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Are New Testament Believers Under the Law? (Lesson 7.3)


The Marrow of Modern Divinity is considered to be one of the most important books ever written on the law and the gospel. Penned by Edward Fisher, a Scottish layman in the mid-1600's, it's written as a conversation between four main characters who each represent different kinds of people: Nomista is a legalist, Antinomista is an antinomian, Neophytus is a new Christian, and Evangelist is a minister of the gospel. The book begins with the new Christian, the legalist, and the antinomian, all coming to the minister for help relating to a particular question. And the question is this: Are believers under the Law, or not? Are believers bound to keep the Law, or are they no longer under its authority? As you might guess, the legalist claimed that believers were bound to keep the Law, the antinomian claimed that believers were free from having to keep the Law, and the young Christian was troubled and confused.

Now, we talked earlier about the three categories of the Mosaic Law: the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil; and we showed there that the Ceremonial and Civil Laws were given to a particular people (the Jews) for a particular time (until the coming of Christ), and thus served only a temporary purpose. We concluded that new covenant Christians are no longer under the Ceremonial and Civil Laws in the same way that God's people were in the old covenant. But the question that was being asked in The Marrow didn't have to do with the Ceremonial or Civil Laws—it had to do with the Moral Law. Has the Moral Law been abrogated for Christians along with the Ceremonial and Civil laws? Are new covenant believers under any of the Law, or have we been released from all of it? Are Christians under the Ten Commandments?

Most of us would shutter to hear someone say that the Ten Commandments were just for Old Testament believers and we don't need to keep them anymore. Not only did Jesus himself tell us plainly: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law” (Matthew 5:17), but His entire ministry is characterized by opening up the true meaning of the Law and then calling His disciples to radical obedience in doing what it says. For instance, in Matthew 5-7, Christ didn't do away with the 6th and 7th Commandments (to not murder or commit adultery) by telling His followers that if they believed in Him they no longer needed to keep these commands. He rather expounded what these commands truly meant and then called His disciples to live and walk accordingly. In another place, Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for creating man-made rules that in effect nullified the 5th Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” He tells them: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8). Jesus' problem with the scribes and Pharisees, in other words, wasn't that they were too zealous for the Law, but that they didn't actually follow what the Law said at all. And in Matthew 23:23, Jesus says: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” Again, Jesus isn't condemning them because they made the Law too central—but because they had neglected the most central teachings of the Law. And when Jesus is asked what commandment is the foremost of all, He not only quotes two passages from the Law, but in doing so gives a wonderful summary of the Law, when He answers that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (a summary of Commandments 1-4), and our neighbor as ourself (a summary of Commandments 5-10). And so, when Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law”, it must be that He tells them this because He knew that some of them would begin to think that He came to do exactly that—but they would be wrong.1

But if all this is true, what do we make of other passages that seem to tell us we're no longer under the Law? Paul says in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” He writes a little later in Romans 7:4 that we “were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ” and that “we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound” (v6). And Paul testifies of himself in Galatians 2:19 when he writes: “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.” Again, it would resolve a lot of difficulty to just say that Paul is speaking here of the Ceremonial and Civil Laws of the Mosaic Covenant, and that believers in the new covenant are no longer under those laws in the same way that Old Testament believers were. But it's clear from the context of these passages that Paul is here speaking of something more; he's talking about the Law in a much more general sense. In these Scriptures, Paul isn't speaking about the Ceremonial or Civil Laws but the Moral Law. What do we make of this? What does Paul mean when he tells us that believers are no longer under the Law? Are Christians no longer bound to keep the Law after all?

1. CLARIFYING THE MEANING: In The Marrow, the way in which the minister begins to answer the question is by asking a question of his own. When Nomista, Antinomista, and Neophytus come to ask him whether or not believers were bound to keep the Law, the minister responds by asking: “What law do you mean?”2 Being baffled by his question, the minister began to explain how the same Moral Law—the Ten Commandments—is actually used in Scripture in three different ways. The minister then went on to distinguish between what he called the Law of Works and the Law of Christ, and later returned to refer to a third category called the Law of Nature.3 Another writer summarized these three categories when he wrote: “The law of God. . .is to be considered in a threefold point of view: first, as written on the heart of man in his creation; secondly, as given under the form of a covenant of works to him; and lastly, as a rule of life, in the hand of Christ the Mediator, to all true believers.”4

2. SURVEYING THE SCRIPTURE: It might be helpful to give an illustration here, even if it seems simplistic. We might think of the Moral Law—the will of God for man as revealed especially in the Ten Commandments—as the chemical compound H2O. This compound, H2O, is the chemical formula for water. But it's also the chemical formula for ice and vapor. That's because the exact same chemical formula, H2O, can actually take on three different forms: in its solid form, H2O is ice; but in its liquid form, H2O is water; and in its gas form, H2O is vapor. It's the same chemical formula, but it can take on three different forms. Someone might ask: Can you walk on H2O? But to answer the question, you have to ask: What form of H2O are you speaking of? Because you can't walk on it in its water or vapor forms—but you can when it's ice. Well, we can think of the Moral Law in a similar way. Just like with H2O, the Moral Law—though always itself unchanging—is actually revealed in Scripture in three different forms: As 1) the Law of Nature, 2) the Law of Works, and 3) the Law of Christ. And so, in order to answer the question: “Are believers under the Law?”, the first thing we have to do is ask, “What law do you mean?”

A) The Law of Nature: In the context of speaking about the Law, Paul makes this statement in his letter to the Romans: “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts. . .” (2:14-15). Scripture here teaches that the same Law that God wrote on tablets at Sinai has also been written, in a certain measure, on the hearts of every man. And we can trace it all the way back to creation.5 As the Westminster Confession states: “After God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image, having the law of God written in their hearts. . .”6 In other words, Adam was created with the Moral Law—essentially, the Ten Commandments—written on his heart. And this form of the Moral Law, which God wrote on the heart of man at creation, is normally called the Law of Nature.7 In turn, man was called upon to keep this Law—to love the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength—from the very beginning. But the point of most significance here, is that when the Moral Law was first given to Adam at creation, there were no threats of death for disobedience, nor promises of life for obedience. The content of the Moral Law was the same. But it was originally given entirely free of eternal reward or punishment. It was not: “Do and live”; nor: “Do or die”; but simply, “Do.” Simply: “Obey Me; serve Me; love Me, Adam, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.”8

B) The Law of Works: That all changed in Genesis 2:16-17. It's in these verses that the Lord forbids Adam from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and telling him, “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Now, there are several things that are absolutely vital for us to understand about these words to Adam. The first thing we need to see is that the command which the Lord gives Adam here in Genesis 2:16-17 is something both subsequent to and distinct from creation. Again, as the Westminster Confession states: “After God had made all other creatures, He created man. . .having the law of God written in their hearts. . .Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”9 At creation, God had endowed Adam with the Law of Nature. Later, as something separate and distinct, the Lord also gave him this specific command.

The next thing that's important for us to understand about Genesis 2:16-17 is that this was so much more than simply a command. It was a covenant. Prior to this, God had created Adam—but here, with these words, the Lord enters into a covenant with him. This is what the Westminster Confession is speaking of when, referring to Genesis 2:16-17, it states: “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.”10 To summarize then: God had, in the very beginning, at creation, engraved the Moral Law on Adam's heart. Later, here in Genesis 2:16-17, the Lord entered into the Covenant of Works with Adam.

Now, the last thing that we need to see helps us to connect it all together: The content of the Covenant of Works, which God gave to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17, was the Moral Law. Or to put it another way, in Genesis 2:16-17, the Moral Law took on the form of the Covenant of Works.11 Consider the words of the Westminster Confession once more: “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables. . .” The Confession is telling us that the very Law that God gave to Adam as a Covenant of Works is the same Law that was written on two tablets at Mount Sinai. In other words, it was actually the Ten Commandments, the Moral Law, that was being given to Adam as the Covenant of Works in Genesis 2:16-17. How could this be? Because all the commandments were rolled together into one in that single command.12 Earlier, the Confession had told us that the Moral Law was originally written on man's heart at creation. Here it's telling us that this same Moral Law—which was originally given at creation—took on the form of the Covenant of Works in Genesis 2:16-17. At the beginning, the Moral Law was given to Adam as the Law of Nature. But that same Moral Law, originally given to Adam at creation, here in Genesis 2:16-17 took on the form of the Covenant of Works. At Genesis 2:16-17, the command to “Do” took on the form of, “Do and live.”13

So then, in Genesis 2:16-17, the Moral Law took on covenant form. And the Law of Nature became the Law of Works. Adam was still called to love the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength; that didn't change (for this love would be proven in and through his obedience to that single command). The difference was that beginning with Genesis 2:16-17, there was now a promise of eternal life added to the command should Adam obey, as well as a threatening of eternal death should he disobey. With this annexing of life and death to the command, the Law of Nature was turned into the Law of Works.

Now, we should note here that the Moral Law is often presented in Scripture in this form.14 Whenever the Moral Law is set forth as promising life in case of obedience, or on the contrary, threatening death for disobedience, it is being presented in its covenant form—as the Law of Works. And the Law in this form, as the Law of Works, is also identical to what we referred to earlier as the Law “strictly taken.”15 It's this form of the Law that is spoken of in Scriptures such as Galatians 3:10-12 and Romans 10:5-6, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them” (Galatians 3:10), and, “He who practices them shall live [IE, be justified] by them.” (Galatians 3:12; Romans 10:5).

C) The Law of Christ: The last way in which the Moral Law is given in Scripture is in the form of what has been called the Law of Christ. Now, we need to begin here by remembering what we saw earlier in our study: far from abolishing the Moral Law, Christ rather opened up to His disciples its true meaning, and called them to radical obedience in living out what it said. So again, Jesus never abolished the Moral Law for New Testament believers. In fact, the Moral Law is put forth as God's will for His new covenant people—not only in the gospels—but throughout Scripture. The Lord had prophesied through Jeremiah about the days of the new covenant church, saying: “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it. . .” (31:33). Here, the Lord is neither saying that He would give His people a new Law, nor that He would abolish the old one, but rather that He would take that same Law He had written on stone tablets—the Moral Law—and write it on the hearts of His people.16 And if we turn to the New Testament epistles, we can find exhortations addressed to God's new covenant people that bring us back to each of the Ten Commandments.17 All this is summarized, once again, by the Westminster Confession when it states: “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”18 So then, the Moral Law continues to be the rule of life for God's new covenant people.

But though the same Moral Law is expressed in the Law of Christ that is expressed in the Law of Works, still, there is a vital difference between the two: the content of the Law of Christ is still the Moral Law, but now in Christ, it's no longer given to God's people in its covenant form. In the fullness of time, God sent His Son into the world, as the second Adam. In becoming a curse for us, Christ redeemed us from the curse pronounced in the Law of Works; and in obeying the Law perfectly for us, He merited the blessing promised in the Law of Works. And as a result, all who believe in Jesus, “are, through his obedience and satisfaction imputed to them, freed from eternal death, and become heirs of everlasting life; so that the law of works being fully satisfied, expires as to them, as it would have done. . .in the case of Adam's having stood the time of his trial. . .”19 In other words, because of the work of Christ the second Adam, believers now “are in the very same state. . .in which they [would] have been, had the first Adam fulfilled for himself and his posterity, the condition of life in the covenant of works.”20 Precious truths indeed.

The Law of Works, then, being fulfilled by Christ, expires to us. This doesn't mean that believers are no longer bound to the Moral Law; but it does mean that believers are no longer bound to the Moral Law in its covenant form—as the Law of Works. God's Law is, “from the moment the law of works expires as to believers, issued forth to them. . .in the channel of the covenant of grace. . .”21 What this means is that the Moral Law no longer comes to us from an exacting God as to those outside Christ—but rather from an appeased God who has been reconciled to us in Christ.22 Under the Law of Christ, believers are still bound to keep the Moral Law—only now, not as a law of works, but rather as a rule of life.23 We are still commanded to “Do”, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. But the command is no longer, “Do and live”, but rather, “Live and do.” There's no more threatening of eternal death for disobedience or promise of life for obedience, for in Christ, we've already passed out of death and into life. We're still called to keep God's Law, only not in order to obtain life and salvation, but as those who have already obtained it in Christ. So, we still obey; but we obey from life rather than for life. In a sense, it's as if believers in Jesus return to that state of Adam in the garden under the Law of Nature, before it had taken on the form of the Law of Works. The difference is that under the Law of Christ, we have even greater reason to keep God's commands: whereas Adam's motive for obedience was to serve the God who had created him; the believer makes it his aim to serve the God who has redeemed him.24

3. RESOLVING THE QUESTION: We began this section by asking whether or not believers are still under the Law. After surveying the three distinct ways that Scripture speaks of the Moral Law, we're finally ready to g