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The Authority of God's Law

When we speak of authority, we refer to the power or right to give commands, and require obedience to those commands.

  • William O. Einwechter,
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When we speak of authority, we refer to the power or right to give commands, and require obedience to those commands. A command is the imposition of the will of one person upon another by telling him what he is to do. As Creator, God has complete authority over all His creatures. Thus, He has the power and right to command them and require obedience to His commands. The law of God is the disclosure of the will of God for man that instructs him in how to live and act in a way that is pleasing to God. The law of God is the revelation of the divine imperative for man's conduct and possesses supreme authority.

The Nature of God's Law
What is the essential character of God's law? Is it really His law, or is it derived from eternal moral ideals that are ultimate; laws to which God Himself must conform and by which He Himself is judged? In other words, is the moral law part of an independently existing Good that stands over God and man, or is the moral law an expression of the nature and being of God?

The Biblical answer is unmistakable. The Scripture reveals that God is ultimate. As Creator He is the source of all things, both the visible and the invisible. Hence, the moral law that sets the standard for the conduct of man is derived from the moral character of God Himself. God is holy, and therefore His law is holy. When the Lord commands men to "be ye holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 5:16), He is commanding them to obey His law. Thus, the law is a transcript of His holiness. God made man in His image, and, ethically speaking, man manifests the image of God when he keeps God's law (Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:10). Having taught men to obey God's law (Mt. 5:17-47), Jesus Christ summed up His teaching by calling men to emulate the character of God the Father: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48; cf. Eph. 5:1).

The Old Testament term for "law," torah, is essential for understanding another aspect of the nature of God's law. When people hear the word "law" today, they usually think of it in narrow juridical terms. However, this is not the primary sense of torah. This Hebrew word denotes the ideas of teaching, instruction, giving moral guidance or direction. Torah is the means whereby God teaches men their duty and leads them into the pleasant paths of righteousness. The law of God is not legalism, but instruction in living. The law of God is the revelation of God's will so that men might glorify Him and live productive, prosperous lives.

The Revelation of God's Law
God makes His law known to men through both natural1 and special revelation. God has written the principles of His moral law on the hearts of all men (Rom. 2:14-15). By the divinely bestowed capacities of his mind and conscience, man is able to discern the rudimentary content of God's moral standards for him. This enables man to function as a responsible moral agent and makes him accountable to God for his actions (Rom.1:20, 32). But natural revelation was never intended to function as the all-sufficient disclosure of God's law. From the very beginning, God has divulged His law to men by special revelation, that is, by His Word (Gen. 1:28-29; 2:16-17). While natural revelation may give to man a general sense of his moral obligations, it is the Word of God that provides the explicit commands to direct this moral consciousness into the path of righteousness. This was true before the Fall; how much more now that man's mind and conscience have been corrupted by sin!

There is no contradiction between the law of God as revealed in nature and that which is revealed in Scripture. But there is a vital difference between these channels of revelation as to their manner of revelation and their specificity of revelation, and that is what makes the scriptural revelation so superior. As Turretin states:

The same duties (both toward God and toward our neighbor) prescribed by the moral law [Biblical law] are also contained in the natural law. The difference is with regard to the mode of delivery. In the moral law, these duties are clearly, distinctly, and fully declared; while in the natural law they are obscurely and imperfectly declared both because many intimations have been lost and obliterated by sin and because it has been variously corrupted by the vanity and wickedness of men (Rom. 1:20-22).2

If men would know the law of God infallibly, then let them look unto the perfect, written revelation of God's law given in the Bible (Ps. 19:7-10).

The Biblical revelation of God's moral law is, therefore, of preeminent authority. However, it is important to remember that the Biblical revelation of God's law is not limited to the body of law contained in such portions of Scripture as the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, or the book of Deuteronomy, but extends to the entire Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, in historical narrative and epistles, through prophecy, psalms, and proverbs, God reveals His torah. The Ten Commandments summarize the moral law, but the rest of Scripture develops, explains, illustrates, and applies the moral law. All Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

The Continuity of God's Law
Do the standards of God's moral law vary from time to time or from place to place? Does the New Testament abrogate the moral precepts of the Old Testament and establish new principles for regulating man's conduct? The answer to both of these questions is no. God's moral law remains constant from creation to consummation (and forever after), and governs all men, even to the uttermost parts of the earth. How could it be otherwise?

First, since the law of God is the reflection of the holy nature of the God of creation, it must be universal and unchanging, because God Himself cannot change (Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17), and as Creator He rules over all men and nations (Ps. 47:2).

Second, as there is one covenant of grace (the one revealed to Abraham and confirmed by Christ, cf. Gal. 3:7ff), so there is one covenantal standard of morality. The Old and New Covenants are administrative covenants that govern the application of the terms of one eternal covenant to two separate dispensations. Thus, the differences between the covenants have to do with those matters relating to promise and fulfillment, type and antitype, shadows and reality, not with the essential components of the covenant of grace (e.g., salvation by grace through faith, sanctification by the Word and Spirit). The Scripture specifically states that the difference between the administration of the Old and New Covenants with regard to God's law will not be the content of the moral law, but the means employed by God to enable His people to obey it (Jer. 31:31-34).

Third, Jesus and the Apostles confirmed the continuing authority of the Old Testament revelation of God's law for the New Testament church. Jesus emphatically stated to His contemporaries that they must not think that the purpose of His ministry or His teaching was to loosen the authority of the Old Testament law or prophets! No, He had come to confirm and establish the law. Therefore, it was the duty of His disciples to do and to teach even the least of the commandments revealed by the Old Testament Scripture (Mt. 5:17-19). The apostles taught there is one Lawgiver for all of God's people, and that that Lawgiver is Christ (cf. Jas. 4:3; Isa. 33:22; Gen. 49:10). The book of Hebrews shows how there has been a change in the law in regard to the priesthood, the sacrifices for sin, and the Temple because of Christ's superior ministry and sacrifice. But Hebrews never says, or implies, that this change in the law has set aside any of the moral law of the Old Testament. Jesus Christ and His apostles teach the church to obey the whole counsel of God's law-word (Mt. 22:36-40; Acts 20:27; Rom. 13:8-10; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 8:10; Jas. 2:8-12; 1 Jn. 5:2-3).

The Comprehensive Scope of God's Law
As Creator and King over all the earth, the sovereignty of God extends over all creation and over all aspects of man's being and works. Thus, there cannot be any area of man's life that is not governed by the law of God. To limit the authority of God's law to determine the ethical responsibilities for men in any action, association, or domain, is to deny the absoluteness of God's rule over men. And as God's rule is comprehensive, so is the revelation of His law to His subjects. The law revealed in Scripture addresses every area of life: it instructs in personal ethics; it teaches the way of righteousness for the family, church, and state; it gives authoritative guidance for the conduct of education, business, the arts, and the sciences. Berkof states, "The law lays claim, and justly so, on the entire life of man in all its aspects."3

God's law is "perfect" and able to keep man from all presumptuous sins (Ps. 19:7, 13), and it is able to instruct man in righteousness so that he will be prepared for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). These things could only be said of a comprehensive law that addresses, in precept or in principle, every area of life. And, it is only on the basis of an exhaustive moral law that God could bring every thought, word, and action of men under judgment (Ecc. 12:13-14).

The Proper Use of God's Law
Whenever men speak or focus on the law of God, someone will raise the cry of "legalism." But was David a legalist when he cried, "O how love I thy law!" (Ps. 119:97)? Was Jesus a legalist when He taught men to keep God's law (Mt. 5:19; 7:12)? Was Paul a legalist when he said that the law of God was holy, just, and good, and that he delighted in and served God's law (Rom. 7:12, 22, 25)? No! The love of God's law, the teaching of God's law, the use of God's law is not legalism. It is the wrong use of God's law that constitutes legalism! Legalism is keeping the law with the wrong motive (Mt. 6:2); it is teaching the law without understanding (1 Tim. 1:7); it is adding human traditions to the law (Mt. 15:1-9); it is seeking justification through the works of the law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10-11). Paul states that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, that is, uses it as God has prescribed (1 Tim. 1:8).

God has ordained the use of His law in preaching the gospel. The law convicts men of their sin, and drives them to Christ as their sin-bearer and only hope of salvation. The law of God also serves as the standard and guide for sanctification for the believer. The law reveals the sins of the old man, and teaches the new man how to walk in holiness and true righteousness. Additionally, God's law should be employed in society to restrain the wickedness of men, and to serve as the standard of justice that teaches magistrates what sins are civil crimes and what punishment these civil crimes deserve.

The Classifications of God's Law
The common practice of expositors and theologians has been to divide Old Testament law into three compartments: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Although it is true that there is a category of Biblical law that deals with civil matters, this division is a curious phenomenon. Is it not also true that Biblical law speaks specifically to family matters that are distinct from the church and civil realms? Why not, then, add "familial" as a fourth division of the law? Is it because the laws relating to the family are considered moral laws? If so, then are proponents of the three-fold division of the law suggesting that matters of crime and punishment and the exercise of power in the civil sphere are not moral issues governed by moral law?

The law of God can be categorized by content (personal, familial, civil, ecclesiastical, etc.), or it can be classified by function (declarative or restorative/typological). Biblical law functions to declare the will of God (man's moral duty), and to set forth the means of restoring sinners to favor with God (God's merciful provision of sacrifice). Using the common terminology, these functions are called moral and ceremonial. This two-fold division of the law is the one that is prominent in Scripture (cf. Ps. 40:6-8; Pr. 21:3; Hos. 6:6; Jer. 7:22-23; Mt. 9:13; 12:7). What then of the division commonly called "civil"? These laws come under the classification of "moral." The civil laws of the Bible are an application of the moral law to the civil sphere. They function as a subset of the moral law, just as the laws pertaining to the family are also a subset of the moral law.

The Interpretation of God's Law
The understanding and application of the righteous standards of God's law requires the use of sound principles of interpretation. First, and most fundamentally, it needs to be recognized that only God can alter, modify, or abolish any of His commandments (Dt. 4:2; 12:32). Therefore, we ought to assume the continuing authority of each and every law of God unless God Himself indicates otherwise in subsequent Scripture. It is presumption for man to set aside any of God's commandments without express authorization from the divine Lawgiver. Thus, the laws of the Old Testament should be considered binding today if they are not abrogated or altered by the New Testament Scriptures (as, for example, the ceremonial restorative/typological laws of the Old Testament). This principle of interpretation is based on the understanding that the Bible is its own best interpreter.

Second, each law should be examined according to the pattern of grammatical-historical exegesis. This method requires a careful consideration of the words of the Biblical text in their theological and historical context, so that the meaning intended by the original author can be ascertained. Third, the abiding theological truth and/or moral principle that informs (underlies) the Biblical text needs to be discerned. This is essential, because it is not necessarily the precise cultural or historical expression of the law that is authoritative, but, rather, it is the abiding theological or moral principle that forms the basis for the law that carries over to all cultures and times.

The Challenge to God's Law
The challenge to the truth and authority of God's law began in the Garden of Eden when man succumbed to Satan's temptation to set aside God's commandment and determine good and evil for himself (Gen. 3:5). This assertion of the moral prerogative to decide for oneself what is good and evil is best described as "autonomy." The word "autonomy" means "self-law," that is, man being a law unto himself. Autonomous man claims the right to govern himself according to the moral standards that he sees fit to establish. This rebellious claim is based on the belief that man's own independent reason is the final authority for interpreting the moral sphere of life. Autonomy is every man's doing that which is right in his own eyes (Jud. 17:6). Human autonomy expresses itself through natural law ethics, false religions, human traditions, vain philosophies, and the deceptive teaching of antinomianism.4

In the end, there are only two alternatives for determining good and evil: God's law or man as a law unto himself. What choice will you make? Hear the Word of the Lord:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Ecc. 12:13-14)


1. This is often referred to as "general revelation."

2. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., trans. George M. Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, 1994), 2:6-7.

3. L. Berkoff, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1941), 614.

4. The word "antinomian" means "against the law," and refers to the treasonous doctrine that grace releases the Christian from the obligation to keep God's law. But as Rushdoony states: "Lawless Christianity is a contradiction in terms: it is anti-Christian. The purpose of grace is not to set aside the law but to fulfil the law and enable man to keep the law. If the law was so serious in the sight of God that it would require the death of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God to make atonement for man's sin, it seems strange for God to then proceed to abandon the law!" (The Institutes of Biblical Law [1973], 4).

  • 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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