Last week in this space I discussed the enduring use of the Ten Commandments in the life of the Christian. In other words, the moral law of Almighty God has significant use for us even after Christ has met all the demands of that law upon us.
Today I want to address two contemporary treatments of the moral law in Protestant churches that are at odds with scripture. The first is Dispensationalism and the second is New Covenant Theology. Those who hold these views are not heretics. In fact, those who hold these views overlap in significant ways with our own church's theology. They often hold to an orthodox view of the Holy Trinity, are focused on the grace of Jesus Christ in the gospel, uphold the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners, and commit to the authority of scripture above all other authorities in religion. They are brothers in Christ.
Yet they do err on the matter of the moral law, the Ten Commandments. This does not mean they err in all their handling of God's law. They agree with most Protestant churches that the ceremonial laws and the judicial laws of the Mosaic administration have expired. With the coming of Christ those laws written by Moses on parchment are no longer binding (see our church's doctrinal statement, WCF, 19.3 and 19.4). The moral law, on the other hand, which was written not by Moses but by God himself and on tablets of stone, remains binding even after the coming of Christ.
Dispensationalism disagrees as does New Covenant Theology, but they each disagree in their own unique ways.
A Dispensational view of the moral law's usefulness after Christ is found in a statement by the late William R. Newell. He said: “It is a harmful perversion of the truth of God to teach (as did the Puritan theologians) that while we are not to keep the law as a means of salvation, we are under it as a ‘rule of life.'" What Newell called a "perversion" in that statement is exactly what I am arguing in favor of in this letter.
The error of Dispensationalism in this matter is largely an error of discontinuity. They believe there is a great discontinuity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God in the New, so great they say all usefulness of the moral law has expired just like the usefulness of the ceremonial laws and judicial laws. In many ways this conclusion is inevitable for them, because they believe the moral law played a more significant role in salvation during the Old Testament era than it really did. If you think the moral law under Moses had a connection to salvation, then you will repudiate the law and see Christ as replacing it not just fulfilling it.
What I wish to show the Dispensationalists is that the moral law was in force before it was given to Moses. If they came to understand this, perhaps they would agree that the moral law cannot expire with the closing of the Mosaic administration because the moral law did not begin with the Mosaic administration. It precedes and transcends it.
How do we know the moral law preceded the Mosaic administration? Paul says in Romans 2:14-15 that the moral law is written on men's heart by virtue of being image-bearers. Before it was written in stone, it was written by the Creator upon his creatures. Paul also says in Romans 5:13-14 that even before the moral law was given to Moses at Sinai, it was in use by God to judge men as sinners: "for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given but sin is not counted where there is no law, yet death reigned from Adam to Moses...." Why did death reign? Because all were transgressing the moral law even though it had not yet been inscripturated at Sinai.
The existence of the moral law before it was given to Moses in Exodus 20 is evident in many Old Testament passages. In Genesis 35:2 Jacob said to his family, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you." This was keeping the first three commandments before they were commandments. The people of God broke these same three commandments in Exodus 5-7. In Exodus 16:27-29 the Lord chastised his people for violating the fourth commandment before it was even given at Sinai. Even more important - and much less Jewish - the Lord laid the foundation of the 4th commandment, keeping the Sabbath, even before Adam sinned by creating a seventh day of rest (cf. Gen. 2:2 and Exod. 20:11). The details of how the Jewish sabbath become the Christian sabbath, the Lord's Day, is another matter for another time.
The important thing for a Dispensationalist to see is that the moral law was never connected to salvation once Adam had transgressed it. Having broken one command, Adam broke them all (James 2:10). Once this happened, the way to justification by obedience to law was forever closed off. The covenant of works was broken. In Adam the whole race had failed at obtaining justification and eschatological blessing by the moral law. A new covenant was then proclaimed to Adam (Gen. 3:15) and later formalized with Abraham (Gen. 15) and ultimately ratified by the blood of Christ (Heb. 8:6) - the one covenant of grace. Why then would God later inscripturate the moral law as Ten Commandments through Moses? Certainly, not to negate the gracious covenant he formalized earlier with Abraham (Galatians 3:15-24), but rather to administer that gracious covenant and give to his people a rule for their obedience since they are now marked-out from the world as a covenant people, a community bounded by the promise of God's own Redeemer. Believers, true sons, in that community will commune with God by faith and their faith will go public in their willing obedience to his rule.
Those who wish to advance New Covenant Theology are unlike the dispensationalists. They do not teach that the whole law in the Old Testament was closely connected to salvation. They still wish, however, to say the Ten Commandments are somehow of no use to the people of God now that Christ has come. New Covenant Theology likes to posit that we are under the law of Christ not the moral law. They cite Galatians 6:2 - "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." What is not clear is why they regard "the law of Christ" as so fundamentally different than the moral law. Both are "law" after all.
New Testament theologian, Douglas Moo, who is sympathetic to New Covenant Theology, says: “This ‘law’ [the law of Christ] does not consist of legal prescriptions and ordinances, but of the teaching and example of Jesus and the apostles, the central demand of love, and the guiding influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.”
But how can there be no "legal prescriptions and ordinances" in the law of Christ? This seems downright innovative for reasons I know not why. How can "the law of Christ" be so substantially different than the moral law which Jesus says He came to fulfill (Matt. 5:17).
The main interest of New Covenant Theology, as I understand it, is a fine one. It is to emphasize the newness of the Christian life, life where we have seen the moral law perfected in the obedience of Christ and thus the Holy Spirit has been given to us in such measure that we regularly "keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25). This is a great emphasis and a correct one! This is what all Christians should understand and emphasize. Christ has not met the demands of the law simply to return use to a probationary status like that of Adam in the garden, where now we have a better shot at keeping the law. No. We have kept the law in Christ! Thus Christ has met the demands of the law to bring us much further: to make us alive in the Spirit, new creations by the Spirit and endow us with the Spirit. Yet, this "much further" in no way permits an over-realized eschatology where we tap into an unmediated guidance of the Spirit which makes no use of the moral law. This kind of thing leads people to say strange things like: "I won't go to church and worship God on Sunday because the Spirit is leading me to do something else." Or, "I know God wants me to get this divorce because the Spirit assures me." How could someone blame the Holy Spirit for their own personal desires to override the moral law which Hebrews 10:15-16 says the Spirit has written on our hearts?
What I wish to show a New Covenant Theologian is how the apostle's do the very thing they say we Christians should not do - take up and use the Ten Commandments. In Romans 13:8-10 Paul restates several of the Ten Commandments to call for love from believers, not so they can be saved because they are saved already. He does this rather to show the rule of our obedience. In Ephesians 6:1-4 Paul uses the fifth commandment to admonish both covenant children and their fathers. In Hebrews 13:4 the apostle applies the 7th commandment: "Let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous." In 1 Corinthians 7:19, Paul even says: "For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God." Only a magic trick could remove the Ten Commandments from Paul's thinking.
In closing, I summarize in two points with a final application:
- True believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be justified or condemned by it. "You are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).
- Being free from the law as a covenant of works does not mean the law is not a rule for our obedience. "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments" (1 John 5;3).
Finally, having the moral law as a rule for our obedience does not mean we should ever think our obedience to the commandments is the place we gain our assurance that we are indeed Christians. When you lose assurance that you are a Christian, the remedy is not to try harder in obedience as if more of your obedience is the way to regain assurance. Assurance of faith does not come by something other than faith! The remedy to a loss of assurance is to meditate on the obedience of Christ in keeping the whole law perfectly on your behalf. The remedy is to become persuaded again that Christ's obedience was for such a disobedient sinner as you are this very day. What love is this! Nothing shakes our assurance like thinking that the obedience of Jesus was for middle-class sinners, decent sinners, sinners who can contribute a little obedience to their own salvation. This devilish logic ruins souls. Your obedience as a Christian is no contribution whatsoever. Christ has done it all. Not until you are amazed again by such grace will you be assured again that a low-class-contribute-nothing sinner like you is greatly loved of God. Our Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.3, wisely says that obedience is the fruit of assurance not the way to obtain it. Faith is. Faith alone in Christ alone.