The Law of Works, The Law of Faith and the Law of Christ

by Edward Fisher with Must-Read Footnotes by Thomas Boston

EVANGELISTA, a Minister of the Gospel.
NOMIST, a Legalist.
ANTINOMISTA, an Antinomian.
NEOPHYTUS, a Young Christian.

Sect. 1. Differences about the Law.—2. A threefold Law.

Nomista. Sir, my neighbour, Neophytus and I having lately had some conference with this our friend and acquaintance, Antinomista, about some points of religion, wherein he, differing from us both, at last said he would be contented to be judged by our minister: therefore, have we made bold to come unto you, all three of us, to pray you to hear us, and judge of our differences.

Evan. You are all of you very welcome to me; and if you please to let me hear what your differences are, I will tell you what I think.

SECT. 1.—Nom. The truth is, sir, he and I differ in very many things; but more especially about the law: for I say, the law ought to be a rule of life to a believer; and he says, it ought not.

Neo. And surely, sir, the greatest difference betwixt him and me, is this;—he would persuade me to believe in Christ; and bids me rejoice in the Lord, and live merrily, though I feel never so many corruptions in my heart, yea, though I be never so sinful in my life; the which I cannot do, nor, I think, ought to do; but rather to fear, and sorrow, and lament for my sins.

Ant. The truth is, sir, the greatest difference betwixt my friend Nomista and me, is about the law; and therefore that is the greatest matter we come to you about.

Evan. I remember the Apostle Paul willeth Titus to "avoid contentions and strivings about the law, because they are unprofitable and vain," (Titus 3:9); and so I fear yours have been.

Nom. Sir, for my own part, I hold it very meet, that every true Christian should be very zealous for the holy law of God; especially now, when a company of these Antinomians do set themselves against it, and do what they can quite to abolish it, and utterly to root it out of the church: surely, sir, I think it not meet they should live in a Christian commonwealth.

Evan. I pray you, neighbour Nomista, be not so hot, neither let us have such unchristian-like expressions amongst us; but let us reason together in love, and with the spirit of meekness, (1 Cor 4:21), as Christians ought to do. I confess with the apostle, "It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing," (Gal 4:18). But yet, as the same apostle said of the Jews, so I fear I may say of some Christians, that "they are zealous of the law," (Acts 21:20); yea, some would be doctors of the law, and yet neither understand "what they say, nor whereof they affirm," (1 Tim 1:7).

Nom. Sir, I make no doubt but that I both know what I say, and whereof I affirm, when I say and affirm that the holy law of God ought to be a rule of life to a believer; for I dare pawn my soul on the truth of it.

Evan. But what law do you mean?

Nom. Why, sir, what law do you think I mean? Are there any more laws than one?

SECT. 2.—Evan. Yea, in the Scriptures there is mention made of divers laws, but they may all be comprised under these three, viz.—the law of works, the law of faith, and the law of Christ;

1 (Rom 3:27, Gal 6:2); and, therefore, I pray you, tell me, when you say the law ought to be a rule of life to a believer, which of these three laws you mean.

Nom. Sir, I know not the difference betwixt them; but this I know, that the law of the ten commandments, commonly called the moral law, ought to be a rule of life to a believer.

Evan. But the law of the ten commandments, or moral law may be either said to be the matter of the law of works, or the matter of the law of Christ: and therefore I pray you to tell me, in whether of these senses you conceive it ought to be a rule of life to a believer?

Nom. Sir, I must confess, I do not know what you mean by this distinction; but this I know, that God requires that every Christian should frame and lead his life according to the ten commandments; the which if he do, then may he expect the blessing of God both upon his own soul and body; and if he do not, then can he expect nothing else but his wrath and curse upon them both.

Evan. The truth is, Nomista, the law of the ten commandments, as it is the matter of the law of works, ought not to be a rule of life to a believer. But in thus saying, you have affirmed that it ought; and therefore therein you have erred from the truth. And now, Antinomista, that I may also know your judgment, when you say the law ought not to be a rule of life to a believer, pray tell me what law do you mean?

Ant. Why, I mean the law of the ten commandments.

Evan. But whether do you mean that law, as it is the matter of the law of works, or as it is the matter of the law of Christ?

Ant. Surely, sir, I do conceive, that the ten commandments are no way to be a rule of life to a believer; for Christ hath delivered him from them.

Evan. But the truth is, the law of the ten commandments, as it is the matter of the law of Christ, ought to be a rule of life to a believer;

2 and therefore you having affirmed the contrary, have therein also erred from the truth.

Nom. The truth is, sir, I must confess I never took any notice of this threefold law, which, it seems, is mentioned in the New Testament.

Ant. And I must confess, if I took any notice of them, I never understood them.

Evan. Well, give me leave to tell you, that so far as any man comes short of the true knowledge of this threefold law,

3 so far he comes short both of the true knowledge of God and of himself; and therefore I wish you both to consider of it.

Nom. Sir, if it be so, you may do well to be a means to inform us, and help us to the true knowledge of this threefold law; and therefore, I pray you, first tell us what is meant by the law of works.

[1] These terms [The Law of Works, The Law of Faith and the Law of Christ] are scriptural, as appears from the whole texts quoted by our author, namely, (Rom 3:27), "Where is boasting then? it is excluded. By what law? of works? nay: but by the law of faith."—(Gal 6:2), "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ." By the law of works is meant the law of the ten commandments, as the covenant of works. By the law of faith, the gospel, or covenant of grace; for justification being the point upon which the apostle there states the opposition betwixt these two laws, it is evident that the former only is the law that doth not exclude boasting; and that the latter only is it, by which a sinner is justified in a way that doth exclude boasting. By the law of Christ, is meant the same law of the ten commandments, as a rule of life, in the hand of a Mediator, to believers already justified, and not any one command of the law only; for "bearing one another's burdens" is a "fulfilling of the law of Christ," as it is a loving one another: but, according to the Scripture, that love is not a fulfilling of one command only, but of the whole law of the ten commands, (Rom 13:8-10).—"He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." It is a fulfilling of the second table directly, and of the first table indirectly and consequentially: therefore, by the law of Christ is meant, not one command only, but the whole law.

The law of works is the law to be done, that one may be saved; the law of faith is the law to be believed, that one may be saved; the law of Christ is the law of the Saviour, binding his saved people to all the duties of obedience, (Gal 3:12, Acts 16:31).

The term law is not here used univocally; for the law of faith is neither in the Scripture sense, nor in the sense of our author, a law, properly so called. The apostle uses that phrase only in imitation of the Jews' manner of speaking, who had the law continually in their mouths. But since the promise of the gospel proposed to faith, is called in Scripture "the law of faith," our author was sufficiently warranted to call it so too. So the law of faith is not a proper preceptive law.

The law of works, and the law of Christ, are in substance but one law, even the law of the ten commandments—the moral law—that law which was from the beginning, continuing still the same in its own nature, but vested with different forms. And since that law is perfect, and sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of it, whatever form it be vested with, whether as the law of works or as the law of Christ, all commands of God unto men must needs be comprehended under it, and particularly the command to repent, common to all mankind, pagans not excepted, who doubtless are obliged, as well as others, to turn from sin unto God; as also the command to believe in Christ, binding all to whom the gospel revelation comes, though, in the meantime, this law stands under different forms to those who are in a state of union with Christ by faith, and to those who are not so. The law of Christ is not a new, proper, preceptive law, but the old, proper, preceptive law, which was from the beginning, under a new accidental form.

The distinction between the law of works and the law of faith cannot be controverted, since the apostle doth so clearly distinguish them, (Rom 3:27).

The distinction between the law of works and the law of Christ, as above explained according to the Scriptures, and the mind of our author, is the same in effect with that of the law, as a covenant of works, and as a rule of life to believers, and ought to be admitted, (Westm. Confess. chap. 19, art. 6). For, (1.) Believers are not under, but dead to the law of works, (Rom 6:14), "For ye are not under the law, but under grace."—(7:4), "Wherefore my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law, that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead."—(1 Cor 9:21), "Being not without law to God, but under the law of Christ." Some copies read here "of God," and "of Christ"; which I mention, not out of any regard to that different reading, but that upon the occasion thereof the sense is owned by the learned to be the same either way. To be under the law to God is, without question, to be under the law of God; whatever it may be judged to import more, it can import no less; therefore to be under the law to Christ, is to be under the law of Christ. This text gives a plain and decisive answer to the question, "How is the believer under the law of God?" namely, as he is under the law to Christ. (2.) The law of Christ is an "easy yoke," and a "light burden," (Matt 11:30); but the law of works, to a sinner, is an insupportable burden, requiring works as the condition of justification and acceptance with God, as is clear from the whole of the apostle's reasoning, (Rom 3). [and therefore it is called the law of works, for otherwise the law of Christ requires works too,] and cursing "every one that continues not in all things written in it to do them," (Gal 3:10). The apostle assures us, that "what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law," (Rom 3:19). The duties of the law of works, as such, are, as I conceive, called by our Lord himself, "heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne," (Matt 23:4).—"For they," viz: the Scribes and Pharisees, "bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." These heavy burdens were not human traditions, and rites devised by men; for Christ would not have commanded the observing and doing of these, as in this case he did, (verse 3), "Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do"; neither were they the Mosaic rites and ceremonies, which were not then abrogated, for the Scribes and Pharisees were so far from not moving these burdens with one of their own fingers, that the whole of their religion was confined to them, namely to the rites and ceremonies of Moses' law, and those of their own devising. But the duties of the moral law they laid on others, binding them on with the tie of the law of works, yet made no conscience of them in their own practice: the which duties, nevertheless, our Lord Jesus commanded to be observed and done.

"He who hath believed on Jesus Christ, [though he be freed from the curse of the law,] is not freed from the command and obedience of the law, but tied thereunto by a new obligation, and a new command from Christ. Which new command from Christ importeth help to obey the command."—Practical Use of Saving Knowledge, title, The Third Warrant to Believe, fig. 5.

What this distinction amounts to is, that thereby a difference is constituted betwixt the ten commandments as coming from an absolute God out of Christ unto sinners, and the same ten commandments as coming from God in Christ unto them; a difference which the children of God, assisting their consciences before him to "receive the law at his mouth," will value as their life, however they disagree about it in words and manner of expression. But that the original indispensable obligation of the law of the ten commandments is in any measure weakened by the believer's taking it as the law of Christ, and not as the law of works; or that the sovereign authority of God the Creator, which is inseparable from it for the ages of eternity, in what channel soever it be conveyed unto men, is thereby laid aside,—will appear utterly groundless, upon an impartial consideration of the matter. For is not our Lord Jesus Christ, equally with the Father and the Holy Spirit, JEHOVAH, the Sovereign, Supreme, Most High God, Creator of the world? (Isa 47:4, Jer 23:6, with Psa 83:18, John 1:3, Rev 3:14). Is not the same [or sovereign authority] of God in Christ? (Exo 23:21). Is not he in the Father, and the Father in him? (John 14:11). Nay, doth not all the fullness of the Godhead dwell in him? (Col 2:9). How, then, can the original obligation of the law of the ten commandments, arising from the authority of the Creator, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, be weakened by its being issued unto the believer from and by that blessed channel, the Lord Jesus Christ?

As for the distinction betwixt the law of faith and the law of Christ, the latter is subordinated unto the former. All men by nature are under the law of works; but taking the benefit of the law of faith, by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are set free from the law of works, and brought under the law of Christ.—(Matt 11:28,29), "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden—take my yoke upon you."

[2] The law of the ten commandments, being the natural law, was written on Adam's heart on his creation; while as yet it was neither the law of works, nor the law of Christ, in the sense wherein these terms are used in Scripture, and by our author. But after man was created, and put into the garden, this natural law, having made man liable to fall away from God, a threatening of eternal death in case of disobedience, had also a promise of eternal life annexed to it in case of obedience; in virtue of while he, having done his work, might thereupon plead and demand the reward of eternal life. Thus it became the law of works, whereof the ten commandments were, and are still the matter. All mankind being ruined by the breach of this law, Jesus Christ obeys and dies in the room of the elect, that they might be saved; they being united to him by faith, are, through his obedience and satisfaction imputed to them, freed from eternal death, and become heirs of everlasting life; so that the law of works being fully satisfied, expires as to them, as it would have done of course in the case of Adam's having stood the time of his trial: howbeit it remains in full force as to unbelievers. But the natural law of the ten commandments [which can never expire or determine, but is obligatory in all possible states of the creature, in earth, heaven, or hell] is, from the moment the law of works expires as to believers, issued forth to them [still liable to infirmities, though not to falling away like Adam] in the channel of the covenant of grace, bearing a promise of help to obey, (Ezek 36:27), and, agreeable to their state before the Lord, having annexed to it a promise of the tokens of God's fatherly love, for the sake of Christ, in case of that obedience; and a threatening of God's fatherly displeasure in case of their disobedience. (John 14:21), "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him."—(Psa 89:31-33), "If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless, my loving kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail." Thus it becomes the law of Christ to them; of which law also the same ten commandments are likewise the matter. In the threatenings of this law there is no revenging wrath; and in the promises of it no proper conditionalty of works; but here is the order in the covenant of grace, to which the law of Christ belongs; a beautiful order of grace, obedience, particular favours, and chastisements for disobedience. Thus the ten commandments stand, both in the law of works and in the law of Christ at the same time, being the common matter of both; but as they are the matter of [i.e. stand in] the law of works, they are actually a part of the law of works; howbeit, as they are the matter of, or stand in, the law of Christ, they are actually a part, not of the law of works, but of the law of Christ. And as they stand in the law of Christ, our author expressly asserts, against the Antinomian, that they ought to be a rule of life to a believer; but that they ought to be a rule of life to a believer, as they stand in the law of works, he justly denies, against the legalist. Even as when one and the same crime stands forbidden in the laws of different independent kingdoms, it is manifest that the rule of life to the subjects in that particular is the prohibition, as it stands in the law of that kingdom whereof they are subjects respectively, and not as it stands in the law of that kingdom of which they are not subjects.

[3] Not of the terms here used to express it by, but of the things thereby meant, viz: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the law as a rule of life to believers, in whatever terms these things be expressed.

From the introduction to The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edwards Fisher