On the Third Use of the Law
Samuel Bolton Reprinted
from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian
Freedom (London: The Banner of Truth Trust), pp.56-64, 69-76. used by permission.
Editorial Note: Samuel Bolton was Master of Christ's College and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University (1606-1654). The following material is from his book, The
True Bounds of Christian Freedom, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, P.O. Box 652, Carlisle, Pennsylvania 17013.
Are Christians Freed From the Moral Law As a Rule of Obedience?
And so we come to speak of the moral law which is scattered throughout the whole Bible, and summed up in the Decalogue. For substance, it contains such things as are good and holy, and agreeable to the will of God, being the image of the divine will, a beam of His holiness, the sum of which is love to God and love to man . . .
Indeed, the law, as it is considered as a rule, can no more be abolished or changed
than the nature of good and evil can be abolished and changed. The substance
of the law is the sum of doctrine concerning piety towards God, charity towards
our neighbours, temperance and sobriety towards ourselves. And for the substance
of it, it is moral and eternal, and cannot be abrogated. We grant that the circumstances
under which the moral law was originally given were temporary and changeable,
and we have now nothing to do with the promulgator, Moses, nor with the place
where it was given, Mount Sinai, nor with the time when it was given, fifty days
after the people came out of Egypt, nor yet as it was written in tables of stone,
delivered with thunderings and lightnings. We look not to Sinai, the hill of
bondage, but to Zion, the mountain of grace. We take the law as the image of
the will of God which we desire to obey, but from which we do not expect life
and favour, neither do we fear death and rigor. This, I conceive, is the concurrent
opinion of all divines. For believers, the law is abrogated in respect of its
power to justify or condemn; but it remains full of force to direct us in our
lives. It condemns sin in the faithful, though it cannot condemn the faithful
for sin. Says Zanchius: 'The observance of the law is necessary for a Christian
man, and it is not possible to separate such observance from faith.' And as Calvin
says: 'Let us put far from us the ungodly notion that the law is not to be our
rule, for it is our changeless rule of life.' The moral law, by its teaching,
admonishing, chiding, and reproving, prepares us for every good work. The law
is void in respect of its power to condemn us, but it still has power to direct
us; we are not under its curse, but yet under its commands.
Again, the moral law is perpetual and immutable. This is an everlasting truth, that the creature is bound to worship and obey his Creator, and so much the more bound as he has received the greater benefits. If we claim to be free from obedience, we make ourselves the servants of sin. But these matters I shall speak more largely upon in the discourse that follows.
Therefore, against that opinion which holds forth the abrogation of the law, and says that we are freed from obedience to it, I shall state and endeavour to make good two propositions which will serve fully to answer the query, and to refute the false notions. The propositions are these:
(1) That the law, for the substance of it (for we speak not of the circumstances and accessories of it), remains as a rule of walking to the people of God.
(2) That there was no end or use for which the law was originally given but is consistent with grace, and serviceable to the advancement of the covenant of grace.
If these two propositions are made good, the doctrines of the abrogation of the law and of freedom from the law will both fall to the ground.
Proposition 1: The Law Remains As a Rule of Walking for the People of God
We shall begin with the first proposition, namely, that the law, in the substance of it, remains in force as a rule of walking to the people of God. I shall not need to stay long over this, for when the second proposition is made good it will be seen that it establishes this also. By the law is meant the moral law comprehended in the Decalogue or ten commandments. By the substance of it, I mean the things commanded or forbidden which are morally good or evil, and cannot be changed or abolished. For what is the law in the substance of it but that law of nature engraven in the heart of man in innocency? and what was that but the express idea or representation of God's own image, even a beam of His own holiness, which cannot be changed or abolished any more than the nature of good and evil can be changed? And that the law thus considered remains as an unchangeable rule of walking to believers I am now to prove.
The Testimony of the Reformed Confessions
For this proof, not to mention individuals whose testimony might be produced, even as many almost as men, we have a cloud of witnesses if we look upon the Confessions of Christian and Reformed Churches in their agreement together. The Helvetian (Swiss) Church has this confession: 'Thus far is the law of God abrogated, in that it has no power to condemn believers . . . Notwithstanding, we do not disdainfully reject the law, but condemn them as heresies which are taught against the law, that it is not a rule of walking.' The French Church has this: 'We believe all the figures of the law to be taken away by the coming of Christ, although the truth and substance of them continue to us in Him, and are fulfilled to us in Him. But the doctrine of the law is used in them both to confirm our life and that we may be the more established in the promises of the Gospel.' Agreeable to this is the Belgic Confession.
The Wittenberg Confession includes this: 'We acknowledge the law of God, whose abridgment is in the Decalogue, to command the best, the most just and perfect works, and we hold that man is bound to obey the moral precepts of the Decalogue. Neither are these precepts which are contained in the apostles' writings a new law, but are branches of the old law.' And again, 'It is needful to teach men that they must not only obey the law, but also how this obedience pleases God.'
The Scottish Church confesses: 'We do not think we are so freed by liberty as if we owed no obedience to the law; we confess the contrary.' The Church of England holds a similar doctrine: 'Although the law given of God to Moses in regard of the rites and ceremonies does not bind Christians, neither is any, although a Christian, loosed from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.' To these testimonies might be added many more.
But it may be that some men regard these Confessions as of no authority and therefore they have no power with them. And indeed, if these things are not proved from the Word of God, they have no power with us. We respect good men and their writings, but we must not build our faith upon them as a sure foundation. This is against our Christian liberty; we cannot be enslaved to the judgments of any. 'To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.' We shall therefore give some proofs out of the Word itself, and then draw arguments from them.
The Testimony of the New Testament
We read in Matt. 5.17-18: 'Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil; for verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.' This seems to be very full and very plain for the continuance of and obligation to the law. And yet there are corrupt readings of these words, and as sinister interpretations. Some would have it to be understood that Christ would not abolish the law until He had fulfilled it. Indeed, He was 'the end of the law', as the apostle speaks in Rom. 10.4, but we must understand this to mean 'the perfecting and consummating end', not 'the destroying and abolishing end' of the law. In Christ the law had an end of perfection and consummation, not of destruction and abolition. It is to be noted that in this verse Christ gives a stricter exposition of the law, and vindicates it from the corrupt glosses of the Pharisees, which surely speaks the continuance, not the abrogation, of the law. And agreeable to this is the language of the apostle in Rom. 3.31: 'Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.' How? Not for justification, for in this respect faith makes it void, but as a rule of obedience, and in this respect faith establishes it. Further, the apostle tells us 'that the law is holy, just and good' and that 'he delighted in the law of God after the inward man' and also that 'with the mind I myself serve the law of God' (Rom. 7.12, 22, 25). With this agrees James 2.8: 'If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture . . . ye do well'. What law this was, he shows in the eleventh verse to be the Decalogue or moral law. Likewise: 'He that saith I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar' (1 John 2.4); also: 'Sin is the transgression of the law' (1 John 3.4).
Therefore, since Christ, who is the best expounder of the law, so largely strengthens and confirms the law (witness the Sermon on the Mount, and also Mark 10.19); since faith does not supplant, but strengthens the law; since the apostle so often presses and urges the duties commanded in the law; since Paul acknowledges that he served the law of God in his mind, and that he was under the law to Christ (1 Cor. 9.21); I may rightly conclude that the law, for the substance of it, still remains a rule of life to the people of God.
But I would add further arguments, beginning with this: If ever the law was a rule of walking, then it is still a rule of walking: this is clear. Either it is still such a rule, or we must shew the time when, as such, it was abrogated. But no such time can be shewed. If it is said that it was abrogated in the time of the Gospel by Christ and His apostles, we reply that no such thing can be proved. It was not so abrogated at that time. If Christ and His apostles commanded the same things which the law required, and forbade and condemned the same things which the law forbade and condemned, then they did not abrogate it but strengthened and confirmed it. And this is what they did: see Matt. 5.19: 'He that breaketh one of the least of these commandments, and teacheth men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but he that shall teach and observe them shall be called (not legal preachers, but) great in the kingdom of heaven.'
Therefore, in that Christ Himself expounded and established the law, by His word and authority, as shown in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew, it shows us the continuance of it; for had it been His will utterly to abolish it, He would rather have declared against it, or have suffered it to die of itself; and would not have vindicated it, and restored it to its purity from the glosses of the Pharisees. All this clearly speaks to us of the continuance of, and obligation to, the law.
As with Christ, so with the apostles: instead of abolishing, in their doctrine they establish it, frequently urging the duties of the law upon the churches and people of God: 'Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves' (Rom. 12.19). Why? 'For it is written, Vengeance is mine'. Likewise, in Rom. 13.8-10. There the apostle repeats the commandments of the second table, not to repeal or reverse any of them, but to confirm them as a rule of walking for the saints. He comprehends them all in this: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, for love is the fulfilling of the law.' As Beza writes: 'Love is not perfected except as the fulfilling of the law.' See also 1 Thess. 4.3, 4, 7: 'This is the will of God . . . that ye should abstain from fornication . . . that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter; because that the Lord is the avenger of all such.' See also Eph. 6.1: 'Children, obey your parents in the Lord.' The apostle here presses this duty from the authority of the precept, and persuades to it from the graciousness of the promise, 'for this is the first commandment with promise'—a conditional promise (as Beza says), as are all such promises as are found in the law. As full and plain are the words of the apostle in Rom. 3.31: 'Do we abrogate the law? No, we establish it by faith.' Though it carries another sense, it bears this sense also, that though we disown the law in respect to justification, yet we establish it as a rule of Christian living.
Again, in Matt. 3.10 we read: 'The axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire'; and in Matt. 5.22: 'Whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.' In these and sundry other places, so some learned and holy divines tell us, the comminations and threatenings of the New Testament are not of the nature of the Gospel, but are confirmation of the law, and plainly demonstrate to us the continuance of the law under grace. Thus Daniel Chamier1 distinguishes in the Gospel between the doctrine of the Gospel and the grace of the Gospel, between the preaching of the Gospel by Christ and the apostles and the law of faith or spirit of life in Christ. The preaching or doctrine of the Gospel, he tells us, contains two things, first the promise of grace, and second, the confirmation of the law. And he shows that all those comminations and threats which we read in the Scriptures of the New Testament in no way belong to the nature of the Gospel properly so called, but are the confirmation of the law, and declare the continuation of it now under the Gospel as an exact rule to direct Christians in their walk and obedience
Application Against Papists
The foregoing will serve to show the error of the Papists in their unjust
charge against us that we make it a part of our Christian liberty to be exempted
from all law and to live as we list, and that we are not bound to the obedience
of any law in conscience before God. We appeal to all the Reformed Churches
in the Christian world, whether ever any of them did put forth such an opinion
as this. It is the concurrent opinion of all Reformed Churches that Christians
are subject to the rule, the direction, and the authority of the moral law,
as says Chamier: 'Believers are free from the curses, not from the obligations
of the law.' We preach obedience to the law, but not as the Papists do. They
preach obedience as a means to justification; we preach justification as
a means to obedience. We cry down works in opposition to grace in justification,
and we cry up obedience as the fruits of grace in sanctification. He that
does not walk in obedience is a stranger yet to Christ; and he that rests
in his obedience does not know Christ. Indeed, many are too much like the
Jews still. God set up a law as a rule of walking, and they look for justification
by it. These poor men are like oxen in the yoke; they draw and toil and spend
their strength (for who do more than those who think to earn merit thereby?),
and when they have performed their labour, they are fatted up for slaughter.
So it is with these: when they have endeavoured hard after their own righteousness,
they perish in their just condemnation. These men Luther fitly calls 'the
devil's martyrs': they suffer much, and take much pains to go to hell. The
apostle tells them what they are to expect: 'For as many as are of the works
of the law are under the curse' (Gal. 3.10), that is, those who are under
the works of the law for justification; and the apostle gives the reason,
'for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things
which are written in the book of the law to do them'. These men seek life
in death, righteousness in sin. And, alas, we are all too apt to follow this
line; it is hard to perform all righteousness and rest in none; hard to be
in duties in respect of performance, and out of duties in respect of dependence.
We are apt to weave a web of righteousness of our own, to spin a thread of
our own by which we may climb up to heaven. Were it not so, what is the need
for so many exhortations and admonitions to perform all righteousness but
to rest in none? The Scripture does not make a practice of killing flies
with beetles,2 or cleaving straws with wedges of iron; nor does it spend many admonitions and exhortations where there is no need.
Alas, there are multitudes in the world who make a Christ of their own works, and this is their undoing. They look for righteousness and acceptance more in the precept than in the promise, in the law rather than in the Gospel, more in working than in believing; and so they miscarry. There is something of this spirit in us all; otherwise we should not be up and down so much in respect of our comforts and our faith, as is still so often the case. We become cast down with every weakness in ourselves. But we should be all in Christ in weak performance, and nothing in ourselves in strong performances.
Application Against Antinomians
We look next at the case of those who are called Antinomians.3 Just
as the Papists set up the law for justification, so the Antinomians decry the
law for sanctification. We claim to be free from the curses of the law; they
would have us free from the guidance, from the commands of the law. We say we
are free from the penalties, but they would abolish the precepts of the law.
They tell us that we make a false mixture together of Christ and Moses, and that
we mingle law and Gospel together. How unjustly they lay this charge against
us let men of understanding judge. We cry down the law in respect of justification,
but we set it up as a rule of sanctification. The law sends us to the Gospel
that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire
what is our duty as those who are justified. Whatever they say of the law, though
they cast contempt and disgrace upon it, and upon those who preach it, yet we
know that, for the substance of it, it is the image of God, a beam of His holiness.
The things therein commanded and forbidden are things morally, and therefore
eternally, good and evil; nothing can alter the nature of them. Things not by
nature either good or evil are alterable by him that commanded them. But those
things which are morally good or evil, God can no more alter them than make evil
good, or good evil. That which was morally good formerly is morally good now,
and is to be pursued and practiced. That which was formerly morally evil is morally
evil now, and is to be shunned and avoided. We have a Gospel rule which turns
us to obedience to the law. We find it in Phil. 4.8: 'Whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are
pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if
there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.' And
I hope the law is of this number. The apostle tells us that the law is 'holy
and just and good'; certainly in it there is nothing commanded but what is good.
If we are to learn of the ant, and from brute beasts, certainly are we much more
to learn from the law, which is the image of God in man and the will of God to
man. We have nothing to do with Moses, nor do we look to Sinai, the hill of bondage,
but we look to Zion, the mountain of grace. We take the law as the eternal rule
of God's will, and we desire to conform ourselves to it, and to breathe out with
David, '0 that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!' Certainly the law
and the Gospel help one another; they lend one another the hand, as says Peter
The law is subservient to the Gospel. Its purpose is to convince and humble us, and the Gospel is to enable us to fulfill the obedience of the law. The law sends us to the Gospel for our justification; the Gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life. Our obedience to the law is nothing else but the expression of our thankfulness to God who has freely justified us, that 'being redeemed, we might serve Him without fear' (Luke 1.74). Though our service is not the motive or impelling cause of God's redeeming of us, yet it is the purpose of our redemption. The apostle shows this at length in the sixth chapter of Romans; it is the application he makes of the doctrine of free justification. He continues: 'Therefore, brethren, we are debtors' (Rom. 8.12). If Christ has freed us from the penalties, how ought we to subject ourselves to the precepts! If He has delivered us from the curses, how ought we to study the commands! If He paid our debt of sin, certainly we owe a debt of service.
This was the great end of our redemption; He redeemed us from bondage and brought us into freedom, from slavery to service. That which Christ has redeemed us to, He cannot be said to redeem us from; but He has redeemed us unto service, and therefore cannot be said to redeem us from service. Indeed, He has freed us from the manner of our obedience, but not from the matter of our obedience. We now obey, but it is from other principles, by other strength, unto other ends, than we did before.
Previously, the principles of obedience were legal and servile, now they are filial and evangelical. As the law was given with evangelical purposes, so it is now kept from evangelical principles, principles of faith, love, and delight, which causes the soul to obey, and facilitates the whole of obedience. The love of Christ constrains (2 Cor. 5.14), yet is the obedience free. Love knows no difficulties; things impossible to others are easy to them that love. The grounds of obedience differ: heretofore, fear, now love. Previously the strength was our own; now we have fellowship with the strength of Christ. Our works are said to be wrought in God, by union with Him (John 3.21), and by fellowship with Him. As we can do nothing without Him, so we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. And this strength He has promised: 'The Lord hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people, as he hath promised thee, and that thou shouldest keep all his commandments' (Deut. 26.18). He tells us that He works all our works of grace in us, and of duty for us.
The ends before were for justification and life; now they are for other ends — to glorify God, to dignify the Gospel, to declare our sincerity, to express our thankfulness. Before, we obeyed, but out of compulsion of conscience; now we obey out of the promptings of nature, which, so far as it works, works to God, as naturally as stones move downward or sparks fly upward. Thus, then, it is that we preach the law, not in opposition to, but in subordination to the Gospel, as we shall show at length later.
Application to All Believers
Lastly, under this head, let me exhort you all to judge of the law aright, and then let it be your care to maintain it. Let not Moses take the place of Christ; but, at the same time, make a right use of Moses. When works and obedience take their right place, when the law is rightly used, then it is holy, just and good. But if we use it as our life, then we trample the blood of Christ underfoot, and make His life and death in vain. Let the servant follow the Master; let Moses follow Christ; the law, grace; obedience, faith; and then all act their proper and designed parts. Remember what Zacharias said: 'You were redeemed that you might serve' (Luke 1.74), that you might live unto Him that died for you. Reason from mercy to duty, not from mercy to liberty. 0 beware that the great things of Christ do not make you more careless! Take heed not to abuse mercy. It is a sad thing when Christians abuse the grace of Christ. The justice of God prevails with others; oh, but God would have His tender mercies prevail with you: 'I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice' (Rom. 12.1). The reasonings of saints are to be from engagements of mercy to enlargements in duty (2 Cor. 5.14 and 7.1). Having such precious promises, let us purge ourselves from all corruptions of the flesh and spirit. None but venomous spirits will, spider-like, suck poison from such sweets, or draw such inferences from mercy as may be encouragements to sin.
It would be a sad matter if believers should grow more slack and sluggish; if that which should quicken them slackens their hands; if a man should say in his heart, Christ died, I need not pray so much; Christ has done all, therefore I need do nothing. The doctrine we advance should strengthen and not weaken your engagement to duty, should heighten and not lessen your engagement to duty; it should quicken and not deaden your hearts' affections; it should inflame and not cool your spirits.
Worse still would it be if we should draw arguments to sin from mercy received. Should that become a spur which should be the greatest curb? 'Shall we sin because grace abounds?' (Rom. 6.1 ).'There is mercy with thee, that thou mayest be feared', says the Psalmist (130.4), not that I may sin, but that I may serve. You whom the law has sent to the Gospel, let the Gospel again send you to the law; study now your duty; abundance of mercy calls for abundance of duty. If God had not abounded in mercy, what would have become of us? And has He abounded in mercy? Oh, then, let us abound in duty; let us obey for God's sake who gives us His Son; for Christ's sake who has given Himself that we might give ourselves to God; for faith's sake which is dead without obedience. It is the cry of faith, Give me children, else I die. Obey for the sake of your profession of His Name. Adorn the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. What a shame if it should be said of us that faith cannot do that which unbelief is able to do! What will Turks and Mohammedans say— Look, these are the people who reverence Christ! These are the servants of the crucified God! They profess Christ and yet will forswear and will sin against Christ!' What will Papists say? 'These are they who preach faith, and yet are strangers to obedience, and live in sin.'
No, let the righteousness of the law be fulfilled in us; let us walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit' (Rom. 8.4). The law is a royal law: 'If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture', says James, 'ye do well' (2.8). It is a royal law, that we might live royally above the ordinary rank of men in obedience. 'Receive not the grace of God in vain' (2 Cor. 6.1). If you receive it not in vain, you will have power to will, and power to do; you will prize grace and walk thankfully. It was wittily spoken by one — and there is some truth in the saying—' Live as though there were no Gospel; die as though there were no law. Pass the time of this life in the wilderness of this world under the conduct of Moses; but let none but Joshua bring you over into Canaan, the promised land.'
The saying agrees thus far with Scripture. Moses was a man of the law; he gave the law and he is often taken as representing the law: 'They have Moses and the prophets' (Luke 16.29); 'There is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust' (John 5.45). Joshua was a type of Christ; his name signifies so much; he was Jesus, so called in Heb. 4.8: 'If Jesus', that is, Joshua, 'could have given them rest'. Moses must lead the children of Israel through the wilderness, but Joshua must bring them into Canaan. So while you are in the wilderness of this world, you must walk under the conduct of Moses; you must live in obedience to the law. But it is not Moses but Joshua, not works but faith, not obedience but Christ, who must bring you into Canaan. Do what you can while you live; but be sure to die resting on Christ's merits.
This must suffice under our first main proposition; that the substance of the law is a rule of obedience to the people of God, and that to which they are to conform their lives and their walk now under the Gospel. This we have proved by the Scriptures, by a cloud of witnesses, by the concordant testimony of the Reformed Churches. We have strengthened this by many arguments, and given some applications of the doctrine.
1 Chamier (1566-1621) served various Reformed congregations in France. He was killed by a cannon-ball during the siege of Montauban.
2 A long-handled, heavy-headed hammer
3 The term may have been coined by Luther, but its use in England
appears to date from 1644. Literally, it means 'against law', and was used to
describe professing Christians who claimed that the moral law was not binding
upon them. Hence with many it came to signify a person holding loose moral Standards,