What the Law Could Not Do  

“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:” Romans 8:3 

The law of God has great value in the Scriptures and for the Christian life. Thomas Manton would not doubt the value of the law nor its place in the Christian life; he was not a Neonomian. A high view of the law of God, as described in chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, section five, necessitates that there are things the law can and cannot do:

"The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation."

Manton would understand and propound these moral-legal duties as a minister and an assemblyman at Westminster. Despite this high view of the law, Manton understood the limitations of it. Following the Apostle Paul who confessed there were things “the law could not do,” Manton gave four limitations of the law, demonstrating what the law could not do for fallen humanity. He said in summary, “It was impossible for the law to do away sin, and justify man before God…that is, through the corruption of our natures, we being sinners, and are unable to to perform the duty of the law (Works of Manton, 11.420).” The impossibilities of the law are four. 

Cannot Free Us From Sin and Death 

Our father Adam was given a command in the Covenant of Works. The law, being written on his heart, was a law of full obedience. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19.1-2, tell us that the same law that was given to Adam “continued” as the moral law given at Sinai. Was that law able to free the people of God from sin and death? No. 

Despite the law not being able to free us from sin and death, God’s will—his heart, his purpose, and decree—was that man would be free. Manton said,  “It was necessary in respect of God’s purpose and decree, that we should be free from sin and death. For God would not have mankind utterly to perish…(Ibid).” God’s will was that humanity, or a people chosen from humanity, would not perish in sin and death.  God “would not lose the whole creation of mankind. God hath showed himself placable and merciful to all men, and hath forbidden despair, and continued many forfeited mercies…(Ibid).”

Sin and death are unable to be overcome through the law of God, and Manton then turns his attention to the fact that restoration is unreachable through the law as well. 

Cannot Restore and Recover Sinners

When Adam fell from the estate wherein he was created, he procured a nature of sin for his descendants; the image bearers of God became sinners. God, in his mercy and covenant love sought those sinners, but the law was unable to be the means by which Adam’s race was restored and recovered from sin. The Scriptures required another way, and Manton understood that truth. He said, “God resolving to restore and recover some of mankind, it must be by the old way of the law, or by some other course (Ibid, 11.421).”  In God’s decree, the law was not designed to restore from sin or to recover from the wages of sin—the law brings death, and the reader of the Scriptures needs to ask concerning that other way. The law “could not do” as far as restoration was concerned. The law brings death rather than life. 

Cannot Make Us Live Unto God 

Living unto God is only through the person and work of Jesus Christ, rather than through the law. This was true in the Old Testament as well as in the New. Manton thought that believers would have to look at the law confessing, “You are death to me!”  “[The law’s] impossibility to justify and give life needs to be sufficiently demonstrated; for till we are dead to the law, we shall but carelessly seek after the grace of God in Jesus Christ…we must not only be dead to sin and dead to the world, but dead to the law before we can live unto God (Ibid).” Life is unable to be breathed back into fallen sinners through obedience to the law. The grace of life and righteousness is found in Christ rather than in the law, and the law could never produce that life otherwise, grace would not have been needed. Manton demonstrates that by saying: 

“If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness had been by the law. God would have gone no further than his first transaction with man…If there had been any other way possible, in heaven or earth, than by the death of Christ, by which the salvation of lost sinners could have been brought about, Christ would not have died; no, our disease was desperate as to any other way of cure, before this great physician took our case in hand (Ibid).”

The cure—and living unto God—is unable be performed by the law, but the Christian must rely on the Lord Jesus’s atonement and the application of the Spirit in order for this to occur. 

The Mosaic Law, in it’s ceremonial aspect, proved this to be true. The ceremonies were not present to allow the Old Testament believer to be made right with God—but to point ahead to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Manton said, “They that looked beyond them, to the Messiah to come, with an humble and penitent heart…The blood of bulls and goats was no such cause, had no such virtue; the effect was far above it there was a more precious blood signified, and shadowed out thereby, that could do it indeed (Works, 11.421).” 

Cannot Justify or Sanctify 

Lastly, Manton propounds that the law could not justify or sanctify, both theological benefits known under the rubric of salvation. Articulating this truth, Manton argued, “The utter importance of the law to produce this effect, may be known by these two things which are necessary to salvation, justification and sanctification. The law can give neither of these (Ibid).” Justification is not possible by the law. As Manton understood it, “…the law promises no good to sinners… (Ibid).” Justification and sanctification would have to be received another way. 

Salvation would have to come from outside of the law—from another source altogether. Romans 8, the greatest chapter, provides the sinner with comfort, not because of what the law can do—but because of what the law cannot do, and that only comes through the person and work of Jesus Christ. God sent his son. The law cannot free, restore, bring life, or save. Manton would have us look to another. 

Read more on Manton and Romans 8 here.


Nathan Eshelman is the pastor of the Orlando Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA). He studied for ministry at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Nathan co-hosts “The Jerusalem Chamber” podcast, a paragraph by paragraph exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith; writes for Gentle Reformation; and has a forthcoming book on the Westminster Confession of Faith through Crown and Covenant Publications. Nathan is married to Lydia and has five children and is an avid book collector and antique aficionado.


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