Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thoughts on the Moral Law and Justification...

In a FaceBook exchange a while back, someone said that the third use of the law was operative in the sanctification of the Christian's life, i.e. in force or in effect. That's a pretty standard Reformed sound bite. But what does that mean? How is the moral law operative in the lives of Christians? Are we to live by keeping the moral law? I think how one answers that question determines whether one falls into a legal view of sanctification or a gospel view. The Westminster Larger Catechism points the way:
WLC Q. 97. What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate? 
A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.
In beginning to answer the question of how Christians are to use the moral law, it's significant that the Divines, first and foremost, remind the believer of his justification. Christians are delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works. They are no longer under the "law" (Rom 6:14b)  and therefore they are no longer under the condemnation of the law (Rom 8:1). They are under grace as a covenant though faith in Christ. Likewise, they are no longer under the law of works as a path or way to keep their justification, or for that matter their salvation (Eph 2:8-9). WSC 33 states: 
Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. 
This is the starting point for the third use of the law. Why remind the believer of what the Confession of Faith, as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechism's have already taught? Because we are by nature legalists, born under the law as a covenant of works. Written on our heart is "Do this and live." Though believers we are still sinners who have a bent towards justifying ourselves. And that's what sinners do. Yet how futile! And because of sin we attempt to do that law-keeping by the corrupt tendency within ourselves to water down the law's standards and elevate the quality of our obedience. If we are going to talk about the moral law in the lives of sinners/saints we need to again and again emphasize the ground of grace upon which they stand.

The first use of the law in believer's lives that the Divines refer to is the "general uses thereof common to them with all men" which is the topic of Question 95:
Q. 95. Of what use is the moral law to all men? 
A. The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly; to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives: to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery, and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience.
So the law informs believers of God's holy nature. It teaches that their duty, as those made in the image of God, is to live in a godly way defined by God's moral law as revealed in Scripture (summed up in the Ten Commandments but not limited to those ten words). And that standard of holy living is non-negotiable. As Jesus taught in Matthew 5, "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Created in his image and likeness, God's children are meant to be morally like him. Considering that high requirement, it's crucial that believing sinners having a proper view of their natural state as well as having their feet firmly planted on the ground of God's free grace of justification.
... to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives: to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery, and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience.
As the hymn states, "all other ground is sinking sand." The moral law continues in the lives of believers to convince them of their disability to meet the law's requirements and point them to their salvation in Christ who as their Mediator fulfilled all of the law for them - For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:4). This is true even though we continue to fall short of the moral law in thought, word, and deed. So the law, as described in this function general to all men including believers, continues to discover to God's people the sinful pollutions which remain in their lives.

This brings us back to Answer 97 and the first mention of the laws' use specific to believers.
Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.
Sounds like our justification in Christ is front and center when it comes to thankfully giving care to conform ourselves more and more to the law as a rule of obedience.

In a sense the gospel of grace scares us. Sinners saved by grace, we are completely dependent (like an infant in his mother's arms) solely on God's initiating and continuing love and grace which he has given in Christ. We don't have and will never have control over that by our works. To paraphrase the Tom Petty song, we were 'free falling' to our death except that the grace and love of God was poured out on us in the Beloved who caught us. And it is that same  sovereign grace that now holds us. Getting used to grace is getting used to God loving us, despite the good that we don't bring to the table and despite the bad that we do. God, apart from our doings, chose us in Christ, sent his Son to die on the cross for us, and Jesus, now at the right hand of the Father, secures our salvation by his mediation in heaven for us. How to explain that? With Paul, I think we'll spend the rest of our lives seeking to comprehend "with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge..."

Christians can walk and chew gum at the same time. As a reasonable and thankful response to God's grace in Christ we can take seriously Christ's command to follow him in accord with the rule of righteousness found in the moral law. And as we walk that path of righteousness our eyes of faith are fixed, not on own works - as if to measure or ascertain some kind of progress, but only upon Christ Jesus as our righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

5 comments:

  1. I don't want to deny that God has written standards (commands) so Christians know what they ought to do, even though I would put the emphasis on the law of Christ rather than the Mosaic law. But I am also tempted to say with some Lutherans, that we don't "use" the law because law "cannot be domesticated". What I mean is this---all God's use of the law tends to be "first use"---even for Christians the law shows us our sins and shows us our need for the gospel.

    Lee Irons---the third use of the Law in the Reformed tradition can easily drift toward legalism. The Reformed tradition on the Law is not legalistic in the hard sense of asserting that we are justified by the Law. But I wonder if it sufficiently guards against the idea that we are sanctified by the Law.”

    Exegetical study of Paul’s teaching on the Law has convinced me that it is impossible to separate the stipulations of the Law from the sanctions. The very fact that the stipulations are telling you to do something or warning you against disobedience implies that they are speaking to you apart from your union with Christ, as if you were not doing what the Law required or as if you might be tempted not to. The Law of Christ speaks to us from a totally different, new covenant ethical framework. It speaks to us in a voice which implies that the Law’s demands have already been completely satisfied.... .If the Law itself has been abolished in an ontological sense, we would be saying that the merit of Christ has also been abolished. Thus, as Paul argues so eloquently in 1 Cor. 9:21/Rom. 7:1-6, we have died to the Law, not in order to be anomos, as if we were now widows without a husband, but in order to be ennomos Christou, married to another.

    http://www.upper-register.com/papers/married_to_another.html

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    1. I basically agree, Mark. except I would say, and I think the WLC teaches, that the law for the believer ( third use) incorporates as primary the first use. We never graduate from having our sin discovered to us and needing to flee to Christ. Then gratitude and renewed obedience which is only our duty as image bearers.

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  2. Yes and Amen, Jack. Thank you for engaging the Westminster Standards in this discussion. Grace boys and obedience boys who subscribe to them should do likewise. As you know, Belgic Confession 24, last paragraph, is beee-u-tiful in expressing the importance and priority of justification as we consider sanctification and good works.

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  3. ee Irons--To be driven again to Christ for assurance of pardon is NOT the only use that we make of the extensive New Testament exhortations to holy living. The Reformed tradition, with its “third use of the Law,” is better than the Lutheran tradition in this regard, but only marginally so. The biblical imperatives are not viewed only as goads to drive us to Christ. However,the NT imperatives lose their lively evangelical thrust when they are subsumed under the rubric of the ten commandments. This is seen most clearly in the Reformed catechisms, which use the Decalogue as ten “hooks” upon which to hang the various OT commands and NT mperatives. The NT imperatives are detached from the Christocentric indicative and become little more than elaborations of the ten commandments. The Mosaic Law becomes a vortex that sucks in all of the NT exhortations,attempting to graft them onto Moses. http://www.upper-register.com/papers/law_gospel_contrast.pdf

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  4. ee Irons--To be driven again to Christ for assurance of pardon is NOT the only use that we make of the extensive New Testament exhortations to holy living. The Reformed tradition, with its “third use of the Law,” is better than the Lutheran tradition in this regard, but only marginally so. The biblical imperatives are not viewed only as goads to drive us to Christ. However,the NT imperatives lose their lively evangelical thrust when they are subsumed under the rubric of the ten commandments. This is seen most clearly in the Reformed catechisms, which use the Decalogue as ten “hooks” upon which to hang the various OT commands and NT mperatives. The NT imperatives are detached from the Christocentric indicative and become little more than elaborations of the ten commandments. The Mosaic Law becomes a vortex that sucks in all of the NT exhortations,attempting to graft them onto Moses. http://www.upper-register.com/papers/law_gospel_contrast.pdf

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