The Legal and Moral Aspects of Salvation
Part 2 (of 3)
In Part 1 of this series we saw that there are two aspects of salvation — the legal and the moral. Sin is guilt (legal) as well as pollution (moral). The atonement was a satisfaction made to the divine law (legal) as well as a demonstration of God's love to change our hearts (moral). Salvation consists in a change in our standing before the law, which is called justification (legal), as well as a change in our state, which is called sanctification (moral).
In the centuries which followed the apostolic age the church increasingly confused these two aspects of redemption. This meant that man's right standing or acceptance with God was made to rest on his personal moral renewal. While it was maintained that this moral renewal was accomplished by grace, salvation still rested on the internal righteousness of religious man.
It is no exaggeration for Koslin (The Theology of Luther, pp.77, 78) to say that Luther was 'the first great clear preacher of the righteousness of faith sent to the Christian Church since the days of the apostle Paul." It is doubtful if the early church ever really understood or appreciated the real force of St. Paul's doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness. Niebuhr1 is probably right when he suggests that the church was unable to grasp the truth of Pauline theology until she had adequately tried the alternatives and found them bankrupt.
At any rate, the Reformers made a clear distinction between the legal and moral aspects of redemption (i.e., between justification and sanctification). They went further and maintained the primacy of the legal over the moral. This was a revolution which broke through the medieval system and swept the consciousness of Western man with such tempestuous fury that it changed the history of Christendom — religiously, economically, politically and socially.
The Primacy of the Legal
1. In the Matter of Sin. Sin must be viewed as guilt (Rom. 3:19)
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Romans 3:19
as well as pollution (Job 14:1-4; Jer. 17:9).
Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. 2 He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. 3 And dost thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee? 4 Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one. Job 14:1-4
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9
In the theology of Romanism sin is thought of primarily in terms of pollution. Consequently, salvation is thought of primarily in terms of moral renewal. That which makes a sinner acceptable to God is said to be an inner transformation (gratia infusa) which removes the offense of inner pollution. Original Protestantism, however, being a revival of Pauline thought, saw sin primarily as guilt — man's indebtedness to the law.
Here we see a strange paradox. The opponents of the Reformation saw sin primarily as a moral defect in man, but they had a shallow view of the utter ruin of man and how that moral defect permeates every part of his existence. The proponents of the Reformation saw sin primarily as man's guilt before the law, yet it was they who had such a profound view of man's moral condition that they held the doctrine of "total depravity."2
2. In the Matter of the Atonement. There are two major aspects of the atonement. (1) There is the aspect of Christ's bearing our judicial punishment or penal satisfaction. This is often (and rightly) referred to as the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. (2) Also, there is the aspect of the revelation of God's love to the darkened mind of sinful man.
When the second aspect alone is stressed (or even overshadows the first), we have what is known in theology as "the moral influence theory of the atonement." It goes along with the idea that sin is not a legal problem (guilt) but solely a moral problem (pollution). With a good deal of plausibility it argues that it was not God but man who changed in the Fall, and therefore salvation only consists in changing man. Man's heart needs reconciling to God, and in order to effect this change God must give man such a demonstration of His love that it will work the needed change of attitude in the sinner. The cross is this revelation. In this theory salvation was not wrought out at the cross, but it is a subjective process wrought out in the heart of the sinner. When he repents and believes in God's love (which the cross enables him to do), he is declared right because he is now morally changed and is therefore in a right relationship with God. In the words of those advocating the moral influence view of the atonement, the so enlightened sinner is now "safe to save".
We do not deny that there is a great moral influence factor in the atonement. After all, did not Paul say that the love of Christ, demonstrated in His dying "for all," constrained him to live for Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: 15 And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
The error of the moral influence theory of atonement lies more in what it denies. To be specific:
a. It denies the reality of the divine law, its sentence against sinners, and the wrath of God incurred because of sin.
b. It fails to appreciate that the reconciliation in Christ's act of atonement was something which took place for us and in our interest while we were still God's enemies (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:20-22).
For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. Romans 5:10
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. 21 And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled 22 In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: Colossians 1:20-22
This was therefore something which took place objective to us and was not a subjective process.
c. It reduces the love of God to mere exhibitionism. If a man jumped into the sea and drowned just to prove his "love," he would be pronounced crazy. "Love" which is not based on some necessity is exhibitionism. If, on the other hand, a man jumped into a dangerous sea in order to save someone from drowning and lost his life in the process, we could appreciate this as genuine love. In like manner, the death of Christ was absolutely necessary for our salvation. Justice must be carried out. The honor of the law must be upheld. Only the One who is both Lawgiver and Offended Party could save us in this situation. ". . . without shedding of blood is no remission of sins" (Heb. 9:22). The divine process of saving us was as necessary as the love God had toward us. But in the moral influence theory the process of atonement becomes practically irrelevant.
It is undoubtedly true that Paul, being a lawyer and judge,3 taught the legal doctrine of atonement. It is especially his way of interpreting the Christ event. The juridical nature of his gospel is clearly borne out by his frequent use of such words as law, justification, judgment, judge, righteousness, wrath, condemnation, guilt, etc. Further, he sees the atonement as a propitiation (Rom. 3:25),
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; Romans 3:25
a reconciliation (Rom. 5:10),
For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. Romans 5:10
and a redemption (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:13)
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:Romans 3:24
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: Galatians 3:13
which took place external to us. Certainly Paul's epistles bear out that a moral transformation is made possible through, and springs from, the atonement, but the atonement itself is seen as a juridical and legal transaction between the Father and the Son. It did for us, in reverse, what Adam's Fall did for us.
We must remember that the apostles wrote out of the background of the Old Testament and the whole history and education of Israel. The basis of this background was law and the demand for righteousness to match its claims. The evangelical message of the New Testament is always presented in its relation to the legal demand of the Old Testament. In the book of Romans, for instance, Paul is careful to reiterate the inexorable legal demand (Rom. 2:13)
(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) Romans 2:13-15
before he goes on to show how this demand is met in Christ's substitutionary work. This is not negation of the law but its true honoring (Rom. 3:31).
Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. Romans 3:31
Paul only negates law as a method of salvation, not as a valid demand of a righteous God.
The Reformers thought of the atonement primarily in terms of satisfaction rather than moral influence. In this they followed on from Anselm rather than from Abelard. In the eleventh century Anselm had done some great work on the doctrine of the atonement. He argued for the necessity of the atonement on the grounds of the holiness of God's nature, and in this he made a great contribution. But he still left the doctrine largely in the realm of the abstract. The Reformers were the first men since the apostles to concretely relate the atonement to the law of God. Says Dr. George Smeaton:
A further explanation of truth was reserved for the Reformation, by penetrating more deeply into the nature of the divine Law than was ever discovered by the great scholastic [Anselm]. What his theory wanted, indeed, was a full recognition of the claims of the divine law, and of the atonement as a satisfaction of these claims in all their breadth and extent. . . .
Previous theories wanted (lacked) a full recognition of the claims of the divine law, and of the atonement as a satisfaction of these claims in all their extent; and this became the element in which the theology of the Reformation moved, and by which all other truth was coloured. . . . Their main position, to which they were conducted by deeper views of the extent of the law, and of its unbending claims, was that Christ's satisfaction was perfectly identical with that which men should themselves have rendered; and in the atonement they read off the unalterable claims of the divine law —George Smeaton, The Atonement According to Christ and His Apostles (republished by Sovereign Grace Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan).
We will not here take the time and space to cite many references from Luther and Calvin which amply support what Smeaton says. Anyone who takes the trouble to read these Reformers will know that they believed Christ's death was made necessary by God's law. They taught that the atonement was the satisfaction rendered to the divine law on our behalf. That which God's law required He provided for us in the doing and dying of Jesus Christ. His atonement was all that God's law requires of us, so that any man who believes in this is credited with all that Christ has done on his behalf and therefore stands as righteous in the eyes of the law. Faith in the atonement is not seen as a means of setting aside the demands of the law but as a method of meeting them.
A critic of the legal view of the atonement might argue that this is doing away with the truth of the moral influence of the cross. After all, does not the contemplation of God's love seen in the cross become a mighty factor in inward transformation? This we do not deny but gladly affirm!! Yet what we must point out is that a correct moral influence is based on the correct (legal) view of Christ's atonement. When we see Christ's death in its relation to the law (legal), it shows us the perfect blending of justice and mercy, the sacredness of God's law in that it could not be set aside, and the unrelieved heinousness of sin, which is the transgression of God's law (1 John 3:4).
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. 1 John 3:4
Only in the light of this legal view of the atonement will the moral influence have proper content. Any reformation of life and conduct which is not based on God's law is a religious phony. Of course, God's love revealed in the cross demands something! Jesus said, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). While the law points us to Christ, Christ points us back to the law. But the so-called "moral influence" of the cross cut loose from what the cross was primarily about (satisfaction to God's law) becomes the phantom of human sentiment.
We come back to our premise that the legal aspect of redemption is the root and the moral aspect is the fruit. The legal is primary and always takes precedence over the moral.
If anyone has the slightest doubt about the supremacy of the legal over the moral, let him consider how God dealt with Jesus Christ on the cross. As touching His moral condition, Christ was the righteousness of God. As touching His legal position, He was "numbered with the transgressors." Justice dealt with Him not according to what He was in Himself, but according to His standing in the eyes of the law. We might even say that when the sins of the world were imputed (legally reckoned) to Jesus Christ, He was treated according to His legal position and not according to His moral condition. The legal took precedence over the moral.
There is an eternity of comfort here for the believer. No man on earth is wholly without sin. There remains some depravity of nature in the best saints (1 John 1:8; Ps. 143:2).
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.1 John 1:8
And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified. Psalm 143:2
The man of God is often humbled and humiliated with a sense of his own sinfulness, but he is never cast down. He realizes that the righteousness of Christ is imputed (legally reckoned) as his, and in the eyes of the law he stands as righteous as Christ Himself. God does not deal with him on the basis of his state but on the basis of his standing. God does not behold iniquity in Jacob, for the new covenant promise declares, ". . .the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found . . . " (Jer. 50:20).
What comfort and security, therefore, is found in the truth that the legal takes precedence over the moral! God does not deal with us on the basis of what we are in ourselves, but He treats us according to what we are in Jesus Christ. (see also: Peter Abelard—Roman Catholic Scholar)
3. In the Matter of Soteriology (the study of the doctrine of salvation). If sin is primarily guilt before the law (legal) and if the atonement is a satisfaction to the law (legal), it follows that the legal aspect of salvation must take precedence over the moral aspect. The biblical word justification is a juridical word relating to trial, judgment and law. It is the verdict of the Judge that the one tried stands righteous in the eyes of the law. The best Protestant scholars have always maintained that the verb justify means to declare righteous and not to make righteous. If justify is taken as a making righteous in the subjective sense, then it becomes confounded with sanctification.
Any doubts about the forensic meaning of justification should be put to rest when the how of justification is considered. In Romans 4 the apostle uses the word logizomai (impute, reckon, count) eleven times. Its meaning is transparently clear. The believer is credited with Christ's righteousness because Christ obeyed, even unto death, in the believer's place (Substitute) and in the believer's name (Representative).
The Reformers were not only careful to maintain the legal nature of justification and to distinguish it from sanctification (the moral change), but they contended for the primacy and supremacy of justification over sanctification. Fellowship with God cannot be based on the experience of sanctification but on the imputation of Christ's meeting the claims of the law for us. We can never reach a point in sanctification where fellowship with God does not rest on forgiveness of sins.
It was Rome's great contention that the Protestant doctrine of forensic righteousness was subversive to sanctification. By making acceptance with God rest on inner transformation, Rome argued that she was putting the true value on sanctification.
A true view of theology and history, however, will show us that here was Rome's most fundamental mistake. Calvin's Geneva or Anglo-Saxon Puritanism were not conspicuous for their lack of moral fervor. Could the same thing be said of communities in Spain and southern Europe where the light of the Reformation never penetrated? The fact is that the legal aspect of salvation is the true root of moral renovation. Justification is the mainspring of sanctification.4 Unless the moral aspect rests on the legal and derives its life and direction from the legal, it must wither and die. In fact, it is no longer moral but immoral.
We might illustrate our point by referring to the institution of marriage. Marriage is a reflection of the divine-human relationship. Before a man and woman can rightfully live together, they must be lawful man and wife. The marriage contract is a legal covenant. Holy love is founded on a legal compact. No experience of living together will make the marriage legal. There are those who disparage the value of a marriage contract, calling it "a mere scrap of paper." They think that the only thing which counts is the experience of two people loving one another. But it is soon proved that marriage based on nothing more than experience has no stability or security and is plagued by all sorts of miserable doubts. It is a prostitution of love because it is not after the divine arrangement.
Our fellowship with God is not founded upon our experience of sanctification but upon the oath of the covenant. The idea of covenant runs through the entire Scripture. Covenant is a legal word. It is a contract. Justification constitutes us "married" (legally) to Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:4).
Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. Romans 7:4
God will be no party to spiritual fornication. We must become legally (lawfully, rightfully) His by divine pronouncement before He can live in union with us. Or to change the figure (but not the truth), we must be legally adopted as sons before God can send the Spirit of His Son into our hearts (Gal. 4:5-6). 5
If fellowship with God rests on sanctification, what can the believer do in the day of darkness and trial when he stumbles or is surprised into failures and mistakes? What right can he now claim to fellowship with God when he is vividly confronted with human sinfulness before the face of divine glory? How easily would faith falter, and he would stand disarmed in the midst of his enemies, if he had no oath and covenant to flee to for refuge in the day of storm! Happy is the man who in the hour of test and trial has something better than his own fickle experience upon which to rest.
To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Galatians 4:5-6
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
A woman who ignores a legal relationship and tries to establish a relationship with a man by experience alone is prostituting a fundamental law of life. In the Revelation of St. John, Babylon (which represents all false religion) is called a harlot (Rev. 17:5). Babylon is every system that tries to establish a relationship with God on the basis of man's moral change. Sanctification is a moral change. Justification is its legal basis, and without justification no true sanctification can exist.
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
Let those who imagine that the legal transactions have no reality consider for a moment the world of economics and the great business empires which control manpower and resources. Somewhere in an office a decision is made, papers are drawn up, a contract is signed, and millions of dollars are legally committed to a certain enterprise. As a result of that "scrap of paper" (if you please), a thousand men put muscles into action, bulldozers move mountains, and the lives of a multitude are vitally affected. Any important enterprise must be legally transacted before it can be vitally carried out; and in this respect divine things are no different.
The Results of Neglecting the Legal Aspects of Salvation
Luther often said that if the article of justification is lost, all true Christian doctrine is lost at the same time. We will briefly draw attention to the consequences of neglecting the legal aspects of salvation.
1. First and foremost, the cross of Christ is emptied of real meaning. If Christ did not make satisfaction to the claims of the law on Calvary, then the cross becomes a senseless tragedy or some incomprehensible exhibitionism.
Also, as we pointed out in Part 1 of this series, if the sinner could be saved by moral renewal (Christ in the heart, Spirit baptism, etc.), then it would have been really needless for Christ to suffer and die. If there were no legal claims to meet for human salvation, the cross would be unnecessary and irrelevant. Perhaps this is why we hear so little exposition on the Christ event today but instead are drowned in the "gospel" of the changed life of the believer.
In the non-Christian religions any historical features (if they have any at all) can be eliminated without making any essential difference to the content of these religions. It almost seems that the same thing could be done with so much which passes as the Christian religion today.
2. When the legal aspects of redemption are neglected in favor of the moral renewal emphasis, man becomes the center instead of God. Instead of the New Testament's focal point being God's work in Christ, it becomes God's work in the human heart. Man and his experience inevitably take the spotlight. Man, and not God, becomes the center of religion.
3. When the legal aspects of redemption are removed, the believer has no objective foundation for his salvation. The great acts of God which were done outside of the believer in Jesus Christ are no longer the object and anchor of faith. Then there is no salvation by substitution, representation and imputation. Salvation is reduced to a subjective process in man himself.
4. The legal aspects of redemption are generally neglected in the interests of giving due honor to the reality of the believer's moral renewal. But sanctification which is not based on justification is not legal; and because it is not legal, it is immoral. It does not really build up the believing community but destroys it. Unless morality is based on divine law and the honoring of that law which took place at Calvary, it becomes immorality. This is why the Revelator declares that the religion of great Babylon corrupts the earth (Rev. 11:18; 17:5).
5. The drift away from, and in many cases the outright repudiation of, the legal aspects of redemption betrays the cause of true Protestantism. It spells the triumph of the enemies of the Reformation.
It is commonly thought that the Reformation, being a revolt against legalism, had no such vital interests in the legal aspects of redemption. Such is the superficial view that many have today of the issues at stake in Reformation theology. In fact, many think that they imitate the Reformers and demonstrate their antipathy to legalism by despising the legal aspects of our redemption. They fail to see that legal is lawful, rightful and righteousness, whereas legalism is a perversion of the legal. Legalism is not legal but illegal.
We need close application of thought to reason correctly from cause to effect in this matter. The moral influence theory of atonement leads inevitably to legalism. The idea of acceptance with God on the grounds of moral renewal is legalism. The concept that sin is primarily pollution (moral) and that salvation is effected merely by the process of purging away this pollution is legalism. This whole system proposes that it is the human agent who meets and satisfies the claims of justice by some personal experience (attainment) of his own.
On the other hand, the legal view of sin (guilt before the law), the legal view of Christ's atonement (satisfaction to the law), and the legal doctrine of justification (a setting right in the eyes of the law) kill legalism because they place our salvation wholly in what Another has done for us. The human agent is no longer left with the burden of trying to satisfy the claims of the law either by what he does or by what is done in him. Only that which satisfies God's law will pacify the human conscience; and man's God-created sense of justice will never really be satisfied with forgiveness which is not based on absolute justice.
Therefore the elevation of the moral aspects of salvation above the legal results in legalism and destroys all true morality. On the other hand, when the legal aspects of redemption are given their primacy, legalism is cast down and there is provided a strong and true basis of moral action.
The Reasons for Neglecting the Legal Aspects of Salvation
What we have covered so far amounts to this:
1. The doctrine of justification is neglected, downgraded, unappreciated, misunderstood or rejected outright in the current religious scene. Current evangelicalism, generally speaking, bears very little or no resemblance to Pauline theology or to the type of theology revived in the Reformation.
2. The sad status of justification in the contemporary church stems from a failure to recognize the tremendous importance of the legal aspects of redemption.
What we must now consider is the real reason why the contemporary church fails to come to terms with the legal aspects of redemption. It is because she has either neglected or rejected the proper place of the law of God in Christian theology.
Everybody knows that the Reformation was the great enemy of legalism. But somehow a subtle evolution has taken place whereby the antipathy toward legalism has been transferred to the law itself. Gordon H. Clark points out that legalism has now acquired a new meaning. Whereas it used to designate a theory of justification by works, now it is used to designate (and denigrate) any obligation to obey objective laws — as if amorphous love replaces definite commands.6 Clark blames the liberals for putting the odium of legalism on any attitude of respect for the law. Although Clark's point is well taken, we cannot agree that the liberal wing of the church is wholly responsible for this state of affairs.
The fact is that we evangelicals are often guilty of presenting the gospel in such a way that it engenders contempt and disrespect for divine law. A continual harping that we are saved by faith and not by good works can even convey the idea that God does not care for law, justice or good works. The fact is that the righteous God has such a passionate regard for good works and such a high standard of acceptable obedience that fallen sinners are utterly unable to meet this just demand. A man who tries to be justified by the works of the law is not condemned because he keeps the law but because he fails to keep it (see Gal. 3:10).
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: 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. Galatians 3:10
Paul acknowledges that there is a valid righteousness of the law. If a man could keep it (at all times and without any default or failure in any point), he would be justified (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12; see also Ps. 106:3; James 2:10).
For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. Romans 10:5
And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Galatians 3:12
Legalism is damnable not because it honors the law, but because it dishonors it! The legalist presumes that God's high and mighty demand of righteousness is going to be satisfied by the imperfect, broken obedience of a creature whose best actions are always defiled by the corrupt channel of human nature. The law, being no respecter of persons (for even Christ Himself had to suffer its penalty), will not accept any person who fails to render its due of perfect righteousness (see Rom. 2:13).
(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. Romans 2:13
Reflecting on this, Calvin says, "We therefore willingly confess that perfect obedience to the law is perfect righteousness." —Institutes, Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 7). "The Lord promises nothing except to perfect keepers of the law." —Ibid., sec. 1. And Luther could even say, '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 (American ed.; Muhlenberg Press; Concordia, 1955- ), Vol. 31, p.348.
The gospel teaches us that we are saved solely by the work of Christ. But in what did His work consist? He did for us what we were obligated to do. Says Calvin, "For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon Himself, he reconciled us to God as if we had kept the law." —Institutes, Bk. 2, chap. 17, sec 5. Faith is said to justify not because we are rendered righteous before God on account of faith and not because faith itself pleases God more than obedience to His law, but simply because faith lays hold of Christ's perfect obedience, with which the law is well pleased. Unless we clearly see that justification honors and establishes the law (Rom. 3:31),
Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. Romans 3:31
we are not seeing the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.
In an excellent discussion on the meaning of justification, Leon Morris points out that the whole biblical conception of justification "witnesses to the importance of law in the divine economy. " —Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p.293. This is so because justification is a legal term which relates to law and may be defined as a setting right before the law. Morris also says:
Justification is not an isolated concept. It is part of a whole way of viewing God and the world which sees in law a means of understanding the divine ordering of things. To the men of the Old Testament God was a God of law, and a very great deal in their religion cannot be understood if this is lost sight of. . . . Law is thus not simply a demand that God makes on His people: it is the way He can be relied upon to act according to law. —Ibid., pp.253, 255, 257.
But we cannot do without justification with its insistence that part of what was done on Calvary concerned the inflexible law which is at the very basis of the being of God. The law was honored in the process whereby forgiveness was wrought. —Ibid., p.296.
The message of justification can only make sense in a context where the law of God is taken in the radical seriousness that the Bible demands. A man has to be pressed with his obligation to meet the claims of the law, and he must realize that there is no hope of life eternal unless the law of perfect justice is satisfied. As Luther says, he must learn "through the commandments to recognize his helplessness" and to become "distressed about how he might fulfill the law." —Luther's Works, Vol.31, p.348. But does the hearer who sits under the invitation of modern evangelicalism ("Let Christ into your heart . . . solve all your problems . . . put zip into life . . . satisfy all your needs") become obsessed with a consuming passion to be right before the law of God? Does he cry out, "Here is God's holy will! How can I meet and satisfy these claims?" The following comments by Dr. J. I. Packer hit the nail on the head:
Protestants of today (whose habit it is to take pride in being modern) are accordingly disinclined to take seriously the uniform biblical insistence that God's dealing with man is regulated by law. . . . Thus modern Protestantism really denies the validity of all the forensic terms in which the Bible explains to us our relationship with God.
The modern Protestant, therefore, is willing to see man as a wandering child, a lost prodigal needing to find a way home to his heavenly Father, but, generally speaking, he is not willing to see him as a guilty criminal arraigned before the Judge of all the earth. The Bible doctrine of justification, however, is the answer to the question of the convicted lawbreaker: how can I get right with God's law? How can I be just with God? Those who refuse to see their situation in these terms will not, therefore, take much interest in the doctrine. Nobody can raise much interest in the answer to a question which, so far as he is concerned, never arises. Thus modern Protestantism, by its refusal to think of man's relationship with God in the basic biblical terms, has knocked away the foundation of the gospel of justification, making it seem simply irrelevant to man's basic need.—"Introductory Essay" to James Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification.
In the theology of the Reformers the relation between law and gospel was clearly defined and quite fully spelled out. They spelled out what became known as "the three uses of the law":
1. The law has a social use in the sense that its preaching and knowledge restrains sin in society in general.
2. The law has a "pedagogic" use in that it is a mirror which points out sin and causes us to see our need of Christ's free salvation.
3. The law is a rule of life for the believer in that it shows what works are good and pleasing to God and what sins to avoid.
The liberal wing of the church have advocated such things as ethical relativism and situation ethics, but they are not the only ones guilty of abandoning "the third use of the law." Evangelicals often have their own brand of antinomianism, cloaked in such pious-sounding phrases as "Christ will live the victorious life for you," "Love takes the place of any external commandment," "When you are guided by the Holy Spirit, you do not need the law." They are wiser than Paul, who filled all his Epistles with moral and ethical imperatives.
It is perfectly biblical to preach that the law is abolished for the believer as a means of salvation, but it is sheer antinomian heresy to say that it is done away with as a rule of life. All creature existence is subject to law, and the man who says "I am subject to no law" has immediately introduced his own law — just like the fellow who gets up and says "There are no absolutes" has introduced his own absolute.
Except for some Lutheran and Reformed groups and a few others, the evangelical movement proclaims that the law is done away with as a rule of life. In his book, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Bethany Fellowship), Lutheran scholar John Warwick Montgomery draws attention to this widespread rejection of the law's third use and calls it "sanctification desanctified" (see pp.423-428).
The matter really does not stop with a rejection of the law's third use. Upon the third use of the law depends the other two uses. It is not possible to pick and choose here, for the three uses hang together. If one goes, they all go.
Let us illustrate what we mean. How can the law effectively point out sin and lead to Christ (second use) if the law is not presented and accepted as a valid rule of life (third use)? It is only the person who comes to grips with the law's radical demand, knowing that he should keep it and wanting to keep it, who will be struck down by the law with a sense of sin and utter helplessness. If God does not seriously intend men to keep His law, how can it effectively point out sin?
Suppose that the preacher says what he really thinks: "Here is God's law. It is out of date, and God does not intend that believers should keep it or pay it any respect nowadays — only the legalists do that. But it does have a certain use: if you take a look at this antiquated law, it will act as a mirror and point out sin so that you will see your need of Jesus Christ." Ridiculous! Under these circumstances the law would not convict anyone, nor will it unless it is presented in what Calvin clearly saw was its original design — God's changeless rule of life (third use).
Furthermore, if the third use of the law is abandoned, so is the first use — as a restraint upon society. If what we say here is true, it means that a lot of the blame for the breakdown of morality in society, the spirit of permissiveness and disrespect for law, must be laid at the door of the church, which is supposed to be as salt (a preservative element) in society.
The opponents of the Reformation in the sixteenth century maintained that Luther and Calvin's doctrine of forensic righteousness would result in moral permissiveness and a great breakdown of the social order. Many good Roman Catholics today, looking at the condition of modern Protestantism, sincerely feel that their apprehension about the Protestant doctrine is justified. For the most part, modern Protestantism is soft and flabby through lack of moral discipline. There often appears to be more respect for the divine law and reverence for God among Catholics than among Protestants; and if there is to be another and final Reformation, the most favorable soil for it might well be found outside the mainstream of modern Protestantism.
One thing is certain. Justification, which concerns the legal aspect of human redemption, will never be understood or make any sense except to those who respect God's law and take its demands seriously. To them the doctrine of justification will be no root out of the dry ground but the sweetest message under heaven.
(To be continued)
1 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 2.
2 "Total depravity" does not mean that a man is as bad as he may be, but it means that there is no part of man's existence which is not tainted with sin.
3 Paul was a former member of the Sanhedrin— a sort of supreme court in Israel,
4 See our brochure, How to Live the Victorious Life, which discusses this point quite fully.
5 Prior to justification the Spirit works upon the heart of the sinner in a drawing, wooing process leading to repentance and faith. After justification the Spirit indwells the believer. The difference is as clear as the relationship of a man to a woman before and after marriage.
6 See Art. "Concerning Justification," Christianity Today, Mar.