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‘Sort of’ Reformed: Part 2

Category Articles
Date November 29, 2017

Many of us can recall the intense light and surprising warmth conveyed to our hearts when we first read the exemplary history of the Reformers and the Reformation Martyrs, along with their expositions of Scripture. Their brave and strong standing fast in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13) reached across the centuries and led us to new heights in serving the Lord. We were nourished by them in words of faith and of good doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6). It was their biblical system of doctrine which most gripped us.

It is exciting to see sound Reformed doctrine penetrating evangelical movements that were not historically friendly to the doctrines of grace. This activity has gone far beyond Europe and the Americas. It is powerfully reaching into Africa, Korea and China. But it is not without reason that Scripture calls us to watch and to resist forcefully those falsehoods which undermine the truth. It is not enough to teach the church the truth. Error must also be resisted by identification and by rebuke.

Now that ‘Reformed’ is a fashionable label, it is worn by some who are undermining historic Reformed teachings, the very truths of which the church is to be the pillar and the ground (1 Tim. 3:15). We would not speak in this way about those who are just awakening to the system of biblical doctrine but who have had little time to work through a whole theology. Voicing objections as one grapples to lay hold of the truth for the first time is one thing. There is a place for this in young students of the Word.

Teaching on God’s Law

On the other hand, we are now faced with men who are ministers of the gospel and seminary professors who fall into the category mentioned above. They want to be known as followers of the great Reformers or ‘heirs of old Princeton Seminary’. Yet in their teachings, public statements and writings they undermine central tenets of biblical and reformed doctrine. Perhaps this is nowhere more common than in opposition to the Law of God.

William Tyndale, the first translator into English of the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Pentateuch and a martyr for the faith (October 1536), wrote the following:

Expound the law truly, and open the veil of Moses, to condemn all flesh, and prove all men sinners, and all deeds under the law, before mercy have taken away the condemnation thereof, to be sin, and damnable; and then as a faithful minister, set abroach the mercy of our Lord Jesus, and let the wounded consciences drink of the water of him. And then shall your preaching be with power, and not as the hypocrites. And the Spirit of God shall work with you; and all consciences shall bear record unto you, and feel it is so. And all doctrine that casteth a mist on these two, to shadow and hide them, I mean the law of God, and mercy of Christ, that resist you with all your power.

Letter to John Frith, quoted in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments

This quote from a great leader of the English Reformation takes note of the purpose of the law of God: to convince us of our sinfulness and our need of a Saviour. As an avid reader of the publications of Martin Luther, no doubt Tyndale sharpened his understanding of the relationship of the law and the gospel on this other Reformer’s books. You may see from both Scripture and the Reformers that the law is an essential tool of evangelism. By the law consciences are awakened to their guilt and therefore to their need of a Saviour.

Biblical Support for the Reformation View

The New Testament is even sharper in support of this assertion. Sin is defined by the Apostle John as ‘transgression of the law’, or violation of the law (1 John 3:4). Since this is true it is indispensable that preachers know what law God has placed men under, or to which law the Most High will hold men to account on the Day of Judgment. To underscore the urgency of this matter Paul asserts that it is the law which brings wrath upon men: ‘ . . . the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression’ (Rom. 4:15). Once more, in Romans 5:13, Paul  insists that ‘sin is not imputed when there is no law’. Men are not sinners, and are not liable to wrath, nor are they assigned guilt, apart from a law! This law of God must be identified in order to treat men honestly in suggesting that they are sinners, and if men are not truly sinners they are not in need of a Saviour.

For Tyndale there was no doubt about what law it is under which all men live, Jew and Gentile alike. ‘All flesh’ is condemned, and ‘all men’ are proven sinners by the law behind Moses’ veil. It is for this same reason, that of showing all men to be sinners, that Martin Luther began The Small Catechism with the Ten Commandments. It was his and Paul’s view that this law was originally written in man’s heart at creation (Rom. 2:14–23). This is the God-given moral law expressly confirmed by our Lord Jesus Christ as valid for all time and binding upon all men (Matt. 5–7, The Sermon on the Mount). Other Reformed catechisms place the Ten Commandments later in their instruction to show that they are also the law for believers’ lives (Rom. 13:8–10, Eph. 6:1).

This view of preaching the Law and the Gospel deeply influenced the Great Awakening as well as the Reformation! In his Journal under May 24, 1738, John Wesley gave an account of the experience which launched his effective Revival preaching:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Luther’s preface to Romans is a devotional clarification of Paul’s and of the Spirit’s view of the law and the gospel and their operations in converting sinners.

Opposition to Reformation Doctrine

There are quite a few men today who trumpet their belief in election and limited atonement, yet who are ‘casting a mist on’ the law of God ‘to shadow and hide’ it. They are clear about God’s sovereignty, but they befuddle their hearers as to the definition of sin and therefore the need of a Saviour.

One direction taken in doing this is ‘Neonomianism’, the teaching that there is now a new law to replace the Ten Commandments. Moses’ ten rules were given at Sinai only as a temporary standard for the Jews, it is taught. This position is not a recent one. It was propagated during the Reformation by the Socinians to the ruination of the Reformation in certain parts of Europe. It was also taught by large numbers of liberal Protestants from the years 1875–1925 and onward. These men ruined many of the large Protestant denominations which had emerged from the Reformation. In both cases mentioned it was taught that there is a new law issued by Jesus that replaces the Ten Commandments. These conclusions were reached by means of a deep confidence in the ability of human reason to select which parts of God’s Word we should believe to be true.

Oddly, Neonomians are usually more energetic in assaulting and denying the validity of the Ten Commandments than they are in giving a definition or codification of the new law. If the new law is the one which men live under now, any interest in defining sin or its forgiveness in Christ would require a prominent attention to publication of the prevailing law. Yet this all-important new law remains hidden in the shadows.

The so-called ‘New Covenant’ view casts an even thicker fog on the matter of God’s law. It says that God gave one law to the Jews who lived under the Old Covenant, but has given another law to Christians who live under the New Covenant. Still, we must ask, ‘Under what law do the millions of modern heathen Europeans and Americans stand?’ They are not Jews and thus are not under the Old Covenant law; neither are they Christians and subjects of the New Covenant law. So what law defines their sin? What is it that shows their need of a Saviour, or specifies the wrath which must fall either on them or on their substitute Lamb? We are speaking of the issues most foundational to living a life pleasing to God, issues identifying sin, warning of judgment, and alerting men to their need of salvation. Without a clearly-delineated, God-given law all the afore-mentioned words simply disappear from our religious vocabulary.

Preaching the Law and Its Benefit to All of Society

There is another matter which should be of great concern to Christians of the West in our day. To turn aside for a moment from the matter of convincing men of sin and of their need of a Saviour, there is a further vital function for the moral law. God’s law and its terrors restrain the exercise of sin, even in men who are never converted. This is well expressed in the catechetical song of Matthias Loy (1828–1915):

When men the offered help [in Christ] disdain
And wilfully in sin remain,
Its [the law’s] terror in their ear resounds
And keeps their wickedness in bounds.

Western Europe and the Americas have made a frightening and deplorable descent into moral degradation. Contempt for each of the Ten Commandments is at alarming levels with disgraceful and calamitous social consequences. No small explanation of these evils is the failure of churches to activate God’s law in the consciences of its people by teaching and preaching the Ten Commandments. The mere mention of sovereignty in mercy is no cure for these moral ills. If the churches will not instil knowledge of God’s law in this generation the full moral collapse of our nations cannot be far behind. The church with neonomian or antinomian (the view of those who are against any further mention of the law) theology has failed our culture.

One genius of God’s moral law is the brevity with which it gives a complete and profound description of all moral duty (to God and to men) in ten concise rules. Our countries have imposed so many laws that no citizen (and few lawyers) could know them all or understand their implications without much research. Ten commandments are, by comparison, quickly grasped. If men can get through the mists cast up by theologians and actually read the laws kept behind a veil in the Ark of the Covenant as God’s witness, great light would shine on our national way, even as these same moral precepts are preparing people’s hearts to seek mercy in Christ.

Tyndale and the other Reformers were correct. It is not sufficient merely to give a positive presentation of the truth. Doctrine that casts a mist over the Law of God is to be resisted with all our power! When men teach errors which confuse sinners and saints alike about their moral obligations to God and men, they are placing obstacles in the way of sinners’ coming to Christ and in the way of decency in society. In similar fashion the Reformers identified Roman clergy and criticized their ministries because they were inhibiting men from finding the Grace of God in Christ.

We are too timid, wanting fraternal relations with those who cast a mist over the Law of God because we agree on some other matters. A passion for truth and for the souls which truth can set free will demand engagement against Neonomianism and Antinomianism for the glory of God and for the benefit of a clear light shining upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

This article first appeared in the December 2006 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

Of Further Interest

    The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson

    The Case for Traditional Protestantism

    The Solas of the Reformation

    by Terry L. Johnson

    price From: $13.00


    Many of us can recall the intense light and surprising warmth conveyed to our hearts when we first read the exemplary history of the Reformers and the Reformation Martyrs, along with their expositions of Scripture. Their brave and strong standing fast in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13) reached across the centuries and led us to new heights in serving […]

    cover image for 'what is the reformed faith?' by John R De Witt
    price Original price was: $4.00.Current price is: $3.60.


    Many of us can recall the intense light and surprising warmth conveyed to our hearts when we first read the exemplary history of the Reformers and the Reformation Martyrs, along with their expositions of Scripture. Their brave and strong standing fast in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13) reached across the centuries and led us to new heights in serving […]

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