A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 11)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. How do we judge what is ethically good?

John says, “Beloved, imitate not that which is evil but that which is good. He that does good is of God; he that does evil has not seen God” (III Jn.11). Paul declares, “Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that you affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:8).

Although guarding diligently the truth that salvation is by grace through faith, Paul nevertheless taught that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God before prepared that we should walk in them” (Eph.2:10).

By what standard then do we judge what is ethically good? Again, the New Testament is here resting on the revelation of God’s law for its understanding of the ethical them of the good. When asked what good thing should be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded: “If you would enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mat.19:16-17) –and He makes it clear that He was referring to the Old Testament law (vv.18-19). Likewise Paul could state without qualification that “the commandment is holy, and righteous and good… I consent unto the law that it is good” (Ro.7:12, 16). Elsewhere he expresses the common outlook of the Christian faith, “we know that the law is good” (I Tim.1:8) (p.109-110).

  1. What about pleasing God?

Paul says, “We make it our aim…to be well-pleasing unto Him” because all will appear before his judgement seat to receive the things done in the body, whether good or bad (II Cor.5:9-10). Elsewhere Paul identifies the kingdom of God with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, “for he that herein serves Christ is well-pleasing to God” (Ro.14:17-18)….

Thus it is basic to New Testament morality that our actions and attitudes should be well-pleasing in the sight of God, but how can we make them so? How does anyone know what pleases God or not? It is unusual for Paul to give a specific or concrete instance (for example, Phil.4:18) for this broad concept. However, at one point when he does so, it is not difficult to see what his ethical standard was. In Colossians 3:20 Paul instructs children to obey their parents, “for this is well-pleasing in the Lord.” The commandments of the law, therefore, can serve and did serve as detailing what is well-pleasing to God, even in New Testament morality (p.110-111).

  1. What about perfection?

Studying perfection as a moral concept in the New Testament, we once again are taken back to the standard of God’s law. Christ taught that our perfection must be modelled after the heavenly Father: “Therefore you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat.5:48). Significantly, this exhortation follows and summarises a discourse on the full measure of the Old Testament’s law demands (vv.21-48).

When Christ was later approached by one who presumed to be obedient to the law, Christ taught him that to be perfect he would need to renounce every sin against God’s commandments and every hindrance to complete obedience to them (Mat.19:21). Accordingly, we learn that God’s law is our standard of moral perfection today. James instructs believers that the man who is blessed of God is the one who is a doer of the word, having “looked into the perfect law” (James 1:25) (p.111-112).

  1. The overall assumption of the New Testament?

We have seen that the New Testament consistently assumes as common knowledge (and explicitly applies the truth) that the commandments of God’s law in the Old Testament are a sufficient and valid standard of God’s will, of the good, of the well-pleasing to the Lord, and of perfection. Whenever these themes appear in the New Testament scriptures the authority of God’s law is repeatedly being applied. Our obligation to that law is reinforced many times over when Paul summarises the ethical standard for New Testament morality as “the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.”

God Himself is to receive the glory for bringing our lives into conformity with this unchallengeable norm for Christian conduct. He is the One who, through the ministry of His Son, makes us “perfect in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in His sight”(Heb.13:20-21).

Every attempt to reject the law of God in the New Testament era meets with embarrassment before the text of the New Testament itself. The righteousness of God’s kingdom, the way of righteousness, holiness and sainthood, our separation from the world, and the good, well-pleasing, perfect will of God, all require that our behaviour conform to the standard of God’s commandments as revealed once and for all in the Old Testament. This standard is woven implicitly throughout New Testament ethical teaching (p.112-113).

  1. What of spiritual freedom?

The Holy Spirit does not give us the freedom to sin- that is, the freedom to transgress God’s law; rather, the Spirit gives us the freedom to be slaves of Christ and produce holy behaviour. The regenerate man is happy and willing to “serve the law of God” (Ro.7:25). The very bondage from which the Spirit releases us is described by Paul as precisely the sinful nature’s inability to be subject to the law of God (Ro.8:7). This freedom does not turn the grace of God into licentiousness (cf. Jude 4) but inclines the heart of those once enslaved to sin to the Spirit-given law (Ro.7:14).

The “ordinance of the law” is to be “fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” (Ro.8:4). Therefore the Bible makes it clear that our Spiritual freedom is not liberty from God’s law, but liberty in God’s law. James calls the commandments of God “the perfect law of liberty” (2:25), thereby combining two descriptions of the law given by the Psalmist: “The law of the Lord is perfect” (Ps.19:7) and “I will walk at liberty, for I seek Thy precepts” (Ps.119:45). Genuine freedom is not found in flight from God’s commands but in the power to keep them. God’s Spirit frees us from the condemnation and death which the law brings to sinners, and the Spirit breaks the hold of sin in our lives…

When Paul teaches that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor.3:17), it is taught in the context of the Spirit’s New Covenant ministry of writing God’s law upon the believer’s heart and thereby enabling obedience to that law (II Cor.3:3-11; cf. Jer.31:33; Ezek.11:20). Consequently, the ethical concept of Spiritual freedom in the New Testament is anything but indifferent to the law of God. The Spirit frees us from law-breaking for the purpose of law-keeping (p.113-115).

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