For the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light
~ Proverbs 6:23 ~
The Law of God has fallen on hard times. Perhaps more accurately, it has fallen on hard hearts. Misunderstanding about the Law does not help this situation. A brief survey of this topic’s literature unearths a confusing problem. Within the Reformed tradition, notable theologians have used different names and orders when discussing the relationship between people and the Law. For example, while not disagreeing on the fundamental truths involved, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC 94-97) all use different terminology about the uses of the Law.
I would like to offer some explanation, that I hope, will dispel confusion on this point illumine our way to a clearer understanding. I will begin by defending the uniqueness and permanence of the Moral Law (aka, the Ten Commandments) and finish with a three-part illustration explaining the different uses of that Law. My desire is to facilitate memory and encourage true and heartfelt godliness in the believer, for we must maintain a firm, biblical, Spirit-enabled commitment to the Law of God in Christ.
Christians ought to believe that the Ten Commandments are still relevant today. This is true first because of the source of the Law. The God of glory and redemption spoke from Mount Sinai. This God has the inviolable right to proclaim His will to His creatures. In Exodus 20:1, God Himself speaks all the words of the Ten Commandments, thundering from the mountain in unmediated splendor and power. For the Christian, the God who spoke these words is your God not only by creation, but also by covenant through the blood of the Lamb. This truth lies at the foundation of all evangelical obedience (see Westminster Shorter Catechism 44).
A second reason to believe that the Moral Law remains in force is the uniqueness of the Law. While there is great usefulness in studying the ceremonial and civil applications of the Moral Law, those particular aspects have either been abrogated (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.3) or have expired (WCF 19.4). The Moral Law is different. Consider some of the unique characteristics surrounding the giving of the Law. God spoke it; Moses either wrote or spoke all the others (Deut. 4:33, Ex. 20:22). God wrote the Law with His own finger in tablets of stone (Ex. 31:18, 32:16, 34:1); Moses wrote the other words by his hand (Ex. 17:14, 34:27). Interestingly, the Book of the Covenant was placed beside the Ark of the Covenant (Deut 31:26), the two tablets containing the Moral Law were placed inside the Ark (Deut 10:2). In the New Covenant, God would write the words of this Moral Law not upon tablets of stone, but upon the heart (Jer. 31:33).
Consider finally the goodness of the Law. The Bible speaks clearly on this point, “You are good, and do good; Teach me Your statutes” (Ps. 119:68). The Apostle Paul would later write, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). Read through Exodus 20:1-17. Do you find evil? Do you find anything unjustly restrictive? Do you find anything burdensome? Consider the Lord’s words, “for this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3). This is the heart of the matter. A distorted view of the goodness of the Law indicates a distorted view of the goodness of God. If you find the Law a burden, or harbor suspicions concerning its goodness, I urge you humbly and prayerfully to consider whether you suspect the goodness of God Himself.
We have considered the source, uniqueness, and goodness of the Moral Law. How then should one use it? Drawing from the terminology of Proverbs 6:23 and following Calvin’s order, let us explore the three uses of the Law.
The first use of the Law (classically referred to as the pedagogical use) is like a spotlight. This kind of spotlight does not illumine an actor on a stage. No, this spotlight hangs upon a helicopter searching for the fugitive sinner. And that sinner is you. The spotlight of the Law illumines guilt, exposes rebellion, and casts an uncomfortable radiance upon sin (Ps. 90:8, 130:3). What does a guilty fugitive desire most earnestly while fleeing the spotlight’s discovery? Clearly, it is a place to hide. My friend, the Law as a spotlight is an unsettling thing, but it also functions powerfully to place a high-definition focus upon our need for the Place to hide. That place is Jesus Christ. He is the only refuge for sinners fleeing from the condemning terrors of the Law and a guilty conscience. When hidden in Christ, the spotlight of the Law casts its glare upon the Righteous One (1 Jn. 2:1). In Him is perfection, perfection freely and fully given to sinners who enter into union with Him by faith.
The second use of the Law (civil use) is like a stoplight. Have you ever wondered why we call them stoplights and not go-lights? I suppose it is because when the light is green it places no restraint upon us. When it turns red, we quickly recognize the reality of restriction, which is what makes a stoplight useful. For example, imagine the chaos of New York City if all the stoplights turned off at the same time. Movement would be rendered impossible. The Law of God, the works of which are written upon the hearts of men (Rom. 2:15), functions to restrain iniquity and to order society. In large measure this is how the Holy Spirit operates in “common grace.” When in judgement He begins to withdraw this kind “refrigerant” of humanity, the stench and rottenness of our depravity rapidly increases. This use of the Law does not and cannot save, but it does help keep the world orderly, and is greatly beneficial.
The third use of the Law (normative use) is like a headlight. Some years ago my wife and I drove through the snow to Connecticut. While I could barely see, other cars seemed not to have the same problem. Eventually, I stopped and examined the headlights on my 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon. I found one headlight out and the other dislodged, pointing out at a 45-degree angle. I learned by difficult experience, headlights enable a driver to see the road, to avoid danger, and even to enjoy the journey. Now, is driving on the proper side of the road unduly restrictive? Is a guardrail between you and a sheer drop down a mountain a burden? I have heard professing Christians speak like that about the Law. The Law of God is a rule of life that leads God’s people along the good and right way (Ps. 25:8-10). By the Law God’s servants are warned, and He sweetens the way of obedience with promise of reward (Ps. 19:11). Note two especially important things here. First, this use of the law is the rule of life, not the way to life. As fallen sinners, that way of life through obedience is shut up and guarded by a flaming sword of justice (Gen. 3:24). Faith alone, in Christ alone, is the gracious way to life. Second, headlights are of no use to the blind. The sweet and sovereign operation of the Spirit takes the scales from the sinner’s eyes. He then graciously leads them along the paths of righteousness in union with Christ, saying, “This is the way, walk in it” (Is. 30:21).
“Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Can you sing that with the Psalmist? Do you think obedience to God’s law is legalism? My friend, if that is the case, Jesus was a legalist—but nothing could be farther from the truth. The difference is that Jesus loved His Father, loved His Word, and loved to do His will. Faith working through love must motivate our use of the Law in Christ (1 Tim. 1:5). Christ has removed the curse of the Law for the believer, but not the obligation to obey. He has removed the terror of Mount Sinai, but not wonderful blessing of holiness in Mount Zion. Use the Law rightly. By the Spirit and in union with the Son, walk joyfully upon the path of the just, for it is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day (Prov. 4:18).
For a fuller explanation, feel free to listen to this sermon.