Every Christian must uphold and maintain the law of God.
Then again: I don’t sacrifice animals or go outside the camp if I touch something dead. So it is evident that we must distinguish law or fall into deadly legalism.
Richard Hooker does just that in his first book of Ecclesiastical Polity. He knows that his work will not be popular. He writes: “This book might have been more popular and more accessible to the masses if it had merely extolled the force of laws and the necessity of good laws, and had railed against the evils of those who attack them.”
Had he simply said, “you have to obey God’s law,” people may have approved. Yet in so doing, he would engage in unhelpful rhetoric. He explains: “However, this kind of rhetoric is more liable to stir up passions than to build up understanding of the issues in question.”
He is right. The reformers lived by “we distinguish” because the lack of distinctions can kill. Are we justified by faith or by faith working through love? Is faith working through love evidence of genuine faith?
The small things matter.
And unhelpfully simplifying matters, as noted, might be rhetorically powerful but they can be deadly. In the early church, many found Arius rhetorically powerful. He convinced a lot through his simple slogans too. But he was a heretic.
So let’s distinguish law according to the reformed and Augustinian tradition because these two traditions rightly understand God’s revelation.
We have to distinguish law because the letter kills (2 Cor 2:6) and beshadowed law is deadly (Col 2:17). The mosaic ceremonies legislated shadows (Heb 8:5) which cannot purify a conscience (Heb 9:9).
Confusing and conflating law then can lead to spiritual death.
It is not as if the Bible avoids such distinctions! Scripture too frequently distinguishes types of law:
the law of the burnt offering (Lev 6:9), the law of Moses (1 Kgs 2:3), the law of the temple (Ezek 43:12), the law of the Medes and Persians (Dan 6:12), the law of the Jews (Acts 25:8), the law of works (Rom 3:27), the law of faith (Rom 3:27), the law of marriage (Rom 7:2), the law of my mind (Rom 7:22), the law of sin (Rom 7:22), the law of Christ (Gal 6:2), the law of liberty (James 1:25), and more besides.
The point is that distinguishing law makes sense of reality. It also protects people from dead and deadly sin since the law kills but the Spirit makes alive (2 Cor 3:6).
One distinction involves eternal law and natural law. Eternal law, which is identical to the Being of God or his decree, extends to creation in the form of natural law. Consider the words of Richard Hooker who interprets Romans 2:14 along virtually universal early reformed lines by saying:
The Apostle Paul says that the pagans are a ‘law to themselves’ (Rom. 2:14), meaning that God illuminates all men with the light of reason so that they can know truth from falsehood and good from evil. By reasoning together they learn what the will of God is, without any supernatural revelation, and thus when they seem to be making their own laws, they are in fact merely discovering His (72, Laws 1.8.3).
He is not unique here. The Westminster Assembly will later echo his language during the discussion up to and as well as in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The point is that God’s law can be discerned by natural reason, so that all people can be held accountable to God. Both the law written on our hearts and divine law written on tablets on stone testify to the same law, namely, that prior and supreme eternal law which is identical to God’s nature or his eternal decree.
This makes all sorts of sense of Paul’s argument as to why all people are held accountable to God! There is no excuse. It also explains how through common grace human law and government can keep a semblance of peace and order.
Divine law might be distinguished, to use the language of the Belgic Confession of 1561, by being more clear than the law written on our hearts. But there is one Lawgiver who holds all accountable under law as lawbreakers; all sin is lawlessness.
Eternal Law, and All Law
Now, within the early reformed idiom, the law worked out something like this:
- The eternal law of God is identical with God or his decree.
- From this eternal law (or decree), God orders creation – whether heavenly bodies (Gen 1:14), the rain (Job 28:26), or the sand (Jer 5:22).
- God also orders creation by a law of nature and us by a law of reason. So we can look to the ant to learn how to work well (Prov 6:6–11). God in nature teaches farmers how to farm (Isa 28:23–26). Animals teach us of God (Job 12:7–9). Much more could be said. The point is that we can by reason observe God’s eternal law administered in time through the created order.
- The mosaic law, divine law that again derives from God’s eternal law, presents God’s divine law for Israel in their time and place. As Hebrews notes, a new priest means a new legislation (Heb 7:12). And the new covenant brings a new administration (Heb 8:13).
- Even so, much of the Mosaic law republished God’s eternal will for moral creatures applied to Israel’s polity. So while I don’t have to wear a mouth covering due to skin disease (Lev 13:45) or go outside the camp if I have touched something dead (Num 31:19, I may not murder since that divine law is identical to the natural law, both of which flow from God’s eternal decree.
- “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Rom 2:14). What law? How can a Gentile do what the law of Moses requires? Because the law of nature itself corresponds to the moral character of the Mosaic legislation.
- But Paul obviously distinguishes since he can say, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Evidently circumcision, part of the Mosaic law, no longer counts as “the commandments of God” under the new covenant.
- Following Franciscus Junius and the reformed tradition, we can conclude that the moral laws (e.g., the Ten Commandments) have ongoing validity, not as the Law of Moses per se but because they republish natural law. The single eternal decree of God guides all creation. God rules it all, not part. One will, one law, distinguished by its administration in the created order.
- By saying “obey the law of God,” we surely cannot mean matters of “food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Col 2:16). If we did, then we would be Judaizers or legalists and so lack a full appreciation of the Gospel.
- We distinguish, then. Or die. “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).
- When Israel goes to war, they must do so according to God’s command as Deuteronomy 23 narrates. Yet in so doing, when soldiers have nocturnal emissions, they must be ceremonially cleansed. The civil administration of war accompanies here ceremonial pollution. The Mosaic law is mixed, therefore.
- Hence, to distinguish what republished natural law and what does not, yet remains a just administration of ceremonial or temporary civil matters, we must distinguish! If we don’t, again, we die: the Spirit gives life, the letter kills.
- And what does not stay in force over us must not be viewed as if it does: we do sacrifice on the day of atonement since Christ died for us once and for all. We must not see all the laws in Moses as unstoppingly coercive or else we could walk out of step with the truth of the Gospel (Ga; 2:14)! In any case, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). That “until” matters: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (2:18–19). To rebuild the law improperly in the Christian life is to reverse the course of the Gospel. The sacrificial lamb points to Christ; he is our Passover lamb.
- Sacrificial laws regard ceremonial matters. When it comes to civil matters, Junius himself will affirm the ongoing principle of civil laws insofar as they are rooted in moral law. Hence, nocturnal emission laws in civil administration have ceased due to the new covenant. But insofar as civil administration requires two or three witnesses and that such witnesses should not bear false witness, this evidently follows a law of nature that the Ten Commandments republish (you shall not bear false witness). These laws remain since they are part of God’s law of nature.
More could be said, but these are some scribblings on Tuesday morning.
I have not here attempted in any way to be comprehensive or answer every question. My single point is that we need to distinguish law. Since obeying the law of God without distinction can mean walking out of step with the truth of Gospel (Gal 2:14). So to say “obey the law of God” without distinguishing law might make us like Cephas before Paul.
Everyone should obey the law of God! But we should not obey temporary and changeable laws but only those unchanging, eternal principles of law that derive from the Being of God. Most reformers saw these encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. They do seem to show how to love God and neighbour, which Jesus himself defined as the substance of that law (Matt 22:37–40).