laws are removed.
The third use of the law is to guide the conduct of believers. The law not only tells us what we must not do, but it also clarifies what we should do. When the law says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), we should realize that God should be first in all things. When we read, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13), we recognize the sanctity of human life. Where the law says, “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness” (Ex. 20:14-16), we recognize our calling to be pure, to seek the blessing of others, and aaa
Before concluding, let me give brief answers to common questions about the law:
Is God’s law only concerned with behavior, rather than the heart? Answer: No, the law is spiritual, reaching the understanding, will, and affections, as well as actions. It was Moses, after all, who said, “Circumcise your heart” (Dt. 10:16). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it plain that we violate the law in our hearts whenever we have sinful desires.
Isn’t the law the opposite of love? Answer: No, the law is all about love. The great summary of the law was given by Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27).
Aren’t there times when it is better not to obey God’s law? Answer: No, the law is perfect, representing God’s perfect character, requiring full conformity at all times and forbidding the least degree of sin.
Isn’t it pointless for sinners to try to keep God’s law? Isn’t this just contrary to the gospel? Answer: No. There is a world of difference between an unregenerate sinner and a born again believer. We have received the Holy Spirit, Paul says, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). The gospel saves us from the law’s condemnation and then empowers us to the law’s fulfillment. Part of the good news of Christ is that we no longer are slaves to sin: not only must we not sin, but we need not sin!
So thank God for his law. Thank God for its witness to his perfect character. Thank God for the law’s aid in living a godly life. And thank God that when the law shows me my sin, it points me to the gospel, which says that Christ fulfilled the law for me. What an incentive a Christian has to live according to God’s law, as a way of saying, “I love you!” to the Lord.
In Christ’s Love,
Pastor Rick Phillips