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Mission and Law: The Reformed Perspective

In Reformed churches worldwide, the law, in the form of the Decalogue, is read in the Sunday worship.

  • Bob Wielenga,
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In Reformed churches worldwide, the law, in the form of the Decalogue, is read in the Sunday worship. It is not without good reason that from the time of the Reformation onward the law has played such an important role not only in the worship services, but also in the daily life of believers as they live out their vocations where God has called them to do so. The treatment the Decalogue received in the Heidelberg Catechism has had a formative influence on Reformed spirituality on both sides of the Atlantic. In this article, I will point to the significance of the law in missions. I will not focus so much on the hermeneutic of the law — on questions regarding the application of the law in its entirety in present-day life. That would be a separate topic.

The Law in the Old and New Testaments
For the sake of this article, I will not distinguish between law as Decalogue and the other commandments, statutes, and stipulations based upon the Decalogue. The distinction is, in any case, relative. The point I want to make is that, in the context of Exodus 19-24, the law has been given as a fruit of God's love for His people and as a guideline for her calling in the world in the midst of the nations.

Notice the sequence of God's acts and the human responses in Exodus 19. Verse 4 underlines God's unilateral initiative to set Israel free from Egypt; verse 5 states that Israel must now obey God and keep His covenant, underscoring the bilateral responsibility of Israel. The sequence of these verses is not interchangeable, and is fundamental for the right understanding of the function of the law in its covenantal context. We find the very same covenantal order in verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 stresses that Israel will be God's treasured possession; this is election terminology. Verse 6 continues with the calling of Israel to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests among all the nations. Israel had to play an intermediary role for the sake of the heathen nations. But again, the sequence is all-important: it is based upon sovereign election that God called Israel to show forth His face to the world. In the context of the covenant, God proclaimed His law and demanded that Israel keep it for the sake of the nations. We are on the right track when we quote in this context Genesis 12:3. God planned to establish His kingdom on earth through Israel. Notice the emphasis given in Exodus 20-23 about the treatment of weaker members of society. This aspect of her societal life had to be exemplary to the world. It would be interesting to point out the differences between the law systems of the ancient Near East at this specific point. The responsibility for the weaker members of society was deeply entrenched in Mosaic law. Finally, after the sin with the golden calf, the law was not annihilated but re-instated (see Ex. 34:27). It is beyond any doubt that we have here the covenant of grace. Grace and law are not contrasted with one another, but are wholly and totally in agreement with one another, but only if taken in the right sequence.

Salvific Categories of the Law
The sanctions and curses attached to the law are to be understood positively. We call them salvific categories. Their function was to keep Israel within the covenant and to persuade the people to live accordingly before the watching world. It is incorrect to degrade the function of the law within this covenant of grace as only an outward form of spirituality, which had to be replaced in the "new covenant" with an inward form: the law written in the heart of God's people. Read Deuteronomy 30 and you realize that the meaning of the Tenth Commandment proves that keeping the law has always been a matter of the heart; the law was always meant to be internalized in the hearts of the people. The difference with the promised new covenant cannot be localized at this specific point.

Also the forgiveness of sin is not specific for the new covenant; Exodus 34 shows the depth of God's grace and His merciful forgiveness of sin. It seems more in accordance with the text of Jeremiah 31:31ff. to pinpoint the unbreakability of the new covenant as the real new element — what was missing in the old order. Israel failed her God by continually breaking the covenant and transgressing the law. Even the monarchical renewal of the Mosaic covenant could not stop the rot! There was nothing structurally wrong with God's covenant; there was nothing intentionally weak with God's law. Israel was the problem. The promise of a new covenant, as made by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, pointed to an amazing new initiative of God to renew His people in such a way that they were able to keep the law.

Shortly, through the work of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53) and the Spirit poured out on the people, God would recreate His people. In the New Testament, the law is not abrogated but is fulfilled by Christ. The real intention of the law and the full potential of the law are revealed by Him Who kept the law perfectly to a fault. His holiness is imputed to His followers who are in Christ. Paul maintained the law, not soteriologically but pneumatologically, in his conflict with the Jews who separated covenant and law since the days of the intertestamental period.

All in all, Reformed people are in agreement with Scripture in preaching the law. That has nothing to do with legalism, but it is a hallmark of Biblical Christianity.

The Law in Missions
It does not require much imagination to see that preaching the law is part and parcel of the missionary mandate which, by the way, is not based only upon one or two texts such as Matthew 28:18. The gospel of grace has to be preached to all people. But that includes the preaching of the law. The preaching of God's law is an expression of God's grace. The work of Christ set the Spirit free to indwell in God's people and, as a blessing, they are willingly doing the law of God, which covers the whole of life. This is the way the church is called to missionize the world. We incorrectly pass by the debate on the relationship between missions and vocation, which are covenantally tied together.

We have to realize that preaching the law on the mission field leads us on a collision course with other religions that have their own law systems and are legalistic by nature. One danger is to try to avoid the collision and confrontation and preach Christ without the law. The other danger is to fall into the trap of turning the gospel of grace into a message of legalistic moralism. Reformed missions has a confrontational dimension, which does not preclude love and respect for the followers of other religions.

Preaching the law in missions means that we cannot stop at converting souls, merely preparing them for eternal life in heaven. (By the way, it is not heaven but the new earth that has to be lifted up as the goal to be reached.) This distinguishes Reformed missions from some evangelical missions' enterprises with their present-day charismatic-styled focus. Reformed missions penetrates people's life as a whole, trying to develop a total outlook on life on earth from an eschatological perspective.

The Law of God and Legal Systems of Other Religions
It is of great importance to confront the law systems of other religions with the law of God. It is not surprising that we can detect structural similarities between God's law and these law systems. It is the Creator Himself Who gave His law and Who mediated His power and glory through creation among the peoples of the world. And it is Christ, through Whom the world was made, Who fulfilled the law. The non-Christian law systems are organized responses to the revelational character of creation. The confrontation with the written law of God reveals, however, that the law without its Giver and Fulfiller loses direction and leads away from God and the ordained goal of creation: the covenant fulfilled. Law without grace turns into a soteriological system, moralistic and legalistic by its very nature.

Preaching the law is an indispensable part of Reformed home and foreign ministry. Cultural critique is a part of the task of the ministry of the church whether in the West or in the South. Grace without law becomes cheap, as James already pointed out. With him we proclaim the law of freedom.

  • Bob Wielenga

Rev. Bob Wielenga has been a missionary in Kwa Zulu-Natal (Republic of South Africa) since 1980 involved in church planting. He holds doctoral degrees in missiology and systematic theology (Unisa, Pretoria). He is an ordained minister in the Netherlands Reformed Churches. He can be reached at [email protected].

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