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Preaching the Moral Law – Reformers and Puritans

Category Articles
Date December 20, 2001


There is the importance of understanding the biblical antithesis of law and gospel

The annual Westminster Conference was held at Westminster Chapel London on December 11 and 12. The usual number of men and women were present, over two hundred, and mainly men. As we walked to our venue across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace the absence of foreign tourists was notable. Usually there are a couple of hundred people from Europe, Japan and the USA taking photographs of Guards and Palace. This year there were less than thirty people on either day. There is no sign of the repercussions of the events of September 11 coming to an end. In fact, the new vigilance caused by the threat of terrorism overspilled into Westminster Chapel itself. A policeman looked at us as we entered the building and there were others with sniffer dogs keeping an eye on things. Theolog-terrorists? No. The Ministry of Defence with some high brass army personnel were holding their annual carol service at Westminster Chapel that night.

The Conference consists of six lectures followed by discussion. The 10.45 session was entitled “Preaching the Moral Law – Reformers and Puritans” and it was given by the Rev. Prof. Dr Sinclair Ferguson of the Tron Church of Scotland, Glasgow. The session was chaired by Erroll Hulse. This is my summary of Sinclair Ferguson’s message. The correct full version will appear in a few months’ time when the Conference report is published.

Not much attention has been given in the history of this Conference to the theme of the law of God. There are many rich treatises and works on it. It is a very complex but a profoundly important subject. Whenever the grace of God is rediscovered the next subject to be instantly examined will be the law of God. Thus it was in New Testament times. The whole debate threatening to tear apart the Galatian congregation focused on the place of the law. So it was also at the Reformation with its great Protestant ‘sola’s’. When the biblical cry “Grace alone” is sounded immediately the question will be raised, “Then what is the function of the law?” The following century in the Puritan period also raised this issue. “It is one of the knottiest subjects in all practical divinity” said Samuel Bolton at that time. That image of the knot is instructive. If a knot is tied tightly how can it be untied? There is a fine letter written by John Newton during the next century on the theme of “The Right Use of the Law” republished by the Banner of Truth both in the paperback edition of the letters of Newton and in the six volume Works. It is a question that is being raised in our own 21st century, what is the significance of the law of God to the Christian who lives under the new covenant. There is debate and division. The structure of redemptive history leads to the climax of Golgotha and Pentecost, forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Why then do Christians need the law of God? If anyone wants to be considered a biblical scholar today he has to write an essay on his understanding of Paul’s doctrine of the law. Many religious mistakes emanate from a wrong view of this subject.


If we do not understand this we shall never be like those men.


Luther’s theology came out of the interface of his own experience and his study of the Word of God. Luther moved from being a Medieval monk to becoming a Reformer, and his world is full of deliverance from the powers of demonic alien influences to being brought into true freedom. In his Table Talk he says that his basic hermeneutic in examining a portion of Scripture is to address it with the question, “Is this law or gospel?” It had to be one or the other. That was a hermeneutical principle, but it was a pastoral-theological principle too. Problems and pain come to the Christian from a failure to understand the difference. The law leads to conviction and despair; the gospel leads to joy and salvation.

Someone once said that no matter how far to the right you stand in a theological direction you will always find someone to the right of yourself. It also works for those who stand on the left. Johann Agricola studied at Wittenberg under Luther, and served as his secretary. But he went on to teach that the moral law had no place in Christian experience. Luther gave Agricola and his followers the title of Antinomians, refuted their arguments and elicited some form of recantation, but the friendship was spoiled. Luther believed that the law was needed to bring the sinner to repentance, to condemn and kill, but also it has a role for the Christian as a guard and restraint to keep us in the will of God.


The Geneva reformer was much more of a Renaissance man than Luther. He had studied the classics and law. He was the supreme exegete of Scripture possessing an extraordinary grasp of the flow of redemptive history. He knew how the Bible works seeing the big picture and he was committed to its various parts. As an exegete he quarried from earlier theologians, especially taking from Aquinas his approach to the law, that is, God’s law originated in the divine mind and represents the divine character, and it is implanted in the mind of man. When man fell God republished the law at Sinai and it was given in three dimensions, moral, ceremonial and civil, and in two epochs, Moses to Christ, and then the Messiah’s new commandments, which are the law of Christ. That framework influenced the whole of Reformed theology in how it looks at the law of God. The Trinitarian attitude of Calvin floods this approach. He says that the law cannot be properly understood apart from Christ. He is the end of the law for righteousness; he is the focus and goal for which the law originated from the beginning.

There is a unity of substance but a difference of administration, at Creation, at Sinai, and at the coming of Jesus Christ. In each of these three epochs there is a unity of substance, but as the law is given progressively it is administered in three different ways.

There is the importance of understanding the biblical antithesis of law and gospel. Calvin acknowledges pejorative language is used concerning the old covenant. It is to be understood in these ways: (1) that the real significance of redemptive historical development from creation to Christ and Pentecost is so radical that you look at it by way of contrast. (2) That contrast is sometimes a contrast between right understanding and use of the law given in the context of covenant. So sometimes Calvin writes of ‘bare law’ when men are wresting the law of God from its covenantal and epochal context. Then is one time to speak pejoratively of it. Then (3) there is the antithesis in using the law of God by its bare letter and not using it through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the end of the law. That is, the law in all its parts has reference to Christ who is its focus and fulfilment.

So that is the context in which Calvin speaks of giving the law at Sinai, it is in the whole scene of the relationship between a covenant keeping God and his people. So when Calvin comes to expound the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy he does it in the form of a harmony, irritating though that might be to succeeding generations of exegetes and preachers. The passages have to be discovered in the setting of that covenant history. Then God adds two appendices to the moral law, there is the ceremonial law which deals with breaches of the first table and the civil law which deals with breaches of the second table.

Jesus Christ is the one in whom the revelation of law is enfleshed and embodied. So what the law does is point us to Christ. He fulfils the law and bears the judgment of the breach of the broken law. That is the only sufficient ground of deliverance and it is obtained by his death. In the sending of the Spirit he fulfils the purpose of the law. When Jesus Christ is fully known the law-giving God is given a ground for forgiving transgressors the moral law. The ceremonial law has been completed, and the civil law is fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the making of a new people.

The Reformation began through the work of Luther, but then, as the years went by it was Calvin’s treatises and translations which had their enormous impact.


We must be careful when speaking of ‘the Puritan doctrine’ on anything. They disagreed about everything as widely as we do. The doctrine of the law was at the epicentre of their gospel preaching and their pastoral ministry. On January 1 1646 at the Westminster Assembly Dr Wincop made report from the Third Committee about the Law of God. It was debated on January 7, 9, 12, 13, 29, February 2 and 9, also in the Grand Committee during the interval in the Assembly’s meetings August 21-31, and in the Assembly itself, September 1, 2, 3, 4, 15, 17 and finally passed September 25. The Scriptural proofs were debated and ordered on February 19 and 22 the following year.

The Puritans worked with preaching grids, for example, that the Bible was needed to unmask hypocrites, convert sinners, cheer the saints, and edify the people of God. Every element of those duties is assisted by the law of God. What were the main elements in their approach?

1. The Biblical Theology of God’s Law.

The Puritans followed Aquinas and Calvin and went further. Goodwin said that the law is part of what it means to be in the image of God. The moral law is a happiness-producing revelation. The law is delightful because obedience is delightful, and we do not understand that as we should. Adam was given the law and had an instinctive desire to obey God, but to test man’s obedience God gave a definite commandment. Then the law also becomes that which brings about man’s disobedience.

Sin distorts the things of the law written in man so that man becomes a law to himself (Roms 2:14&15). The instinct too has been destroyed, but men still have a sense of it – like the light of a distant star long extinguished is still coming across vast distances of space to the earth and is seen by us. Concerning the law given at Sinai there was division amongst the Puritans, some seeing it as the plain Covenant of Grace, others seeing it as the Covenant of Works, others saw it as a covenant subservient to the Covenant of Grace, while yet others saw it as a mixture of the two.

What you have in the law of God is that law written in Adam’s heart now being republished in different epochs or dispensations. It is characterised
1] It was in a negative form for it was given for sinners;
2] It is in a limited historical context where, for example, slavery is in the very warp and woof of the society; 3] The special day is the seventh; the Sabbath was instinctive in man and is now in a historical context; 4] It was multi-layered, moral, ceremonial and civil. These latter divisions are in the 21st century summarily dismissed out of hand. “They got those divisions from Aquinas,” men say. No, they quarried it from the Scriptures. The decalogue was recognised from the beginning as different and placed within the ark of the covenant. The other elements were seen as an appendix to that. In “Theonomy. A Reformed Critique” edited by Barker and Godfrey and published by Zondervan in 1990 there is an essay entitled “Theonomy in Relation to Dispensational and Covenant Theologies” by Bruce K. Waltke and he has four pages (pp.70-73) which brilliantly show from the Old Testament itself that this three-fold division is present in the Bible itself.

When Christ comes the scaffolding is taken down and one goes to Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit rewrites the law of God in the hearts of men and women at regeneration. This is powerfully shown in Charnock’s mighty chapters on regeneration in “The New Birth” (Banner of Truth, 544 pp.). What the law was unable to do Christ did.

2. Their Understanding of the Present Status of the Law of God.

Especially during the 1690s the Puritans were criticised by antinomians who pleaded the apparently anti-law terminology of some of the New Testament. The Puritans replied that such pejorative language of the New Testament concerning the law appeared when the Mosaic dispensation was being compared to Christ, or it appeared when issues of the law were being extracted from a consideration of Christ. They recognised the movement on from Adam to Moses, and from Moses to Christ so that today we receive the law of God from the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. The Use They Made of it in Their Preaching.

On the one occasion Sinclair Ferguson spoke to the late O.R.Johnson twenty years ago he said to Sinclair that the greatest difficulty he was finding in spreading the moral message of the Festival of Light was in persuading ministers of the continuity of the law of God. How did Puritans use the law?

1. They used the law to convict of sin, and sought by the Holy Spirit to do so, and to ensure that their own lives adorned the law they preached, that is, that the scalpel in the hands of the Spirit was clean. They quoted the Rich Young Ruler incident as an example of our Lord using the law to convict a man of his sin. 2. The godly were restrained by the law of God from transgressions. 3. To restore among their people a sense of ‘happy duty.’ In paradise obedience to what God said was Adam’s happy calling. Anthony Burgess warned of all doctrine that taught comfort but not duty. They reminded people of their duties by catechisms. In the Larger Catechism one third of its space is devoted to an exposition of the law, and in the Shorter a fifth. Today the word ‘legalistic’ is easily given to such an emphasis. But it is the world that bears that title of ‘legalist’ not the evangelical church. Every year, for example, a new fat volume is printed which gives the latest interpretations of the little Book of the Rules of Golf! Yet we Christians have a half page of the Bible which give us ten words from God concerning our duties to him and to one another. What simplicity! If the Holy Spirit has written the law in the hearts of every Christian would Jesus Christ take it away?

Luther had this saying which the Puritans loved to quote, that the person who could distinguish between the law and grace could thank God and know himself to be a Christian.

In the ensuing discussion Sinclair Ferguson was asked what was his view of the law as “a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” He used the illustration of being blissfully happy in Junior school, and yet when he went to grammar school he could see the great limitations of that school and all the variety of teachers and subjects available. Then he went to University and this instantly became the real delight of education, until he started to do postgraduate work and there were no longer lectures and examinations to sit. At every level he looked back from a perception of a new freedom and saw the old as limiting. So it is with the Old Testament law, it was preparing people for the freedom that is found in Christ. The Jewish believers had the whole stench of the law pervading everything. Their whole life, every day and week and year, in each duty they were regulated and confined by the law. The whole dispensation was characterised by law. But after Pentecost the temple and the rituals and even Jerusalem itself no longer matters. You come to God by Christ and you look back to that period in which there was Torah, and you see how unhappy you were.


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