Christian Message and the Authority of Law
The law of God is something
absolute and objective. It is outside and above the fluctuations
of human experience. Whenever the authority of God's law is lacking,
people must set up some other authority. While the Roman Church
has set up the authority of the pope, many of the Protestant churches
have set up the authority of human experience.
The aberrations of some
of the sects have tended to make evangelicals so suspicious of law
and legalism, that there has been a real tendency to run to the
opposite extreme and neglect the proper use of the law altogether.
Many have obtained the idea that the Christian can live without
adherence to any rules or without submission to any discipline.
This coincides with the spirit of this permissive age. But the gospel
can never be understood or appreciated without the background of
We challenge anybody to try to explain any of the great Christian
doctrines outside the context of law. It cannot be done! What is
sin if there is no law? What is the purpose of the atonement apart
from the law? How can you explain repentance or faith if there is
no reference to the demands of law? Is not justification itself
a legal word which implies setting one right before the law? Consider
also that great Bible word righteousness. Girdlestone says:
The word righteous or just (dikaios)
is almost always taken in the New Testament to represent that upright
and merciful character in conformity with law which we have already
met with in the Old Testament; and this is the case whether the
word is applied to God, the righteous Judge, to Jesus Christ, "the
holy One and the Just," or to those who shall rise at "the
resurrection of the just."—R.B. Girdlestone, Synonyms of
the Old Testament, p. 168.
The God of the
Old Testament is the God of law. He is the righteous God. All His
acts and ways and words are said to be righteous (Ps. 7:9; 145:17;
1 Sam. 12:7; Isa. 45:19). Above all, His law is righteous, and He
demands absolute obedience to it (Deut. 4:8; Ps. 19:9; 119:160;
106:3). Dr. Leon Morris, Australian evangelical scholar, has written:
importance of law as a category for understanding the ways of
God is seen in Abraham's question, "Shall not the Judge of
all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25). God is designated
by the legal term, "Judge." His relationship to the
whole earth may be expressed in legal categories. And the question
gives expression to the certainty that He will act in accordance
with moral law. The gods of the heathen could not be depended
on in this way. They might be expected to react in the most capricious
fashion. Not so Jehovah. This difference in understanding the
connection of the deity with law may well be the basic reason
for the superiority of the religion of Israel to those of the
nations round about. Yahweh's actions were always in accordance
with law. He could be depended upon to act righteously. And because
He was righteous He demanded of His people that they should also
act righteously, act in accordance with ethical. law. If they
did not, then this same ethical nature of Yahweh demanded that
He should punish them. It was inevitable that the wrath of God
should be the divine reaction to all sin. The Hebrew could depend
on it. It was God's nature to act in this way. Jeremiah can say,
"Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times;
and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time
of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord"
(Jer. 8:7, marg.). Judgment is as natural to the Lord as the movements
of the birds are to them.
Significant also is the fact that the men of the Old Testament
sometimes seem to go out of their way to use legal illustrations
when they have the divine activity in mind. Today we are inclined
to be suspicious of "legalism." Indeed, if we can convict
an opponent of too great an interest in law we are half-way to
confuting him. No-one today is interested in a legalist. But we
should not read this attitude back into antiquity. Legal categories
were used not by way of compulsion, because the legal facts were
plain and must be stated. They were used from choice. They were
eagerly seized on and used with delight. The men of the Old Testament
loved a good legal scene, and they never tire of depicting their
God as taking part in one.
"The Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the peoples. The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of his people" (Isa. 3:13); "the Lord sitteth for ever: he hath prepared his throne for judgment. And he shall judge the world in righteousness, he shall minister judgment to the peoples in uprightness" (Ps. 9:7f.). Or consider the very majestic legal scene depicted by Micah, "Hear ye now what the Lord saith: Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice. Hear, 0 ye mountains, the Lord's controversy, and ye enduring foundations of the earth: for the Lord hath a controversy with his people, and he will plead with Israel" (Mic. 6: lf.; cf. Is. 41:1, 21; 50:8; Jer. 25:31). The list could be prolonged. Yahweh and law went well together ....
From this brief examination it seems quite clear that the Old Testament consistently thinks of a God who works by the method of law. This is not the conception of one or two writers but is found everywhere. It is attested by a variety of conceptions, many of them taken straight from forensic practices. Among the heathen the deity was thought of as above all law, with nothing but his own desires to limit him. Accordingly his behaviour was completely unpredictable, and while he made demands on his worshippers for obedience and service, there were few if any ethical implications of this service and none of a logically necessary kind. Far otherwise was it with the God of the Hebrews. The Old Testament never conceives of anything outside Him which can direct His actions, and we must be on our guard against the thought of a law which is over Him. But Yahweh was thought of as essentially righteous in His nature, as incorporating the law of righteousness within His essential Being.—Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (London: Tyndale Press), pp. 253, 254, 256-258.
If righteousness is conformity to the law of Jehovah (Rom. 2:13; Ps.
106:3; Luke 1:6), sin is lack of conformity to it. What could be clearer
than the words of the apostle John, "Sin is the transgression
of the law." 1 John 3:4.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, "Sin is any
want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God."
Dr. A.H. Strong likewise says, "Sin is lack of conformity to
the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state."—A.H.
Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 549.
Modern theology, however, scorns the simple Bible definition of sin
and prefers to use a lot of fancy words to tell us what it is. Paul
Tillich, for example, declares that "Sin is the unreconciled
duality of ultimate and preliminary concerns, of the finite and that
which transcends finitude, of the secular and the holy."—Paul
Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 218. In a meeting
of the American Philosophical Association at New Haven, Tillich also
said, "When I use the word 'sin' I do not mean anything like
the violation of the ten commandments."
Imagine how much conviction of sin would be created in the hearts
of those listening to preachers who feed on Tillich! Neither will
speaking in generalities prepare the hearts of sinners for the gospel.
Ministers who do not wish to disturb the carnal slumbers of sinners,
should follow this unfailing rule: Attack sin in general, but never
become specific. Abraham Kuyper says:
Generalities are useless.... Ministers who seek to
uncover and expose the man of sin by simply saying that men are
wholly lost, dead in trespasses and sin, lack the cutting force
which alone can lay open the putrefying sores of the heart.—Abraham
Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans),
In contrast to a lot of vague, philosophical theology, Lutheran scholar,
Edward W.A. Koehler, says:
The Bible defines sin as "the transgression
of the Law," as "anomia," lawlessness (1 John 3:4).
No deed, word, thought, or desire are in themselves sin, but become
sin by being at variance with the Law of God. To eat the fruit of
a tree seems to us a rather innocent matter, but since God had forbidden
it, it was a sin to Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:17). When Saul spared Agag,
the king of Amalek, and the best of the sheep and oxen for sacrifice,
it looked like a humane and pious thing; yet God had commanded him
to destroy Amalek utterly, and so it was a sin to spare them (1
Sam. 15). When at the exodus from Egypt the children of Israel borrowed
jewels of silver and gold from the Egyptians (Exod. 12:35, 36),
without returning them, it was not a sin, because God expressly
commanded them to do this (Exod. 3:22). Whether or not anything
is a sin is not determined by what we think, or how we feel, about
it, but solely by this: does it or does it not agree with the Word
of God? Sin is not a physical, but a moral condition, and it consists
in this, that a given act, behaviour, or condition of man is not
what God wants it to be; it is noncomformity with the will of God.
Thus, to sin means to do what God forbids (Gen. 2:17), or not to
do what He enjoins (James 4:17), or not to be as He wants us to
be (Lev. 19:2). Hence, with respect to the Law, sin is a departure
from its rule; with respect to God, sin is disobedience to His will.
The apostle Paul makes three decisive statements about the law and
Every departure from the Law is sin, whether this be great or small,
known or unknown, intended or accidental, or even when it is against
our will (Rom. 7:19). The question whether anything is or is not
sin, is not determined by our personal opinion, our knowledge, our
intention, or our will, but solely by this one fact, whether or
not it is in agreement with the will of God. Our personal attitude
may aggravate or mitigate our guilt, but it does not change the
nature of the act or the conduct as a transgression of the Law.
Even the good intention and purpose one may have, will not change
an unlawful act into a lawful one (1 Sam. 15:1-26). We cannot sin
to the glory of God (Rom. 6:1).—Edward W.A. Koehler, A Summary
of Christian Doctrine, pp. 62, 63.
Where no law is, there is no transgression. Rom.
Sin is not imputed where there is no law. Rom. 5:13.
I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except
the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. Rom. 7:7.
From this we may confidently draw the following conclusions:
1. Where there is no knowledge of the law, there is no knowledge of
2. Only those who take the law seriously will take sin seriously.
3. It is useless to preach the gospel to those who have not found
themselves to be sinners before the law or those who are not interested
in coming to terms with its righteous demands. The law is a mirror.
While a man cannot wash his face in a mirror, neither will he desire
to wash his face unless he looks into the mirror and sees his state
Redemption and the Law
Just as we cannot understand what sin is apart from the law, so we
cannot understand God's redemptive acts apart from the law. The word
redemption, as used in both the Old and New Testament, means a release
or deliverance by means of payment. The idea of price must not be
forgotten. The word implies deliverance at a cost (see Morris, op.
cit., pp. 12-64).
While God is omnipotent, we must not entertain the idea that He accomplished
our deliverance as an easy matter. This is why the Bible writers use
a word which implies deliverance at a great price. The question arises,
Why a price? or, To whom did God pay the ransom? One theory of redemption,
advocated by some of the church fathers, was that God paid the ransom
to the devil. But man did not belong to Satan in the first place.
Man might be the devil's captive, but certainly Satan was not man's
The apostle Paul relates redemption to the law when he says, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law." Gal.
3:13. Redemption is related to the justice of God, the moral Governor
of the universe. God's justice requires that the law be fulfilled
by a life of perfect obedience, and, where there is a failure to conform
to His holy will, His justice requires satisfaction by an adequate
penalty. God is merciful. He delights in mercy and longs to forgive.
But He is also just and will uphold the moral order of the universe.
Justice is an attribute of God's character just as much as is mercy,
and justice demands that sin be punished and the death penalty executed.
God cannot deny Himself, nor can He act contrary to His nature. The
Bible writers never give the impression that God forgives sin without
regard for justice. The only way God could forgive sinners and remain
just was to see to it that His law was fulfilled by a holy life and
satisfied by a penal death. This required a price so great that God
was the only one in the universe who could save men by meeting the
demands of justice. In the person of His Son, He came to this world
and undertook for us. He stood in our place as our Substitute and
Representative. In our name and on our behalf, He was "made under
the law" (Gal. 4:4). First, by a life of holy obedience, He fulfilled
its just claims of a perfect life. Then, by a shameful death, He bore
the penalty of sin for the race of sinners. All this proved that "God
will not, and God cannot, change His law by one hair's breadth, even
to save a universe of sinners" (Lord Bacon).
It was this view of the atonement which led Adolphe Monod to cry out, "Save first the holy law of my God — after that you can
save me." The great Puritan, John Flavell, observed, "Never
was the law of God more highly honored as when Christ stood before
its bar of justice to make reparations for the damage done."
And Spurgeon declared, "I felt that it would not satisfy my conscience
if I could be forgiven unjustly."
When men see the atonement only as a means of escape for themselves,
a mere skillful way to have their sins pardoned, it will not have
the necessary ethical and moral motivation that real Christianity
will produce. Those who do not see how seriously the atonement takes
the law, will not be led to take the law seriously in their daily
living. Our view of the atonement tends to be far too subjective.
The object of the atonement was not just our salvation but that the
divine law and government might be maintained and vindicated.
If there is a failure to relate the atonement to the law, the death
of Christ may appear awesome — but completely unintelligible.
On the one hand, people are left with the impression that an angry,
vindictive God punished His Son so that, being appeased, He could
let us off. (This heathenish view of sacrifice is the philosophy of
antinomianism.) On the other hand, some imagine that there was nothing
in the divine character or government which demanded punishment for
sin. It is said that the death of Christ was merely an exhibition
of God's love designed to change us. (This is the view of liberal
humanism, which denies the Bible principle of salvation by substitution,
representation and penal satisfaction. This is the philosophy of legalism.)
Repentance, Faith and the Law
"Repent ye, and believe the gospel," is the message of
the New Testament. Without repentance, none can believe unto salvation.
"Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." But
unless men are caused to see what sin is in the light of God's law
and what the atonement is in the light of God's law, they are not
going to have any true repentance.
The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) literally means
a change of mind or attitude to the
law of God, of course! Bible repentance is repentance for sin, and
sin is the transgression of the law, or lawlessness (1 John 3:4).
The Bible declares, "The carnal mind is enmity against God:
for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be."
Rom. 8:7. Here we are told that the natural, unrepentant man is
hostile to God and to His law. God and His law cannot be separated.
Our attitude to one is our attitude to the other. Man is a fugitive
from law. Like the prodigal, he thinks that freedom consists in
being free from the authority of the Father. But repentance means
a wholly new attitude to God and to the authority of His law—just
as the returning prodigal had a completely new view of his father's
How does such repentance come about? Before the apostle Peter called
the Jews to repentance on the Day of Pentecost, he told them what
they had done and uncovered their awful guilt. Paul says, "I
had not known sin, but by the law." Unless the law of God is
proclaimed so that men are brought to see that they are damned sinners
who deserve and ought to die, they will not repent. This was the
point of Luther's conflict with Agricola, the first great Protestant
Agricola said that the law was no longer needed to bring men to
repentance. Just preach the love of God and the cross of Christ,
and men will come to repentance, he claimed. This insidious opinion
threatened to overthrow the cause of the Reformation in Germany.
Luther and Melancthon united to oppose this heresy with all the
authority of God-given truth, and for future generations they left
it clearly on the record of history that the law of God must be
maintained and diligently taught in the churches.
We repeat again: Unless the law takes hold of man and convinces
him of his utter corruption, lost condition and exposure to the
awful penalty of sin, he will not repent.
But there is another element to be considered in repentance. The
apostle declares, "The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance."
Rom. 2:4. This goodness of divine love and compassion is seen in
the cross of Christ. Having seen his awful weight of guilt, the
sinner now sees the Son of God bearing it on his behalf as his Substitute.
When he sees the holy Father not sparing His own Son, he knows that
the holy law can never be abrogated, modified or relaxed. When he
understands that the law had to be fulfilled and satisfied before
God could justly extend forgiveness to such a poor rebel, he repents.
Now he is not just sorry because he fears the consequences of sin.
He is sorry for sin. He sees what it has done to his God-given manhood.
He sees how it has caused the infinite suffering of the Son of God.
With David he cries, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned,
and done this evil." Instead of remaining hostile to the authority
of God's law, he despises his past life of rebellion and is truly
sorry that instead of choosing God's way, the way of obedience,
he has chosen his own way, followed his own wisdom and sought to
be a law unto himself.
Such repentance cannot exist where there remains a wicked intention
to sin. Repentance implies an acknowledgment of the authority of
God's law. It is to say, "I am sorry for my rebellious disobedience.
I am sorry for the suffering it has caused my best Friend."
Of course, no sinner can originate "repentance unto life."
The Spirit of God creates it when the sinner does not resist hearing
the law and the gospel.
The Spirit-inspired response to the preaching of law and gospel
is always "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord
Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). Repentance and faith are inseparable,
yet their action is completely different. Repentance acknowledges
the authority of God's law and confesses that it ought to be fulfilled.
But merely acknowledging what ought to be done will not save anybody.
The Bible does not teach that we are saved by repentance. It is
by faith that the law is fulfilled (Rom. 10:4), and so it is by
faith that we are saved. We must now haste to consider how this
relates to the divine economy of salvation.
As Creator, Lawgiver and Governor of the universe (Isa. 33:22),
God has made known His moral law, and His justice requires that
man render perfect obedience. Those who do the law, and do it all
the time, are blessed and justified (Rom. 2:13; Ps. 106:3). Those
who fail to do it at all times are cursed and condemned (Gal. 3:
1 0; James 2: 1 0). As Luther says, "The law must be fulfilled
so that not a jot or tittle shall be lost, otherwise man will be
condemned without hope."—Luther's Works (Philadelphia:
Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia), Vol. XXXI, pp. 348, 349.
Repentance stands before the law with nothing to pay. But not so
with faith. Faith is the eye of the soul which sees that Jesus fulfilled
the law of God for us (Matt. 5:17). Faith is the hand that accepts
the gospel treasure and brings before God the perfect obedience
of Jesus Christ. Faith says, "Mine are Christ's living, doing,
and speaking, His suffering and dying; mine as much as if I had
lived, done, spoken, and suffered, and died as He did. . . ."—Ibid.,
pp. 297, 298. Faith unites the needy soul to Christ and makes that
soul a partner of the Lord of the universe, whose righteousness
satisfies all the demands of the law. Thus, by faith the whole law—all
that justice requires of us—is fulfilled, as it is written, "Christ
is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth."
Ambrose, one of the church fathers, employs an Old Testament story
to illustrate the action of saving faith. Jacob craved the birthright,
but he knew he could not receive his father's blessing if he came
in his own name and attire. Therefore he came before Isaac in the
name and attire of his elder brother and, by so doing, secured the
blessing. So faith "begs" or "borrows" the perfect
righteousness of our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ. Nay more, faith
claims Christ's righteousness as its very own and boldly approaches
the eternal throne for the blessing of justification.
In this light, we may understand why Paul protests that faith does
not side-step the law but establishes it (Rom. 3:31). To trust wholly
in Christ's law-honoring life and death, is the greatest honor that
man can give to the law of God. Faith is not a way to get around
the law. It is not a clever substitute for obedience. Faith enables
the sinner to meet the claims of the law without compromising in
any way the moral order of God's government.
Justification and the Law
Justification is a legal word which means to declare righteous,
especially in reference to trial and judgment. It is a word that
belongs to the law court. It is therefore impossible to understand
this great Bible doctrine unless it is related to law. In the book
of Romans, which is the Bible's great charter on justification,
the word law is used fifty-six times. Dr. A.H. Strong points out,
"Justification is setting one right before law."—Strong,
op. cit., p. 856.
At the outset of his great statement on justification, the apostle
Paul declares, "The doers of the law shall be justified."
Rom. 2:13. This is an eternal truth which can never be modified
or relaxed. A just God and a just law will justify a man only on
the condition of perfect obedience. There are two ways in which
man may meet the terms. Either he can come before God in his own
personal obedience, or he may come in the vicarious obedience of
Another. But the principle remains: he must bring to God a life
which fulfills the law.
The conflict between Rome and the Reformers was not over the question
of whether or not righteousness was necessary for justification.
Rome taught that men could be justified before God by a personal
righteousness (albeit worked in their hearts by an infusion
of divine grace). The Reformers said that men could be justified
only by a vicarious righteousness (performed by Christ
centuries ago and imputed to the believer). The dispute
was never about whether the claims of the law should be satisfied
but how they are satisfied.
For a thorough discussion of the relationship of justification to
the law, we refer the reader to Dr. Buchanan's lecture in the appendix.
See also Martin Chemnitz's material in volume 8 of Present Truth
The great doctrine of justification by faith has often been taught
in such a way that it is positively dishonoring to God and to His
law. Many think they are following Paul when they speak contemptuously
of the law, not realizing that they are blaspheming the honor and
majesty of God Himself. The great apostle unsparingly attacks law
as a method of salvation but never, never as a moral and ethical
Sanctification and the Law
The Reformers all clearly saw that the law has three main uses:
1. Political — to restrain evil in society.
2. Theological, or pedagogic — to point out sin
and to be a schoolmaster (pedagogue) to lead the sinner to Christ.
3. Didactic — to be a guide to regenerate Christians.1
A large section of Protestantism today has either neglected or abandoned
the great Biblical and Reformation concept of "the third use
of the law." (And we are not just referring to the liberals,
some of whom have wandered so far from "the holy commandment"
that they talk of condoning homosexuality.) A number of evangelicals
have been actively promoting this brand of "evangelical" antinomianism for years. In fact, the American evangelical movement
is largely caught up in the theories of dispensationalism, views
which began to be promoted a little more than a hundred years ago
in England. Dispensationalism and Reformation theology are incompatible.
Dispensationalists deny the third use of the law. As Louis Berkhof
says in his Systematic Theology (London: The Banner of
Truth Trust), page 614, "it is pure Antinomianism . . . ."
To what does a denial of the third use of the law amount? Lutheran
scholar, John Warwick Montgomery, calls it sanctification desanctified
(see John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology
[Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 19701, pp. 423-428;
reprinted in Present Truth, March, 1973). It means the destruction
of that great doctrine of Christian sanctification. Why? Because,
to use the words of G.C. Berkouwer, "Sanctification and law
are inseparable; within their compass moves all of redeemed human
life."—Berkouwer, op. cit., p. 182.
Just as sin, redemption, atonement, repentance and justification
lose all true meaning apart from the law, so does sanctification.
Sanctification flows from justification. At the same time as the
repentant, believing sinner is justified by the imputation of Christ's
righteousness (an act of God external to the sinner), he is renewed
by the impartation of the Holy Spirit (an act of God internal to
the believer). Justification sets him right before the law legally
and positionally, but, being renewed in the spirit of his mind,
he begins the life of new obedience. This is sanctification, and
it means being conformed to the law of God morally and vocationally. "The children of God are ready to submit themselves to the
holy law of God which is now the rule of their lives."—Ibid.,
pp. 191, 192.
"Whatever in his [the converted man's] previous course of life
was at variance with God's law is at once abandoned."—James
Buchanan, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit (London:
The Banner of Truth Trust), p. 1 1 0. In the gift of the Holy Spirit,
God writes His law in the hearts of the justified (Heb. 8:10). They
are no longer hostile to it (Rom. 8:7), for the scripture is fulfilled:\
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak
through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful
flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness
of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh,
but after the Spirit. Rom. 8:3, 4.
This has been
the doctrine of all the great Protestant divines since the days
of the Reformation — whether they be Lutheran, Calvinistic, Anglican
or Puritan. Melancthon, in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession,
clearly spelled out sanctification as the new obedience to the law.
is not a trace in the Reformation, says he [Melancthon], of the
supposed fixity of man's moral condition; as if faith were merely
the reception of some obscure, external righteousness. It is quite
otherwise. Once we have been justified through faith we must keep
the law. Hementions the decalogue by name.—Berkouwer, op.
cit, p. 37.
And since that time,
there has not been one sound, responsible Protestant theologian
who has deviated from this principle.
Acknowledging the law's third use is not a return to legalism or
a new self-righteousness.
. . . Luther's theology rests primarily on thankful
certainty, and out of it flows the duty of keeping the commandments.—Adolf
Koberle, The Quest for Holiness (Minneapolis: Augsburg
Publishing House, 1938), p. 169.
Sanctification and law are truly inseparable. Remove one, and you
destroy the other.
A full-fledged acknowledgment of the third use of the law, rather
than being the offspring of a legalistic orientation, issues from
the benefaction of grace which liberates man from a precarious autonomy
and places him under the direction of God's holy commandments.—Berkouwer,
op. cit., p. 168.
The believer no longer tries to sail heavenwards on clouds of self-righteousness.
Having found anchorage in the righteousness of Christ, he has every
reason to render obedience to God's law. In this new obedience the
law receives again its original function, a function no longer conceivable
in abstraction from the grace of God. For now the commandments are
to the believer the gracious guidance of the Saviour-God.—Ibid.,
True Sanctification Versus Religious Subjectivism
The holiness-Pentecostal movement majors on the subject of sanctification.
We do not disagree with a call to holiness. Surely it is never out
of place and is sorely needed in the churches now. But we are against
those teachings which leave the impression that holiness, or sanctification,
consists in some sort of religious ecstasy or euphoria. Under the
influence of this teaching, people think that sanctification is some
religious rapture or the exercise of religious feelings and manifestations
under extraordinary circumstances. In the minds of too many Christians,
sanctification has become some indefinite, sentimental, mystical experience.
Just as we are justified by faith in an objective work (a work external
to ourselves), so we are sanctified by faith(ful) obedience to an
objective law (the Word of God, which is external to ourselves). Jesus
prayed that we might be sanctified by the Word of truth (John 17:17),
and the apostle Peter says that the soul is purified by "obeying
the truth" (1 Peter 1:22).
Bible sanctification consists in submission to live by something objective—even
the Word of the living God. It means that we no longer seek to be
guided by our own wisdom, nor by mysterious and uncertain voices within
The entire life of believers is now subject to the
will of Another in genuine heteronomy, not as an oppressive menace
to burgeoning life but as the sustaining statutory rule of the Other.
It is essential that God's law is imposed from without. Now it comes
to man as a threat to his autonomy, nullifies this autonomy, and
rids him of its illusions. It would never issue forth from the depths
of his own heart. The Scriptures do speak of the law as engraved
in the heart of man but this God-given readiness to conform to the
law of God by no means annuls its heteronomous nature. For it—this
heteronomous nature of the law—is completely determined by its being
inseparable from the Lawgiver. The law of God is not spread over
this world like a net which can be considered by itself; it is the
living God who issues that law so that no one can be aware of it
without coming in contact with God himself. Therefore the law of
God was of such great significance to the people of Israel. Through
that law the Lord himself, in all his holiness, approached his people
with love and grace. Rightly to understand the Lord is therefore
to be docile; and the docile child does not dread his law. To such
a child, as to the psalmist who composed Psalm 119, the law is the
subject of never-ending litanies.—Berkouwer, op. cit, pp.
Once this basic concept of sanctification is lost or abandoned, men
have nothing to fall back on but their own subjective experiences.
The issue is one of authority—the authority of God's law versus the
authority of human experience.
Three Popular Antinomian Sentiments
There are three popular antinomian sentiments which sound so spiritual
and pious that they deceive many evangelical Christians. Here they
1. "When you have the love of Christ in your
heart, you don't need the Ten Commandments because love is the fulfilling
of the law." But while the love of Christ constrains the Christian
(2 Cor. 5:14), it does not inform the Christian as to the proper content
of that action. This has been well stated by Horatius Bonar, beloved
hymnologist and author, who in his book, God's Way of Holiness,
But will they tell us what is to regulate service,
if not law? Love, they say. This is a pure fallacy. Love is not
a rule, but a motive. Love does not tell me what to do; it tells
me how to do it. Love constrains me to do the will of the beloved
one; but to know what the will is, I must go elsewhere. The law
of our God is the will of the beloved one, and were that expression
of his will withdrawn, love would be utterly in the dark; it would
not know what to do. It might say, I love my Master, and I love
his service, and I want to do his bidding, but I must know the rules
of his house, that I may know how to serve him. Love without law
to guide its impulses would be the parent of will-worship and confusion,
as surely as terror and self-righteousness, unless upon the supposition
of an inward miraculous illumination, as an equivalent for law.
Love goes to the law to learn the divine will, and love delights
in the law, as the exponent of that will; and he who says that a
believing man has nothing more to do with law, save to shun it as
an old enemy, might as well say that he has nothing to do with the
will of God. For the divine law and the divine will are substantially
one, the former the outward manifestation of the latter. And it
is "the will of our Father which is in heaven" that we
are to do (Matt. 7:21), so proving by loving obedience what is that
"good and acceptable, and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:2).
Yes, it is he that doeth "the will of God that abideth forever"
(1 John 2:1 7); it is to "the will of God" that we are
to live (1 Pet. 4:2); "made perfect in every good work to do
his will" (Heb. 13:21); and "fruitfulness in every good
work," springs from being "filled with the knowledge of
his will" (Col. 1:9, 10).
Plain-speaking D. L. Moody says:
The people must be made to understand that the Ten
Commandments are still binding, and that there is a penalty attached
to their violation. We do not want a gospel of mere sentiment. The
Sermon on the Mount did not blot out the Ten Commandments.
When Christ came He condensed the statement of the law into this
form: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart
and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy
mind, and thy neighbor as thyself." Paul said: "Love is
the fulfilling of the law." But does this mean that the detailed
precepts of the Decalogue are superseded and have become back numbers?
Does a father cease to give children rules to obey because they
love him? Does a nation burn its statute books because the people
have become patriotic? Not at all. And yet people speak as if the
commandments do not hold for Christians because they have come to
love God. Paul said: "Do we then make void the law through
faith? God forbid. Yea, we establish the law." It still holds
good. The Commandments are necessary.—D.L. Moody, Weighed and
Wanting, pp. 17, 18.
you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you don't need the law because
the Holy Spirit tells you what to do." This is the kind of
fanaticism that Luther had to meet in the more radical Anabaptists.
They made a cleavage between Word and Spirit, and thought they could
receive communications and revelations from the Spirit quite apart
from the objective Word of God. The tragedy is that those who want
to be led by God and want Him to speak to them apart from the guidance
of the words of the Bible, have no way of telling the difference
between the Holy Spirit and their own carnal religious impressions.
They try to live by uncertain voices within themselves. But the
true work of the Spirit is to teach Christians not to live by inward
resources but by trusting submission to an objective authority.
The Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth, and God's Word is the
truth. Anyone who gives the slightest hint that he need not carefully
study the Bible to determine God's will for his life, is not led
by the Spirit of God.
3. "The essential thing is a warm, heart relationship
with Christ. When you have this personal relationship, you don't
live by the do's and don'ts of the law." This sentiment should
be consigned back to its right place — to the father of lies.
Certainly a Christian does not live by the commandments of men.
He pays no attention to the do's and don'ts of human traditions.
This is what Paul is talking about in Colossians 2:14-22. "Let
no man therefore judge you . . . after the commandments and doctrines
of men." But may God help us if we think that Paul is talking
about the commandments of God. In another place the apostle says,
"Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but
the keeping of the commandments of God." 1 Cor. 7:19.
The essential thing is a relationship with God, true! But let us
not forget that God sets the terms of that relationship.
His terms are obedience. Let us not fool ourselves in thinking that
we can get above the do's and don'ts of God's Word. There are plenty
of do's and don'ts in the New Testament just as well as in the Old.
The epistles of Paul are full of imperatives: don't lie to one another;
don't let the sun go down on your wrath; don't judge and criticize
your brother; don't eat (the sacrament) with immoral men; don't
be conformed to this world; don't take a brother in the faith before
a law court; and many, many more. Try reading Romans 12 to 14, and
see how many do's and don'ts are given to us. Or read Ephesians
4 to 6, Colossians 3 to 4 and 1 Thessalonians 5.
Our keeping the commandments of God does not establish our relationship
with God. This is purely of grace, on account of Christ, through
faith. ("I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee
out of the land of Egypt.") The duty of hearing and obeying
Him springs out of the fact that He has delivered us and established
a Father-son relationship with us. The "Thou shalt nots"
plainly spell out the things that will spoil that relationship.
God even saw fit to impose some do's and don'ts on man in his sinless
state. To Adam and Eve He said, "Of the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it." We can imagine
the deceiver saying to the woman, "Listen, Eve. If you have
a warm, loving relationship with God, that is all that matters.
Since you have now achieved this wonderful experience, you have
no need to live by the do's and don'ts of the law. In fact, the
way you can prove you have entered this higher experience is to
eat this fruit. That will prove that the only thing that matters
is a love relationship with God." Eve forgot that divine love
set the terms of that relationship. Through disobedience the relationship
God remembers that we are but dust. Because of Christ He does not
impute sin to the faltering lives of the stumbling saints. But He
cannot be in fellowship with those who "rebel against God's
law by changing its demands and accommodating them to their own
capacity. This is done by eliminations in the Decalogue and also
by additions" (Edmund Schlink, Theology of the Lutheran
Confessions [Philadelphia: Fortress Press] , p. 75).
If the great doctrine of justification is to be restored to its
rightful place in the church, we must preach "the second use
of the law" — the law to point out sin, the law as a
schoolmaster to lead to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).
If the great doctrine of sanctification is to be restored to its
rightful place in the church, we must proclaim "the third use
of the law" — the law as a guide to justified believers.
If the second use of the law falls, so does the third, or vice versa.
Then there is neither a correct basis for justification nor for
sanctification. This is why the church is drowning in an unprecedented
flood of religious subjectivism.
Again: we are justified by faith in an objective work, and we are
sanctified by faith(ful) obedience to an objective law.
Let the church return to her unabashed allegiance to God's Word.
Let her not be ashamed of her conscientious obedience to the commandments
of God. Let her not be afraid to call sin by its right name. Let
her shake off all traces of sentimental subjectivism. Let her take
up the two-edged sword of law and gospel. Then will she again look
"forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun,
and terrible as an army with banners."
1 With regard to the third use of the
law, some have tried to argue that Luther did not agree with Melancthon
(who first coined the expression, "the third use of the law")
and Calvin (who deals with the law's third use in great detail in
his Institutes of the Christian Religion.). But their claim is not
in harmony with the facts. What could be clearer than Luther's Small
Catechism: "The purpose of the law is to train people
to be decent and orderly, to show them that they are sinners so
that they may repent and turn to Christ, and to serve as the rule
of life for Christians." In The Theology of Martin Luther,
Paul Althaus says, "Luther saw the commandments not only as
a mirror in which he recognizes sin—although they certainly are
and remain that even for the Christian—but beyond this as instruction
about the 'good works' God wants; and such instruction is necessary
and wholesome for the Christian.... Luther does not use the expression
'the third function of the law (tertius usus legis).' Melancthon
did use this expression and it was then adopted in the Formula of
Concord, in Lutheran orthodoxy and by nineteenth century theology.
In substance, however, it also occurs in Luther."—Paul Althaus,
The Theology of Martin Luther, pp. 272, 273. Reformed scholar,
G.C. Berkouwer, says this about Luther: "Convinced though he
was of the sovereignty of God's grace and of our inability to be
justified by the works of the law, he nevertheless held the law
in high esteem and spoke of its threefold intent to maintain the
external order, to induce sinners to recognize their guilt, and
to direct the life of believers."—G.C. Berkouwer, Faith
and Sanctification, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), pp. 164,