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Ernest Kevan on the Grace of Law

Category Book Excerpts
Date May 24, 2024

The following summary of Ernest Kevan’s book The Grace of Law: a Study in Puritan Theology is an appendix in Paul E. Brown’s Ernest Kevan: Leader in Twentieth Century.

THE PUBLISHED VERSION OF Dr Kevan’s thesis is a volume of just under three hundred pages. With its many quotations and footnotes it appears quite formidable. He goes into considerable detail and the reader is likely to concur with Francis Roberts, whom Kevan quotes, that the matter under discussion is ‘a knotty and difficult question, and learned men have rendered it the more intricate, by their cross disputes about it.’ Nevertheless it is an extremely valuable investigation of a vital subject. The issue is, in fact, of even greater importance in the present climate of opinion among evangelical Christians. The following is a very brief introduction, concentrating mainly on the positive teaching of the Puritans. In general one inverted comma indicates a quotation from Kevan, while two inverted commas introduce a quotation from a Puritan. I have, however, modernised the spelling, where necessary.

Kevan set out his purpose in this book in the following words: ‘The object of this work is to explore the Puritan teaching on the place which the Law of God must take in the life of a believer and to examine it for the contribution that it may make towards a true understanding of the Christian doctrine of sanctification.’ He says that among the Puritans: ‘one of the most keenly debated questions was whether the Law still possessed commanding authority over the believer. The majority of the Puritans answered this question affirmatively, and it may, not unreasonably, be claimed that the authority of Law as the principle of the life of the believer was central to the distinctively Puritan concept of Christian experience.’

At this point it needs to be said that both sides in the debate accepted that the moral law of God was expressed in the Ten Commandments. Kevan, therefore, does not seek to justify this understanding in the book. The whole question at that time was whether these commandments still had commanding force when a person became a believer or whether the believer was set free from obedience to them as the way for Christians to live. A modern treatment of the same issue would need to consider this preliminary question. However, though the relationship of the Ten Commandments to the moral law and the Christian is of great importance, whether the Christian is obligated to obey the will of God revealed in Scripture or not actually goes beyond that.

Kevan reviews the controversy as it took place throughout virtually the whole of the seventeenth century. In speaking of the books that he used he says: ‘In so far as the doctrine was a preached doctrine, and was one of immediate practical significance, only those writings which appeared in English, and for the guidance of the ordinary believer, are included’. This reminds us that the question was by no means a theoretical matter, nor simply a debate among theologians. The answers given directly impacted upon the congregation in the pew and shaped the lives of those who listened to the protagonists. Those who did not believe in the continuing authority of the Law over believers were known as ‘Antinomians’ (from the Greek, ‘against law’). Kevan speaks of the majority of Antinomians in this way: ‘The main object of the moderate Antinomians was to glorify Christ; but failing to understand the true relation between “law” and “grace”, they extolled the latter at the expense of the former. The issue raised by the Antinomians had its origin in the wide separation which they made between the Old and New Testaments… In some ways, it appears that the Antinomians brought themselves into difficulty by thinking of “Law” as if it were an entity to be done away, and of “Grace” as an entity taking its place.’ He acknowledges that many of them were ‘strict in their church discipline and virtuous in their personal conduct’ but adds this necessary caveat: ‘It cannot be denied, however, that many fanatical persons were found among the Antinomians.’ Moreover scholars and preachers whose own lives are unimpeachable may nevertheless present a message which leads to carelessness and disobedience on the part of those who listen to what they say.

Regrettably, the controversy led to some harsh and unfounded accusations, as all too frequently happens. ‘There were many irresponsible accusations of heresy, joined with colourful language. There was much point-scoring which did not materially advance the discussion.’ Both sides were guilty here. Thomas Edwards, for example, ‘charges the Antinomians with one hundred and seventy-six errors, ranging from denial of the Trinity to eating black-puddings’!

The place and purpose of the law

Behind the law is the One who gave it, God in his majesty. ‘God has the right to command, because He is the Source and End of all things. His sovereignty derives from the Creator-creature relation, and since man was made in the moral image of God “Moral obedience immediately becomes due, from such a creature to his Maker”.’ The law of God was written on man’s heart from the very beginning and since the fall all human beings have a conscience which bears witness to their continuing sense of moral obligation.

Kevan points out that: ‘It is one of the brighter aspects of the doctrinal outlook of the Puritans that they regarded the Law, not as burdensome in its original purpose, but as the essence of man’s delight… they were not aware of any extravagance when they affirmed that obedience to the Law of Nature was Adam’s highest joy and good. They held that the Law was designed for the true well-being of man; it was his “way of life”, and constituted his real liberty.’ In the words of Richard Baxter: “God commands us a course of duty or right action to this end, that we may be happy in his love… His very law is a gift and a great benefit. Duty is the means to keep his first gifts and to receive more. The very doing of the duty is a receiving of the reward; the object of duty being felicitating… Holiness is happiness, in a large part.”

To the Puritans the Law was ‘nothing less than the very transcript of the glory of God… Man has been made in God’s image, and so the moral Law written within him must be part of that very image itself… God could not be thought of as requiring from man anything less than that which accorded with the Divine character… The moral Law in man is a copy of the Divine nature, and what God wills in the moral Law is so “consonant to that eternal justice and goodness in himself”, that any supposed abrogation of that Law would mean that God would “deny his own justice and goodness”. “To find fault with the Law, were to find fault with God”, for “the original draft is in God himself”.’

The law, however, is not simply concerned with external behaviour; it is spiritual in its demands. This means that ‘unless… the heart be right, the endeavour to obey God’s Law is nothing more than a display of legalism. The words “before me” in the First Commandment indicate a worship that is “inward and spiritual before God”.’ This is crucial for the Puritan view. A believer has been set free from bondage to sin and now loves God in his heart and desires, out of gratitude and joy, to do all that pleases him.

This view of the law is fundamental to the Puritan – and to Kevan’s – contention that the law still stands as the way in which the believer should walk. What is right and good in God’s eyes does not change, nor does grace mean that the standard has been lowered or changed, the law is eternal. In the words of J. I. Packer: ‘To orthodox Calvinism, the law of God is the permanent, unchanging expression of God’s eternal and unchangeable holiness… God could not change this law, or set it aside, in His dealings with men, without denying Himself.’1J. I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter, Thesis for Oxford D.Phil, 1954, p. 304.

‘No Moses now’

In Romans: Paul says that ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth’. The Antinomians took this verse, and other similar verses such as Romans 6:14, ‘you are not under law but under grace’, to mean that the law was abrogated for believers, a view that could be summed up by the phrase used by John Saltmarsh, “no Moses now”! Kevan points out that though ‘the Antinomians made strong statements to the effect that the Law was abrogated… it is clear that, here and there, they qualified their assertions in ways that can be interpreted in a less unorthodox manner.’ He says, ‘They were most willing to concede the eternity of the matter of the Law, but they held that to serve God because of commandment to do so was legalistic and unspiritual.’ They tended to be confused in their arguments and to confound ‘the requirements of duty with the power to fulfil them’.

In general both the Antinomians and the Puritans held that Christ had fulfilled the law in two ways. Firstly, by what was termed his passive obedience he suffered death as the penalty of the law. Secondly, in his active obedience he obeyed his Father throughout his life, keeping the whole law perfectly and being in subjection to all that his Father willed for him. In Christ’s passive obedience the sins of his elect were imputed to him and he bore the wrath of God against them, consequently delivering his elect from condemnation. The majority of the Puritans, and certainly the Antinomians, also held that the active obedience of Christ, that is his righteousness, was imputed to the elect. In part it was this that led the Antinomians to teach that the law was abrogated so far as believers were concerned. The reasoning here would go like this. If Christ has kept the law for Christians and they are righteous in him, what need is there then for them to keep the law, but rather simply to be led by the Spirit in their living.

The Puritans, however, were insistent that all human beings are under an obligation to obey God and thus to keep his commandments. Says John Barret: “But I should think that believers as they are creatures, are bound to obey God in all things, and that Christ came not to take off the obligation to duty and obedience, but to take off the obligation to wrath and punishment.” Not only does obligation remain when people are converted but grace actually increases the sense of obligation. ‘Our freedom and deliverance from the rigour and curse of the Law, binds us strongly to the service of God. The liberty of the Christian man is not a freedom from the obedience of the Law, but from the disobedience of it; for “to be free from obedience, is to be servants of sin.”’

What the Antinomians so objected to, was the principle that ‘duties are to be done because commanded’. Kevan quotes one of the Puritans who says that it is the Christian’s “first virtue” when “we love, desire, and do any thing, especially because God commands” it. He continues: ‘Anything less than obedience because commanded is not holiness… The insistence on this truth carries the subject into the very

heart of the believer and into the citadel of his will. Only the heart that can say, “I delight to do thy will, O my God”, can be adjudged to be truly converted and godly.’ Duty and delight can belong together, and they do so in the life of the Christian.

‘The Antinomians had a great distaste for the use of the Law as a rule of life and held that the only rule for the believer was the impulse of the Spirit within him through the inclination of his own heart.’ Over against this the Puritans stressed the unity of Spirit and Word, the indwelling Spirit guides the believer through the Spirit-inspired written Word of God. Another bone of contention was the place of good works in assurance. ‘The Antinomians denied the evidential value of good works and regarded “all notes and signs of a Christian estate” as “legal and unlawful”. The believer must therefore obtain his assurance from the testimony of the Spirit who “gives such full and clear evidence” of his good estate that he has “no need to be tried by the fruits of sanctification”’. On the other hand the Puritans believed that obedience could have an evidential value. ‘Thomas Goodwin charmingly says that the believer’s graces and duties are “the daughters of faith”, who “may in time of need indeed nourish their mother.”’

Christian freedom and the law

The Puritans stressed that the law is written in the hearts of all the regenerate and this transforms the situation: ‘The heart within echoes and answers to the commandments without… An obedient heart is like a crystal glass with a light in the midst, which shines forth through every part thereof. So that royal law that is written upon his heart shines forth into every parcel of his life; his outward works do echo to a law within.’ There is nothing servile or legalistic about the believer’s obedience, he ‘is moved by a deep reverence for God, without any trace of a servile spirit, or of being driven to obedience “with terrors”. He keeps the Law, not “Legally” but “Evangelically”, and finds nothing irksome in any of the commandments.’

‘The Gospel… brings the spirit of power and life along with it; there goes a virtue together with the commands of the Gospel to strengthen the soul to obedience.’ The believer is united to Jesus Christ, so Walter Marshal says: “Another great mystery in the Way of Sanctification, is the glorious Manner of our Fellowship with Christ in receiving an holy Frame of Heart from him; it is by our being in Christ, and having Christ himself in us.” A Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit: ‘Samuel Slater says that the difference between Law-obedience and Gospel-obedience is that the former is attempted by natural abilities, but the latter is performed in the “strength of a renewing Spirit”.’

All this makes for a love for the law in the believer: ‘It is part of the reconciling work of Christ that believers are made “friends” with the Law, for “after Christ has made agreement betwixt us and the Law, we delight to walk in it for the love of Christ”.’ This means that obedience becomes spontaneous: ‘Love for God and His Law produces a new naturalness in obedience that amounts almost to spontaneity.’ ‘“Faith makes the soul active… to run in the way of Gods Commandments… and… it cannot run too fast.” Richard Sibbes says that a son does duties “out of nature” and like “water out of a spring”; they are not forced, but they have “a blessed freedom to all duties, an enlargement of heart to duties. God’s people are a voluntary people.”’


The Puritans held that Christian liberty freed the believer, not from the Law, but for the Law; so that although he is no longer under the Law, he is, nevertheless, still in the Law. This, they taught, was freedom itself. The Puritans believed that this freedom in the Law – a freedom dependent on the Law – was effected by the Holy Spirit who applied the saving merits of Christ’s death to the believer and then wrote the Law within his heart. Love for the Law thus gave power to keep it.


Featured Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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