Three Reasons Why the Keepers of the Reformed Flame Don’t Understand Their Own Tradition

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Something of an extended discussion has broken out over at Greenbaggins, and this discussion revolves around whether acceptance of the law/gospel hermeneutic is necessary in order to be faithful to sola fide.

Looking at that discussion, my son-in-law commented that it was like watching junior high boys, down in the rec room, arguing over the rules of an electric football game. And I agree that it certainly does resemble that in uncanny ways, but something greater really is at stake — these men really are in positions of ecclesiastical responsibility. They actually are guardians; they are not pretending to be guardians. The tragedy is that they don’t understand what they are guarding or why. Let me explain why, and conclude with the three reasons referenced above.

In the historic Reformed tradition, we affirm the three uses of the law. They are the pedagogical, where the law is understood as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). There is also the civil use of the law, where the law is given to man so that we might restrain the lawless and disobedient (1 Tim. 1:9). The third is the didactic use of the law, where the law informs the regenerate individual, already justified apart from works, what love looks like in action (Rom. 13:8-10).

Note that all three uses of the law describe what the law can do, depending on the situation, and do not describe what the law is. The law is an embodiment of the

character of our righteous God, which cannot be isolated from the embodiment of His grace, found in Christ.

Therefore, the Reformed tradition (the real one) holds that when describing what the law is, in all its parts and relations, we are talking about totus lex. And totus lex has a subordinate and honored place within the covenant of grace. The Reformed historically have not held to a kind of radical dualism, with law over here in stark opposition to grace over there. That is, we don’t hold to this dualism when we are talking about what the law is. We may talk that way when we speak of what the law sometimes does — to a rich, young ruler, say.

When the law is considered in isolation, and put to a particular use, the pedagogical use mentioned above, this is described as nuda lex, raw obligation. When the law is used in this way, it drives us to Christ. The man who does these things shall live by them. Do this and live. But I can’t do this. Exactly. That is a particular use of the law, deriving its current function from the nature of the person it is working over. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Moses knocks Christian down because that was what was called for in the moment. But that’s not who Moses is.

Now I have been accused of denying sola fide, and so why do I think those who make the accusation are out of conformity to the tradition they think they are defending?

1. They think that nuda lex is totus lex, which is a staggering confusion. They have confounded a use of the law with the definition of the law. They have confused a part with the whole;

2. They generally belong to the Escondido tradition, a small creek on the edge of the Reformed bayou, which cannot find a coherent place for the civil use of the law. And a traditionlet out on the edge which effectively denies one of the three uses of the law ought not to be making accusations against someone who accepts all three.

3. The accepted language in the Refomed tradition, that of the three uses of the law, invites us to speak in terms of the law’s relationship to creatures. We are therefore not outside that tradition when we say that the real division between law and grace lies within the human heart, not in the text itself. Think of it this way. Can the same law (thou shalt not steal, for example) be used both pedagogical and didactically? Sure. And which use is it in the text? In the most immediate sense, that depends on the heart of the person reading it, right? If we step back and ask about totus lex, then the Westminster Confession tells us that this law, along with all other laws, is part of the administratation of the covenant of grace. That is what it is. But when I say that this is what it is, I am told that I denying sola fide?

So these are the keepers of the true flame, that’s their job. No one begrudges this, actually. The problem arises because some of us made the mistake of referring to heat, fuel and an oxidizing agent, and their eyes got squinty. Oxigeezing what? And when I essay to explain, I find myself brought up on charges. The keepers of the true flame never heard of such a thing.

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