A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 15)

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

  1. Is God’s law complementary to salvation by grace?

The law could not be used as a way of justification. The Old Testament teaches that in God’s sight “no man living is righteous (or justified),” for if God marks iniquities no man can stand (Ps.143:2; 130:3). Instead, “the just shall live by faith” (Hab.2:4). The Psalmist saw that “Blessed is the man unto whom Jehovah imputes not iniquity,” and “He that trusts in Jehovah, lovingkindness will encompass him about” (Ps.32:2, 10). Old Testament saints were not saved by law-obedience but by faith in the coming Saviour, typified in the sacrifices of the Old Testament system. Likewise the New Testament declares in no uncertain terms that “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Ro.3:20). Indeed, “if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal.2:21).

God’s law is the standard of righteousness, but because sinners cannot conform to that standard their salvation must come by God’s grace through faith (Eph.2:8-9). This was true in both Old and New Testaments (p.143-144).

  1. Is obedience to God’s law harmonious to grace and saving faith?

The Old Testament indicates that God’s law was specially revealed to Israel in the context of His redeeming and delivering His people from bondage (Ex.19:4; 20:2); those who were willing to keep His law had already been shown His grace. In this vein David could sing, “Grant me thy law graciously” (Ps.119:29), feeling no tension between a proper use of God’s grace and law. Those who were justified by faith in the Old Testament, such as Abraham and Rahab, were those who were so renewed by God’s grace that they were willing to obey His demands (cf. James 2:21-25).

Those who were justified and living by faith, due to the grace of God, desired to obey the commandments of God out of respect for His authority, love of His purity, and gratitude for His salvation.

The same holds true for saints in the New Testament. Paul says that we have not been saved by good works, but we have been saved for good works- that is, in order to live obediently before God (Eph.2:10). God’s grace teaches us to renounce lawless deeds (Titus 2:11-14), and by faith we actually establish, rather than nullify, what was taught in the law of God (Ro.3:31) (p.144-145).

  1. Is God’s law central to His covenant of grace?

The law can epitomise or stand for the covenant itself. We read in Genesis 17:10, 14 that circumcision could represent the very covenant itself that God made with Abraham. In like manner, the stipulations of the Mosaic law could be used to stand for the covenant itself, as in Exodus 24:3-8 (cf. Heb.9:19-20). Just as circumcision is in the covenant, so also is the law God’s covenant. This is why the tables of law and commandments which God gave Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex.24:12) can actually be called “the tables of the covenant” (Deut.9:9, 11, 15).

Accordingly, when Jeremiah speaks of the New Covenant which is to come, he indicates that the law of God is central to its provisions: “I will put their laws into their mind, and on their heart will I write them” (Jer.31:33). This is quoted when the New Testament reflects upon the character of the New Covenant (Heb.8:10), using these words as a summary for the whole (Heb.10:16). Concern for the covenant then, entails concern for the law of God in both Old and New Testaments.

According to the Old Testament, it is precisely as the God of Abraham, and it is just because of the covenant made with Abraham, that God dealt with Moses in a covenantal fashion (Ex.2:24; 3:6). The Exodus or deliverance granted to the Israelites through Moses was a realisation of the promise made to Abraham (Ex.6:1-8). God had promised in the Abrahamic covenant to be a God to Abraham and his seed, who would become God’s people (Gen.17:7-8).

This same blessing was held forth in God’s deliverance through Moses (Ex.6:7). In particular, this Abrahamic promise would be the reward for conformity to the Mosaic law: “If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them… I will be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev.26:3, 12). The Old Testament did not recognise an antagonism between the Abrahamic covenant of promise and the Mosaic covenant of law. Neither does the New Testament.

Paul reflects with inspired accuracy on the relationship between the Abrahamic promise and the Mosaic law (cf. Gal.3:17) and asks, “Is the law then against the promises of God?” His answer is decisive: “May it never be!” (Gal.3:21). The law rather served to bring about the fulfilment of the promise made with Abraham (Gal.3:19, 22, 29). The Mosaic law which established the commonwealth of Israel at Sinai is deemed by Paul as one of “the covenants of the promise” (Eph. 2:12). Throughout Scripture the law is congruent with the promise (p.145-147).

  1. Who should obey the law of God?

The Old Testament perspective was that the people who enjoyed the promise ought to obey the law of God.  It was expected that when Israel received what “the God of your fathers had promised you,” the people would “keep all His statutes and His commandments” as revealed by Moses (Deut.6:1-3). Likewise the New Testament sees those who belong to Christ, the one to whom to whom Abraham’s promise was given (Gal.3:16), as the seed of Abraham and heirs according to promise (Gal.3:7, 29). They should receive the promise by faith and thus should not desire to be under the law as a way of justification lest they fall from grace (Gal.3:2, 6-14, 24-26; 4:21; 5:4).

However, those who enjoy the Abrahamic promise in Christ do so by a faith working through love (Gal.5:6), which is to say a faith that obeys the law (Gal.5:13-14), a faith that walks by the Spirit and thereby does not violate the law of God (Gal.5:16-23). God’s Son of promise makes us to walk after the Spirit so that we keep the ordinance of the law (Ro.8:3-4). Therefore, we observe that the promise serves the law, even as the law serves the promise, and this reciprocal relation is revealed in both the Old and New Testaments alike. The law plays an integral role throughout God’s one covenant of grace (p.147).

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