We must add knowledge to our virtue. We need to gain knowledge of God’s ways and character, of his requirements of us, and of the great doctrines of the faith. All this we do by studying the Holy Scriptures.
There is much that could be said about saving knowledge3 here, but I will focus on one important matter that pertains to virtue.
It is astonishing how many Christians believe, and how many churches teach, that we do not need to study and think about God’s moral law, or to retrain our own sin-damaged consciences by it, or to consciously obey it.
Surely, all Christian churches once taught that God’s moral law was an integral part of Christian belief and practice, simply because it is so obviously the expression of God’s moral character. We know for certain that this is what the Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran (and, or course, Roman Catholic) churches taught this, because we can still see it in many of their doctrinal statements from earlier centuries.
But there are many in Liberal, Arminian and Charismatic churches today who look aghast at us for saying this, and they criticise us as though we were legalists4.
We respond to those who argue against us in this way: “Are you really saying that we should not keep the moral law of God? Are you really arguing that we don’t have to live a moral life? Will you yourselves break these laws because you think they are not for Christians to keep?”
Here they try to retreat a little, and say (I generalise), “Of course we should all try to live a moral life. But you shouldn’t try to save yourself by keeping God’s law. What you instead rather be doing is believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. And you don’t need to study all this Old Testament stuff with a view to keeping it yourself. We Christians are now in the New Covenant.”
So we respond again: “But we are Christians, not legalists. We are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. God the Father has drawn us, by the Holy Spirit, to Christ; and he has given us a new birth in our spirits and faith in the Gospel. We are not trying to save ourselves by doing good works. Our motive now in learning God’s moral law is to learn how we should live as godly5 Christians.”
But then they say: “If you were Christians, then you would have the Holy Spirit teaching your conscience how you should live. You don’t have to study the Old Testament moral law for the purposes of doing that. ‘Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:16).” And, they argue: “The law was meant to lead the Jews to Christ, as a schoolmaster teaches his students—and if you have indeed been led to become a Christian, then you do not need to go to the schoolmaster and study the Law for living according to it yourself (Galatians 3:24-25).”
And so we respond again: “Did you not read in the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, that when Christ prayed to his Father for us, he prayed, ‘Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth’ (John 17:17)? And is not the moral law of God in the Old Testament an integral part of God’s word? Of course it is! Therefore, instead of setting any portion of the Bible aside in this important matter of practical Christian living—of living a virtuous, God-glorifying life—you should study it and pray for the Holy Spirit to enable you to understand and to obey God’s moral laws.”
And we further point out that the Lord Jesus Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and in other places, did not cancel the moral law. No, how foolish and how eternally damning it is to think that our Lord would teach that we shouldn’t keep the moral law of God! Rather than doing away with these laws Christ interpreted them in the most intense, most comprehensive way—applying them not only to our outward actions but to innermost thoughts.
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven …” (Matthew 5:43-44).
We agree that the law is a schoolmaster through which the Jews and proselytes—and anyone else who reads it—should be led to Christ6 (Galatians 3:19-24; 4:1-7; see also Luke 24:4; John 5:39). And we also agree that “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalms 19:7).
But you must read on in the nineteenth Psalm. And then you will see that studying the law makes the simple to be wise, and rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes; and that it is so precious that we should treasure it above a treasury full of the finest gold such as king David possessed, and that it is far sweeter to the spiritual tastes of godly people than anything in the world (vv.7-10). “Moreover,” David continues, by the laws of God is the servant of God “warned” about immoral life choices, and he is promised that a “great reward” is to be found through living a righteous, virtuous life (v.11).
Seeing that all these things are is true, what does this say about your own conversion, if you refuse to study in order to obey the moral law as a Christian?
We also know that “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), and that therefore salvation can never be earned by fallen, totally depraved sinners of mankind. Salvation can never come “by works of righteousness which we have done”, but it comes by God’s “great mercy” (Titus 3:5; see also Romans 4:4-5).
The hearts of people who are not, or not yet, “born again” (see John 3:3-8) are disinclined to seek to obey God’s moral law in the true spiritual sense. Basic moral principles are written on our consciences7, but when it comes to loving God himself, and judging themselves by his moral laws, forget it! They are not merely disinclined—they are in open rebellion against God.
Whereas those whose hearts have been changed by God will know the truths of nineteenth Psalm as their own personal experience. And they will pray and sing with the Psalmist in the 119th:
“O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes…Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law…Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart…Quicken me after thy lovingkindness; so shall I keep the testimony of thy mouth…O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day…I hate vain thoughts: but thy law do I love…Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it…My soul hath kept thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly” (Psalms 119:5, 18, 34, 88, 97, 113, 140, 167).
Christian, you need to add virtue to your faith—and in order to do that, you also need knowledge of God’s moral law in order to understand what virtue (moral excellence) is.
The Greek word translated knowledge here is γνωσις (gnosis) (Strong’s Concordance). ↩︎
The phrase “saving knowledge” is famous in Reformed Christian circles, perhaps because it is the title of a very helpful book, The Sum of Saving Knowledge, by David Dixon and James Durham. ↩︎
The true definition of a legalist is someone who hopes to earn salvation by Mosaic Law-keeping; or who elevates Law-keeping to an unscriptural importance, adding it to God’s grace in salvation. See also chapter 29, Children of the Free. ↩︎
See chapter 43, Add to Your Faith (3): Temperance, Patience and Godliness. ↩︎