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Law, Gospel and the Believer

Category Articles
Date June 26, 2009

Three uses of the law are commonly identified in relation to the believer: (1) the civil use, (2) the law as schoolmaster, (3) the law as a teacher.

(1) The civil use of the Law.

In commenting on Galatians 3:19, Luther writes:

The first use of the law is to bridle the wicked. This civil restraint is very necessary, and appointed by God, as well for public peace as for the preservation of all things, but especially lest the cause of the gospel should be hindered by the tumult and seditions of wicked, outrageous and proud men.

The powers that be are ordained of God; the command is: ‘Let every soul be subject to the higher powers’ (Rom. 13:1). These powers are to bear the sword and to bear it in such a way that evil, defined as a breach of the moral law, is suppressed and righteousness is encouraged.

The Puritan Samuel Bolton writes:

Blessed be God that there is this fear upon the spirits of wicked men; otherwise we could not well live in the world. One man would be a devil to another. Every man would be Cain to his brother, an Amnon to his sister, an Absalom to his father, a Saul to himself, a Judas to his master; for what one does, all men would do, were it not for a restraint upon their spirits.1

God’s whole purpose in appointing these powers is that they should be nursing fathers and nursing mothers to true piety and religion in society. This would be of real benefit to a nation, for ‘righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people’.

(2) The law as a schoolmaster.

This purpose of the law is to discipline and to educate – to hold up the mirror of the Word to the sinner and to sin, and thus to induce repentance and a sense of spiritual need. So Luther writes on Galatians 3:10: ‘The right use and end of the law therefore is . . . to reveal to a man his sin, his blindness, his misery, his impiety, ignorance, hatred and contempt of God, death, hell, the judgement and deserved wrath of God. The law brings the sinner away from what are merely social norms and conventions and from his own fond esteem of himself and brings him in guilty before God. Calvin writes,

So long as the sinner is permitted to appeal to his own judgement, he substitutes a hypocritical for a real righteousness. But after he is forced to weigh his conduct in the balance of the law, he renounces all dependence on this fancied righteousness; he sees that he is at an infinite distance from holiness and, on the other hand, that he teems with innumerable vices of which he formerly seemed free.2

The law never brings a sense of peace but creates a sense of need, which mercy alone will satisfy and Christ alone can fill.

After conversion, the law continues to have this schoolmasterly role. In its spiritual character it demands much more than the believer is capable of. The law also stirs up sinful desires. Paul says that he had not known lust unless the law had said, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ (Rom. 7:7). This effect of the law has been likened to the effect of the rays of the rising sun falling on a dunghill. The warmth generated causes the odour of the dung to rise and spread. So the effect of the law is to generate a hatred of the God whose law it is. In this respect the law is no different to the gospel. The gospel, without grace, is a savour of death unto death. The sinner therefore, being admonished and chastened by the law, must of necessity come again to the blood that cleanses from all sin and to the Advocate with the Father. The Spirit describes in the Word the Church’s progress as ‘coming up out of the wilderness leaning on her beloved’.

Our Confession of Faith states, ‘True believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned’ (19:6). When the first Adam, as representative of mankind, was tested, he failed in his conformity to the moral law as a covenant of works and as a rule of obedience. Mankind then fell under the curse, ‘Thou shalt surely die’. The second Adam saw that there was none to deliver, and his own arm brought salvation. He did so by putting himself under the law, discharging all its duties and bearing all its penalties on behalf of his people. As the law cannot twice exact punishment for the same sin, Christ’s death, while bearing his people’s sins, is the death imposed by the law as a covenant of works (see Gal. 4:4-5).

Paul uses the illustration of the obligation of the wife to her husband. This obligation lasts only as long as the husband lives (Rom. 7:2). When the husband dies, his wife is no longer bound. In the same way, the relationship of the believer to the law as a covenant of works ended with the death of Christ. When Christ died, the sinner’s husband – that is, the moral law as a covenant of works – also died; thus the sinner was then free from any obligation to the moral law as a covenant. Christ on their behalf had discharged their duties and paid their debts under the law. The bond of marriage to the law was broken by Christ’s death on their behalf (Rom. 7:4).

Being thus justified, the work of sanctification begins. The believer is then prone to two errors in relation to the moral law. On the one hand, a return to legalism, as Paul charges the Galatians: ‘Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?’ (3:3). On the other hand there is the danger of falling into Antinomianism, which affirms that believers are not under the moral law, even as a rule of life; it may even go as far as the appalling conclusion of these antinomians of Paul’s day: to ‘continue in sin, that grace may abound’ (Rom. 6:1).

In the hand of the Spirit, the law is a plough to break up the fallow ground of the natural heart. The awakened sinner is brought to see something of the infinite holiness, justice and majesty of God. The sinner gains a sense of the divine authority and majesty of the law of God. The sinner likewise acquires something of the knowledge of sin. ‘By the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20). He learns also something of the wrath that is revealed from heaven against the transgressions of sinners and feels the justice of God in condemning them to a lost eternity. Thus the sinner is brought to see his great need of the righteousness of Christ offered to him in the gospel.

(3) The law as a teacher.

While believers are not under the moral law as a covenant, they are under Christ as their king. During David’s time in the wilderness, some sought him out and, by the Spirit, told him: ‘Thine are we, David, and on thy side, thou son of Jesse’. So Paul said of the Lord, by whom he was justified: ‘Whose I am and whom I serve’. On his part, Christ says, ‘If ye love Me, keep My commandments’. Since God is holy, his commandments, as an expression of his holiness, must be holy too. Legalism reflects on the completeness of Christ’s work of redemption – implying that something is lacking, and we must make up the deficiency. Antinomianism reflects on the holiness and authority of the King we profess to serve and on the holiness of the laws of his kingdom. It is clean contrary to the purpose of God’s calling: ‘This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise’; ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy’.

The believer’s first husband – the law as a covenant of works – is dead, and he is united in a marriage bond to Christ. Primarily he receives a heart consonant with this covenant, according to God’s Word: ‘I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh’ (Ezek. 36:26). It is under the influence of this new heart that the sinner, in response to the gospel enquiry, ‘Wilt thou go with this man?’ says, ‘I will go’. The new heart has God’s holy law written on it, which is both the evidence and the affirmation that this sinner is now the Lord’s.

In Old Testament times, a fruitful marriage was a sign of God’s favour, and barrenness a sign of his disfavour. This spiritual union is never without fruit. ‘Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God’ (Rom. 7:4). ‘He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit’ (John 15:5). There is liberty in the new marriage bond. ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.’ The sinner was without strength under the law but now all things are possible to those that believe. No longer is the sinner attempting to pay his debt by good works to God but, because he is indebted to Christ for all, he lives by the faith of the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him.

Turretin writes,

The law is necessary in many ways to Christians:

(1) With respect to the covenant of grace (under which believers live), which contains not only the promise of grace and salvation on God’s part, but also carries with it the stipulation of obedience on man’s part, so that, just as God promises to be our God in love and protection, we in turn are His people by worshipping and obeying Him (Jer. 31:33, 2 Cor. 6:16,17).

(2) With respect to God the Father, who receives us into His family and holds towards us the relation of Father and Lord, to honour and worship whom we are indispensably bound (Mal. 1:6, 1 Pet. 1:15,16).

(3) With respect to Christ, who, as He sustains a twofold person towards us (of surety and priest, to satisfy for us by fulfilling the law; and of head and king, to work and fulfill the law in us by His Spirit), so He demands a twofold virtue from believers to be united and conformed to Him (faith, which embraces the promise of grace and the merit of the surety; and love, which imitates the holiness of the Head by obeying His commands). Hence His death is not only the price of our redemption, by which He made a most full satisfaction for us, but also the model for our imitation, which is set before us ‘that we should follow in His steps’ (1 Pet. 2:21).

(4) With respect to the Holy Spirit, who consecrates us for temples to Himself in which He may dwell (1 Cor. 3:4); who has the name and office of Consoler and Sanctifier, that as, by the office of Paraclete, He consoles us against the curse of the law, so as the Spirit of sanctification, He confirms and sanctions the necessity of obedience to the law.3

In this new relationship, chastisement replaces the condemnation of a broken law. ‘If they break my statutes and keep not my commandments, then will I visit their transgressions with the rod and their iniquity with stripes . . .’ (Psa. 89:30-35). The Lord withdraws himself until the believer says, ‘I will go and return to my first husband for then it was better with me than now’ (Hos. 2:7). As surely as the law is holy and the believer retains an unholy principle in his members, there will be need for correction.

As surely as the law had its glory, the gospel has a ‘glory that excelleth’. ‘The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). ‘But do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law’ (Rom. 3:31).One of Thomas Watson’s rules for the right understanding and use of the law states:

Though we cannot, by our own strength, fulfil all these commandments . . . the Lord has provided encouragement for us. . . . Though we have not ability to obey any one command, yet God has, in the new covenant, promised to work that in us which he requires. . . . Though we cannot perfectly fulfil the moral law, yet God, for Christ’s sake, will mitigate the rigour of the law. . . . He will see the faith and pass by the failing. . . . Wherein our personal obedience falls short, God will be pleased to accept us in our Surety. . . . That very service which God’s law might condemn, his mercy is pleased to crown, by virtue of the blood of our Mediator.4


  1. Quoted by E.C. Reisinger, The Law and the Gospel, p.165.
  2. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.6.
  3. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, p.142.
  4. The Ten Commandments, pp. 47-8.

From The Free Presbyterian Magazine, June 2009, with permission.

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