Justification by Faith and Christian Ethics
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. 2 Tim. 3:1-5.
The First Use of the Law This age is notorious for its lack of respect for law. "The quarrel of the world today is not so much between right and wrong as between rival ways of defining and doing right."1 Once it was generally accepted that right and wrong must be judged by some objective, absolute standard. A little more than one hundred years ago society began to opt for belief in evolution instead of divine creation. The next step was perfectly logical and inevitable. If God is not our Creator, He is not our Judge, And if He is not our Judge, we must be our own judge. Ever heard of existentialism, situation ethics, relativism, the new morality? Of course you have! These philosophies are all based on the premise that I am my only judge of right and wrong, and therefore I am not responsible to any absolute, outside-of-me standard for my conduct.
We do not here intend to dwell on the appalling breakdown of ethics which is
taking place in the nation. We all know that disrespect for law has become a
social epidemic. What Christians need to be especially alarmed about is that
this same spirit of disrespect for law has rubbed off on the church. Let us be
careful to notice that in St. Paul's delineation of last-day sins, quoted previously,
the burden is not to show how bad the world will be at the end time. The apostle
describes the conditions that will exist in the church in the last days (i.e.,
among those "having a form of godliness").
While the secular liberals talk of "the responsible self," "social consciousness," etc., in place of law, many Christians talk of "Christian love" and "the guidance of the Holy Spirit" as taking the place of law. (It is the same tune, only different word forms.) Even we evangelicals have often carried on such a one-sided attack against legalism that law has, for many of us, become a dirty word. Under the influence of liberalism, legalism has evolved a new meaning. Whereas it used to mean the wrong use of law (as a means of salvation), now it is often taken to mean conscientious obedience to rules of any kind. ("Who needs rules, man, when you're tanked up on the Spirit?")
As society is being deluged by corruption, lawlessness and rottenness that defies
description, it needs no encouragement from the church to show disrespect for
Justification by Faith and Respect for Law
We agree with New Testament scholar, J. Gresham Machen, who said, "One way to encourage respect for law, we think, would be to make law more respectable."—J.
Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p.168. How do we
make law more respectable?
There are some who are ready to blame too much emphasis on justification
by faith for lack of ethical action in the church. They feel that this great
Protestant "war cry" doctrine needs to be played down, while more
emphasis needs to be given to sanctification and practical Christian living.
This is a happy eventuality for Rome, who has always contended that Luther's
doctrine loosens the reins of moral restraint.
The great Reformation principle of justification by faith is in no way responsible
for fostering disrespect for law. It is the distorted and false views of our
great Protestant heritage which take all the force out of the Bible's ethical
imperatives. This is an age that knows almost nothing about that great Reformation
doctrine of justification by faith. It is impossible to be strong on justification
by faith and weak on ethics. Justification is a term of law. No two Bible concepts
stand more closely related than justification and law. To honor and uphold one
is to honor and uphold the other (Rom. 3:31).
Returning to Machen's proposition, how may we make law more respectable? By
putting the truth of justification back into the center of the Christian message,
where it belongs. Wherever and whenever this truth is exalted and taught, the
Spirit of God breathes new life into the church and furnishes its members for "every
It is now our task to specifically state how the truth of justification by faith is the backbone of all right conduct.
1. The Fear of God, Justification and Ethics
What would you think of a fellow who tried to show you some picture slides of his latest overseas trip and did not bother to put up a background screen but simply focused his pictures out in midair? Of course, his pictures would not make sense. Just so, the great Biblical truth of justification by faith does not make sense unless it is focused against the background of the fear of God.
"The fear of God is the soul of godliness."—John Murray, Principles
of Conduct (The Tyndale Press), p. 229. The Bible says it is the beginning of
wisdom (Prov.9:10), the foundation of piety (Job 1:8), the soul of obedience (Eccl. 12:13;
Gen. 22:11,12), the basis of ethical integrity (Gen. 20:11; Prov. 8:13:16:6)
and the foundation of sanctification (2 Cor. 7:1). The Holy Spirit is called "the Spirit. . . of the fear of the Lord." Isa.
To fear God means to respond to Him with reverential awe, humble respect and profound adoration. This attitude toward God comes by a lively sense of the majesty of Him who is constantly aflame with holiness, truth and goodness, and of the wrath of Him whose justice is fiery indignation against sin.
Whenever men are taught the fear of the Lord by a confrontation with God's
righteousness and His claims upon their lives, they are led to cry out, "How can I be just with God?" They do not take it for granted that God forgives, but they are so impressed with the righteousness of God that their own conscience demands, "How can God justly forgive me?" They feel like Spurgeon, who cried out, "I felt I could not be forgiven unless I could be forgiven justly." This
is the great problem that St. Paul solves for us in his message to the Romans—how
God demonstrates His justice in the remission of sins (Rom. 3:25, 26).
When we look at the current religious scene, there is little evidence that
people are asking such theocentric (God-centered) questions. Instead, they
are asking anthropocentric (man-centered) questions like, "How can God make me happy? How can Christ make my life run smoothly and joyously? How can I solve my [petty] problems and find fulfillment in life?" Never has so much religious activity been so disinterested in the question of justification with God. Why? Because there is so little fear of God. People can wave their arms or jump up and down "in the Spirit." But if the religious interest is not marked by a great fear of God, it is not the work of the Holy Spirit, for He is "the
Spirit . . . of the fear of the Lord."
Again, why is there such an appalling disinterest in justification by faith?
Because people are taking it for granted that God is gracious and forgiving.
In fact, they feel that they are on such good terms with Him that they talk
to Him as if He were (to use Luther's complaint against the Enthusiasts) "a shoemaker's apprentice." How
can justification be a burning question when there is no marked fear of God?
Consider how these man-centered questions are patently foolish in the light of man's predicament. Here is a wretched sinner, bound hand and foot and consigned to hell for his great crimes against his Maker. Standing on the threshold of eternal damnation, he presumes to ask, "How can God make me happy?" (as if God were in his debt). Such a question shows he has no true sense of his awful predicament. If the Spirit gives him any true enlightenment of his situation, he will rather cry out, "How can I be right with God?"
We are not suggesting that God is indifferent to the happiness of His earthly children. But we do not find happiness in trying to use God as if He were our lackey. Nowhere do we find such genuine, exultant joy as in Romans 5 and 8.
This holy, sacred joy comes to the man who, because of Christ, has found justification at the hand of a just and merciful God. Such a man Is ready to follow Christ anywhere, to make any sacrifice, to perform any duty, to obey any commandment, and to count it all a "reasonable service" from an "unprofitable servant." He does not take his forgiveness for granted or begin to walk before God with irreverent familiarity, but with the Psalmist, he prays, "There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared." Ps. 130:4.
A pastor asked me, "My congregation has no vital joy in the Lord. They're
not Spirit-filled Christians. What can I do?" I replied, "Teach them
salvation and what it means to be just with God." "Oh," he rejoined, "they
all know that—they've been saved." Great fallacy of much
modern evangelicalism! That is the very condition Paul says would exist in
. . unthankful, unholy. . ." Imagine saying to the man who wrote Romans, "Paul,
I accept your doctrine of justification by faith, I thank God that I'm not
a legalist like those Strong Will Baptists. But can you tell me how my life
can be vitalized with Christian joy?" With one fell stroke of the Word,
the apostle would say, "Happy are they whose iniquities are forgiven." "We
also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received
the atonement." Rom.4:7;
5:11. Justification without joy in the Holy Spirit is unthinkable!
The message of justification by grace, because of Christ, through faith, is
the sweetest and most joyful melody that can ever come to the human heart.
Then why are people rushing off to find "the Spirit" a la the second
blessing, tongues or some guru of victorious living fame? It is because the
fear of God is the one great ingredient most lacking in the current religious
scene, and therefore the truth of justification is unappreciated as the only
doorway to the Spirit.
The New Testament teaches the fear of God as much as does the Old Testament.
Luke describes the church as "walking in the fear of the Lord." Acts 9:31. The writer to the Hebrew Christians exhorts the believers not to "draw back" and find that it "is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Heb. 10:38, 31. And Paul exhorts the Gentile Christians, "Be not high minded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee." Rom.
We are not unmindful that gratitude for salvation motivates the man who knows
that he has been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. But the tendency
in a lot of modern evangelicalism is to strain out the sterner element of "fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) and insist on nothing but gratitude for being saved as a motive for Christian ethics. Many want to talk about nothing but "confidence," 'boldness" and "assurance" (which
are very needful too), but they fall into the heresy that comes by stressing
only one side of the paradox. The Christian life must be lived in the tension
of fear and trembling on the one hand, and faith and confidence on the other.
God is not a popular somebody with whom sinners may fraternize on their own level.
He is so high, so holy, that He can have no direct fellowship with any man save
Jesus Christ. Christ's person alone will He accept, and Christ's righteousness
alone makes Him propitious toward us. Well may the most holy saint flee from
His throne with dread and terror except that he may keep on looking to his Substitute
at God's right hand and keep on believing the good news that he is justified
in God's sight solely because Jesus stands there instead of him and for him.
is the only atmosphere in which the Christian continues to live and breathe.
Such a Christian will never look on sin as if it were as harmless as a Sunday
In short, two things belong together—the fear of God and Christian
ethics—just as Solomon declares, "Fear God, and keep His commandments:
for this is the whole duty of man." Eccl 12:13. And the last book of the
Bible declares, "Fear
God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship
Him that made heaven, and earth . . . ".
2. The Atonement, Justification and Ethics
St. Paul did not write the book of Romans just to tell us that God is willing to forgive. The Old Testament had already made that abundantly clear. Nor did he write Romans just to tell us that we should live by trusting in God's mercy. The Old Testament was clear enough on that too. The central issue that the Epistle deals with is this: How can the God of law and justice forgive sin? How can the moral Governor of the universe justify people who deserve to be blamed? It is important to see that the theme of Romans, therefore, is not merely the justification of sinners, but the justification of God in His justification of sinners.
God's justice in passing over sins was prefigured in types and shadows of the
old dispensation. The prophets who "prophesied of the grace that should come" "inquired and searched diligently" into
God's answer to the problem of sin (1 Peter 1:10,11).
So often God had revealed Himself as gracious and forgiving. He passed over the sins of Israel times without number. He passed over the sins of David without inflicting upon him what justice required. He even forgave the sins of Manasseh, who filled Jerusalem with the blood of God's saints. How is all this consistent with justice? Does the supreme Judge treat His law as a mere bylaw to be modified, relaxed or set aside at pleasure? Should not the Judge uphold the law irrespective of any person? We might even say that God's passing by the sins of men might look like moments of weak leniency on the part of the great Judge, and therefore His act of pardon might appear as a scandal against the divine government.
Then God Himself answers in the bolts of holy wrath that fell on Himself in the person of Christ. Never had earth or heaven beheld such a display of awful, infinite justice as when God spared not His only Son. So Paul points to the cross of Christ and declares:
God meant by this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forbearance He had overlooked the sins of the past [i.e., in past ages]—to demonstrate His justice now in the present, showing that He is Himself just and also justifies any man who puts his faith in Jesus. Rom. 3:25, 26, N.E.B.
There are some who feel that forgiveness of sins proceeds from an easy-going
benevolence. Consequently, they are also easy-going about sin, saying in their
hearts, "There is plenty of forgiveness with the Lord." Others propose that Christ died merely to show us that God will excuse our sins and good-naturedly pass them by. Such sentimental thoughts of Calvary allow them to sin with an easy conscience. Then there are some who see the atonement as a skillful maneuver on the part of God to "get around His law." So
why should not they also spend their lives getting around the law?
The Biblical doctrine of atonement undergirds all Christian ethics. It shows
us that God was not only providing for the justification of sinners, but for
the justification of the moral order of the universe. It shows us that the divine
law and government must be maintained and vindicated. Calvary was the highest
honor that God Himself could pay to His law. Prophecy had declared of Christ, "He will magnify the law, and make it honorable." Isa. 42:21. As Flavell, the Puritan, observed, never was the law of God more highly honored as when Christ stood before the bar of justice to make reparations for the damage done. And Luther declared, "Now although out of pure grace God does not impute our sins to us, He nonetheless did not want to do this until complete and ample satisfaction of His law and His righteousness had been made.' '—What
Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass, Vol.2, p.709. Calvary shows us that "in this universe debts are paid" (Leon
Says E. F. Kevan, principal of London Bible College:
Death is the doom of sin, the sanction, the curse, the sentence of the law;
and in dying for us Christ recognized without abatement the utmost claims
of the law as expressive of the holy will of God. It is in this sense that
He is said to have become a curse for us, and to have been made sin for us
by God; it is in this sense also that God is said in Him to have condemned
sin in the flesh. All these passages (Galatians iii.13; iv.4f; 2 Corinthians
v.21; Romans viii.3) describe the same thing: the absolute honor paid to
the law by Christ in freely submitting to that death in which the law's condemnation
of humanity is expressed (James Denney, Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible,
Article Law [In New Testament], Vol. III, p.80). Fascinated by the simplicities
of forgiveness some writers have mistaken the part for the whole and have
denied any deep relation between our Lord's work and the Law of God; but
the relation of our Lord's work to the Law of God is undeniable. By His complete
fulfillment of it and His utter satisfaction in respect of our transgressions
of it, His atonement becomes what E. Y. Mullins describes as "the "transformation and glorification of law" (E.
Y. Mullins The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression, p. 322).—E.
F. Kevan, The Evangelical Doctrine of Law, pp.21, 22.
Says Carl Henry in his excellent book, Personal Christian Ethics:3
The Cross is the center of the moral universe, unveiling God's
absolute refusal to suspend his law of holiness. The sanctity with which
penal theory invests
the moral law is one element of its strength. It stands as the supreme obstacle
to making sin relative, to reducing the justice of God to anthropomorphic
projections, to concealing his moral indignation and ethical anger. That
the moral law cannot be defied with impunity is dramatically clear from the
fact that "God spared not his own Son." The moral world is one
in which holiness reigns absolutely and uniformly. Whatever tampers with
this undermines respect for the fact that the moral claim reaches to every
last motive and act of the responsible being. If the claim of the law or
the punishment of sin is relaxed in but a single province of the moral universe,
the Divine ethical government is to that extent dishonored and weakened.
What fact more fully enforces the majestic righteousness of God than the
conviction of the inviolability of his moral law published by the atonement
of the Cross?—p. 367.
The doctrine of redemption does not relax the believer's obligation to the Divine commandments, nor weaken his motives to observe them —p. 375.
While it may be true that examples can be found of those who presume on Divine goodness by living a life of unholiness while they fool themselves with the hope that they will escape the consequences of their sins through Christ's sacrifice, this is not characteristic of the evangelical temper.—p.375.
3. Faith, Justification and Ethics
We must now consider the nature and action of faith in the sinner's justification. Faith is the root of every good work, the tree that blossoms and bears a harvest of ethical action.
When the nature and action of faith are misunderstood, people are not too concerned
about being "zealous of good works." For instance, people listen to a preacher who keeps harping, "We are not saved by living a life of good works, but by faith. Keeping the law does not justify us with God, but faith does." In the first place, the hearers may easily conclude that God is not too concerned about good works and the honor of His law, so why should they be too concerned about it? In the second place, they may also conclude that a certain quality in their own hearts called "faith" is
going to please God and move Him to open heaven for them.
Each of these conclusions is a terrible mistake, for:
a. God does care for good works and the honor of His law. His holy nature demands
a righteousness that conforms to His commandments without variableness or shadow
of turning. St. Paul declares,". . . the doers of the law shall be justified." Rom. 2:13. Perfect obedience to His law is the only condition upon which God will give any man eternal life (Matt. 19:17). As Luther said, "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, Vol.31, pp.348, 349.
The good news of the gospel is that Christ has lived this life of perfect obedience.
He has fulfilled the conditions upon which God will justify unto life eternal.
He lived this life in our name and on our behalf. This is why the apostle says
that we are justified by Christ (Gal. 3:17), by His obedience (Rom. 5:18,19).
So it is perfectly true to say that the meritorious cause of our justification
is a life of good works — not ours, of course, but His. While the death of
Jesus (passive obedience) is the basis upon which God forgives sin, the life
(active obedience) is the basis upon which God can impute to us a life of perfect
obedience. We need to hear more about the redemptive nature of Christ's life,
for this is what fulfills the law and entitles us to eternal life.
b. God does not justify us because of our faith—as if faith had any redemptive
value. Neither does God now accept faith instead of perfect obedience to His
law. (This is the error of neo-nomianism, which says that Christ died to change
the conditions, to make it possible for God to demand an easier standard.)
Faith is not the meritorious cause of justification but merely the instrumental cause, i.e.: Here is a poor sinner who hears that God will accept nothing but
a life of perfect righteousness. Then he hears how Christ kept the law of God
for him and so provided this perfect life. This good news kindles faith in
his heart by the working of the Holy Spirit. He cries out, "Mine are Christ's living, His doing and dying; mine as much as if I had lived, spoken, suffered and died as He did." By
faith he identifies himself with Christ's life of perfect obedience and presents
it to God on his behalf. Justice acknowledges that this life, which the sinner
now accepts as his, meets the demands of the law, and God pronounces him justified.
This instrumental action of faith is not a mere relic of Protestant orthodoxy. It is necessary to give the sinner a high view of God's law and an appreciation of His unalterable demand for a righteous life. How can the believing sinner identify himself with Christ's obedient living, how can he present that life to God in faith, how can he rejoice in the law-abiding life of Jesus Christ as his hope of salvation, unless that life he holds to in faith becomes his own standard of conduct? Faith honors the perfection of God in concrete obedience.
4. The Dynamic Nature of Justification and Ethics
Every well-informed Protestant knows that justification by faith is "the article of the standing or falling church" (Luther). This doctrine must be guarded with special care, and, as Luther constantly affirmed, it cannot be learned too well.
Just as Luther and Calvin were the two principal Reformers, so two streams emerged from the Reformation — Lutheran and Reformed. We are all greatly indebted to the contribution made by these two branches of the Reformation. But has the ethical fruit of these two movements always adorned the doctrine of Christ?
In his monumental History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff cites these remarks of Bishop Martensen of Denmark:
I am more and more convinced that the deepest defect of Lutheran churchism heretofore has been a lack of the full appreciation of the ethical element of Christianity. This becomes manifest so often in the manner of the Lutheran champions. There is lacking the tenderness of conscience and thorough moral culture which deals conscientiously with the opponent. Justification by faith is made to cover, in advance, all sins, even the future ones; and this is only another form of indulgence. The Lutheran doctrine leads, if we look at the principle, to an establishment of ethics on the deepest foundation. But many treat justification, not only as the beginning, but also as the goal. Hence we see not seldom the justified and the old man side by side, and the old man is not a bit changed. Lutherans who show in their literary and social conduct the stamp of the old Adam would deal more strictly with themselves, and fear to fall from grace by such conduct, if they had a keener conscience, and could see the necessary requirements of the principle of justification; for then they would shrink from such conduct as a sin against conscience. But the doctrine of justification is often misused for lulling the conscience to sleep, instead of quickening it.—Vol. 7, p.667.
Those who stand in the Reformed tradition have often been careful to guard the proper forensic meaning of justification, and they have come in for not a little criticism for making justification sound like some dry, legal procedure of celestial credit. Although the criticism is often made by those who want to eliminate all legal categories from salvation, there is some truth to their criticism. While Roman Catholic theologians think along Aristotelian lines, Reformed theology, for all its strength, does tend to be Platonic. It often fails to capture the dynamic spirit of Hebrew thinking that is so characteristic of the Bible writers. And without a dynamic view of justification, the church fights a losing battle against sterile orthodoxy. How many Reformed men lament the deadness of their church!
What do we mean by a dynamic view of justification? It is perfectly
true that we are here dealing with a legal word, a term of the law court. The
sinner who hears4 the
gospel knows he is a wretched captive of the devil. He knows that
the enemy of God and man has destroyed the dignity and freedom of his manhood
of his original inheritance. Yet this sinner has faith to know that
his case can be heard at the court of divine judgment. The moment of justification is
the moment of judgment. The Judge is about to render
His verdict. Now we must not think of this court scene as if
man were like a defendant
dock hoping at best for mere acquittal or pardon. We must picture
the scene more like a civil case where the believing sinner is
the plaintiff. He
knows the rights
and titles Christ has won for him. He is confident that by coming
in Christ's name he has a good case. If he is declared to be
right with God, then
proceed to exercise his rights as a son of God, as a righteous
man. With this verdict he may walk out of the miserable service
of the devil, live
in the restored
dignity of God-given manhood and walk in "the way of the King's
he presses his case to the Judge that he may gain those rights
and titles. The verdict of justification sets him free to act.
delivered out of the hand
of the enemy that He may now serve God in holiness and righteousness
all the days of his life (Luke 1:74, 75). He is purged from dead
works to serve the living
God (Heb. 9:14). Justification means he is set free for a new life
of ethical action. It means he is set free for loving service to
A "justification" that does not release the sinner for ethical action is just plainly Platonic. Charles Wesley captured the dynamic spirit of justification in these lines from "Amazing Love":
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
So far we have considered some
rights and titles that justification gives to the believing sinner. Now
let us take a higher view and see what rights and titles
justification gives to God. God can only be in fellowship with those who
are perfectly righteous. He cannot take charge of the life that does not
Him. The moment God pronounces the believer righteous because of Christ (not
because of faith), He can then, with perfect justice, begin to treat him
as a righteous man. How does God treat the believer as righteous? By giving
Holy Spirit—"the Spirit of holiness." The Spirit inspires and empowers every justified believer to follow after "holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." It
is certain that those who have not the Spirit of holiness are not justified.
These two cannot be separated — justification and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Justification is God's title to pour out His Spirit. It sets Him free to act dynamically within so we may live fruitfully unto every good work. While the overwhelming sense of God's pardoning love enters into the deepest motives of conduct, the Holy Spirit provides the believer with power for conduct. We must remember that two streams flowed from the pierced side of the Crucified — blood and water. They represent the legal and the vital aspects of salvation, which must be distinguished but never separated. Wherever the blood delivers from the curse and condemnation of the law, the Spirit is present to cleanse the heart from the pollution and power of sin. There is good theology in that grand old hymn:
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
5. The Concrete Nature of Justification and Ethics
Hebraic or Biblical modes of thinking are not only dynamic but concrete. Justification is a law term. Sin means nonconformity to the law, and righteousness means conformity to the law.5 The Bible is as simple and as concrete as that. Justification is God's verdict that the believer in Jesus conforms to the law of God. As a response to this gracious verdict, the believer will henceforth strive to conform his life to the law of God. It is inconceivable that he could do otherwise.
Again ,justification, as a term of law, means " setting one right before law."—A. H. Strong, Systematic
Theology, p.856. Justification means establishing a right relationship to the law as well as a right relationship with God (for how can God and the expression of His will be separated). Before faith comes, the sinner is "enmity against God . . . not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Rom. 8:7. And the law works condemnation and wrath against this enemy sinner (Rom. 4:15). Where there is justification, there is reconciliation. The law is able to regard the believing sinner as righteous. The believing sinner is able to regard the law as "a friendly guide" (Berkouwer).
This changed relationship of law and believing sinner is nothing
short of astounding—it is a miracle. The legal change becomes
effective in a vital change. The holy
commandments, once "grievous" (1 John 5:3), become
delightsome (Rom. 7:22). According to the new covenant promise,
the Holy Spirit writes the law in the believer's heart (Heb.
8:10), and he now reflects the spirit of the man who wrote Psalm
119: "O how love I Thy law! it is my meditation all the
the great Puritan divine, Thomas Watson, could say:
Commandments are a chain of pearls to adorn us; they are
to enrich us; they are more precious than lands of spices,
or rocks of diamonds. The law of Thy mouth is better unto
me than thousands of gold and silver!—Thomas Watson, The
Ten Commandments (The Banner of Truth Trust), p.14.
The Reformers clearly saw that the law of God has three uses, viz.:
a. First Use — usus civilis (civil use) — as a social use to restrain sin in "civilized" society.
b. Second Use — usus pedagogicus (stern sin-convicting "schoolmaster" use) — to point out sin and be a tutor to lead the sinner to Christ.
c. Third Use — tertius
usus legis — to be a rule of life and moral guide for Christians.
In the last one hundred
years it has become quite a popular doctrine to reject "the
third use of the law." This
is antinomianism (Greek: anti- against nomos- law). It undermines the whole structure of
Christian ethics, destroys all ethical content of justification
by faith and betrays the cause
of the Reformation.
When we say that the Christian is not under the obligation
to the law, we had better be clear that we mean obligation
to satisfy its claims for perfect
righteousness and not obligation to obey it
as a rule of life. But many fail to make that distinction.
justified believer have any further dealings
with the law? As a means of salvation, No! In connection
with a loving response, Yes! The atonement should be
to us a constant reminder of the unrelieved
of breaking God's law. The freedom of justification by
faith is freedom to obey, the privilege to obey a law
so holy (Rom. 7:6,12, 25; James
Far from not being under obligation to keep it, love
puts us under double obligation to keep it. Says Carl
Henry, "The growing hostility in contemporary statements
of Christian ethics to keeping the commandments is profoundly
Henry, Personal Christian Ethics, p.361.
There are four kinds of teachings that effectively deny "the third use of the law" and
open the door to antinomianism:
a. Making Grace Antagonistic to Law. The Reformers
made a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel,
but they were careful to write into all the great confessions
that the law of God always remains valid as a rule
of life for believers. But in the last one hundred years
developed a kind of teaching that sets the law in opposition
to grace and discards the concept of the law's third
use. Reformed scholar, Oswald T Allis, makes these observations
in reference to this teaching:
gospel age is the age of the new covenant; and it is not
marked by freedom from the law, by return to
of promise which knew nothing of obedience as a
condition. Rather is it pre-eminently the age when the law
God, the revealed will of God, is and will be kept as never
before — not
as the means of salvation, but as the fruit of
a life that is hid with Christ in God! . . . But this erroneous
of the relation in which the promise, the law,
gospel stand to one another could not but have
The most important of these is the failure to apprehend
correctly the close and intimate relation which
exists between Justification
and sanctification—Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy
and the Church (The Presbyterian and Reformed
Publishing Co.), pp.42, 43.
b. Enthusiasm. By "Enthusiasm" we
do not mean religious fanaticism which causes people to jump up
and down in spiritual ecstasy. "Enthusiasm" is a teaching
which claims a direct guidance from the Holy Spirit apart from
the written, outside-of-me Word of God. Instead of a sound teaching
on the third use of the law, there are many today who feel that
the Holy Spirit dwells in them and tells them what to do quite
apart from any teaching of the law. Luther had to meet this error
from those whom he called "Enthusiasts." The Reformer
saw that their basic error was to make a dangerous separation
of Word and Spirit. Luther and Calvin had to maintain that
Spirit works in the Word and never apart from the Word. The
only way to hear the Holy Spirit speak to us is to listen to
and the only way to obey the Spirit is to obey that objective
Word of God. We must have none of this notion that we can get
word from the Lord. We need the law as that outside-of-me direction;
otherwise we must live by the uncertain voices within.
The charismatics who claim visions, private revelations and
direct information from God are only carrying what has been
a popular notion to its logical end.
'Enthusiasm" sets up a mystical inner witness and inner light instead
of the objective Word of God. Under the guise of honoring the Holy Spirit,
inner voices become a norm to replace the (absolute) norm of God's law. Says
of the Spirit does not remove man from the will of God objectively
revealed in the Bible, and emancipate
him to moral self-sufficiency. The Spirit rules
in and through the written Word, which He has inspired. The spiritual discernment
of the regenerate man is not relieved of the need for ethical instruction
and guidance . . . Paul does not arrive at a 'Spirit ethics."—Henry, op.
c. Quietism. Quietism is the teaching that the Christian life is lived by being a passive channel for the operation of the Holy Spirit. The victorious life is said to be lived when the believer stops trying and lets God do it all. ("Let go and let God.")
The error of Quietism is that it tends to make the Holy Spirit's work in the heart substitutionary. This is the result of an inadequate focus on the grand facts of Christ's substitutionary work. The work Christ did in life and death was substitutionary — it was in our place and instead of us. Justification comes by the passive acceptance of what was done on the cross apart from any effort of ours. But the same thing cannot be said about the inward, sanctifying work of the Spirit. The Spirit does not replace human effort. He does not substitute for human obedience. The Christian life is not a matter of refraining from effort while the Spirit does it all. The Christian life is a struggle, a race, a fight; and the Spirit stirs the believer up and empowers him for holy warfare. Faith is not an opiate but a stimulant. It does not compose us for sleep but for action. As Bishop J. C. Ryle well said, if this is not the teaching of the Bible, we ought to throw Bunyan's great allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, into the fire.
d. Easy Believism. Easy Believism has come about by a gross perversion of Calvin's doctrine of "the perseverance of the saints." Calvin taught that the elect would never fall from grace; but he also noted that the only sign of election was that the believer persevered in the faith. That Reformed concept is a far cry from the popular notion that "faith for one moment brings life for eternity."
Justification is possessed only by faith. He who has no present faith has no present justification. Saving faith is in Christ, not in some past experience of being born again! There is a popular doctrine which says that a man can be eternally saved whether he pursues sanctification or not. But the pursuit of holiness is not optional. He who does not obey does not believe, and he who does not believe and keep on believing will not be saved. Says John Murray, former Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary:
Holiness is exemplified in obedience to the commandments of God . . .
We cite a contemporary "evangelical" book to show how a false doctrine
of security can open the door to the most outrageous antinomianism:
The new covenant as an everlasting covenant reaches the zenith of its realization
in this: "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people" (Revelation
21:3). But we must ask: Do believers continue in this relationship and in
the enjoyment of its blessing irrespective of persevering obedience to God's
It is one of the most perilous distortions of the doctrine of grace, and
one that has carried with it the saddest records of moral and spiritual disaster,
to assume that past privileges, however high they may be, guarantee the security
of men irrespective of perseverance in faith and holiness . . .
Paul knew well that if he were to attain to the resurrection of the dead all the resources of Christ's resurrection power must be operative in him and all the energies of his personality enlisted in the exercise of those means through which he would apprehend that for which he was apprehended by Christ Jesus (cf. Philippians 3:10-12). This is just to say that the goal is not reached, the consummation of covenant blessing is not achieved in some automatic fashion but through a process that engages to the utmost the concentrated devotion of the apostle himself. It is not reached irrespective of perseverance, but through perseverance. And this means nothing if it does not mean concentrated obedience to the will of Christ as expressed in his commandments. We readily see, however, that the attainment of the goal is not on the meritorious ground of perseverance and obedience, but through the divinely appointed means of perseverance. Obedience as the appropriate and necessary expression of devotion to Christ does not find its place in a covenant of works or of merit but in a covenant that has its inception and end in pure grace.—John Murray, Principles
of Conduct, pp.199, 200.
Now, when he becomes a believer, the fears that restrained sin are removed.
Often he will go through a period of unrestrained sin or carnality because
he knows he has eternal life, regardless. He no longer runs scared. During
this period, although he is permanently indwelt by the Spirit, the old sin
nature controls his life and the Spirit is quenched .—The Spirituality
of Grace, p.65.
If the carnal or baby believer never understands the doctrine
of the two laws and how to operate under the law of the Spirit of life he can
to move in Phase Two. He is going to operate under the law of the old sin
nature, and without the restraint of fear, he will get into unrestrained
sin and will actually become worse than before he was saved . . . So they
say, 'Goodbye, God, I'll see you in heaven !" —Ibid., p.67.
While Rome's great error was to confuse justification and sanctification, many Protestants have gone to the opposite error and destroyed the close and inseparable relation between justification and sanctification. The preceding quotation is an example of that.
The churches are full of spiritually dead souls who are asleep in their sins; yet they content themselves that they are saved because of some past experience. Dreadful delusion! While legalism is killing its thousands, these antinomian sentiments are killing their tens of thousands. We live in the midst of an immoral revolution. We need a message of sterner stuff. We need to hear God's law, which will give us a high view of the gospel, and we need that gospel which will give us a high view of the law. We need to listen to that law which will point us to Christ as the way of salvation, and to that Christ who will point us to the law as the way of service. We need to see a restoration of the third use of the law so that the glorious truth of justification by faith may have that concrete expression without which it cannot live.
1 J R. Coates, in Preface to Righteousness, by Gottfried
OueII & Gottlob Schrenk.
2 By law as used in this article, we refer to the moral law
of God — every ethical imperative which tells us how to behave, all instruction
about the duty of a Christian, all commandments which show us how to concretely
express our love for God and man.
3 We highly recommend carl Henry's book on Personal Christian
Ethics (Eerdmans) and consider his chapters, "The Law and the Gospel" and "Christian Ethics Predicated on the Atonement," as
4 We are using the word hear in the dynamic Hebrew sense of obedient response.
5 See 1 John 3:4; Girdlestone's Synonyms of the Old Testament on
sin and righteousness, John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p.191.