We have learned that we must be very careful not to confuse the gospel with moralism. Often the temptation with the latter is that results can often be measured since they address external matters.
We have also learned that the gospel is not opposed to morals in that it is the foundation from which the morals are lived out. The gospel is the power of God for salvation and sanctification. The gospel transforms lives from the inside out it and thus is the power from which those morals can be and ought to be lived out.
An important aspect of this discussion is the law and the role of the law in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, and in the Christian life. Here is a brief biblical theology (overly simple, I confess) of this important matter.
- God’s redemptive plan (salvation history) must be remembered as we read the commandments and understand the law in the life of the Jews and Christians (the law/commandments are supremely revealed in the Ten Commandments [Ex. 20; Deut. 5]).
- The key is understanding the law(s) and the commandments through the fulfillment in Jesus. We must remember that they are fulfilled in Christ, and that determines how we interpret, understand and apply them. The key is not asking how Jesus relates to the law, but rather how the law relates to Jesus. The law and commandments were prophetic pointers to Jesus Christ, so not only did prophecy prophesy about Christ, so did the law (Matt. 11:13).
- The New Testament writers assume the truth of these moral laws to shape the moral life of Christians, both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Rom. 13:9-10; Eph. 6:2).
- Generally there are considered three uses of the Law: (1) the civil use – the law serves the commonwealth or political/social realm to restrain sin, which falls under general revelation (cf. Rom. 13); (2) the pedagogical use or moral use – the law serves to show people their sin and points them to mercy and grace outside of themselves, or more directly, the law confronts and refutes sin for the purpose of pointing the way to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:21-26); (3) the normative use or use of the law for Christians – this use is for those who have trusted Christ and have been saved by faith apart from works. It acts as a norm of conduct freely accepted by those whom the grace of God works the good (Rom. 8:4).
- In sum, Christ is the fulfillment (Matt. 5:17-20) or the end of the law (Rom. 10:4; Heb. 8:7-13) in that it points us to Christ and allows us to rest in the completed work of Christ on our behalf. Christ has saved us from the laws demands, which means we joyfully obey Him by the Holy Spirit who now lives within Christians: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 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. 8:1-4).
- Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, explains/defines how the law and gospel relate (which also relates to the second and third use of the law) in the following manner: lex praescribit, evangelium inscribit: the law prescribes, the gospel inscribes, viz. the law prescribes obedience and points the way toward righteousness, but effects neither; the gospel effects obedience and righteousness by inscribing them on the heart.
Now the Christian gives thanks and praise to the Lord that He used the law in our lives to point us to Christ (the second use) , in whom we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1-2; 8:1). He is our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). And by the Holy Spirit who lives within we love God by keeping His commandments (Jn. 14:21) (the third use). Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, writing in A Puritan Theology (p. 570), explain this third use of the law in the life of the Christian:
The third use of the law combats both Antinomianism and legalism.
Antinomians wrongly appeal to justification by faith alone, which, though granted apart from works of the law, does not preclude the need for sanctification. One of sanctification’s most important elements is the daily cultivation of grateful obedience to the law.
Moreover, neglect of the third use of the law can result in legalism, and often does, for we cannot live without law. When, as an alternative to God’s law, an elaborate man-made code is developed for believers to follow, covering every conceivable problem and tension in moral living, no freedom is left for believers to make personal decision based on the principles of Scripture. In such a context, man-made law smothers the divine gospel, and legalistic sanctification swallows up gracious justification. The Christian is brought back into bondage akin to that of medieval Roman Catholic monasticism.
Equally enslaving is the freedom that allows the Christian to follow his own emotions and impulses. Healthy Christian spirituality arises from careful meditation upon the principles of the law of God combined with heartfelt consecration to do the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2).
Thanks be to God that He graciously gave the law, that He gave the law to lead us to Christ, that Christ fulfilled the law, that through faith in Him the righteous requirements of the law can be fulfilled in those who live by and according to the Spirit!