Article “Christian, Do You Love God’s Law?” by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson Original source here)
At a PGA Tour tournament in October 2015, Ben Crane disqualified himself after completing his second round. He did so at considerable financial cost. No matter—Crane believed the personal cost of not doing it would be greater (encouraged by a devotional article he had read that morning by Davis Love III, the distinguished former Ryder Cup captain).
Crane realized he had broken one of the more recondite rules of golf. If I followed the story rightly, while in a hazard looking for his ball, he leaned his club on a stone. He abandoned the ball, took the requisite penalty for doing so, played on, and finished his round. He would have made the Friday night cut comfortably; a very successful weekend financially beckoned. Then Ben Crane thought: “Should I have included a penalty for grounding my club in a hazard?” Sure enough (Rule 13.4a). So he disqualified himself.
(Got it? Hopefully, no readers will lie awake tonight now knowing the trophy was won illegally.)
Crane has been widely praised for his action. No avalanche of spiteful or demeaning attacks on cyberspace or hate mail for being narrow-minded. All honor to him. Intriguingly, no one seems to have said or written, “Ben Crane is such a legalist.”
No, we are not starting a new sports column this month. But how odd it is to see so much praise for his detailed attention to the rules of golf, and yet the opposite when it comes to the rules of life, the (much more straightforward) law of God, even in the church.
There is a problem somewhere.
Neither Jesus nor Paul had a problem with the law. Paul wrote that his gospel of grace upholds and establishes the law (Rom. 3:31)—even God’s laws in their negative form, since the “grace of God . . . teaches us to say ‘No’” (Titus 2:11–12 NIV). And remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17–19? Our attitude to the law is a litmus test of our relationship to the kingdom of God.
So what is the problem? The real problem is that we do not understand grace. If we did, we would also realize why John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” could write, “Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes.”
There is a deep issue here. In Scripture, the person who understands grace loves law. (Incidentally, mere polemics against antinomianism can never produce this.)
Think again of Ben Crane. Why keep the complex rules of golf? Because you love the game. Something similar, but greater, is true of the believer. Love the Lord, and we will love His law—because it is His. All is rooted in this beautiful biblical simplicity.
Think of it in terms of three men and the three “stages” or “epochs” they represent: Adam, Moses, and Jesus.
At creation, God gave commandments. They expressed His will. And since He is a good, wise, loving, and generous God, His commandments are always for our best. He wants to be a Father to us.
As soon as God created man and woman as His image (Gen. 1:26–28—a hugely significant statement), He gave them statutes to follow (v. 29). The context here makes clear the rationale: He is Lord; they are His image. He made them to reflect Him. He is the cosmic Overlord, and they are the earthly under-lords. His goal is their mutual enjoyment of one another and creation in a communion of life (1:26–2:3). So, He has given them a start—a garden in Eden (2:7). He wants them to extend that garden to the ends of the earth, and to enjoy it as miniature creators, images imitating the great original Creator (1:28–29).
God’s creation commands then had in view our reflecting His image and glory. His image-bearers are made to be like Him. In one form or another, all divine commands have this principle enshrined in them: “You are my image and likeness. Be like me!” This is reflected in His command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
Implied here is that God’s image-bearers are created, hardwired as it were, to reflect Him. Yes, there are external laws given to them, but those laws simply provide specific applications of the “laws” inbuilt in the divine image, laws that are already on the conscience.
It was instinctive then for Adam and Eve to imitate God, to be like Him, because they were created as His image and likeness—just as little Seth would instinctively behave like his father, Adam, because he was “in his likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3). Like father, like son.
But then came the fall: sin, lack of conformity to God’s revealed law, and distortion of the image resulted in malfunctions of the inner human instincts. The mirror image turned away from the gaze and the life of God, and since then all people (except Christ) have shared in this condition. The Lord remains the same. His design for His image remains the same. But the image is marred. The under-lord who was created to turn the dust into a garden has become dust himself:
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)
We remain the image of God, and the laws that govern how we live best are unchanged. But now we are haggard and spent, twisted within, off center, distorted, carrying the aroma of death. Once chief operating officers, we are now vagrants who survive only by stealing from the Owner of the company (Yahweh and Son) who provided for us so generously. The law within functions still, but unreliably at best, not because the law is faulty but because we are.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. (Rom. 2:14–15; see also 7:7–25)
But God wants His portrait—His image—back.
In essence, the Mosaic law—summarized in the Decalogue—was a rewriting on tablets of stone of the constitution written on man’s heart in creation. But now the law came to fallen man, and included sin offerings to address the new condition of humanity. It came to one distinct nation in one specific land. And it came until the coming of the Redeemer promised in Genesis 3:15. Therefore, it was given largely in negative terms, with added applications relevant for one specific nation in a single land, until the day when the types and sacrifices of the law would be fulfilled in Christ.
The law was given to people as “under-age children” (Gal. 3:23–4:5)—largely in negative form. We, too, teach our children: “Don’t stick the screwdriver into the electric socket!” long before we explain to them how electricity works. It is the simplest and safest way to protect them.
But it was already clear to old covenant believers that the law’s negations enshrined positive commands. The negative “No other gods before me” implied the full-color, developed picture of loving the Lord with all of one’s heart, and commandments two through four fleshed out that picture. The rest of the commandments were negatives to be developed in “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In addition, since the animal sacrifices substituted for humans’ sins, they clearly lacked in proportion and could not deliver the forgiveness they pictured. An old covenant believer could work that out by going to the temple two days in a row: the priest was still standing at the altar, sacrificing all over again (Heb. 10:1–4, 11). The final adequate sacrifice was still to come.
And then the Decalogue was given civil application for the people in the land. But these local laws would no longer function in the same way for God’s people when they would be scattered throughout all the nations. The preservation and advance of His kingdom would then no longer be dependent on them.
All of this is well expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching that the “moral law” continues, the “ceremonial law” is fulfilled, and the “civil law” is abrogated, although we can clearly still learn a great deal from the ceremonial and civil legislation (19.3–5). An old covenant believer could understand this, albeit with less clarity. After all, only the Decalogue was placed in the ark, as an expression of the very character and heart of God. Yes, the law was one because the God who gave it is one. But the law of Moses was not monolithic—it was multidimensional, having a foundation and also spheres of application. The former was permanent; the latter were interim arrangements until the coming day dawned.
Old covenant believers really did love the law. They delighted in it. Their covenant God cared so much that He had rephrased His original instructions for them so that they could guide the people as sinners. Old covenant believers who knew and meditated on the Decalogue and the whole Torah (the law) would grow in their ability to apply it to every providence of God in their lives (Ps. 1). With all its rules and regulations, God’s law provided security and direction for the whole of life.
At the end of my freshman year, I taught in a school for young criminals. Their lives were heavily circumscribed. But surprisingly to me, there was an extraordinary esprit de corps, a pride in and common loyalty to the school. At first this puzzled me. And then I realized that these boys knew where they were. They were safe and safeguarded from themselves and their waywardness. The teachers disciplined them with affection. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they were getting regular meals. Yes, the rules sometimes irked them—they were sinners, after all. But they were safe. Some of them even transgressed again just to get back to the environs of the school. I understood why even if I could not condone it. There they had care and security.
Paul uses a not-too-dissimilar illustration in Galatians 3–4. Old covenant believers were underage heirs, living in the restricted environment of the Mosaic law. But now in Christ, redemptive history has come of age. There is a new dimension of freedom. You don’t need to check the calendar to see if it is a holy day. You don’t need to check the meat or the label on your clothes. You don’t need to bring yet more sacrifices to the temple. Now that Christ has come, we have been let out of reform school. “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Yet, the undergirding law—why would it change? Why would we be any less obedient to the same Father?
We are already discovering that we cannot fully understand the law of Moses without thinking about Jesus. God intends to get His portrait back.
Jesus came to re-create a new and true humanity marked by a restored internal love for the Lord and a desire to be like Him. The law itself cannot accomplish that in us. It takes forgiveness, deliverance, and empowerment to do it. This God provides in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3–4)
Perhaps because He knew people would draw the wrong conclusions from His teaching (they did), Jesus explained that He did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law. He would fill to the fullest the “shell” that Moses had given (Matt. 5:17–20). He made clear that He also meant to restore God’s portrait and image in us (Matt. 5:21–48). As we know, He drew a series of contrasts. But His words were not “It is written . . . but I say . . .”; rather, they were “You have heard that it was said. . . but I say. . . .” He was not contrasting His teaching with God’s law but with the rabbinical interpretations and distortions of it.
Yet, there is an important difference in the new covenant. Moses ascended the earthly mountain of God and came down with the law written on tablets of stone. But later, he expressed a longing that all the Lord’s people might have the Spirit (Num. 11:29). The law of Moses could command but it could not empower. By contrast, Jesus ascended the heavenly mountain of God and came down in the Spirit to write His law on our hearts.
The book of Hebrews twice explicitly states this by quoting Jeremiah 31:31 (Heb. 8:10; 10:16—the only “law” that can be in view here is the Ten Commandments). The Lord of the law has rewritten the law of the Lord onto our hearts by His Spirit. Empowered from within by the Spirit of the law-keeping Jesus, we love the law because we love the Lord. Just as in the old covenant, the principle of life was “I who love you am holy, love me in return and be holy as well,” so in the new covenant the principle of life can also be summed up in one sentence: “God’s Son Jesus is the image of God in our human nature; so be like Jesus.” After all, our becoming like Christ has always been the Father’s ultimate goal for us.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29–30)
Loving God’s Law
“You’ve got to love the law” has a double meaning. You’ve got to love it—it is a command. But at the same time, “you’ve got to love it” because it is so good. Of course it is. It is a gift from your heavenly Father. It is meant to keep you safe and well and give you security and help you to negotiate life. Pick up the Westminster Shorter Catechism (or better, the Westminster Larger Catechism) and read the section on the commandments. There you will learn how to use and apply the rules of the game of life. They are much easier to understand than the rules of golf. When Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), He was only echoing the words of His Father. Actually, it is simple, yet all-demanding. As the hymn by John H. Sammis states:
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.