I. An OVERVIEW of the Mosaic Covenant
The covenant with Israel at Sinai (the Mosaic Covenant) is the next stage in the Covenant of Grace:
I. The Covenant of Works with Adam
II. The Genesis 3:15 promise of a Redeemer:
A) The Noahic Covenant
B) The Abrahamic Covenant
C) The Mosaic Covenant
D) The Davidic Covenant
E) The New Covenant
Among all the manifestations of the Covenant of Grace, the Mosaic Covenant is by far the most difficult to understand. There is a ton of controversy and debate surrounding this covenant at Sinai. And this debate doesn't have to do with smaller points—it has to do with the very essence of the covenant: How do we understand the covenant at Sinai? The debate especially revolves around the question of how God's grace fits together with the Law in the Mosaic Covenant. How do you reconcile grace and Law?
This is an incredibly important question; and we need to be extremely careful here, because there are two different ways we can fall into error. One the one side are Dispensationalists, who tell us that though the covenant with Abraham was one of grace, the covenant at Sinai was something completely different. They say that when the Israelites accepted the terms of this covenant, they gave up grace and went back to works righteousness. They take grace out of the Mosaic Covenant. But on the other side is what has been called the “Lordship controversy”; a debate that started when a few men started teaching that since salvation is by grace alone, we don't need to obey God's Law. Basically, these men were saying that you can accept Christ as Savior without accepting Him as Lord. They took Law out of the Mosaic Covenant. In both cases, what's happened? There's been a misunderstanding about how grace and Law fit together.
Basically, what we're going to see is that the Mosaic Covenant isn't against the Covenant of Grace; nor is it something that's even different from the Covenant of Grace. It's simply part of the Covenant of Grace, just like God's covenants with Noah and Abraham. Sinai is no different; and we're going to see how. But we're also going to see that in the Covenant of Grace, God calls His people to a live a life of obedience.1
II. An INTRODUCTION to the Mosaic Covenant
1. The COVENANT of the Law:
The Mosaic Covenant has often been called the Covenant of Law. This isn't just because the Law is what tends to characterize the covenant at Sinai, but because in Scripture, God himself associates the covenant that He made at Sinai with the Law. For example, Exodus 34:27-28 says: “Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.' So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” And then again, in Deuteronomy 4:12-13, Moses recounts what had happened at Mount Sinai in this way: “Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.” And later in Deuteronomy, Moses says: “When I went up to the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord had made with you, then I remained on the mountain forty days and nights . . .It came about at the end of forty days and nights that the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant.” (9:9,11). What do we see in these passages? Primarily two things: 1) God's covenant at Sinai is intimately connected with God's Law; and, 2) God's Law is especially marked by the Ten Commandments.2
2. The NATURE of the Law:
So, the covenant at Sinai is the covenant of Law. But having said that, it's vital for us to not confuse the phrase “covenant of law” with the phrase “covenant of works.” These are two very different things. The Covenant of Works was the arrangement God made with Adam in the garden before the fall, when He commanded him to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Covenant of Law that God made with Israel at Sinai was something very different; indeed, we're going to see that the Covenant of Law is actually one of the manifestations of the Covenant of Grace. In the Covenant of Works, God entered into a covenant with sinless man, and that covenant was based entirely on perfect obedience to God's command. But in the Covenant at Sinai, God enters into a covenant with fallen man, and that covenant is actually rooted entirely in the Lord's mercies. We can see this even in the way that God gave Israel His Law. He doesn't come to them and say: “If you keep these commandments, I will redeem you from Egypt.” No, that's not what happened! God redeemed them by His sheer mercy and great power. It was only after He had redeemed them that He gave them commands to keep. This shows us that the Law was never given as a way to enter into a relationship with God. Rather, the Law is given to those who have already been redeemed; who have already entered into a relationship with the Lord by His grace.3
3. The ESSENCE of the Law:
So again: The heart of the Law is the Ten Commandments. But how are we to understand them? In this way: Basically, they are an external summary of the will of God. Now, these Ten Commandments have, in a very real sense, been etched inwardly on the hearts of all men. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 2:15, where he speaks of “the work of the Law written in [our] hearts”. It was for this reason that the patriarchs had a general sense of God's will, even before the giving of the Law at Sinai. And, at times, God would come to them and give them outward instruction as to what His will was for them. God came to Abraham in Genesis 17:1, and said to him: “Walk before Me, and be blameless.” But what exactly did this mean? What did this look like in particular? Again, though Abraham knew generally what this meant, since the Law had been written inwardly in his heart, still, God's will was never fully summarized in outward form until He wrote it in stone tablets at Sinai. So, with the giving of the Ten Commandments, God gives us not only a summary of His will, but a full and external summary.4
4. The REVELATION of the Law:
A) The Covenant of Law is related ORGANICALLY to redemptive history: We mentioned earlier that some people see the covenant at Sinai as something different than the Covenant of Grace. They see the Abrahamic Covenant as being rooted in grace; and they see God's dealings with us now in the new covenant as being rooted in grace, but the Mosaic Covenant they see as something different. It's almost as though they view the Law of Sinai as a parenthesis in the plan of God: Before the Law, God dealt with His people in grace; and after the Law God dealt with His people in grace; but that time at Mount Sinai? That was different. You wouldn't want to live in those days. Those were the days of works-righteousness. The reality though, is that there was Law long before Moses; and there was also Law long after Moses:5
1) There was Law BEFORE Moses. We already mentioned God's words to Abraham in Genesis 17:1, where He tells him: “Walk before Me, and be blameless.” What do we see here? We see Law. The fact is, there wasn't just Law in the Mosaic Covenant; there was Law in the Abrahamic Covenant. Law wasn't just limited to Mount Sinai. There was Law well before Mount Sinai. Now again, the Law wasn't summarized extensively in outward form until God wrote it on tablets of stone under Moses. But God's people were no less bound to God's Law before Sinai. Abraham wasn't free to live any way he pleased. Long before Moses, God was calling Abraham to live a holy life. Long before Sinai, there was Law.6
2) There was Law AFTER Moses. God's Law also continued to function as the rule of obedience for God's covenant people long after Sinai. Even after the Mosaic Covenant had faded into the background, the Law that God had given Moses at Sinai continued to function as the standard for God's people, even during the Davidic Covenant. David himself, as he was on his death-bed, called for his son Solomon and charged him with these words: “Keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to what is written in the Law of Moses, that you may succeed in all that you do and wherever you turn. . .” (2 Kings 2:3). Even in the final chapter of the last book of the Old Testament, Scripture calls us back to the Law. Malachi 4:4 tells us: “Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel.” So, the Law continued to be the standard for God's people long after Sinai.
Some people might object: Well, that's still the Old Testament. It's different now in the new covenant; everything changed in the New Testament. But did it? Didn't Jesus tell us: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. . .”? (Matthew 5:17). Actually, when we read the New Testament, what we see over and over again is the writers of the New Testament continuing to affirm the role of the Ten Commandments for new covenant believers. James 1:22 says: “But prove yourselves [to be] doers of the word, and not merely hearers. . .” What does it look like to be doers of the Word? Paul says, “He who steals must steal no longer. . .” (Ephesians 4:28). He writes, “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices. . .” (Colossians 3:9); and, “consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality. . .” (3:5). John admonishes us: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21, ESV). All of these New Testament commands are rooted in the Ten Commandments. In fact, we can find each and every one of the Ten Commandments repeated in the New Testament letters.
B) The Covenant of Law is related PROGRESSIVELY to redemptive history: In our very first lesson, we learned that each successive stage in the Covenant of Grace builds on the one before. We can think of it this way: The promise God first made to Adam in Genesis 3:15 was like the first seed planted in the ground. With Noah, that seed became a sprout; with Abraham, the sprout became a sapling; and with Moses, it grew into a young tree; and then finally, with David, it became a full, mature tree. Well, here's the point: The tree didn't stop growing under Moses. The Mosaic Covenant was just like all the other manifestations of the Covenant of Grace: At Sinai, there wasn't regression—rather, there was actually real progression. Sometimes the covenant at Sinai is almost presented as if it would have actually been better for God's people if they had stayed under the Abrahamic Covenant. But that's simply not true. Scripture teaches us that the Mosaic Covenant was truly an advancement beyond everything that had preceded it:7
1) In its SCOPE. With Adam, Noah, and Abraham, we saw that in the Covenant of Grace, God is not only dealing with individuals but also with families. Well, here under Moses, God shows us that He is not only going to deal with families—He's going to form an entire nation. At Sinai, we see the scope of God's covenant grace extending from a family to a nation. Under Moses, we come to learn that God isn't just calling families to himself—but He's organizing all those families into a single nation, who would be, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession. . .” (1 Peter 2:9).
2) In its CONTENT. Before Sinai, God's people didn't have a full or clear knowledge of what God's will really was. They had to piece things together as best as they could. Just think about how much less you would know about God if all you had was the book of Genesis!8 But now, with this covenant God made at Sinai, we come to learn so much more about who God is and what it is He requires. We also learn so much more about our need of salvation and God's provision through the pictures and types that the Lord gave Israel at Sinai. Just think about how much the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-6 must have taught them.
3) In its EFFECT. Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin”; and again, in Romans 7:7, he writes: “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law. . .” The Law teaches us so much more about what God requires, and as it does so, it also shows us just how far short that we really fall. And so, the Law humbles us. This is a hard thing; but it's also a very necessary thing.9
5. The PURPOSES of the Law:
This brings us to the next point: What we just learned is that the Law serves to expose our sin. Well, what we can add here is that the Law has this effect because this was the way God intentionally designed it. In other words, the fact that the Law shows us just how sinful we really are—this isn't just an accidental effect—this was actually one of the reasons God gave us the Law. Scripture teaches that there are three main purposes (or uses) for which God gave the Law, as it is summarized in the Ten Commandments:10
A) The FIRST use of the Law: The first use or purpose of the Law is exposing sin. The Law shows us what God demands, and it shows us how far short of those demands we truly fall. It exposes our true condition as guilty sinners before God. This is what Paul was referring to in those Scriptures we quoted above, where he tells us that “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20), and “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law. . .” (Romans 7:7). It's also what Paul was speaking of in Galatians 3:24, where he tells us that “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. . .” We might think of the Law like a mirror. What does a mirror do? Well, it doesn't make us more aged or overweight than we really are. But it shows us just how aged or overweight we've truly become. In other words: It confront us with reality; it confronts us with our true condition.11 That's exactly what the Law does. Or, we could think of the Law like an X-ray or CT scan for a patient with a chronic disease. It tells us there's something very wrong. Is it a good thing to get back bad results? It is if there's a cure. The Law exposes just how bad our condition is—but it does so to lead us to Christ.
B) The SECOND use of the Law: The second use or purpose of the Law is instilling fear. So, while the first use of the Law is to show men their true condition; the second use of the Law is to confront them with God's judgment. Often, this second use of the Law is spoken of in the context of civil restraint. In other words: The threat of the Law's punishment causes men to restrain their vices so they don't act out the sinful desires they would otherwise unleash against others in society. Now, this is part of what Calvin originally meant. He tells us that, “this constrained and forced righteousness is necessary for the public community of men”, and that without any threat of punishment, society would completely unravel.12 But along with this aspect of civil restraint, Calvin says that this second use of the Law also serves to lead men to Christ.13 How so? The first use of the Law, he says, is for self-righteous Pharisees; it shows them their sin so as to drive them to Christ. But the second use of the Law is for unrighteous prodigals; it confronts them with God's punishment of sin. And so, this fear of God's judgment not only serves to restrain men from acting upon certain sins they would have otherwise committed, but it also serves to drive them to Christ for safety, in a similar way to how the avenger of blood served to drive a man-slayer to the city of refuge (see Deuteronomy 19). So then, while the first use of the Law drives men to Christ by exposing their sin; the second use of the Law serves to drive men to Christ by threatening God's judgement.14
C) The THIRD use of the Law: The first two uses of the Law serve to draw unbelievers to Jesus. Again, they do this in different ways: The first use is given more for the self-righteous, and it draws men to Christ by showing them how sinful they really are. The second use of the Law is given more for prodigal sons, and it draws men to Christ by threatening God's judgment against sin. The first use is for those who don't see their sin; the second use is for those who don't care about their sin. The first is for the legalist; the second is for the lawless. But in both cases, the Law serves to draw sinners to Christ. Well, the third use of the Law is for Christians. It serves as a rule of life; it tells us what God's will is for us as believers; and it teaches us how to live in such a way that brings glory and honor to our heavenly Father. Psalm 119 is the epitome of the third use of the Law. And Psalm 119:4 tells us: “You have ordained Your precepts, that we should keep them diligently.” Notice what the Psalmist doesn't say about the function of the Law here. He doesn't say: “You have ordained your precepts, that we would see we can't keep them.” No; he tells us God has given us His precepts “that we should keep them. . .” This is the third use of the Law.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, in describing this third use, tells us that the primary purpose of the Law for believers is: “to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.”15 In other words, when we read God's Law as Christians, we don't merely read it as a list of things God commands to do or not to do. When we read the Law, we let God truly search our hearts. We don't just say, “Well, I haven't committed murder or adultery; I guess I'm doing pretty good there.” We let God show us all the ways we've broken His Law with our actions, our words, and our thoughts; in the secret places of our lives and our hearts. We come to God honestly, as those who still struggle deeply with sin. And we let God expose our sin. But as He does, we remember the finished work of Jesus. So, we fully acknowledge the ways we've failed. But then we go back to the cross, and we remember all that Christ has done to redeem us from the curse of the Law. And what happens? We're stirred once again, we're renewed in the gospel. And we close our Bibles and go on our way, seeking to obey the Lord—not out of guilt; but with gladness and joy—seeking to obey Him because of all He has done for us in Jesus.16
6. The CATEGORIES of the Law:
Well, up until now, we've been talking about the Moral Law; that is, the Law of God as it is expressed in the Ten Commandments. But historically, the Law has actually been divided up into three distinct categories: 1) The Moral Law; but also, 2) The Ceremonial Law; and 3) The Judicial (or Civil) Law.
A) The MORAL Law: The Moral Law is what we have been talking about. It's the eternal summary of God's will for man as it is expressed in the Ten Commandments. One thing we could note here is that of those Ten Commandments, the first four deal with our love for God; while the last six deal with our love for our neighbor. So, when the Savior was asked what the greatest commandment was, and He replied by first saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, mind, soul, and strength; and then He also added that we are to love our neighbor as ourself—He was actually giving us a summary of the Ten Commandments (see Matthew 22:34-40). So again, the Moral Law is summarized for us in the Ten Commandments; it is the eternal expression of God's will for mankind; and thus perpetually binding.
B) The CEREMONIAL Law: The Old Testament Ceremonial Laws had to do with Israel's worship in the Old Testament church. It included the instructions that God gave Israel about the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 25-30; 36-40); instructions that related to the sacrifices the Lord had commanded (Leviticus 1-6; 16-17); instructions about the priesthood (Leviticus 7-9; 21-22); instructions that related to clean and unclean foods (Leviticus 11); instructions about purification rituals (Leviticus 12-15); and also instructions in the Law that related to the yearly feasts God had appointed (Leviticus 23,25). Now again, all these laws had to do with Israel's worship. They were almost like an appendix to the first table of the Law (the first four Commandments); they helped explain what it looked like for Israel to worship God.
C) The JUDICIAL Law: The Old Testament Judicial Laws, on the other hand, had to do with Israel's civil state. Israel was the people of God, but they had now also become a nation; and, as a nation, they needed laws by which society could properly function and be governed. These were the Judicial Laws. They dealt with perverting justice; domestic concerns; morality (murder, adultery, rape, and divorce); and other various kinds of disputes—even with what to do when you see your neighbor's ox wandering away. So again, these laws had to do with Israel's civil state. And as such, they were almost like an appendix to the second table of the Law (the last six Commandments); they helped to further explain and flesh-out what it really looked like to love your neighbor as yourself in that particular time and place and culture.
Now, the question that arises here is: Are Christians bound to keep the Ceremonial and Judicial Laws as well as the Moral Law? The short answer is “No.” It's only the Moral Law that is perpetually binding. The Ceremonial and Judicial Laws are not. These laws were given to a particular people (the Jews) for a particular time (before the coming of Christ), and thus, they served a temporary purpose. How do we know this? Because Jesus declared all foods to be clean in the gospels (Mark 7:17-19); and because the New Testament letters refer to these kinds of laws as actually being a form of bondage that we've been set free from in the new covenant; a bondage it would be foolish for us to go back to (Galatians 3:23-4:11).
So now, in the new covenant, we've been set free from the bondage of the Ceremonial and Judicial Laws. But does that mean we just throw them out? Cut them out of our Bibles? No, it doesn't mean that. The Ceremonial Laws served to point us to Christ in so many different ways: They pointed us to the person of Jesus (in the furnishings of the tabernacle); the atoning work of Jesus (in the sacrifices); the priesthood of Jesus (in the laws for the priests); the sanctifying work of Jesus (in the purification rituals); and the overall redemption of Jesus (in the feasts). So, we don't just cut out the Ceremonial Laws. But what we do is we read them with all the significance they were originally meant to have, because we now have the key that unlocks the depths of their true meaning. So, we read them; and as we do, we see Jesus in them.
What about the Judicial Laws? We don't cut them out either. How do we apply them? Well, if we can think of the Ceremonial Laws as being fulfilled by Christ, then we can think of the Judicial Laws as being transformed by Christ. We don't apply them literally; but at the same time, we recognize that these Laws still express permanent principles. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul quotes from the Judicial Law of the Old Testament when he writes: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” Now, in the original context, this phrase actually meant administering the death penalty for crimes such as disobeying authority, idolatry, and immorality. What does Paul do? He doesn't apply it literally; but he also doesn't throw it out completely. Rather, he takes the abiding principle and gives it a new application. In the Old Testament, immorality meant the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:21); but Paul takes that same principle (“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves”) and gives it a new application; namely, the man who committed immorality should come under appropriate church discipline. Paul does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 9:8-14. He quotes from Deuteronomy: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (25:4); and he takes the abiding principle but gives it a new application; namely, “those who proclaim the gospel [should] get their living from the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14). So, what we see is that in the New Testament, these laws aren't just thrown out or done away with. Rather, they take on new application.17
7. The USAGE (or Etymology) of the Law:
We've mentioned that the heart of the Law is the Ten Commandments. And we've been talking about the differences between the Moral Law, the Ceremonial Law, and the Judicial Law. But it's going to be important for us to also briefly recognize that this word “Law” can actually be used in a variety of ways:18
A) The Ten Commandments: When Scripture uses the term, “Law”, sometimes it's referring exclusively to the Ten Commandments. For example, in Romans 7:7, Paul writes: “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'” Paul is recalling here the 10th Commandment; so here, “Law” refers to the Decalogue.
B) The Pentateuch: Other times, when Scripture uses the term, “Law”, it's referring to the entire first five books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy). For example, in Luke 24:44, Jesus explains to His disciples: “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” And in Romans 3:21, Paul tells us that the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus was previously “witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. . .” So then, here “Law” refers to the Pentateuch.19
C) The Old Testament: Still, at other times, when Scripture uses the term, “Law”, it's actually referring to the entire Old Testament. This is how the Savior seems to be using it in John 8:34, where He asks the Jews: “Has it not been written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'?” What Jesus is actually teaching here is another matter, but He's quoting the Psalms (82:6). So, “Law” here refers to the entire Old Testament.
D) A Works-Righteousness: Sometimes, the term “Law” is used as a short-hand version for “trusting in the works of the Law” to make you right with God. For instance, in Galatians 4:21, Paul asks his hearers: “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?” Here, Paul isn't speaking about the Ten Commandments in a general sense—but about trusting in the Law as a means of justification.
E) The Gospel: Finally, there are times in Scripture when the term, “Law” is actually used to refer to the gospel! For instance, in Isaiah 2:3, there is a beautiful prophecy of the last days: “And many peoples will come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.' For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” So here, “law” seems to actually refer to the gospel.
1 Much of this section gleaned from Ligon Duncan's audio lecture course on Covenant Theology.
2 Much of this paragraph gleaned from O Palmer Robertson's audio lectures on the Mosaic Covenant.
3 Robertson says: “Not only did the covenant of law not disannul the covenant of promise; more specifically, it did not offer a temporary alternative to the covenant of promise. This particular perspective is often over-looked. It is sometimes assumed that the covenant of law temporarily replaced the covenant of promise, or somehow ran alongside it as an alternative method of man's salvation. The covenant of law often has been considered as a self-contained unit which served as another basis for determining the relation of Israel to God in the period between the Abrahamic covenant and the coming of Christ. In this scheme, the covenant of promise is treated as though it had been set aside or made secondary for a period, although not 'disannuled.'” (Christ of the Covenants, p174). Later we'll further clarify the relationship of Sinai to the Covenant of Works.
4 O Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, p172.
5 Most of the following material was gratefully gleaned from O Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, pp175-78.
6 See Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, pp176-77. We might also think of God's words to Adam in Genesis 3:19; God's words to Noah in Genesis 9:6; and the Lord's original call to Abraham to leave everything and follow Him in Genesis 12:1.
7 For more on the following three sections, see Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, pp185-89.
8 An illustration here: I remember one time driving from southern California up to Washington State with my wife and two small daughters. It was early morning, before dawn; and we were now pretty far north; it was the winter and there was snow on the roads. All of a sudden the headlights on our car went out on us. What a scary moment. There was a truck in front of us, and so we followed close behind the truck. If it weren't for the truck we wouldn't have even been able to see the road. Well, it was a bit like that before the Mosaic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant was like the truck. It gave enough help; it afforded enough light and direction, but it wasn't much. The inauguration of the Mosaic Covenant was like the soothing light of dawn.
9 I love how O Palmer Robertson puts it here: “It may be admitted quite readily that the arrival of the full delineation of God's will brought with it problems which had not previously existed. Ask any distraught parent of a modern teenager if he regards the state of teenage as an advancement over infancy. The parent may hesitate to respond immediately as he recalls the multiplication of problems involved in the abrupt arrival of teenaged years. But in the end it cannot be denied that the gangly youth stands much closer to the full realization of manhood than does the infant.” (Christ of the Covenants, pp188-89).
10 The three uses of the Law were developed by Calvin in his Institutes (2.7.6ff), but Melancthon may have first taught them.
11 “The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both—just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face. For when the capacity to follow righteousness fails him, man must be mired in sins. After the sin forthwith comes the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the law holds us guilty, the graver the judgment to which it makes us answerable. The apostle's statement is relevant here: 'Through the law comes knowledge of sin' (Rom.3:20). . .Related to this are these statements: 'Law slipped in, to increase the trespass' (Rom.5:20), and thus it is 'the dispensation of death' (2Cor.3:7) that 'brings wrath' (Rom.4:15), and slays. . .It remains, then, to the law to arm God's wrath for the sinner's downfall, for of itself the law can only accuse, condemn, and destroy. . .But when we say that, we neither dishonor the law, nor detract at all from its excellence. . .[As Augustine] writes. . .'The usefulness of the law lies in convicting man of his infirmity and moving him to call upon the remedy of grace which is in Christ.' . . .Again: 'The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.'” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.7.7-9).
12 We should clarify a few things here: The law Calvin was speaking of wasn't primarily civil law; it was God's Law. And the punishment that restrains sin wasn't primarily civil punishment (IE, jail or the death-penalty), but divine punishment. This is clear in Calvin when he says that “by the dread of divine vengeance they are restrained at least from outward wantonness. . .” (2.7.10). The vengeance these men fear is not primarily the vengeance of the state, but divine vengeance. Having said that, Paul does also say that the state is a minister of God for good and doesn't bear the sword for nothing. So I don't think it's wrong to draw secondary applications. But I do believe it's important to recognize that the primary application doesn't have to do with breaking civil laws and being subject to civil punishments—but breaking God's Law and being subject to His judgment.
13 Calvin writes: “What Paul says elsewhere, that 'the law was for the Jews a tutor unto Christ' (Gal. 3:24), may be applied to both functions of the law. There are two kinds of men whom the law leads by its tutelage to Christ.” (Institutes, 2.7.11).
14 It's this aspect that the Westminster Larger Catechism seems to draw out most clearly. Question 96 asks, “What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men?” The response reads, “The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ; or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable, and under the curse thereof.” Nicholas Batzig picks up on this truth in his article, The Third Use of the Law and the Finished Work of Christ. He says: “Calvin then proceeded to categorize the second use of the Law as that of restraint. . .Here, an interesting historical matter arises. It has been common for scholars to appeal to Calvin's delineation of the second use of the law as referring to civil restraint. However, it is not civil restraint that Calvin seems to be speaking about; rather, Calvin subsumed the second use of the Law under the schoolmaster category—as he had done with the first use. . .the first use of the law is to lead the self-righteous to come off of trusting in his own righteousness and to trust in Christ for righteousness, and the second use of the Law is for the lawless to fear the inevitable outcome of their rebellion and so to flee to Christ for salvation. It is an important distinction that has seldom been observed in treatments on this subject. Calvin leaves no question that he believed that the first two uses of the law were 'schoolmaster' to bring legalist and lawless to saving faith in Christ. He introduced the second use by saying 'there are two classes of persons, whom by its training it leads to Christ.'” (www.feedingonchrist.com/the-third-use-of-the-law-and-finished-work-of-christ). We agree with Batzig that Calvin isn't speaking of civil restraint alone, but civil restraint does seem to be the first aspect he describes. Colquhoun references both aspects in describing how the Law restrains sin: “By its. . .awful threatenings, it serves in some measure to keep [men] in awe, and to fright them from committing many external acts of sin; in which, they otherwise would freely indulge themselves. It is of use, by its terrible denunciations, to curb those, who. . . would rush forward to all manner of sin; and to deter them, through fear of punishment, from many gross enormities. In this view, it serves as a curb, to hold sinners within the limits of external decency, and to prevent the world, from becoming a scene of robbery and blood.” (Treatise of Law and Gospel, pp137-38).
15 This is Question #97 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.
16 Nicholas Batzig has a wonderful article on this aspect of the third use of the Law. Referencing WLC #97 quoted above, he says: “Note that the Puritans were insistent that our justification by faith alone in Christ alone is the fundamental first step in understanding the role of the moral Law in the life of the believer. They do not lay aside the implications of that justification. Rather, they root the third use of the Law firmly in the justification we have in Christ. . .the Puritans noted that the moral Law is useful in the life of the regenerate to remind them of the ongoing need they have for the finished work of Christ. It is not only the unbeliever [that] needs to know that Christ has fulfilled the Law for us and has taken the curse of it 'in our place and for our good.' Believers continue to need this to be pressed into their minds and hearts. . .the moral law is useful to believers in that it 'provoke[s] them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.' here an exceedingly important nuance must be observed. The first thing introduced in the moral obligations of the Law in the life of the believer is not the sheer obligatory character, rather it is the heart motivation for obedience. The language of 'thankfulness' is employed. It is not out of 'servile fear' that the believer presses on in obedience. . .It is the 'thankfulness'. . .that [is] the proper [motivation] for the believer to obey God. . .[But] When the Law is divested of the fulfillment it finds in the finished work of Christ it becomes an unbearable burden.” (see link noted above).
17 This is also true of the Ceremonial Laws. As Poythress explains: “Consider the laws that prohibit Israelites from touching unclean things and eating unclean foods. Such laws are generally classified as ceremonial because Christians are not bound to observe them literally (see Col. 2:20-21; 1 Tim. 4:3-5; Mk. 7:19). Nevertheless, these laws still express permanent principles. 'Touch no unclean thing' is quoted by Paul as a backing for his injunction not to be yoked together with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14, 17), because it embodies the general principle of separation from moral disorder. The dietary laws also express the general truth that God has created all orders of living things, that this order also has been corruption through the fall (see Gen. 3:17-18), that this order is redemptively restored through the renewal of the word of God, and that God's priests are to be radically separated from the corruptions of the fall. . .Hence, though the exact for of observance of the food laws has changed, they express a multitude of permanent principles. . .Thus it seems wisest to me not to draw a sharp distinction between ceremonial and moral law, but to study all of the law most carefully in the endeavor to appreciate its depth, the richness of its connections, and the unity of its purposes in foreshadowing Christ.” (see Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, pp102-103).
18 Much of this section was gleaned from Robertson (Christ of the Covenants, pp179-80) and Colquhoun (Treatise, pp4-5).
19 In this passage in Romans 3:21, “Law” is actually used in two very different ways. What does Paul mean when he begins the verse by saying: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested. . .”? We'll get to that later.