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The Reformed View of the Law

By William O. Einwechter
February 28, 1999

In the midst of confusion and error regarding the law of God, the Reformed segment of the church speaks a clear and definite word. The Reformed have paid particular attention to the nature, purpose, and authority of the law of God, and their searching the Scriptures has yielded a solid understanding of the Biblical teaching on the subject. In this article, we will endeavor to briefly summarize the Reformed view of the law under six points.

1. The law of God is a transcript of the holy character of God.

The law of God is based on the changeless moral perfections of God. Hence, the commands of God are not arbitrary but flow from the very nature of God himself. Therefore, the law of God is not ultimately rooted in the will of God hut in the holy character of God. God cannot will that which is contrary to his own nature; to do so would be to deny himself, and God cannot deny himself. It is true that the law of God is the will of God, but the will of God is the perfect expression of the holy attributes of God. Hence, God commands men to be holy because he himself is holy; God condemns falsehood and calls men to speak the truth because he himself is truth and cannot lie; God commands men to be faithful to their covenant obligations because he himself keeps covenant and is faithful to perform that which he has promised; God commands men to love their neighbor because he himself is love; God commands his ministers to punish the wicked in accord with his revealed sanctions because he is a God of justice who punishes transgressors of his law; etc. Charnock states that in God’s law “[t]he purity of his nature was first visible . . . hence, it is called a ‘holy law’ [Rom. vii. 12); a ‘pure’ law (Ps. xix. 8). Holy and pure, as it is a ray of the pure nature of the Lawgiver. When our lives are a comment upon his law, they are expressive of his holiness: we conform to his holiness when we regulate ourselves by his law, as it is a transcript of his holiness. . .”1

2. The law of God is revealed most clearly and authoritatively in Biblical law.

One of the ways that God the Creator makes himself known to man is by means of natural revelation. Natural revelation includes the knowledge of God’s power, glory, and Godhead, through his works, and the knowledge of God’s moral law through the mind and conscience of man. Man, as one made in the image of God, has the impress of God’s moral law stamped on his reason and conscience. The moral law revealed through natural revelation is usually referred to as the “natural law.” Turretin states that the natural law “is rightly described by common practical notions, or the light and dictation of conscience (which God has engraven by nature upon every individual, to distinguish between virtue and vice, and to know the things to be avoided and the things to be done).”2 The existence of this natural law is clearly affirmed by Paul in Romans 2:14-15.

However, the natural law is not sufficient to serve as a reliable and authoritative standard for the moral law due to man’s limitations as a creature and also due to his fall into sin. Even before the Fall man needed the word of God to interpret his circumstances and to know the will of God for him. With his fail into sin and the resultant corruption of his reason and conscience, the word of God became even more essential. For fallen man, “so great was the blindness of mind, such the perversity of the will and disturbance of the affections that only remains of this [natural] law survived in the hearts of all . . .”3 Therefore, God revealed his moral law in the pages of Holy Scripture so that man would have an infallible record of the will of God for him. Biblical law is perfect and complete (Ps. 19-7-10; 2 Tim. 3:16-17); as such, it is the only authoritative and reliable standard for the knowledge of God’s law.

3. The law of God is unchanging and binding on all men in all ages.

The moral law, as a transcript of the holy nature of God, is unchangeable as he is unchangeable. As God says, “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mai. 3:6), so his law does not change either: “Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89); “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth forever” (Ps. 119:160). Dabney defends the unchanging nature and authority of God’s law, saying:

But the view I have given of the Law, as the necessary and unchanging expression of God’s rectitude, shows that its authority over moral creatures is unavoidable. If God reveals Himself to them. He cannot but reveal himself as He is. Just these precepts are the inevitable expression of a will guided by immutable perfections. It is therefore impossible that any dispensation, of whatever mercy or grace, could have the effect of abrogating righteous obligation over God’s saints. God’s mercy through a redeemer satisfying justice, may lift off the curse of the law for transgression; but it is impossible that it should abrogate rightful authority. The Law then must remain, under every dispensation, the authoritative declaration of God’s character.4

4. The law of God is comprehensive in its demands and sets the ethical standards for every sphere of life.

God’s sovereignty extends over all of his works and over all aspects of man’s existence. There can be no area of endeavor, no sphere of life, no part of the family, church, or state that should not be governed by God’s law. As Creator and King of all the earth, God holds all men and nations accountable to live and act in accord with the standards of his moral law. Berkof states, “The law lays claim, and justly so, on the entire life of man In all its aspects.”5 Therefore, God’s law is the supreme standard of ethics—it is the only proper rule and the only acceptable standard to judge the rightness and wrongness of any and all human behavior.

5. The law of God serves five fundamental purposes in the plan of God.

First, the law reveals the holy character of God, and teaches man his duty to worship and serve God and to love his neighbor as himself. The law should be used to teach sound doctrine concerning God and man’s obligation to God and his neighbor. Second, the law reveals to man that he is a transgressor and under condemnation for his sin. The law must be used in the preaching of the gospel. Third, the law is a schoolmaster to lead men to faith in Jesus Christ. Having taught men their sins and condemnation, it points to the only hope of salvation, the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for sinners. Fourth, the law serves as a means of sanctification for the Christian. The law restrains sin and makes known the will of God. Fifth, the law provides the basis for a just and well-ordered society. God’s law instructs man in the proper role of civil government, the sins of men that are to be considered crimes by the state, and how those crimes are to be punished. Adherence to God’s law in society restrains evil, protects the citizens, and promotes peace and prosperity.

6. The law of God has two primary classifications.

In analyzing the content of God’s law, Reformed teachers and theologians have normally divided the law into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Turretin explains the meaning and significance of these divisions:

The law given by Moses is usually distinguished into three species: moral (treating of morals or of perpetual duties towards God and our neighbor); ceremonial (of the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament); and civil, constituting the civil government of the Israelite people. The first is the foundation upon which rests the obligation of the others and these are its appendices and determinations.6

However helpful this threefold division has been in discussing the law, it should he recognized that there is no explicit Scriptural justification for this means of categorizing the law of God. There is more Biblical evidence to suggest a two-fold classification of the law, moral and ceremonial: “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable than sacrifice” (Pr. 21:3); “But go and learn what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt. 9:13; cf. Has. 6:6; Am. 5:15, 21-24; Ps. 40:6-8; Jer. 7:22-23; Mt. 12:7).7If the law is distinguished by two species, then how do we understand those laws that were given in regard to magistrates and the civil government of Israel? It is best to see the civil laws of the Bible as a subset of the moral law. The civil laws of Israel are a declaration of the moral law in terms of social and political ethics.

The moral law is unchanging and binds all men in all ages to a specific standard of righteousness in the worship and service of God and in the treatment of their neighbor. The moral law (and thus, also, the civil law) has not been abrogated in the New Testament, The ceremonial law which regulated Israel’s worship was typological of Christ, his redemption, and the New Testament church. With the coming of Christ these shadows have been fulfilled, and therefore, have been nullified.

Conclusion

The Reformed view of the law provides the necessary basis for the understanding and use of God’s law today. It is faithful to the teachings of Scripture, and seeks to implement the instruction of our Lord that calls his disciples to do and to teach even the least of the commandments of God’s law (Mt. 5:19). W It h David, the Reformed believer shouts, “O how love I thy law!” May it please God to use us to cause others to join in that chorus!

  1. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, [1853] 1979), 2:200.
  2. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1994), 2:3.
  3. ibid., 2:7.
  4. Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, [1878] 1985), 353.
  5. L. Berkof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1941), 614.
  6. op. cit, 2:145.
  7. See Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard (Tyler, T X , 1985), 132-138; No Other Standard (Tyler, T X , 1991), 93-110.

Topics: Biblical Law, Reformed Thought

William O. Einwechter

William O. Einwechter serves as a teaching elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is also the vice president of the National Reform Association and the editor of The Christian Statesman. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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