May 23, 2013
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.