Understanding the nature and purpose of God’s law is central to our Christian lives. If we misunderstand or disobey what God requires of us, we have sinned grievously. If we understand it and obey, we receive tremendous blessing. To misunderstand law is to misunderstand grace.
We see this in the preface to the Ten Commandments. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Ex. 20:2). Before we address the content of the Ten Commandments, we should pay close attention to the preface given to them by God Himself. This will enable us to grasp the meaning of law generally — to understand the context of God’s law which is covenant, and to understand the fruit of law which is liberty.
Covenant relationship and covenant law are bound tightly together. Throughout Scripture, God repeatedly promises His covenant people that He will be their God, and they will be His people. In line with this, He begins the Ten Commandments with a statement of who He is. “I am the Lord your God . . .” As the context of the Ten Words makes clear, these are covenant terms for a covenant people under their covenant Lord. “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb” (Dt. 5:2).
Moses had destroyed the first set of tablets because of the golden calf. When the tablets were replaced, Scripture says this. “So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Ex. 34:28).
This means that the Ten Commandments are not ten isolated moral truths. They are a summary of all that God required of His people. The two greatest commandments (Love God and your neighbor) summarize the first four and the last six commandments respectively, and the Ten Commandments in turn summarize all the rest of the Law and Prophets. The Ten Commandments are not isolated moral standards; they are God’s filing system.
This brings us to the question of liberty and law. We must see that God introduces these words by reminding His people that He is the one who delivers from slavery, not the one who is bringing them into slavery. He brought them “out of the house of bondage.” The obedient are free (Jas. 1:25). We know about this freedom for two reasons.
First, every man must have a master; law is therefore inescapable. No man can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). In this, our choice is between being ruled by a loving Father or a sinful creature. We must either love and fear God, or we love and fear man. According to Scripture, man-made law enslaves; God’s law liberates. Submission to God means freedom from all sinful tyrannies.
Second, the Holy Spirit brings love (Rom. 5:5), which is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8). The Spirit also brings liberty (2 Cor. 3:17). When the Spirit comes into our lives, He brings all His blessings. He brings love and liberty, which is the same thing as bring law and liberty.
But there are applications of the law as well. It is not enough to wave cheerfully at the law from a distance — we must know it, and we must be able to make distinctions. Many of the objections to a Christian use of the law come from an ignorant blurring of necessary distinctions. I am not entirely comfortable with the terminology of “moral” and “ceremonial” law, because all of God’s law is moral, and we frequently find that moral and ceremonial elements are woven tightly together. This means that as we take all of God’s unfolding revelation into account, we must still distinguish two distinct elements of law.
The first is creation law: this is obedience which looks the same throughout history– a modern Christian who refrains from adultery, stealing, bowing down to graven images, etc. will be refraining from certain activities which look exactly like what his Old Covenant counterpart was refraining from millennia ago. When a man is resisting the temptation to steal a donkey, it doesn’t matter whether he was living B.C. or A.D.
But redemptive law is different. Obedience to redemptive law may look different throughout history — with such laws, the external obedience can look quite different. Some examples would include modern Christians who keep the Passover in Christ (1 Cor. 5:7-8), who observe the sabbath or Lord’s Day on the first instead of the seventh day (Heb 4:9-10), who eat bacon (Acts 10:14-15), etc.
Having acknowledged this, we must still note the three uses of the law. Having made these necessary distinctions, we must also carefully distinguish the various uses which may be made of God’s law.
First we note that the law can be used as an evangelist: the law was given to reveal our sinfulness to us (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13,20; 7:7-11), and to show the necessity of redemption through Christ (Gal. 3:19-24). Low views of law are always related to low views of grace.
Second, we see that the law is called to be a magistrate: the law restrains evil. Even though the hearts of men may be unchanged, the law will to a certain extent inhibit public wickedness (Rom. 13:3-4). This is the application that Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 1:8-9. The law is not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. But of course we need the law to tell the two categories of men apart.
And third, we see the law as teacher: the law informs and guides the regenerate (who have been given a heart of love). The law teaches us what love looks like in a given situation. We are “under the law toward Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21) as a rule of life.