Last week I wrote about the Old Testament Law of God in its three divisions. Today we come to consider the Law in its three uses.
But first a bit of review. What are we New Testament Christians to think about (and do with) the various laws given in the Old Testament? Should we still be offering sacrifices, and building little fences on our rooftops, and honoring our parents, and keeping the Sabbath, and stoning people who don’t? Or are we only obligated to keep some of these commands? And if the latter, which ones?
Well, as I wrote a week ago, theologians have long recognized that there are really three categories of Old Testament law – the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law. Further, it is clear that the ceremonial laws (which have all been fulfilled in Christ) are no longer required obedience for the New Covenant people of God. Similarly, the civil laws, which governed Israel as a nation state, are also no longer binding upon the people of God – since the New Testament community is not a nation state, but an assembly of believers from every nation.
But what about the various moral commands of the Old Testament – the Ten Commandments (and many other commands as well) which teach us simple right and wrong? Those commandments are still in effect for the people of God (and also for unbelievers, as we will see). It is still expected of all mankind to worship only the true God, and not to misuse His name, and to honor both His day and His design for children and parents, and so on. All ten of the commandments given in Exodus 20, along with all the other moral commands of the Old Testament, are still applicable for mankind in 2015 … and will be, on into eternity!
But how do we apply them? In what sense (or senses) are the moral laws of the Old Testament intended to intersect with our lives? Well, here is where theologians write about The Three Uses of the Law. Different writers list them in different orders … but, following the order given by John Calvin, let me just outline them for you briefly (using an illustration to mark each different use):
First, to use Calvin’s own illustration, the moral law of the Old Testament is a mirror. And what does a mirror do? It shows us what we really look like – warts, stains, blemishes, and all. And so it is with the Law of God as it is held up before our eyes, week after week, in the preaching of the word, and in our own personal Bible reading, and so on. The Law – in presenting God’s perfect, holy and good standards – is a constant reminder of how far we fall short of His glory, and of how much we need a Savior. “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). And, oh, how we need that self-knowledge! It is he who has been forgiven much who will also love much (Luke 7:47). And thus the Law does us a very good service in reminding us how much we have been (and/or need to be) forgiven. The law, like the mirror, cannot clean up the mess that it reveals! But it can drive us to the Savior who will!
Second, the moral law of the Old Testament is like a guard-rail for unbelievers. Some people, alas, do not (or, at least, have not yet) made application of the law in its first use. They do not allow it to drive them to Jesus for forgiveness and a fresh start. And that is lamentable in the extreme. But still, where the Law of God (and especially the simple instructions of the Ten Commandments) are upheld in a home, a church family, or a culture … many a person will be kept from behaving as badly as he might have. The Law functions as a guard-rail, to keep him or her from going over the cliff-edge into further and further degradation and sin. So, for instance, when a child has been taught the Ten Commandments from before he can remember, there is a strong probability (even in his unconverted state) that he will transgress far less seriously than a child who has not had such strong guard-rails placed around his life. And the same is true with sinners in a culture in general. This is presumably why the Ten Commandments used to be placarded in public places in our land – because these laws are basic to human morality; and because, when they were tacked up as the expected moral norm (and for all to see), they had the effect of warning people not to transgress as far as they might have otherwise done. In a culture like that, it’s not only the threat of jail, but the threat of the judgment of Almighty God which hangs over the sinner’s head. And such a threat can keep many a person from more and more flagrant sorts of sin. This is Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 1:8-10. In its second use, the law is made, not for the righteous, but for the wicked who need the guard-rails of the law to keep them from careening over the cliff edge of sin.
Third, the moral law of the Old Testament is, in the words of the psalmist, “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Law of God is a lamp, lighting the way for the believer to live a life that is pleasing to God! And isn’t that what we all want – to live a life that pleases the Lord, and demonstrates that we love Him? But how do we do it? Well, says the apostle John: “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). “This is the love of God” … that we have no other gods before Him; that we not seek to worship Him by means of idols; that we honor His name; that we honor His day; that we honor our parents; that we honor the sanctity of human life; that we honor the marriage bed; that we honor other people’s property; that we tell the truth; that we do not covet; and that we keep any and all of the other moral commandments and principles that are laid down in both the Old and New Testaments! “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments”! It really is that simple, in many ways! It’s true, of course, that we cannot keep these commandments in our own strength – that we need the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel, to enable us to do so! It is the gospel that gives us the strength and the desire to walk the pathway of obedience to God. But it is the law which, in large part, lights that pathway! It is the moral law of God that shows us which way to go! And so we dare not throw that law out the window, presuming that it doesn’t apply to New Testament believers. Rather, let us embrace the moral law (all of it!) as the lamp to our feet! And if we do, we’ll find that such a life is not only pleasing to God, but to ourselves as well! “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
So then, The Three Uses of the Moral Law of God:
1. As a mirror which shows us our sin, and drives us to Christ for cleansing.
2. As a guard-rail to keep the unconverted from sinning as greatly as they might.
3. As a lamp which shows the believer how to live a life that is pleasing to God.
Now go and make us of God’s law, and see its power to accomplish all that God intended it to do, and say with the psalmist: “O how I love Your law!”