Results tagged “Law of God” from Reformation21 Blog

Luther, Law and Love

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Life is too short not to reap the spiritual benefit of reading Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Archibald Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once said that this particular work was the most influential book he read during his formative years. While Luther was certainly a theologian in transition throughout much of his early years, his commentary on Galatians gives us the most robust and developed Reformational theology--the fruit of years of diligent theological study, wrestling with the text of Scripture in polemical dialogue with the medieval Catholicism from which Luther labored set the church free. 

Insisting that Martin Luther was antinomian (i.e. that he had no place for the moral Law of God in the Christian life) many have sadly misrepresented Luther's doctrine of sanctification. There are several rationales for such a mischaracterization. First, Luther made infelicitous statements about the Epistle of James, on account of the fact that he did not understand James' argument on faith and good works. Second--and in many respects related to the first--Luther spent a great deal of his time fighting against the Roman Catholic notion that love was co-instrumental with faith in our justification before God. Luther's relentless defense of justification by faith alone has often overshadowed all that he wrote on sanctification and the Christian life. Third, Luther tended to stress the role of the Holy Spirit as the agent and faith and love as the co-instruments of our sanctification more than he did the Law of God as a means of our sanctification. While Calvin often spoke of the law of God as a means of our sanctification, Luther tended to place his emphasis on the other elements of the process of sanctification. A brief perusal of Luther's treatment of the applicatory section of Galatians, however, shows how he developed his teaching on the place of love in the believer's sanctification with regard to the demands of the law of God. In short, Martin Luther did not believe that sanctification was produced in the life of a believer by a passive, inactive faith. He emphatically asserted otherwise, in his commentary on Galatians 5. 

When he came to exposit Galatians 5:6, Luther explained that there is a dual instrumentality of faith and love in our sanctification. He wrote:

"Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, "In Christ Jesus circumcision avails nothing," i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men."

That being said, when he came to Galatians 5:16, Luther unequivocally denied that love plays any role in our justification:

"It is a great error to attribute justification to a love that does not exist or, if it does, is not great enough to placate God; for, as I have said, even the saints love in an imperfect and impure way in this present life, and nothing impure will enter the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). But meanwhile we are sustained by the trust that Christ, "who committed no sin and on whose lips no guile was found" (1 Peter 2:22), covers us with His righteousness. Shaded and protected by this covering, this heaven of the forgiveness of sins and this mercy seat, we begin to love and to keep the Law. As long as we live, we are not justified or accepted by God on account of this keeping of the Law. But "when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every authority" (1 Cor. 15:24), and when "God is everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28), then faith and hope will pass away, and love will be perfect and eternal (1 Cor. 13:8)."1

And, while Luther took the strongest stand against the insistence that love plays any part in our justification, he came full circle back to defense the truth about love in the work of sanctification in his comments on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Luther explained his understanding of Paul's use of the phrase "against which there is no law," when he wrote, 

"One must beware of understanding him in a stupid way, as if the righteous man did not have to live a good life and do good deeds (for this is what the uninstructed understand not being under the Law to mean). But the righteous has no law, because he owes the Law nothing, since he has the love which performs and fulfills the Law."2

While this may not satisfy all the concerns one may have about a theological deficiency in Luther's doctrine of sanctification, a careful study of his commentary on Galatians is sure to put many of uniformed concerns at bay. 

1. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 27, p. 64). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

2. Ibid., p. 378.

Human Dignity, Justice and the Death Penalty

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Pope Francis' recent and much-publicized change of the Catholic church's position on the death penalty presents a challenge in the realm of theological and ethical reasoning. His rationale for denouncing the death penalty, according to the Vatican statement, is that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."1 On the contrary, we should maintain that God's truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice. Pope Francis' argument is problematic because it runs contrary to the Scripture's witness on the connection of justice and anthropology.

With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis' position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.

The conceptual change necessarily implied by Francis' stance is that capital punishment is unjust; justice must then be found at some lesser punishment, and mercy (presumably) at a punishment less severe than that. For it is assuredly unjust to "attack...the inviolability and dignity of the person." If that is, indeed, the nature of the death penalty, then it is a sin to execute a criminal for any crime, an act of profound injustice. However--as I have already noted--this understanding runs into insurmountable problems in light of the biblical witness.

Regarding theological anthropology, we need to first recognize that the pope's opposition to the death penalty is grounded in a concept of human dignity built on a premise of inviolability--meaning that the human life must not be taken as penalty for a crime. The human person is the central concern, and justice is determined based on anthropology. But is this the correct approach, and is the implicit anthropology sound?

Certainly, human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. Humans are made in the imago Dei and have a blessed standing at the height of God's creation. The Fall had a cataclysmic effect on human life, but did not obliterate the dignity with which we were invested by God's creative work. So the problem is not with applying human dignity to the question of criminal justice, but with how that application is made. In the case of Francis' ethics, we see a secularization of the imago Dei, where theological anthropology becomes anthropocentric instead of theocentric.

In Scripture--indeed, the same book in Scripture--God first reveals to us that He made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27) and that He decreed the death penalty in the case of murder (9:6). This observation puts advocates of the pope's stance in the perilous position of maintaining that God, having established the basis of human dignity (which they regard as inviolable) proceeded to legislate what in their view can only be regarded as gross injustice.

We also find that the Mosaic law, given by God to the people of Israel, legislates the death penalty for numerous crimes. It is important to note that the first statement of a death penalty, in Genesis, is in agreement with the legal code laid out further in the Pentateuch.

It is not irrelevant to point out that this is precisely where Pope Francis has displayed careless exegesis in the past. In another statement that garnered considerable media attention, in 2016, he declared that "The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty."2 But even a cursory examination of the context of the sixth commandment shows that it refers not to all killing but to murder, and that it stands in a legislative code that prescribes the death penalty for numerous crimes.

My point is not that the presence of the death penalty in the Mosaic legislation automatically requires the death penalty in modern American legislation. We are not ancient Israel, we are not governed by the Mosaic law, and a variety of hermeneutical issues need to be considered when applying the Mosaic legislation to contemporary situations. My point, however, is that one certainly cannot make the sixth commandment an argument against the death penalty. It is exegetically indefensible for one to attempt to do so. Instead, we must acknowledge the place of the death penalty in a law code established by God.

The Scriptures must be heard both contextually and in their whole witness; only then will they properly form our theological ethics. What we must observe from the Scriptures is that human dignity is not given as an argument against the death penalty--it is given as the basis for the death penalty (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 17:21). Because humans have been made in the image of God, the heinous crime of murder deserves the severest of penalties--namely, the death of the murderer.

Human dignity, in other words, is connected with justice. God, who created us in His image, established the implication of the imago Dei--that murder should not be treated lightly, but regarded as an offense deserving death. Human life is not, then, inviolable where justice is concerned. A properly theocentric theological anthropology must take this into account.

By contrast, the pope's stance strikes one as a secularized, anthropocentric theological anthropology. Human dignity has become an end in itself, and stands in an ethical position not obviously different from the prevailing secular conception of justice. Western culture has taken a turn to where we are more and more seeing a confusion of concepts: that mercy is justice, and justice is injustice. Pope Francis, with his anthropocentric anthropology, is playing into this mischaracterization of justice.

The point of this essay is not to argue for the death penalty. A Christian may reasonably argue that the death penalty should be opposed because of the New Covenant priority of mercy, or because our justice system is too corrupt and biased to be trusted with such a severe responsibility. Whether either of those lines arguments would prove ultimately reliable remains to be shown, but they are both plausible theological rationales.

What is not theologically reasonable is arguing against the death penalty on the basis of inviolable human dignity. It is unfortunate that arguments against the death penalty are so often not focused on prioritizing mercy but on a shifting understanding of justice. When inviolable human dignity is the driving factor, the death penalty is regarded not as a true and severe justice (which we should perhaps not enforce), but as a barbaric and unjust measure. Theologically, such a position, while not explicitly Marcionite, has definite Pseudo-Marcionite implications.

We must keep our theological anthropology, and its implications for ethics, centered on God. When God is not in the center, humanity becomes all-encompassing. But our dignity is theologically grounded, and our telos is theocentric. Creature-centered ethics do not give adequate attention to the identity and purposes of the Creator. That is where Pope Francis' theological anthropology shows its glaring weakness.


1. "Pope declares death penalty inadmissible, changing Church's stance," CNN, 08/02/18.

2. "There's no excuse for it: Pope Francis on the death penalty," Catholic News Agency, 06/22/16.



Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Mike Pence, "Truth's Table" and Fencing the Law

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The last week provided more disturbing information on the collapse of civilization and reason in secular America. Vice President Mike Pence revealed that he follows the "Billy Graham Rule," refraining from private meals with women other than his wife in order to protect his marriage from adultery. The secular media responded with hysteria, describing Pence's policy as "rape culture" (National Post), "sexist" (LA Times), "perpetuating patriarchy" (TIME), and "prophylactic gender separatism" (New Yorker).

Apparently, the leftist media has not noticed how sexual sin has destroyed the American family, wreaking untold ruin to marriages and causing heartbreak to children whose homes are broken. The same media that savaged President Trump (rightly) for his sexual offenses cannot stomach Mike Pence taking prudent steps to avoid the same. Not only is Vice President Pence seeking to ensure that he remains faithful to his wife but also for her to be free from anxiety over the kinds of marital threats that are rife in the workplace. Years ago, I also began practicing the "Billy Graham Rule," as I think all pastors are wise to do. (It's actually not that hard and it doesn't exclude women, since meals can easily be arranged to include more than two.) While the media savages Pence for having so little sexual self-control that he will not eat privately with a woman, the reality is exactly the opposite. Self-control is best manifested not in the face of temptation but in the avoidance of it. Leftist American culture simply does not understand fallen human nature: it is not perverse to think that close working relationships between the sexes are likely to lead to marital infidelity, but rather wisdom.

While the mocking of godly wisdom among pagan media elites is troubling, it is not surprising. But it is noteworthy to find similar reasoning coming from fellow Reformed Christians. At the same time that the liberal media was going apoplectic over Pence's Christian prudence, a group of Reformed women on the Truth's Table podcast took aim at "Gender Apartheid" in complementarian Christian circles. Interaction over this podcast has been fairly heated and I have been advised by friends to avoid raising concerns, lest I be charged with racism. However, I believe it is a sign of respect to interact with the views that are publicly stated and I also believe the issues at hand are of significance. I agree with the women of Truth's Table that men should be listening to the concerns of women. Yet affirming and respecting women also includes being willing to challenge and interact with their statements. I hope that I will be able to do so both courteously and fairly.

Before getting to the topic of "fencing the law," which relates to Mike Pence, the podcast issued the charge of "gender apartheid" among complementarian Christians, equating the exclusion of women from conference plenary addresses to Nelson Mandela's multi-decade imprisonment for opposing radical racial separatism in South Africa. I have argued before that complementarians need to be careful not to over-react to the ordination of women in liberal churches and that we must foster opportunities for women to exercise appropriately all their gifts in the church. But is it really "toxic patriarchy" for Reformed conferences to assign plenary addresses only to male speakers, out of respect for 1 Timothy 2:11-14? Some might challenge judgment calls like this and point out unintended effects, but does it warrant the statement that conferences should use "penis shaped microphones" to live out our oppression of female biology? And is there a single non-theonomic Reformed church in America where women are forbidden to greet at doors and are given "no visible presence?" If so, I haven't seen it.

The Truth's Table ladies then took a shot at "purity culture," as if prudent steps for avoiding sexual sin are not needed today. In virtually the same language with which the liberal media criticized Mike Pence, one Truth's Table host argued that "purity culture" in the church teaches that "women are predators and are to be feared." To be sure, there are abstinence strategies in evangelical churches that need to be rethought (I would put "purity rings" in this category). But the label "purity culture" ought to be used in praise rather than scorn. "Why can't a married Christian man take my single woman phone number?" a Truth's Table host asked. One answer would be found in Hebrews 13:4, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled." It is one thing for the secular media to deny the tendencies of fallen human nature, but one would hope that Christians would critique Paul's "flee youthful passions" advice more positively (2 Tim. 2:22). Having been preceded in my last two pastorates by ministers who resigned over sexually-related accusations, I do not apologize for preserving my marriage, my family, and my congregation from passions that are only so natural for fallen mankind, and I do not think the "Billy Graham Rule" is too high a cost to be paid.

Of particular interest to me was the ladies' concern over "fencing the law." By this, they seem to mean the creation of extra-biblical rules designed to reinforce and protect the law of God among Christians. This is a subject that calls for careful reflection, to be sure. On the one hand, there is a kind of Pharisaism whereby the law is virtually replaced with man-made rules that become the basis for works righteousness. In some circles, the length of hems, the avoidance of restaurants that serve alcohol, and abstention from movies effectively displaces the good news of justification through faith. We should be willing to examine policies and practices that may have a similar effect in our circles. On the other hand, the Bible itself commands Christians prudently to avoid tempting circumstances. When Paul urged Timothy to "flee youthful passions," this was not hypocritical, gender-apartheid legalism, but godly prudence for those who wish not to sin. In Romans 13:14, Paul joined the active avoidance of sin together with the gospel message of Christ's righteousness: "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." By that standard, Christians should unite in praise for Vice President Pence and follow his example in proactively avoiding our pagan culture's morass of sexual sin. There is a vast difference between "fencing the law" as a form of man-made righteousness and the positive application of the law out of a loving desire to honor Christ and be faithful in our callings.

Anyone who listens to the Truth's Table podcast will detect significant differences from the secular media's treatment of these same topics. The hosts expressed many biblical aspirations that the media would never espouse. Moreover, male listeners should see that false and truly unbiblical gender barriers are removed, keeping in mind the burden of these concerned women. Is there a role for a Lydia, a Euodia, or a Priscilla in our church? If not, why not? Yet, were the arguments about gender used by the Truth's Table all that different from the secular media? Listening to the secular media's reaction to Mike Pence, I have little hope other than revival through the gospel. Yet listening to the Truth's Table ladies, I do have hopes. I prayerfully hope we can avoid the divisive effects of inflammatory labels. I hope the Lord will enable me to listen to the hurts behind the heated rhetoric. And I hope we can communicate about significant biblical topics - and sexual ethics today is one of them - in a way that will bring us closer together at a table of biblical truth.

The Protestant Reformers, following Scripture's lead, roundly rejected the notion that believers might be justified in part or in whole by their own good works. Sinners, they maintained, are justified wholly on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to them, a righteousness appropriated by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by works which gained traction in medieval theology and was defended by Rome at the Council of Trent was anathema to them. They took a much more positive view, however, of the doctrine of justification of works; that is, the doctrine that not only the believing sinner himself or herself but also the believing sinner's good works are cloaked in Christ's own perfect righteousness (apprehended by faith), and so are most pleasing to God.

Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the first regent, principal, and professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh and a key figure in the course of reform in Scotland in the sixteenth century, articulated this position well in a short treatise on good works published with his Romans Commentary in 1593. Rollock writes:

"Man already regenerated, having through faith recovered some portion of sincerity of heart, can by virtue of that portion be described as ready unto good works--according to that measure, of course, in which integrity and sincerity of heart has been recuperated. But the work of a regenerate man is good only according to its share of conformity to the law, and does not give all that is required to the Law of God, who is most holy and most perfect. Hence it does not, insofar as it possesses even the smallest degree of imperfection, satisfy God. For, then, a work to be satisfying to God and to conform to his own law and will, it must appear, as it were, before him--it must be led into his own light and view--cloaked in Christ's merit, which is apprehended by faith. Thus it is said in Rom. 14:23, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." And similarly in Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him," which statement means not only that man's heart, by faith in Jesus Christ, is made clean and recovers some part of its sincerity and integrity, but also, in truth, that the imperfection of works proceeding from a heart only in part reborn are covered by that same faith. Therefore, faith accomplishes two things with regard to the good work of the regenerate man: first, it purifies the heart and fount of that good work (Acts 15:9); and second, it covers, as it were, the defects of that work which proceeds from a heart only partially reborn. The work of the man without faith, moreover, suffers a twofold loss: first, without faith there is clearly no beginning of regeneration, from whence that work should proceed; and second, without faith there is no veil for the impurity under which that work labors."

The doctrine of justification of works, unlike that of justification by works, stands to provide sinners of sensitive conscience with much relief. It encourages us to broaden our appreciation for what Christ accomplishes for us; he has not merely justified our persons by his perfect obedience, he has also justified our efforts to conform our lives to God's law and Christ's perfect example. It also encourages us to make greater efforts at good works, confident that our works, however imperfect, are most perfect in God's estimation. It encourages us, in other words, to act in faith, not apart from it, but still to act -- contra the perennial claim that Protestant teaching on justification encourages indifference towards good works.

Rollock develops the theme of the justification of believers' good works more fully in his treatise on the subject. That treatise, along with several other previously untranslated writings of Rollock, is now available in English translation in a short volume titled Some Questions and Answers about God's Covenant and the Sacrament That Is a Seal of God's Covenant: With Related Texts, published last month by Wipf and Stock's Pickwick Publications imprint. The principal work included in this volume is the titular catechism, which Rollock published in Latin in 1596. In addition to the treatise on good works noted above, the volume also includes treatises on the divine covenants and the sacraments which were likewise included in Rollock's Romans commentary. All the writings included in the volume make significant use of the doctrine of the covenant of works. That, indeed, was the logic of their inclusion. I've translated the texts myself, and have included an introductory essay which intends to shed new light on Rollock's role in the development of Reformed covenant theology. But, as hopefully indicated above, the treatises on good works and on the sacraments in particular are theologically interesting beyond the use they make of the doctrine of the covenant of works. The book is available from Amazon in hard copy or as an e-book, or directly from Wipf and Stock itself at a slightly reduced price. I dedicated the work to my dog Oakley for reasons explained in the acknowledgments, and all proceeds from the book will be devoted to his ongoing maintenance. So please, for his sake, consider purchasing a copy.

Results tagged “Law of God” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 19

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Chapter nineteen of the Westminster Confession addresses the law of God. This is an important topic that teaches us about the character of God and how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. WCF 19:1 begins with the first law given in the Covenant of Works. This was the first covenant that God made with Adam, offering the reward of eternal life for perfect obedience to this law, or the judgment of eternal condemnation for failure. The Covenant of Works is an essential doctrine for understanding how sin came into the world and how God chose to accomplish redemption. First, it is important to point out that, in the Covenant of Works, Adam stood as a representative for the entire human race. His action had consequences for all of us. Second, Adam was created with the ability to keep this law. Yet he chose to disobey. His failure to keep God's law in the Covenant of Works brought condemnation and death to all human beings.

Chapter nineteen goes on to give what some may describe as a redemptive historical outline of the function of God's law after the Fall. In other words we can see how the law of God was revealed and functioned during different periods of redemptive history, as recorded in Scripture. WCF 19:2 describes the law of God given to the people of Israel in the form of the Ten Commandments received on Mount Sinai. This law addressed directly the duty of the people of Israel to God, and also their duty to other individuals. Perfect obedience was again required, as the law reflects God's perfect holy and righteous character. 

However, unlike Adam, perfect obedience was no longer possible in a post-Fall world. The people of Israel inherited a sinful nature, thus God's law was, in one sense, a reminder of His impending judgment. WCF 19:3 continues by distinguishing God's moral law (the Ten Commandments) from the ceremonial laws given to Israel in the Old Testament. The ceremonial laws instructed Israel in how they were to worship God, including the specifics of the sacrificial system in which they could atone for their sins as a nation. This was important for two reasons. First, it demonstrated God's provision for Israel under the law in the Old Testament.  Second, as WCF 19:3 explains, it points us to Christ by "prefiguring" the grace that would be given in the final suffering and sacrifice of Christ, which would ultimately satisfy the condemnation required by God's law. 

In addition to the moral and ceremonial laws, the nation of Israel was also given judicial laws. These laws governed the nation as a political body. The Confession is clear that the ceremonial and judicial laws ended with conclusion of the old covenant made with Israel. In the course of redemptive history, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the writing of the New Testament, would move God's redemptive plan to a new stage of fulfillment.

For the Christian in the New Testament era, the moral law is still binding. Jesus Christ did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). What this means is that God's law is still in place, but our relationship to that His law has changed. Jesus Christ has fulfilled the requirement of perfect obedience to God's law on behalf of those who put their faith in Him. In other words, as Romans 5:12-21 teaches, Adam failed to obey God as our representative, but Jesus Christ accomplishes perfect obedience for those whom he represents (those united to him by faith). 

This blessing should not encourage the Christian to believe that they can now ignore God's law, since Jesus has fulfilled it on his or her behalf. WCF 19:6 teaches us that the law is of "great use" to the Christian. The law reveals to us God's will for how we should live and conduct ourselves according to His standards. Likewise, the law shows us our own sinfulness, as we continue to struggle in our sanctification. Such reflection on our own sinfulness should produce in us an attitude of humility and hatred for sin, along with a greater and clearer understanding of our dependence on the work of Jesus Christ. It is also part of the Christian's experience to struggle deeply with temptation and sin, to the point where the Christian may not be immediately repentant. The law reminds us that there are consequences to our disobedience.

Finally, WCF 19:7 addresses the important point that the law of God is not contrary to the Gospel. For those who embrace the Gospel, the Spirit of Christ will enable them to love God and His law, and to live more and more in obedience to that law. 

Dr. Jeffrey Jue is Associate Professor of Church History and the Stephen Tong Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.