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The Three Uses of the Law:
Love Rules Excerpt

Category Book Excerpts
Date June 13, 2023

There is much confusion today about the relationship between the law of God and the gospel of God. Are Christians still ‘under’ the law? If we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, do we still need to keep the commandments of God? Questions like these are important to answer biblically. In the except that follows, Peter Barnes introduces three legitimate uses of the law, and in so doing, points the way to understanding how Christians today are to relate to the law of God.

‘According to John Flavel the Puritan, ‘There is a good and an evil use of the law.’ We read the same thing in Paul, ‘Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully’ (1 Tim. 1:8). The sixteenth-century Reformers, more particularly John Calvin, discerned three major uses of the law:

To convict the sinner of sin. Paul declared that the law did not acquit any sinner before God, but by the law came the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20). In Paul’s own case, it was especially the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (Rom. 7:7). The law is no man’s saviour, but it shows us that we need to be saved. C. S. Lewis recalled that when he first came to university, he was as nearly without a moral conscience as a boy could be. Such a person sees no need of Christ as Redeemer until the Spirit convicts him of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11). The Spirit does this partly by revealing the full depth of God’s holy law (Matt. 5–7).

To restrain evil. To use Samuel Bolton’s graphic image, the law chains the wolf, while the gospel changes him. The law does not make us good but usually, albeit not always (Rom. 7:8–9), acts to curb our sinful instincts. We are ‘held captive under the law’ (Gal. 3:23). If a man does not burgle my house because of the law against stealing, that hardly makes him a new creation in Christ, but it does mean my house is not burgled. Sin is not eradicated, but the expression of it is restrained. To cite Calvin: ‘This constrained and forced righteousness is necessary to the community of men, for the tranquillity which our Saviour provides by preventing all things from being overturned in confusion, which is what would happen if everything were permitted to everyone.’

To guide the Christian. Love fulfils the law; it does not abolish it (Rom. 13:8–10). The Christian is under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Those who abolish this third use of the law have difficulty in defining clearly how the Christian should live, and how the moral law reflects the unchanging holy character of God. Thomas Watson considered this most serious indeed: ‘They who will not have the law to rule them, shall never have the gospel to save them.’

The Present Need

There are challenges from all sides today to the authority and relevance of the Ten Commandments. Modern secular society is determined to make up its own ethics, with the over-riding virtue being, not love, but tolerance. Meanwhile a retreating church is often fearful of offending the world at large. In seeking to avoid legalism (trying to keep the law in order to be saved), we flee to antinomianism (discarding God’s law) and then construct a new legalism (we make up our own set of regulations). Hence intolerance and sexism are treated as sins in the modern world. Even in evangelical circles, matters are not made as clear as they should be. The law of Moses does not provide a complete and binding guide to Christian morality. On the other hand it should not be dismissed as irrelevant. The approach adopted by situation ethics (where we decide what is right by the circumstances) abolishes law. Joseph Fletcher says, ‘Only love is a constant; everything else is a variable.’ To which we might add the claims of Paul Tillich, ‘The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law.’ This approach has a tendency to be translated into the somewhat simple 1960s philosophy of Jerry Rubin: ‘If it feels good, do it.’ The Bible’s reply to this would be that the heart is deceitful above all things ( Jer. 17:9), and the language of love can easily be used to disguise deepseated selfishness and immorality (note the example of Amnon in 2 Sam. 13:1–15).

We are no better off if we try to make the law stand on its own. Motive is important in what we do (Matt. 6:1; Mark 12:43–44). So too is context; those who are going to misuse the truth, for example, have no right to hear it (Exod. 1; Josh. 2; 1 Sam. 16:2). The Christian is purified as he maintains his hope of seeing Christ in glory (1 John 3:2–3). Law is vital but it is not to be treated in isolation. Bonhoeffer put forward the biblical view: ‘There can be no preaching of the law without the gospel, and no preaching of the gospel without the law.’ Law needs to be distinguished from grace and love, but to separate these three is to rend asunder what God has joined.’

Excerpted from Peter Barnes, Do We Need the Ten Commandments? in Love Rules: The Ten Commandments for the 21st Century (pp. 7–9).


Some Banner resources on Law and Gospel:

Alderson, Richard, No Holiness, No Heaven: Antinomianism Today

Bolton, Samuel, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom

Bonnington, Stuart, and Milne, Joan, eds., Love Rules: The Ten Commandments for the 21st Century

Reisinger, Ernest C., Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

Ryle, J. C., Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots

Sibbes, Richard, Glorious Freedom: the Excellency of the Gospel Above the Law (Puritan Paperback)

Traill, Robert, Justification Vindicated (Puritan Paperback)

Watson, Thomas, The Ten Commandments

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