I. Why Read Law?
Jesus Christ’s Words – Matthew 5:17-20
*The Law is Redemptive in nature
II. Types of Law (What It Meant)
III. Uses of the Law (What It Means)
1. Restrain Social Evil
2. You’re cursed
3. Christian life
Conclusion: Reading law while avoiding relativism and moralism.
Objective: How to Read Law. To understand this, we’ll look at Christ’s words regarding the law, the types of law God has given, and its uses.
I. Why Read Law?
Jesus Christ’s Words – Matthew 5:17-20
“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Calvin says of this passage,
When the Lord declares, that he came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil (Mt. 5:17); that until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or little shall remain unfulfilled; he shows that his advent was not to derogate, in any degree, from the observance of the Law. And justly, since the very end of his coming was to remedy the transgression of the Law. Therefore, the doctrine of the Law has not been infringed by Christ, but remains, that, by teaching, admonishing, rebuking, and correcting, it may fit and prepare us for every good work.
–Calvin, John (2010-02-19). The Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.vii.14
These words of Christ himself sharply contradict the idea that the Gospel does away with the law. The fact that Christ was fulfilling the Law shows that it did not exist for itself, but pointed beyond itself. There was a forward-looking aspect to the law.
“The law is not just a list of ethical standards, but part of the story of God’s redemption and his covenant with his people. The law is thus not abrogated or reduced to unimportance, but is bound up with redemption.”
–McCartney, Dan; Clayton, Charles (2014-09-07). Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Kindle Locations 4517-4519). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The Law is Redemptive in Nature
Jesus himself sets the law in the context of his redemptive work. If you remember little from this lesson, remember this: the Law is Redemptive in nature. McCartney and Clayton in Let the Reader Understand make a critical observation about the “hierarchy of genre”:
“Nestled in the story of redemptive history, particularly in the OT, but also in the NT, are several statements of the ethical standards that God has for his people. This should indicate the appropriate hierarchy of genre. Biblical law is subordinate to biblical history.”
–McCartney, Dan; Clayton, Charles (2014-09-07). Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Kindle Locations 4510-4512). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
So remember: Law is subordinate to redemptive history, because it is placed within the larger story of redemption. Therefore, we must read law in light of that history.
Also take note: the moral law (Ten Commandments) and the ceremonial law were given together. God didn’t just give the law that condemns, but also the symbols of atonement. So, even the law as it was given links it to God’s redemptive purpose.
Clowney says it beautifully:
In the great assembly at Sinai God spoke to His people. He gave them His law in the context of His redemption. The Ten Commandments begin with God’s description of Himself as the Redeemer of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2).
The great mistake of legalism is to detach the law of God from the God who gave it. The Ten Commandments are not an abstract code of duty hung in the void. The first commandment governs the rest: “You shall have no other gods before me.” God’s people stand in His presence. He is their God; they are His people. Assembled there before Him, they must acknowledge Him as God alone. They are to love Him with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind.
The Lord is a jealous God (Ex. 20:4–5). He will not consent to be worshiped as one of a pantheon of deities. The jealousy of God is not like the envious and spiteful passion that we often describe with the word. The term that we translate “jealous” could also be translated “zealous.” It refers to the intense and exclusive love God has for His people, a love that is to be requited by the pure devotion of Israel.
–Edmund P. Clowney. The Unfolding Mystery (2d. ed.): Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (Kindle Locations 1562-1572). P&R Publishing.
Notice that God revealed how his people were to relate to him, based on his deliverance (redemption) of them.
What’s a common mistake that we make when looking at the law? How many of you memorized the 10 Commandments as children, but left out the prelude? Maybe everyone. I don’t remember including the prelude in any kids’ Sunday school lesson on the 10 commandments. That is a critical error. We so easily divorce the do’s and don’ts from their redemptive context.
This is what the Pharisees did with the Scriptures. McCartney and Clayton point this out in Jesus day:
But it is easy to forget this [redemptive] purpose of the Bible. In Jesus’ day, many of the Pharisees had lost sight of the historical and redemptive nature of the Bible, treating it primarily as a source of laws. They missed the fact that its primary intent was to point to God’s past and future redemption. Consequently, their interpretation of the Bible tended to bypass its historical character, and instead became a strange kind of casebook, used to solve the sticky problems of applying God’s law to their contemporary situation.
The result was that, by isolating the law of God from the covenantal relationship to God, the law became an enslaver that worked against God’s redemptive purpose. This is why Paul can say that he upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), even though he calls it a slavemaster and says that circumcision no longer matters (Gal. 6:15). Paul is not “vacillating in his theological attitude toward the law,” but reading the OT according to its redemptive purpose and historical character. The law’s true function can only be carried out as subsidiary to God’s redemption of his people and establishment of a relationship with them. This happens, Paul says, by faith, that is, by acceptance of the relationship as accomplished by God and by submission to his terms for that relationship, not by doing “works of the law.”
–McCartney, Dan; Clayton, Charles (2014-09-07). Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible, (Kindle Locations 945-957). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
This tendency, to see God’s Word as primarily a source of laws, as a casebook, is as prevalent today as it was in Jesus’ day. That’s why Tim Keller reminds us: The gospel itself is a true story, not a set of “principles” or “laws.”
As we look at how to read law, we must remember the redemptive purpose, which applies to all “law” or ethical texts in Scripture:
The law, then, is given by God as a part of his redemptive activity. Divorced from the redemptive activity of God, the legal material becomes something other than redemptive. This was the error that had to be combated, first by Jesus (Matt. 23:13–36) and later by Paul (especially in Romans and Galatians). Thus, the first principle in interpreting a legal or ethical passage in the Bible is to place it in its redemptive-historical context. This identifies how the passage now relates to the church.
–McCartney, Dan; Clayton, Charles (2014-09-07). Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Kindle Locations 4521-4524). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
So remember the Redemptive-Historical context: God made his covenant with his people, and revealed how they were to relate to him.
Within that revelation of law, we can distinguish 3 types of law.
II. Types of Law (What It Meant)
*There’s no typical linguistic marks that distinguish these types, and they are all mixed together in the legal sections of Scripture. The only guide to classification is content.
Also, this 3-fold distinction is not explicitly spelled out in the OT; however, it is helpful in showing how the laws relate to God’s people in their Redemptive-Historical situation.
1. Moral – based on God’s character; always abides, regardless of time or place. God’s character doesn’t change, neither does this law based on his character. The moral law is summarized for us in Scripture in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, Matthew 22:37–40.
Christ fulfilled the moral law, submitting to it perfectly, in our place.
Moral law was given to Israel as “apodictic” law, which means as general principles (the 10 Commandments). These general apodictic laws are then applied in the “case laws” which deal with specific cases. So when we read all of those very specific situations, there’s a general principle (moral law) at work in the background that is being contextualized, if you will.
2. Civil – dealing with Israel as a nation-state (a Theocracy, ruled by God), “where the spiritual people of God were also a political entity.” This is not now the case (becoming more obvious every day).
“It too is fulfilled in Christ, who has in fact already reestablished the true kingdom of God, his sovereign reign, although it is not yet fully implemented” (McCartney, Dan; Clayton, Charles, Kindle Locations 4554-4555).
3. Ceremonial – whatever was a symbol of redemptive work; symbols of atonement.
The exodus and the giving of the law clarify both how radically gracious God is (since the deliverance from Egypt happens before the giving of the law) and yet how inexorable the law and justice and righteousness of God are. God gives both the law and the sacrificial system as a pointer to the substitutionary atonement, which will be his redemptive provision. The tabernacle now makes God’s presence among his people a permanent thing. The law reveals God’s interest in justice in the world and his desire for a people who are distinct in every respect – a truly ‘new humanity’ – who will be a light attracting the nations.
–Preaching Christ in a Post-modern World syllabus
The New Testament shows how these were fulfilled:
“These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah.” (Colossians 2:17)
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities” (Hebrews 10:1)
The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is strongly urged to enter it. (Luke 16:16)
for the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
The point is: the ceremonial pointed to Christ, and we now have the reality. To still abide by the ceremonies would be to sew up the veil that was torn, as it were. I think this is important to point out because evangelicals intuitively know that there is a place for ceremony in our lives, and some like to go and pick out some ritual from the ceremonial law, or wider OT, to show God how committed they are; despite the fact that Jesus gave us two sacraments to show his commitment to us.
“Christ, who, by his eternal sacrifice once offered, had abolished those daily sacrifices, which were indeed powerful to attest sin, but could do nothing to destroy it.”
–Calvin, Institutes, II.vii.17
This is where the Redemptive-Historical facet of our hermeneutics comes in. What purpose did the ceremonial laws serve in that point on the timeline? To point to Christ, the ultimate, perfect, and once-for-all sacrifice. Mission accomplished. Now we look back to the reality of Jesus’ atonement. To enforce the ceremonial law would be to deny its forward-looking nature and deny Christ’s fulfillment of it.
(So, if any of you were looking forward to the sacrificial system being re-instituted when Christ returns, sorry to disappoint you; and you’re welcome)
Now, I have no doubt that all of you are secure in your conviction that the law is applicable for us today; that it is relevant and for our instruction. Maybe.
For many Christians, within the plausibility structure of the evangelical community, there’s the assumption that law applies (in some way). However, once they leave the walls of the church, they’re hit with opposition: the Bible’s ethics are irrelevant, or they are flat out wrong and immoral. Homosexuality is a perfect example.
Also, there are some “Christians” that are antinomian, meaning anti-law, who say things like “we’re not under law, but under grace” or we don’t need to obey the law because we live by the “law of love.” So they say the law doesn’t apply to us.
In addition, there are Christians who will admit that the 10 Commandments should be obeyed, but maybe not all of them (like not making images of God or keeping the Sabbath holy).
Because of these factors, and the context within which we live, I believe it is vital to make clear the fact that the law does in fact apply to us.
And then, given that fact, the question is raised about how the law relates to us. How are we, now, not the original hearers of the law, but the modern readers, how are we to read Law in the Bible? What does the Law mean to us? How do we read law, since we have the fullness of revelation in Christ? How do we transfer the moral law, since we are not ethnic, nation-state Israel, but the New Testament church, far removed in time and place and culture?
The law does not merely show us our sin and how we can’t keep it. It doesn’t merely point us to Christ. It is also for our instruction. Indeed, Christ said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
But, is it all directly applicable to us? Or is none of it applicable, unless reiterated in the New Testament? Some may think these are the only two options. We know, however, that it all relates to us in some way, because Paul wrote that “all Scripture is profitable,” and we have already addressed how all that “was written” is “for our instruction.”
Instead of speculating about these concerns, let us remember our authority for hermeneutics: Scripture itself. So, we will look at how the New Testament writers applied or related the law. Our authority is Scripture, so we need to have down how the Bible does it. Let’s not take the relevance of the law for granted, and wait to get slammed by the relativist culture or antinomianism.
Examples of Paul adjusting of Law for Israel to the Church
1 Corinthians 5:11-13 11 But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13 But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves.
Paul is addressing a man that has violated Lev. 18 by sleeping with his mother in law.
Leviticus 18:8 – You are not to have sex with your father’s wife; it will shame your father. . . 29 Any person who does any of these detestable practices must be cut off from his people.
Paul then quotes a common phrase from Deuteronomy, “put away the evil person from among yourselves.” This OT phrase is always in the context of killing the violator of the law. Put away the evil person by killing.
Deuteronomy 13:9 – Instead, you must kill him. Your hand is to be the first against him to put him to death, and then the hands of all the people.
Deuteronomy 17:7 – The witnesses’ hands are to be the first in putting him to death, and after that, the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from you.
How did Paul adjust that? He equates killing the violator with putting out of the church, which in context also equates delivering to Satan. The aspect that the evil person is going to hell is there in both OT and NT cases (assuming the NT case didn’t repent). Paul also equates the judicial action of the Israelites to action of the church.
→ Paul took an OT civil law of Israel and applied/adjusts it to the NT church.
Paul uses the same law in 2 places: 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18 to justify that preachers of the Gospel should be paid with proceeds of their work. The original context of this OT law shows that it’s isolated, and not among other animal laws.
“If there is a dispute between men, they are to go to court, and the judges will hear their case. They will clear the innocent and condemn the guilty. 2 If the guilty party deserves to be flogged, the judge will make him lie down and be flogged in his presence with the number of lashes appropriate for his crime. 3 He may be flogged with 40 lashes, but no more. Otherwise, if he is flogged with more lashes than these, your brother will be degraded in your sight.
4 “Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. ←
5 “When brothers live on the same property and one of them dies without a son, the wife of the dead man may not marry a stranger outside the family. Her brother-in-law is to take her as his wife, have sexual relations with her, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law for her.
*everyone agrees in context it’s meant primarily at the literal level – be kind to animals.
Paul uses it first in:
1 Corinthians 9:8-12a 8 Am I saying this from a human perspective? Doesn’t the law also say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? 10 Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? 12 If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more?
This is in the section of stumbling blocks where Paul says we have rights, but don’t have to use them. He says, “is God really concerned with oxen?”, using the lesser-to-greater argument; oxen to men.
Paul also asks a rhetorical question: “Am I saying this from a human perspective? Doesn’t the law also say the same thing?” Paul is saying: the law is for today!
Paul uses it second in:
1 Timothy 5:17-18 17 The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says:
Do not muzzle an ox
while it is treading out the grain, and,
the worker is worthy of his wages.
*Notice: Paul is calling both an OT text and a quote from the Gospels Scripture.
Paul assumes that even Old Testament civil legislation applies to the church. He also assumes it is okay to equate oxen with men. He makes a minor adjustment: oxen to men, to justify you get paid for what you do.
We learn from these examples a NT hermeneutic: civil law applies to the church, with adjustments. We can’t deny it because the examples are right there. We just cannot say that OT civil law doesn’t apply. We should qualify, rather, that it’s not a direct application.
These were just examples that the law given in the OT still has relevance; the NT employs them, albeit with adjustments, sometimes. We cannot affirm that the law doesn’t apply.
But what is the law’s use? What does it mean for the modern audience? To give us some categories to work with, let’s look at the Three Uses of the Law.
III. Uses of the Law (What It Means)
1. Restrain Social Evil
2. You’re cursed
3. Christian life
Three Uses of the Moral Law; numbering system of the Formula of Concord:
“the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life . . .” –VI. 1
*This is the order that’s branded in my mind. If anything, appreciate the irony of quoting a Lutheran document on the 3 Uses of the Law. Here’s proof that they do affirm the three uses.
John Calvin (Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 7, Sections 6-12) also recognizes these uses of the law:
That the whole matter may be made clearer, let us take a succinct view of the office and use of the Moral Law. Now this office and use seems to me to consist of three parts. . .
First, by exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him. . .
Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse. . . (Rom. 3:20, 4:25, 5:20; 2 Cor. 3:7)
The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice. . . this forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society, its peace being secured by a provision but for which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion. (1 Tim. 1:9-10) *Notice, switches 2nd and 1st Uses of Concord
The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them.
This “Three Uses of the Law” distinction is merely looking at moral laws in either the OT or NT and how the NT uses them. They are the 3 ways that the NT is seen using the moral law. To summarize:
1st Use: Restrain Social Evil – inhibits lawlessness by threats of judgment, especially when backed by a civil code that carries out punishment, used by the magistrate (Romans 13, 1 Timothy 1:9-10)
2nd Use: Shows you your Sin, drives you to Christ (Romans 3, 7; Galatians 3)
3rd Use: Guide to Christian Life – Christians, for all the right reasons, does/doesn’t according to the law.
*Remember that Calvin said the 3rd Use was “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end.” This is the Reformed position; that the 3rd Use is primary. Remember the prologue to the 10 Commandments? Obey because you are redeemed; here’s how to live as covenant people.
We see the Law being used this way in the New Testament. The New Testament shows patterns of adjusting the Old Testament Law.
Paul uses the 10 Commandments in different ways:
He uses “do not covet” and “do not commit adultery” sometimes as 2nd Use and sometimes as 3rd Use.
*Depending on how you take it, 1 Timothy 1:-10 is 1st use, (like Calvin) where Paul says: “We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious.”
Romans 13:9 – all 3rd use. Law of love. Paul is obviously writing to believers:
Do not commit adultery;
do not murder;
do not steal;
do not covet;
and whatever other commandment—all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Romans 7:7 – What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law. For example, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet.
This is 2nd Use
*What we can infer is that moral laws used as 3rd Use can always have 1st and 2nd implications. Why? Because Paul can adjust moral laws in a 3rd, 2nd, or 1st use!
*By the way, this is why I’m using the word “adjust” interchangeably with the word “apply.” The application is the meaning, there’s overlap, which is why Paul can use a single commandment as both 2nd Use and 3rd Use; because it means both. There’s overlap between meaning and application, not a sharp line in between. So to avoid that, I’m using the word “adjust.”
Jesus uses “do not commit adultery” and expands it to heart motives.
Matthew 5:27-28 – “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
This law doesn’t just mean don’t physically do it (which is what Paul usually means).
Similarly, Paul equates coveting (or greed) with idolatry.
Colossians 3:5 – Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity,lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.
Ephesians 5:5 – For know and recognize this: Every sexually immoral or impure or greedy person, who is an idolater, does not have an inheritance in the kingdom of the Messiah and of God.
Jesus also uses “do not commit adultery” in conjunction with Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24 to discuss physical adultery (Deuteronomy 24:4 talking about the wife being “defiled” and it being “detestable to the Lord”). In Matthew, Jesus uses the commandment one time at physical level and another time at the heart-motive level. (Like we already saw)
Matthew 19:5-7 5 and He also said:
“For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh?
6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked Him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?”
Genesis 2:24 – This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.
Deuteronomy 24:4 – the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the Lord. You must not bring guilt on the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
→ Paul and Jesus both assume that OT Law has “multiple uses.”
Conclusion: Reading Law while avoiding relativism and moralism.
Time for street-level. This lesson, indeed this entire series on hermeneutics, might be useless if it doesn’t help you read your Bible better.
So, let’s bring this all down to us sitting in our chair on a weekday morning, reading law in the Bible. We’re studying Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (or any ethical text). We get burdened, do we not? “Oh great, another thing to do.” Then, if we’re actually in touch with our sinful selves at all, we quickly realize that we can’t do what the law tells us to do.
As we read law, we’ll get slammed by the fact that we cannot keep the commandments, that we don’t do what Jesus says. We’ll be having a Romans 7 moment. What I know to do, I don’t do. What I know not to do, I do.
But, remember the redemptive context. We are in Christ. And Christ has fulfilled the law, has fulfilled all righteousness, for us; and his record is our own.
For the Christian: the law is a guide for how to live out our identity in Christ. This is the 3rd Use.
But, for the unbeliever: the law always curses you. You are objectively guilty before a holy God. Flee to Christ, that he may clothe you in his righteousness. This is the 2nd Use.
Listen to Calvin, under the heading of the 2nd Use of the moral law: (emphasis mine)
But while the unrighteousness and condemnation of all are attested by the law, it does not follow (if we make the proper use of it) that we are immediately to give up all hope and rush headlong on despair. No doubt, it has some such effect upon the reprobate, but this is owing to their obstinacy. With the children of God the effect is different. The Apostle . . . declares, that “God has concluded them all in unbelief;” not that he might destroy all, or allow all to perish, but that “he might have mercy upon all,” (Rom. 11:32); in other words, that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ to all who long and look for it in true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is seen as the rewarder only of perfect righteousness (a righteousness of which all are destitute), and, on the other hand, as the stern avenger of wickedness. But in Christ his countenance beams forth full of grace and gentleness towards poor unworthy sinners.
–Calvin, John (2010-02-19). The Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.vii.8
Calvin then quotes Augustine:
“The utility of the law is, that it convinces man of his weakness, and compels him to apply for the medicine of grace, which is in Christ.”
“The law orders; grace supplies the power of acting.”
This is where the Christocentric aspect of our hermeneutic comes in. How we read law ties in with what we’ve already said about Redemptive-Historical context.
Remember the three aspects (presuppositional, redemptive-historical, Christocentric) of our hermeneutics? Well, Tim Keller also ties the Redemptive-Historical and the Christocentric together, saying:
The Redemptive-Historical Method gives us a more Christ-centered understanding of the Bible. The RHM sees the purpose of each epoch of redemptive history as being the progressive revealing of Christ. God could have poured out judgment on mankind in the Garden, therefore the only reason there is any history is because God has purposed to send his Son into the world, to pour out judgment on him and thereby bring salvation. Jesus is the only reason there is human history, and therefore he is the goal of human history. Thus everything God says and does in history explains and prepares for the salvation of his Son. The STM [Systematic-Topical Method], on the other hand, will examine the Law, the prophets, and history of Abraham, Moses, David, etc. for information about the various doctrinal topics – what we learn about how to live, what to believe. But the RHM sees every story and law and piece of wisdom literature as pointing to Christ and his work. Preaching and teaching [for our purposes, reading] from an STM framework tends to be much more moralistic and legalistic.
. . . many disputes over the application of the Old Testament laws are really based on a lack of understanding of the role which the Mosaic regulations played in that time in redemptive history (i.e. how they helped us look to and prepare for God’s coming salvation) and of how that role is fulfilled in Christ.
As you read Law, remember:
Christ does not just bear the punishment that we deserve. He also keeps the law in our place. Christ, our sin-bearer, gives to us the perfect robe of His righteousness. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). The salvation that is ours in Christ is not just a restoration to innocence, with the debt of sin cancelled. Far less is it a second chance to earn our own salvation by having our slate wiped clean. What we receive in Christ is His righteousness; we are adopted into the perfect sonship of the second Adam and the true Israel (Rom. 9:5; 10:4; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45).
–Edmund P. Clowney. The Unfolding Mystery (2d. ed.): Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (Kindle Locations 1588-1593). P&R Publishing.
The moral law certainly shows us our need for Someone who has obeyed it perfectly, a substitute. And since we have been freed from the guilt and burden of obeying the law for our sake to achieve righteousness, we can now obey the law with joy, because of what Christ has done for us. We strive to live rightly for God’s sake, in light of the Gospel.
WCF 16.6 offers us encouragement:
“Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”
Keller: if we do “not put the text into the overall message of salvation by grace and the finished work of Christ” we “will automatically hear through a moralistic ‘grid’. . . without putting that into the context of the gospel gives . . . the impression that” we are complete enough to pull ourselves together if we try hard. (Preaching syllabus)
What Keller says about preaching can also be applied to our reading the law in the Bible:
We must remember Christ as we read law. If we don’t, we’ll be preaching a “synagogue sermon” to ourselves and think that the law is telling us merely to exert our wills to live according to a particular pattern. We will be crushed by the law that we cannot keep.
A major way to ‘get to Christ’ is what Paul says in Galatians 3:24 about the Law leading us to Him.
In this approach, we take one of the many ethical principles (like the 10 Commandments) and truly ‘listen’ to it. These ethical principles are extremely searching and profound, and if we listen to them honestly, we see that it is impossible for us to obey them. We have not truly ‘listened’ to the full weight of the rule till we see that God will have to provide some kind of remarkably thorough forgiveness for us and/or find some powerful way to fulfill this ethical principle for us and in us—because we are completely incapable of doing so.
Bryan Chapel says texts often points us to Christ when we ask: what does this text reveal about human beings that requires Christ’s redemptive work? Every ethical text points us to Christ—and not primarily as an example but as Savior. Every ethical text show us our need for salvation.
Therefore, ultimately, Jesus is the only way to truly take the law seriously—he is the only way to truly receive it. The Iaw does demand that we be perfectly holy. We are not really listening to the law if we think that we can obey it! The law is saying, in effect, ‘you can never fulfill me—you need a savior!” (Galatians 3 and 4). We can only receive the law with Jesus.
Keller again says:
. . . Only if we know we are saved by faith can we have the strength to actually hear how extensive and searching and deep the demands of the law are. If we don’t believe in the gospel of sheer grace we will have to find some way of whittling down the full requirements of any given law text. If we know we are saved by Jesus’ finished work already then we have the guts to face the high demands of the law. . . only if we know we are saved by the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us are we able to take the law seriously. The gospel alone admits that God demands perfection—nothing less—and he gets it in Christ.
So, what of exhortation? Does 2nd Use void 3rd Use, since we can’t obey? Are we exhorted by the law to action, even if we can’t obey perfectly? Is striving to obey proper for the Christian saved by grace? Are we saying: “well, then you don’t really have to obey—after all, nobody’s perfect!” Never, ever does God relax his righteous requirement because we can’t do something. We are never the standard, he is. This approach doesn’t say we don’t have to obey. Instead, it shows that we wiIl not be truly freed and able to obey this law until first we see that Jesus fulfilled it for us.
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 115 helps us put this together:
Q. Since no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God want them preached so pointedly?
A. First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.1
Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.2
1 Ps. 32:5; Rom. 3:19-26; 7:7, 24-25; 1 John 1:9
2 1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:12-14; 1 John 3:1-3
Therefore, in reading law Christocentrically:
Look at the demands of the law, and realize that because of sin we cannot do it. We fail.
But, think of how Christ obeyed it in his life and ministry.
He has obeyed the law in our place.
Remember that he did it as your substitute, because he loves you.
He fulfilled all righteousness.
And since we have union with him, his record is ours.
Therefore, we are not striving to obey the law for salvation (legalism), we are obeying out of joy and gratitude because of what Christ has done for us. We are obeying for the right reasons (HC Q/A 68). We are free to change, because God’s grace in the Gospel has changed our heart.
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86 gives us several right reasons for obedience:
Q. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits,1 so that he may be praised through us,2 so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,3 and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.4
1 Rom. 6:13; 12:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:5-10
2 Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 6:19-20
3 Matt. 7:17-18; Gal. 5:22-24; 2 Pet. 1:10-11
4 Matt. 5:14-16; Rom. 14:17-19; 1 Pet. 2:12; 3:1-2
Because God has accepted and blessed me in Christ, I work hard to live according to the ethics of Scripture. Reading Law in this way will confront and avoid the grids of both the religious/moralist/Pharisee type person and also the irreligious/relativist/Sadducee type person (as Pastor Tim has often juxtaposed these two religious and irreligious errors; and Keller speaks in these categories). If I read law moralistically (legalistically), I’m telling myself that God hasn’t accepted me yet, and I need to try harder. If I read it relativistically (antinomian), I’m telling myself that the law is invalid and striving to obey it is not necessary.
The answer is to read Redemptive-Historically, Christocentrically. Christians do not fear the judicial wrath of God ever again because of Christ’s substitutionary life and death. This cuts against both the legalistic Pharisee and the liberal Sadducee. One is trusting in their righteousness to avoid the wrath of God (basing their justification on their sanctification); the other doesn’t feel the need to be justified or believe that God is a God of wrath who needs propitiation. Pharisees add rules to make the law do-able; Sadducees don’t recognize the law as valid.
How do we read law? We read it knowing that it is valid and it does apply (contra the relativist); and we saw this from the ample New Testament examples that we looked at (that’s why we looked at all those examples). The law is for us. Additionally, we saw the law’s uses: it exposes sin and drives the sinner to Christ (and the believer is reminded of his need for Christ as Savior; contra the legalist), and shows us how to live out our covenant identity.
We read law and say it is not irrelevant (as the relativist declares) and without lowering the bar to make it do-able (as the legalist does). Our approach to reading law is not a compromise or balance between the two, it is a completely different way; because the Gospel is different from both errors. It critiques both religion and irreligion.
To summarize: Only “Christocentric” reading of law can really lead us to true virtue, gospel holiness. If we read law as merely Biblical principles to live by, we won’t see law in its redemptive-historical context, and our application will tend to merely be conforming to the principles. Only Christocentric reading can produce gospel holiness. We so often compartmentalize believing the Gospel in justification, and think that the rest of the Christian life is us trying really hard. But, the whole of the Christian life is believing the Gospel; trusting in Christ. God has accepted and blessed me in Christ who fulfilled the law, therefore I work hard to live according to the ethics of Scripture. We have the Holy Spirit. We obey with “faith-fueled effort” to use Kevin DeYoung’s phrase (see 2 Peter 1:5-7; Hebrews 12:14; ). We will make progress in obedience.
So, the key to reading law is to get the Gospel down. “True virtue”, to use Jonathan Edwards’ term, is only possible for those who have experienced the grace of the Gospel. Only then can we “delight in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2).