Results tagged “Moral Law” from Reformation21 Blog

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 4, God's Law

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[Editorial Note: This is the fourth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]


Article 4: God's Law

WE AFFIRM that God's law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.

WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God's commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God's commandments.

The same God who gave us the gospel has also given us his law. This point can be easily overlooked by Christians who are concerned to be centered on the gospel. That concern is appropriate and those believers who have lived through seasons where the gospel was neglected or at best assumed are understandably sensitive to anything that would compete with its pride of place in the life of the church. However, we can never honor God's gospel by despising his law.

In fact, lack of clarity about the nature and significance of the law inevitably results in a lack of clarity or even confusion about the gospel. A clear understanding of God's law provides the foundation for the proclamation of the gospel. I agree with John Bunyan, who wrote, "The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Savior."

Article 4 of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel is vital because it gets at the foundation of much that is being erroneously advocated under the banner of social justice. John Newton wisely observed,

Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes. This is the root of self-righteousness, the grand reason why the Gospel of Christ is no more regarded, and the cause of that uncertainty and inconsistency in many, who, though they profess themselves teachers, understand not what they say, nor whereof they affirm.

The God who saves us is the same God who created us and who rules us. He has revealed his will to us in his law. Our duty, therefore, can only be defined in terms of what he has commanded.

Obviously, Scripture reveals various types of commandments that have come from God. To rightly understand our relationship to all that has been commanded we must make distinctions, as Paul clearly does in Romans 2:25-27.

Historically, interpreters from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin to the Puritans to the Westminster & Second London Confessions of Faith have all recognized a three-fold division within the commandments in order to understand God's law. As John MacArthur helpfully explains,

"We can divide the law of God into three parts: the moral law, the judicial law, and the ceremonial law. The moral law was for all men, the judicial law was just for Israel, and the ceremonial law was for Israel's worship of God. So the moral law encompasses all men, it is narrowed down to Israel in the judicial law, and to the worship of Israel toward God in the ceremonial law."

It is that moral law that the statement affirms as God's unchanging standard of righteousness. In other words, God and God alone has the authority to tell us what constitutes righteousness and, conversely, what sin is.

This is vital for Christians to keep in mind as we think about how people should live. We are not free to live only for ourselves. We were made for God and must love him supremely above all else. Along with that we must love our neighbors--our fellow image-bearers--sincerely.

What does such love look like? It looks like obedience to God's commandments. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15) and Paul writes, "For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:9).

What does sin look like? Violation of God's commandments (1 John 3:4). Before we call anyone to repentance we should be clear that the offense in view is actually a violation of God's law. And before we start justifying ourselves by thinking that the moral law only governs our outward actions, we must remember the strictness and spirituality of that law as explained by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Both the physical act of adultery as well as the lustful, sexual desires are violations of the seventh commandment.

Though the law of God was never designed to provide a way of salvation for sinners, it does show us what God requires. That remains just as true for Christians as for unbelievers. It also helps us to understand and appreciate all that Jesus has provided for us by his life of obedience and death in behalf of lawbreakers.

It is impossible for people to live without standards of right and wrong. When God's standard that he has revealed in his law is ignored, neglected or assumed, you can be sure that other, man-made standards will be enforced. That is why J. Gresham Machen's words are as true now as they were when he wrote them in the early part of the twentieth century:

A new and more powerful proclamation of [the] law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law.... So it always is; a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail.

The Exception and the Rule

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Over the years, many have approached me in order to ask what I believe the Bible teaches on some particular theological or ethical subject. In many cases, no sooner have I finished answering them that I'm met with the reply, "But what about...?" All of us are eager to find an exception to the rule. When I first started noticing this pattern among Christian, I mentioned it to our assistant pastor, who said, "Let's be honest. Most people love the idea of the exception and almost no one loves the idea of the rule. When I served in large evangelical churches, it was always about the exception. No one cared about the rule." Sadly, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not just endemic to those in large evangelical churches--it is a problem associated with fallen human nature. The love of the exception--as over against that of the rule--seems to be prevalent in Christian circles in our day, especially when discussing the moral law, God's requirements for worship, the government of the church and the means of salvation. 

Christians confess that Scripture is the only rule for life and godliness insomuch as it contains everything necessary for those things. God's will revealed in His moral law is unchangeable because He is unchangeable. On account of that fact, we must proceed with the utmost care and caution when insisting on the exception without necessarily emphasizing the rule. Granted, Pharisaism was founded on the idea of preserving the rule to such an extent that the Pharisees built an elaborate system of man-made rules and regulations around God's law in order to protect it from what they perceived to be lawless abuse. Ironically, they too were doing away with the rule by adding to it. While insisting on upholding the rule, the Pharisees offered man-made exceptions for themselves to make the rule more attainable. This was especially the case with regard to the Pharisaic emphasis on the fourth commandment. In a very real sense, the Pharisees set themselves up as the Sabbath police and set the other nine commandments on the fourth commandment and their subsequent additions and subtractions. This is one of the reasons why we find so much about the Sabbath in the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. The application of the fourth commandment serves as a prime example (and case study) of the exception/rule principle when seeking to understand what God requires of His people. 

In what is arguably the greatest explanation of the fourth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) states: 

"The sabbath or Lord's day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God's worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day."

Note the important parenthetical statement: "except so much of it as it to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy." According the members of the Westminster Assembly, the two exceptions to the rule of the fourth commandment are mercy and necessity. So, how are we to determine acceptable exceptions and how are we to view them in regard to a right understanding of the rule set out by God? 

The divines, no doubt, highlighted what they believed to be biblically defined exceptions to the rule of the fourth commandment based on their understanding of the accounts recorded in Matthew 12. There, we find Jesus walking through the grain fields and plucking heads of grain with his disciples on the Sabbath. When challenged by the self-appointed Sabbath police, Jesus referred them to the account of David and his mighty men in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, the fact that the priests had to work on the Sabbath day and the principle of mercy over sacrifice from Hosea 6:6. Jesus' appeals to the exceptions were based squarely on exegetical insight. 

Jesus knew that he was the great anti-type of David. As David had asked for the showbread for himself and his mighty men when they were hungry--though it was unlawful as far as the rule was concerned--Jesus and his disciples walked through the fields and plucked heads of grain on the Sabbath. In David's case, his action was an act of mercy and an act of necessity. In this sense, it served as the exception to the rule. In Jesus' case, the law allowed the poor and the sojourner to pluck heads of grain from the fields of strangers (Lev. 23:22). Nevertheless, he was guided by the principles of mercy and necessity on the day that typified the mercy and rest that he would himself provide through his atoning death on the cross. 

Jesus also understood that there were some who, by virtue of their vocations, had to work on the Sabbath day. Since worship is to take place on the Sabbath day, the priests had other option than to work on the Old Covenant Sabbath. Today, pastors have to work on the Lord's Day. Someone might make the case from the "ox in the ditch" principle that some doctors, nurses and law enforcement may also have occasions on which they have to work on the Lord's Day. Those are all biblically defined exceptions, however. As a rule, God commands His people not to engage in their regular weekly vocational labors on the Lord's Day. Instead, the rule is that we are to delight ourselves in Him in worship, rest and service throughout the entire day. 

Finally, Jesus corrected the Pharisaic misunderstanding regarding ceremonial commandments--explaining that God cared vastly more about His requirement of kindness and compassion as He did about outward religious adherence. Regarding Christ's appeal to Hosea 6:6, John Calvin explained: 

"God declares aloud, that He sets a higher value on mercy than on sacrifice, employing the word mercy, by a figure of speech, for offices of kindness, as sacrifices include the outward service of the Law. This statement Christ applies to his own time, and charges the Pharisees with wickedly torturing the Law of God out of its true meaning, with disregarding the second table, and being entirely occupied with ceremonies....

...External rites are of no value in themselves, and are demanded by God in so far only as they are directed to their proper object. Besides, God does not absolutely reject them, but, by a comparison with deeds of kindness, pronounces that they are inferior to the latter in actual value...

...as believers, by practicing justice towards each other, prove that their service of God is sincere, it is not without reason that this subject is brought under the notice of hypocrites, who imitate piety by outward signs, and yet pervert it by confining their laborious efforts to the carnal worship alone"

Perhaps the chief reason why so many of us are drawn to exceptions rather than to rules is the fact that we know that none of us has ever kept the rule as we ought. All of us have fallen so very far short of the glory of God by transgressing every single one of His commandments many times. As the members of the Westminster Assembly so clearly state in Larger Catechism 149: "No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed." The Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, "Can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?" by stating, "No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience..." 

Be this as it may, those who have been redeemed by Christ are called to be a people who love his commandments. Heidelberg Catechism 114 goes on to say, "Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments." Believers can now confess with the Apostle John that we do not "find his commandments to be burdensome." Christ has borne the heavy load for us by fulfilling the Law and by taking the curse of it in our place and for our good. Believers will neither be justified nor condemned by the Law (WLC 97). Jesus has died and risen to give us rest from the guilt and shame of our sin. He has satisfied God's justice and propitiated His wrath for us. Having forgiven us all of our trespasses, he has sent his Spirit to write his Law in our hearts and in our minds (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). With David, we cry out, "Oh, how I love Your law. It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97). With the Apostle Paul, we affirm that "love is the fulfillment of the law"--the motive and animating principle by which any true Spirit-wrought obedience occurs in our lives. 

Believers are called to understand the nature and purpose of God's commandments. This certainly includes understanding what exceptions there are to the rule--while always recognizing that exceptions are what they are by virtue of the rule being what it is. We must refuse to turn the exception into the rule, without pressing the rule to such an extent that we exclude the exceptions. As we seek to walk in ways that are pleasing to our God, may He give us great care to know and love His rules as well as the exceptions that He has defined in His word. 

Deuteronomy and the Decalogue

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It's a common observation, beloved by Reformed folk, that Deuteronomy reflects ancient near eastern suzerainty treaties--international covenants enacted between a superior suzerain power and inferior vassal state. Such treaties follow what we now think of as standard covenant formulary: a preamble introducing the parties and historical prologue tracing the relationship between them, followed by an outline of the terms, an enumeration of blessings and curses, and miscellaneous other items like calling on witnesses, instituting some sort of public sign, and making provisions for depositing an official copy of the treaty and holding a renewal ceremony from time to time.

Deuteronomy fits the pattern extremely well, making it, in W. L. Moran's words, "the biblical document of the covenant par excellence." A rough outline looks like this:

Preamble and prologue: Dt 1:1-4:43
Terms: Dt 4:44-26:19
Blessings and curses: Dt 27:1-28:68
Miscellaneous other items: Dt 29:1-34:12

This is conventional wisdom, probably familiar to most of you. One bit that remains unsettled, however, is how to outline that long middle section that presents the terms or stipulations of the covenant--the body of the book.

One popular approach is to divide this section between general stipulations and specific stipulations at Dt. 12:1. There are good reasons to do so but another approach, perhaps compatible with he former, is even more helpful. Advanced by Stephen A. Kaufman (The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law, 1979) and others after him, including my fellow RTS faculty member John Currid (Deuteronomy in EVP, 2006), this alternative approach views Dt 4:44-5:33 as a summary statement of the moral law set out under ten heads (the decalogue), and Dt 6:1-26:19 as an explication and application of each head of the moral law to Israel. In other words, Dt. 6:1-26:19 is a kind of divine commentary and practical guide to the decalogue. This highlights the continuing priority of the ten commandments as a summary of the moral law within this administration of the covenant of grace--a priority, originating in Eden, that carries over to the new administration of that same covenant of grace, as Rick Phillips recently noted here.

Here is the most common way of outlining this part of Deuteronomy on this view:

First: Dt 6:1-11:32
Second: Dt 12:1-32
Third: Dt 13:1-14:21
Fourth: Dt 14:22-16:17
Fifth: Dt 16:18-18:22
Sixth: Dt 19:1-22:12
Seventh: Dt 22:13-23:14
Eighth: Dt 23:15-24:7
Ninth: Dt 24:8-16
Tenth: Dt 24:17-26:19

To read Deuteronomy this way is insightful. Consider the light it sheds on the relation of the first commandment to election (Dt 7:1-26), or the third commandment to those peculiar dietary laws (Dt 14:1-21). It's also instructive to read the laws related to tithes in Deuteronomy 14:22-29 as an application of the command to rest in God or the regulations concerning judges, kings, priests, and prophets (Dt 16:16-18:22) as applications of the fifth commandment and those concerning cities of refuge, war, and tasseled garments (Dt. 19:1-21:23) of the sixth commandment.

The pattern fits very well until we reach the transition from the eighth to the tenth commandments. The issue lies with identifying what portion of Deuteronomy 23:15-26:19 deals with the ninth commandment.

Deuteronomy 24:8-16, the oft-proposed candidate, is not very satisfying. Though Currid follows this division, his comment on Deuteronomy 24:8-9 on skin diseases is telling: "It is uncertain how this law fits into an exposition of the Ninth Commandment." Though the remaining six verses on collateral and paying day-laborers has a little better claim to taking up ninth commandment issues, I think the primary concern of this set of "miscellaneous laws" remains on "justice in contracts and commerce, . . . rendering to everyone his due," which is how the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 141 summarizes the scope of the eighth commandment.

This concern, it seems to me, continues through Deuteronomy 25:12. It's not until Deuteronomy 25:13-16, concerning the use of just weights in the marketplace, that we encounter a passage that seems to be a solid candidate for the ninth commandment's concern for honesty or "the preserving and promoting of truth between" people (WLC Q&A 144). But even this passage on fair weights and measures falls under the eighth commandment's focus on justice in commerce.

It's not surprising to find one kind of activity covered by more than one of the ten commandments. Using such an activity as a transition from one to the next also makes sense--Deuteronomy 13:1-18 is another example. But this observation suggests another possible solution to the riddle of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy: What if the ninth commandment receives no distinct discussion but is a moral enthymeme of sorts? Perhaps the point is that truth inwardly and outwardly is a necessary condition of keeping all the other commandments. If so, then the treatment of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy 6:1-26:19 may be distributed over the elaboration of the first eight commandments. If you've been studying your way through those, by the time you reach the ninth commandment its elaboration is obvious and requires no distinct discussion.

Whatever we make of the riddle of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy 6:1-26:19, it is clear that honesty or truth inwardly and outwardly is a necessary condition to keeping the rest of the commands--to being the kind of person we were created to be and have been redeemed to be by the one who is "full of . . . truth" and is "the truth" (Jn 1:14; 14:6).