September 7, 2017

Christ the Law-Giver & Law-Keeper

As we reflect on the significance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – which helped recover the importance of revealed law for both the church and culture – the church in our time needs to return to a robust gospel vision that embraces the law of God as Christ and the apostles themselves embraced and applied it.

A mishandling of the Bible with negative consequences for both God’s people and wider culture has been an ever-present danger for the church. In our own time, one re-emergent and widespread error has been the sharp and artificial separation of Old and New Testament, and consequently of law and gospel, ominously leading to an unbiblical and often radical dualism where law and gospel are set over-against one another. The central importance of God’s revealed law, however, is consistently upheld in the New Testament and has been throughout most of church history. In Matthew 5:17–19 our Lord declares the abiding validity of the law, asserting that he has come not to abolish, but to fulfill it. The term ‘fulfill’ (pléroo in Greek) has a number of implications, but as the Greek lexicons show, fulfillment certainly denotes that Christ is the object (end) of the law and the prophets; he is also the perfect manifestation of its requirements; and he comes to bring its full implications to bear. All this is undoubtedly implied by ‘fulfill.’

Despite the fact that the full authority of the Old Testament and importance of the law are basic to biblical faith throughout church history, there are now many Christians who reject the notion that God’s revealed law has any concrete application today, however relevant it may have been in the past; this view is totally foreign to the mainstream of historic Christian thought. As we reflect on the significance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – which helped recover the importance of revealed law for both the church and culture – I would argue that the church in our time again needs a robust return to a gospel vision that embraces the law of God as Christ and the apostles themselves embraced and applied it. We need to reunite an artificially separated law and gospel in the kingdom mission and vision of the church. In so doing we will be affirming nothing other than the historic position of the church and Scripture itself.

To illustrate, in his classic writings against the Pelagians, St. Augustine states:

Surely no-one will doubt that God’s law was necessary, not just for the people of that time [the Old Testament], but is also necessary for us today, for the right ordering of our life. True enough, Christ took away from us that crushing yoke of many ceremonies, so that we are not circumcised according to the flesh, we do not sacrifice victims from the cattle, we do not rest even from necessary works on the Sabbath (although we keep the pattern of the seven day week), and other such things. We keep these laws in a spiritual sense; the shadowy symbols have been removed and we see them in the light of the realities they signified…[yet] who can say that Christians ought not to keep the commands which tell us to serve the one God with religious obedience, not to worship an idol, not to take the Lord’s name in vain, to honour one’s parents, not to commit adulteries, murders, thefts, false witness, not to covet another man’s wife or anything at all that belongs to another? Who is so ungodly as to say that he does not keep those precepts of the law, because he is a Christian and stands not under the law, but under grace?[1]

Augustine goes on to state that Christ has not come to destroy the law but to fulfilll it:

It is quite clear and the New Testament leaves no doubt on the matter, what are the law and the prophets that Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfill. It was the law given by Moses which, through Jesus Christ says, “He wrote of me” (John 5:46). For undoubtedly this is the law that was added that the sin might abound – words which you often ignorantly quote as reproach to the law. Read what is there said of the law: “The law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Was then what is good made death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear as sin, produced death in me by what is good” (Rom. 7:12-13)…the intent was that, being thus humbled, they might learn that only by grace through faith could they be set free from subjection to the law as transgressors, and be reconciled to the law as righteous people…so the righteousness of the same law is fulfillled by the grace of the Spirit in those who learn from Christ to be meek and lowly in heart; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.[2]

Furthermore, it seems evident that for Augustine, ‘the law’ was not restricted narrowly to the Ten Commandments only; these simply summarised the law (God’s instruction). Rather, ‘the law’ encompassed all the law and the prophets and God’s commands in all Scripture – as indicated by Augustine’s clear reference to the case law of the Old Testament in this same passage written against the Pelagians:

But are we therefore to say, when the law commands that whoever finds another man’s lost property of any kind should return it to him the owner, that this has no relevance to us? And the law has many other things like this, teaching people to live Godly and upright lives.[3]

Although this view of the matter was not fleshed out in systematic detail by Augustine (that had to wait until the Reformation), and he was certainly not entirely consistent in all his comments on the law of God, this essential orientation concerning Scripture and the revealed law of God was basic to his thought. Moreover, God’s revealed law, as a republication of creational law, was a witness for God in the heart of every person, it was not restricted to Israel as a community. This is why Israel and its law was said to be a model and witness to the surrounding nations, and why Amos and Jonah are able to call pagans to repentance in terms of that law.

Thus, for Augustine, law and gospel were not to be seen as antagonistic to each other. Although under the law man finds himself incapable of true and inward obedience without regeneration, under grace, by the Holy Spirit, he is enabled to obey and do the good from the heart.[4] Augustine was convinced that the law, whether the Mosaic law or teaching and example of Christ who fulfillled Torah perfectly, avails nothing without the aid of the Spirit, “The Spirit, too, not only informs man of the good, but also moves his will to desire it, love it, and delight in it.”[5] Augustine thus recognized that the law of God, being written upon the hearts of God’s elect by the Holy Spirit, had an abiding validity.

The Reformers in turn likewise saw themselves as men simply seeking to restore the church to faithfulness to the word of God, to Pauline and Augustinian doctrine. With this theological foundation having been laid, in coming to the Reformation and the work of the greatest mind of that movement, John Calvin, we find a high regard for the law in God’s purposes for the church and society. Calvin agrees in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that “Christ intended to teach that in all the structure of the universe there is nothing so stable as the truth of the law, which stands firm, and that in every part.”[6] The notion, popular even then, that Christ is correcting or altering the law in Matthew 5, was abhorrent to him:

[It is] wrong to reckon this a revision of the law or that Christ was wishing to lift his disciples to a higher level of perfection than Moses could achieve…this has given rise to the idea that the beginning of righteousness was once handed down in the law, but its perfection was taught in the gospel. However, Christ in fact had not the least intent of making any change or innovation in the precepts of the law. God there appointed once for all a rite of life which he will never repent of…so let us have no more of that error, that here a defect of the law is corrected by Christ; Christ is not to be made into a new law-giver, adding anything to the everlasting righteousness of his Father, but is to be given the attention of a faithful interpreter, teaching us the nature of the law, its object and its scope.[7]

Calvin’s view of the Ten Commandments, likely influenced by his friend and mentor, Martin Bucer, was that the revealed law of God was necessary because, despite man being made in God’s image, general or creational revelation, due to the fallen condition of people, was inadequate for a moral compass and insufficient for the direction of magistrates and civil society. Though he saw conscience as a valid monitor, human depravity had touched every aspect of our being, leaving conscience seared and unreliable.[8]

Thus the giving of the law was as gracious as it was necessary[9] Even though the natural man is not inclined toward obedience (Rom. 8:3-8), the law, for Calvin, is the perfect rule of righteousness, “the Doctrine of the Law remains therefore, through Christ, inviolable; which by tuition, admonition, reproof, and correction, forms and prepares us for every good work.”[10] Of those who opposed the law Calvin said, “[sinners] inveterately hate the law itself, and execrate God the lawgiver.”[11] The reformed tradition then has usually seen a three-fold use for the law: convincing like a mirror, restraining like a bridle for the lawless, and arousing the godly to faithfulness and obedience.[12]

From Christ himself, through Augustine and the Reformation, and on through the Puritan and early evangelical age, there was no artificial dichotomy or duality posited between law and gospel, Old and New Testament, the God of the Old Covenant and the God of the New. The Psalmist celebrates this beautiful vision for life rooted in the blessing of God’s law in Psalm 119. This holistic vision of the Christian life provided the integrated worldview and social vision necessary for the development of Christian civilization. We are abandoning this vision with frightening rapidity in the modern church. We would do well to remember God is not mocked. The rejection of God’s law will have, and is having, real consequences. And those Christians who disregard God’s law and teach others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:19).

[1] St. Augustine, The Triumph of Grace: Augustine’s writings on salvation, ed. N. R. Needham (Ebbw Vale, Wales: Grace Publications Trust, 2000), 106–107.

[2] Needham, The Triumph of Grace, 107–108.

[3] Needham, The Triumph of Grace, 106.

[4] Carol Harrison, Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity; Christian Theology in Context (Padstow, Cornwall: Oxford University Press, 200), 86-87.

[5] Harrison, Augustine, 110                                                        

[6] John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 180.

[7] Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, 183–184.

[8] David W. Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin: His influence on the modern world (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 18.

[9] Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin, 18.

[10] Graham Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom: An Anthology Arranged Alphabetically (Bath, Avon: Banner of Truth, 1992), 191.

[11] Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom, 193.

[12] Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin, 19.

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