Law, Gospel and Faith

This is an old article, but the subject is always relevant.  

A prospective student at Telos Institute asked me a good question about my view on Law versus the Gospel.  As part of my reply I sent him the text of a letter I’d written to someone who had criticized a lecture of mine on the Decalogue.  This individual had claimed that Christians were sanctified solely by faith plus nothing else, and that the law did not even provide a normative standard for ethics.  Here is my reply (changed in a few places) to this person’s criticism.

Dear Friend,

I am happy to address your criticism of my lecture, “The Ten Commandments (1)” in my “Christian Ethics” series.  It is vital we protect the Gospel of justification by faith and the correct teaching on sanctification.  If I am indeed guilty of teaching that the Decalogue is, as you put it, “a standard of conduct to gain acceptance before God” (emphasis added), I deserve your reproof.

Sadly, I think you have not understood my teaching and have thus misrepresented me (listen, e.g., to my lecture on “Law and Gospel” at Spirit & Truth).  Still, I am glad of this opportunity to add some clarification.

The thrust of your complaint is seen in these words: “We are not saved by the keeping of the law of Moses nor are we progressively sanctified by the law.  It is all of God by grace!”

To this I can only write, “Amen!”  I agree entirely.  So why the confusion?  After re-listening to the lecture I have concluded that one of the following statements triggered your objection:

  1. I speak of the Ten Commandments as “God’s way of summing up godly conduct.” – But I immediately qualify what I mean by stating emphatically the proviso; “that godly conduct is always expressed in love.”  This harks back to the previous lecture on “The Primary Forms of Love,” where I tried to delineate what that love is by using Jesus’ words in Matt. 23:23.  I then refer to the Ten Commandments (minus the Sabbath command) as encapsulating “…aspects of the primary forms of love.”
  2. I go on to say that any course on Christian conduct would be odd if it ignored the Commandments since “they were given to regulate behavior.”  – This was just to say that the Commandments were given for an ethical purpose.  The use of the adjective “regulate” here simply implies “adjustment.”  For example, how do you know that stealing or adultery is wrong?  Simple, you go to Scripture (Exod. 20:14-15 in the OT; Rom. 13:9 in the NT).  Why is it wrong? I answer, because these commandments reflect God’s own character (e.g., He is truthful, just, faithful, etc.), and as such they possess normative moral authority over a Christian.  Thus, if one is to be “conformed to the image of Christ” he will be conformed more and more to the Decalogue.  This is important to notice since the Law cannot regulate behavior as a “rule of faith.”  This is why I stress the internal function of the Law (love) and not the external function.   Thus understood, “the law is a spiritual guide.”

Let us deal quickly with the first part of your charge, which has to do with justification and salvation.  Now, as you say, “The law justifies no one.”  Agreed!  Where, then, do I even remotely infer that it does?  This is a course on Christian Ethics, not non-Christian morality.  Indeed, as I am at pains to repeat throughout the course (including this very lecture!), a right relation to God through the new birth is a pre-requisite to knowing and loving Him.  This is precisely because Christian ethics is an internal as well as an external matter.  The internal aspects mold the external actions.

On, then, to your main accusation: we are not “progressively sanctified by the law.”  Certainly we are not, if what you mean is the futile religious conformity to the law.  But I never say that we are sanctified that way.  In fact, in the lecture on “Law and Gospel” (Lecture 15), I expressly repudiate such a teaching.  The Law as an external standard has absolutely no authority over the Christian (e.g. Gal. 2:16, 19; 3:1-3, 11-12 – You see, I have read Galatians).

Have you not noticed how Paul employs the Commandments (though not the Sabbath) in his Epistles?Look, for instance, at Ephesians 6:1-3.  See how the Apostle uses the Sixth Commandment to the normative force of his injunction for children to obey their parents.  Again, in Romans 13:8-10 can you see how Paul enjoins Christian love by referring to the Law!  This is because the Ten Commandments (well, nine of them) are Divine disclosures of ethical norms based on the attributes of God.

If we examine Romans 6 we come across a most important question: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  If we return Paul’s strong negative answer, then the question for the Christian ethicist is, “Well then, what ought we to do?”  How do we explicate Romans 6:11-19 for the people of God?  This involves us in the setting forth of a positive ethics.  We know Who the standard is (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:14), and we know that the Commandments, correctly understood, point to His moral perfection.  Therefore, we may use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8), as Paul does, to “adjust” our conduct accordingly.

Think of another example: The Bible tells us not to bear false witness (Romans 11:9).  This is a NT use of the Eighth Commandment which you say you are not obliged to obey in any sense – since the law is not a norm for you.  If  you do not hold yourself to be accountable to this commandment – even though it is in a NT epistle written to Jews and Gentiles – you need not trouble yourself on this point.  However, you are left on the horns of a dilemma.  If you believe you are not commanded to tell the truth; that is, if you believe “you shall not lie or bear false witness” is not an authoritative command to you because, 1. you are a Gentile, and 2. you are sanctified by faith alone; then clearly you can lie with impunity (understand, I am not calling you a liar.  You may be very honest as a rule, but the rule can only be your own, for you, like any atheist, have removed any ethical constraint from off of you by repudiating the commandments in any form).

This conclusion is also the logical outcome of believing, contrary to the whole NT, that you are sanctified only by faith.  For sure, faith must operate for our works of obedience to be accepted, but if all you need to be consecrated to God is bare faith then you can live as a swindler, rapist, or pimp and be consecrated!  You may say, “that is a misrepresentation of my position,” but that is only because you have not thought through your ethic (cf. 1 Cor. 7:19).  As said before, the commandments reflect the character of God and are normative for the saint on that basis (but not as an external rule of faith)!

Another example: Ephesians 4:1-5:21 does not apply to you according to your view because all you have to do is have “faith” and you are sanctified.  These admonitions from Paul can all be subsumed within the Ten Commandments as I have expounded them.  As you will not be ethically accountable to the Commandments you cannot, without serious contradiction, consider yourself to be obligated to obey Paul’s injunctions either.  If you do hold yourself to be obligated to obey Ephesians 4 and 5 (or e.g. 1 Thess. 4:1-7) then you explode your notion of Christian sanctification (whatever it is).  You do not, in your formulation of ethics, even have to love another Christian brother, since love is not faith.

Again, you may say that “faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6), but that is the whole point.  You are commanded to “love” and the commandments are all summed up in love (Matt. 22:37-40, quoting the Law of Moses. Cf. Gal. 5:14).  As faith works by love you have to obey this commandment (which originates in the Law of Moses) in order to have sanctifying faith!  There is no way out of it.

In summary, the law is not a rule of life for the Christian.  The Christian is not “under the law” in that sense.  But the Christian should realize that it is always wrong to have other gods, or to dishonor God’s name, or to commit adultery or steal.  These are universal ethical norms because they reflect the character of God Himself, and so stamp a moral imperative upon human beings at all times and in all places.  This is how the Apostle can refer believers to them while teaching us that “we are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14).

I hope this explanation, especially when coupled with my lecture on “Law and Gospel” corrects the misapprehensions you express in your complaint.

Your brother,

Paul Henebury

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