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The Spirit & The Law: Can Spiritual Persons Live by Gods Law?

Since we are born into this world as antinomians (people “against God’s law”), we are prone to dismiss obedience to God’s law.

  • Jim West,
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 After all, if it is impossible to obey God perfectly, striving for obedience would seem to make us legalists. Yet the Bible states that all men are at the same time antinomians and legalists. They are antinomians because they oppose God’s law, and legalists because they chisel their own law, which reflects their autonomy or self-law.

Law is an inescapable reality. While the Christian walks according to the law of the Spirit, the unbeliever walks according to the spirit of his own law. The best the unbeliever can do with God’s law is view it as a suggestion or obey what he thinks the spirit of the law is. This infection has spread to the church where the leading of God’s Spirit is sadly pitted against a minute, jot-and-tittle obedience to God’s law.

A vivid example of hatred for God’s law is cited by J.R.W. Stott, who tells of the preacher who chose the text, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” On the basis of this text, the preacher then announced his theme: “Hang the Law and the Prophets!”

The Law Is Spiritual

The Apostle Paul wrote at length about the relationship between the Spirit and the 1aw in Romans 7. This chapter has often been a battleground between those who believe Paul is discussing the unregenerate man versus those who think he is discussing the regenerated man.

A third alternative is more likely: Paul is discussing the relationship of the law to human nature. He says that while we know that “the law is spiritual, I am carnal, sold under sin.” The reason the law is “spiritual” is not because it invades the human spirit, prosecuting us for our crimes against heaven; it is “spiritual” because its Author is God the Holy Spirit. The implication is that a “spiritual” person is law-centered, and a law-centered person is “spiritual.” God’s law was written by holy men who were “borne along” by the Holy Spirit.

An unspiritual person opposes God’s law. Paul informs us in Romans 8 about the “carnal mind” which is “enmity against God” and then explains how to discern a mind that is God’s enemy. A mind that is “enmity” chaffs at God’s law. The carnal mind “is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” The opposite is to be spiritually-minded, because the spiritual mind is indwelt by the Spirit and dwells upon the things of the Spirit. Accordingly, these things of the Spirit are to be found in God’s law.

The Law Is a Transcript of God’s Nature

God’s law is a transcript of His holy nature. Paul teaches us in Romans 7 that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” For example, we would not have known covetousness, except the law had said, “Thou shalt not covet.” It is the holiness of the Holy Spirit that is revealed in God’s law. The no-brainer implication is that to demean or to trash God’s law is the very acme of anti-spirituality.

The Spirit Impels Us to Keep God’s Law

Paul instructs us in Romans 8 that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” has made us free from the law of sin and death. The law (power) of the Spirit was able to do what our flesh could not do. Christ came not only to condemn sin in the flesh, but to empower us to do God’s law. One of the cardinal purposes of the atonement was “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). Before we are regenerated by God’s Spirit we may be able to “do” certain things in the law, but we are not able to fulfill the law (i.e., obey as required, pledged, or expected). We fulfill the law only when we are motivated by love and faith.

One of the clearest links between true spirituality and God’s law is Jeremiah’s prophecy about the character of the New Covenant Christian. We are told that the day is coming when God will write His law in our minds and hearts (Jer. 31:33). This great work is accomplished by the Spirit of the living God, who writes God’s law on the tablets of our flesh, even upon our hearts (2 Cor. 3:3).

It is often argued that Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 pits a Spirit-led life against a law-driven life. It is said that the Old Testament believer was led by the law, but the New Testament believer is led by the Spirit.

What we have in 2 Corinthians 3 is what John Calvin called a relative contrast stated in absolute language. For example, John tells us in John 7 that when Christ prophesied the outpouring of God’s Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, that “the Spirit was not yet.” This does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not in existence, or that the Spirit did not work in the Old Testament. On the contrary, John teaches a relative contrast between the two Testaments, but states that contrast with absolute language. This was often his method, as in John 1:14, where John said that the law came by Moses, “but grace and truth by Jesus Christ.” It is obvious that this also is a relative contrast. If it was not, there would be no grace or truth in the Old Testament and no law in the New!

It is said that in 2 Corinthians 3 Paul anathematizes the law when he writes that the “letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” But Paul is not condemning the law; what he condemns is legalism. The “letter of the law” describes the use of the law as an instrument of justification. The “letter” always kills when the law is used as an instrument of self-justification before God ( Rom. 7:6-8).

The Spirit Guides Us by God’s Law

We also see the closest relationship between God’s law and the Holy Spirit in spiritual guidance. In his classic sermon titled, “The Leading of the Spirit,” Benjamin Warfield mines Romans 8:14ff. The thrust of Warfield’s sermon is that the leading of God’s Spirit must not be equated with mystical voices, good vibes, hunches, feelings, or fresh revelations from the azure skies. Warfield correctly understands the Spirit’s leading to include three things:

(1) The leading of God’s Spirit is continuous, for Paul’s thought is “as many as are ever being led by God’s Spirit, these are the sons of God.” If the leading of God’s Spirit consisted of revelations, then we would receive new revelations every moment, an impossible ordeal that would overwhelm us.

(2) The leading of God’s Spirit results in the mortification or killing of sin. If we live by the Spirit, then we will vigorously put to death the deeds of the body. The death of sin is a stellar feature of our sanctification.

(3) The leading of God’s Spirit gives us assurance of our sonship. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” It is because the Spirit impels us to cry out, “Abba (Father),” that we are assured of the Spirit’s leading and adoption into God’s family.

A common objection to the spirituality of God’s law is Galatians 5:18, where Paul writes that if we are led by God’s Spirit, then we are “not under the law.” The thought here is that God’s law must not be misused by our sinful flesh (Rom. 7:13). In other words, sin produces death in us by what is good (God’s law).

A famous example is in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan describes Christian’s view of what happens in the Dusty Parlor. In this Parlor, a man is seen sweeping his house with the broom of the law. Brooms are for cleanliness, and what could be purer than God’s law? But in this case the more the man sweeps, the more he fans the dust, creating a sandstorm in his home. His effort produces a whirlwind of dust, violent choking, and certain death. Man “under the law” is like that! The problem is not the broom, but the sin that misuses the broom of the law. It is not until Gospel-water cleanses the Parlor that life and health result. Likewise, if we are to obey God’s law, we must be led by the Spirit of God. Only the Spirit can energize us to a life of heartfelt obedience.

The Spirit and the law are in sync with one another. We grieve God’s Spirit when we place a wedge between the two. A truly spiritual person is not only indwelt by God’s Spirit, but desires to obey the smallest detail in God’s law. Jesus called these minute details “jots” and “tittles.” Jots and tittles were the smallest strokes in the Hebrew language and Christ taught that the “greatest” in His kingdom will teach and believe these things. True spirituality can only be defined by obedience to the law of the Spirit.

  • Jim West

Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!

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