by Sinclair B. Ferguson
At a PGA Tour tournament in October 2015, Ben Crane disqualified himself after completing his second round. He did so at considerable financial cost. No matter—Crane believed the personal cost of not doing it would be greater.
Crane realized he had broken one of the more recondite rules of golf. If I followed the story rightly, while in a hazard looking for his ball, he leaned his club on a stone. He abandoned the ball, took the requisite penalty for doing so, played on, and finished his round. He would have made the Friday night cut comfortably; a very successful weekend financially beckoned. Then Ben Crane thought: “Should I have included a penalty for grounding my club in a hazard?” Sure enough (Rule 13.4a). So he disqualified himself.
Crane has been widely praised for his action. No avalanche of spiteful or demeaning attacks on cyberspace or hate mail for being narrow-minded. Intriguingly, no one seemed to have said or written, “Ben Crane is such a legalist.”
How odd it is to see so much praise for Crane’s detailed attention to the rules of golf, and yet the opposite when it comes to the rules of life, the much more straightforward law of God, even in church. Why the discrepancy?
Neither Jesus nor Paul had a problem with the law. Paul wrote that his gospel of grace upholds and establishes the law (Rom. 3:31)—even God’s laws in their negative form, since the grace of God…teaches us to say “No” (Titus 2:11–12). And remember Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:17–19? Our attitude to the law is a litmus test of our relationship to the kingdom of God.
So what is the problem? The real problem is that we do not understand grace. If we did, we would also realize why John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” could write, “Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes.” There is a deep issue here. In Scripture, the person who understands grace loves law. (Incidentally, mere polemics against antinomianism can never produce this.)
Think again of Ben Crane. Why keep the complex rules of golf? Because you love the game. Something similar, but greater, is true of the believer. Love the Lord, and we will love His law because it is His. All is rooted in this beautiful biblical simplicity.
Think of it in terms of three men and the three “stages” or “epochs” they represent: Adam, Moses, and Jesus.
At creation, God gave commandments. They expressed His will. And since He is a good, wise, loving, and generous God, His commandments are always for our best. He wants to be a Father to us.
As soon as God created man and woman in His image (a hugely significant statement [Gen. 1:26–28]), He gave them statutes to follow (v. 29). The context here makes clear the rationale: He is Lord; they are His image. He made them to reflect Him. He is the cosmic Overlord, and they are the earthly under-lords. His goal is their mutual enjoyment of one another and creation in a communion of life (1:26–2:3). So, He has given them a start—a garden in Eden (2:7). He wants them to extend that garden to the ends of the earth, and to enjoy it as miniature creators, images imitating the great original Creator (1:28–29).
God’s creation commands then had in view our reflecting His image and glory. His image-bearers are made to be like Him. In one form or another, all divine commands have this principle enshrined in them: “You are my image and likeness. Be like me!” This is reflected in His command: “Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
Implied here is that God’s image-bearers are created, hardwired, to reflect Him. Yes, there are external laws given to them, but those laws simply provide the specific applications of the “laws” inbuilt in the divine image, laws that are already on the conscience. It was instinctive then for Adam and Eve to imitate God, to be like Him, because they were created in His image and likeness—just as little Seth would instinctively behave like his father, Adam, because he was “in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3). Like father, like son.
But then came the fall: sin, lack of conformity to God’s revealed law, and distortion of the image resulted in malfunctions of the inner human instincts. The mirror image turned away from the gaze and the life of God, and since then all people (except Christ) have shared in this condition. The Lord remains the same. His design for His image remains the same. But the image is marred. The under-lord who was created to turn the dust into a garden has become dust itself:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Gen. 3:19)
We remain the image of God, and the laws that govern how we live best are unchanged. But now we are haggard and spent, twisted within, distorted, carrying the aroma of death. Once chief operation officers, we are now vagrants who survive only by stealing from the owner of the company (Yahweh and Son) who provided for us so generously. The law within functions still, but unreliably at best, not because the law is faulty but because we are.
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another. (Romans 2:14–15; see also 7:7–25)
But God wants His portrait—His image—back.
In essence, the Mosaic law—summarized in the Decalogue— rewrote on tablets of stone the constitution written on man’s heart in creation. But now the law came to fallen man and had to include sin offerings to address the new condition of humanity. It came to one distinct nation in one specific land. And it came until the coming of the Redeemer promised in Genesis 3:15. Therefore, it was given largely in negative terms, with added applications relevant for one specific nation in a single land, until the day when the types and sacrifices of the law would be fulfilled in Christ.
The law was given to people as under-age children (Gal. 3:23–4:5)—largely in negative form. We teach our children that way (“Don’t stick the screwdriver into the electric socket!”) long before we explain to them how electricity works. It is the simplest and safest way to protect them. But it was already clear to old covenant believers that the law’s negations enshrined positive commands. The negative “No other gods before me” implied the full-color, developed picture of loving the Lord with all of one’s heart, and commandments two through four fleshed out that picture. The rest of the commandments were negatives to be developed in “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In addition, since the animal sacrifices substituted for humans’ sins, they clearly lacked in proportion and could not deliver the forgiveness they pictured. An old covenant believer could work that out by going to the temple two days in a row: the priest was still standing at the altar, sacrificing all over again (Heb. 10:1–4, 11). The final adequate sacrifice was still to come.
And then the Decalogue was given civil application for the people in the land. But these local laws would no longer function in the same way for God’s people when they would be scattered throughout all the nations. The preservation and advance of His kingdom would then no longer be dependent on them.
All of this is well expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching that the “moral law” continues, the “ceremonial law” is fulfilled, and the “civil law” is abrogated, although we can clearly still learn a great deal from the ceremonial and civil legislation (19:3–5). An old covenant believer could understand this, albeit with less clarity. After all, only the Decalogue was placed in the ark, as an expression of the very character and heart of God. Yes, the law was one because the God who gave it is one. But the law of Moses was not monolithic—it was multidimensional, having a foundation and also spheres of application. The former was permanent; the latter were interim arrangements until the coming day dawned.