A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 20)

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

  1. Is there a wrong use of God’s law?

The New Testament, as does the entire Bible, surely supports the continuing validity of God’s law. To say this is simply to submit one’s thoughts to the Lawgiver Himself-it is not “legalism.” And yet the New Testament contains passages which certainly seem to be taking a decidedly negative attitude toward the law of God. Paul declares that he “died unto the law that I might live unto God” (Gal.2:19). He says, “You are not under the law, but under grace” (Ro.6:14). Again, “we have been discharged from the law” (Ro.7:6). For those who believe, we can conclude apparently, “Christ is the end of the law (Ro.10:4).

In light of such passages, some believers are led to see promotion of the law of God as our standard of morality as legalistic bondage. How can Scripture’s seeming ambivalence toward God’s law be understood in a way which absolves it of contradiction? How can the Bible contain two completely different evaluations of the law of God?

Paul himself supplies the resolution to the apparent problem when he delivers his categorical conclusion regarding the status of God’s law for the Christian today. He says, “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (I Tim.1:8). It is indisputable and well established that the law is a good thing, reflecting perfectly the righteous standards of our holy God, the Creator of all men and Redeemer of His chosen people.

Paul says “we know” that the law is good. It should be common knowledge that a positive attitude and submission to the law of God are called for in us. The law is indeed good! To follow it and endorse obedience to its dictates cannot be disapprobated as bad. The law of which Paul speaks is clearly the Old Testament commandments, as the illustrations mentioned in verses 9-10 demonstrate. The commands are known by all to be good (cf.Ro.2:14-15; 7:12).

Yet Paul immediately qualifies his endorsement of the good character of God’s law. He says that the law is good if it is used lawfully. That is, when the law is used according to its own direction and purpose, when the law is lawfully applied, it is a perfectly good thing. However, Paul’s words imply that there is an unlawful use of God’s law, a use that runs counter to the law’s character and intent, so that the law’s good nature might be perverted into something evil. The abuse of the law is directly condemned by Paul (p.177-179).

  1. What are some abuses of the law?

Throughout the ministry of Christ and persistently in the epistles of Paul we encounter the Pharisaical and Judaizing attempts that one can, by performing works of the law, find personal justification before God. Amazing pride and self-deception led the Jews to believe that they might appear righteous in the judgement of a holy God if they strove diligently to keep the commandments (or at least their external requirements).

The Pharisees liked to justify themselves before men (Luke 16:15); they trusted in themselves that they were indeed righteous (Luke 18:9), so much so that they had no more need for a Saviour than a righteous man needs a physician (Mat.9:12-13). However God knew their hearts all too well. Despite outward appearances of cleanliness and righteousness, they were inwardly foul, spiritually dead, and full of iniquity (Mat.23:27-28). Because they went about trying to establish their own righteousness, the Pharisees could not submit to the righteousness of God (Ro.10:3).

Within the early church there soon arose a party from among the Pharisees that insisted that the Gentiles could not be saved without being circumcised and keeping in some measure the law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). Justification may be by grace, they would teach, but not completely so; works of the law were also necessary. Because they would compel the Gentiles to live as Jews in this sense (Gal.2:14), they were designated “Judaizers.”

Paul himself could understand this mindset, for it had been his own prior to conversion. He was brought up as a Pharisee concerning the law (Phil.3:5); at the feet of Gamaliel he was “educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3).

…What Paul discovered is that he had simply not understood the law correctly in the first place. That is why in the midst of his most earnest writing against the Judaizers he can appeal repeatedly to the law itself (for example, Gal.3:6-14, alluding to Gen.15:6; 12:3; Deut.27:26; Hab.2:4; Lev.18:5; Deut.21:23).

The Old Testament, seeing that on God’s sight no man could be justified (Ps.143:2), promised justification grounded in “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer.23:6). Righteousness had to be imputed even to the great father of the Jews, Abraham (Gen.15:6). Thus, the Old Testament, abundantly testifying that God’s saints were men of faith (cf. Heb.11) taught that the just shall live by faith (Hab.2:4). Isaiah proclaimed: “In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified…This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord” (Isa.45:25; 54:17).

…By the regenerating and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, Paul came to realise that the law never intended for men to seek personal justification by meritorious works or the law. The law itself presented salvation as a gift rather than as wages. Accordingly, those who prided themselves in the law were in truth the most extreme violators of the law! “Is the law against the promises of God?” Paul asks. Does it teach a method of justification contrary to the gracious way of salvation found in God’s promises? Paul’s reply is “May it never be!” (Gal.3:21)…Far from distracting from justification by grace through faith, “the law became our tutor to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (v.24)…

As we have seen, passages in Paul’s writings which seem to take a negative attitude toward the law of God can be correctly harmonised with Paul’s equally strong endorsements of the law by distinguishing at least two (among many) uses of the law in Paul’s epistles. The revelatory use of “law” is its declaration of the righteous standards of God; in this the law is good. The legalistic use of “law” refers to the attempt to utilise the works of the law as a basis for saving merit; this is an unlawful use of the law and receives Paul’s strongest condemnations. Paraphrasing I Timothy 1:8, Paul says that we know the law, as a revelation of God’s unchanging will, is good, as long as one uses it “lawfully” (as it is meant to be used) instead of legalistically (p.179-183).

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