The apostle Paul taught that all the world is guilty before God, because all have sinned (Romans 3:19). God’s moral law is the standard that God holds all mankind to. This is the moral standard that we fall short of when we sin (Romans 3:23).
This is bad news. The worst of all bad news for the sinner is—the righteous God holds sinners accountable to his moral law, and they are therefore under condemnation to Hell for their sin.
But for the sinner who turns to the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, whom he sent into the world to save sinners—“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Jesus has saved us from our sins and from what we deserve (Matthew 1:21).
Paul describes the state of the saved person as being “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). We are no longer under condemnation for disobedience to the law1, because in Christ “we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). We are now “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (see Romans 3:24-26).
Are you against the Law?
Some Christians think that they, now that they are Christians, do not need to be concerned with any part of the Law of Moses. They don’t think of it as containing the moral standard that they ought to keep up to. They say, seeing that the true Christian is not under the law, therefore they (and we) should have nothing whatever to do with it2.
They preach and speak of being released from the obligation of keeping the Old Covenant’s commandments. But when it comes to the realities of Christian living, they don’t really mean that being “not under Law” gives them freedom to sin!
It is not that they intend to be lawless, or immoral. For it is not in the new nature of the Christian to condone sin (i.e. what is against the moral law of God), but rather, he or she will repent of it.
Reformed Christians, of course, totally agree that we are not under the Law—we are not under the Law (the Old Covenant) as a covenant of works3. However, we do understand that as Christians, we should still learn and keep God’s commandments—not in order to earn salvation, but as saved people whose desire is to live a life that is pleasing to God.
But they say that, as Christians, instead of studying the moral law in order to live according to its precepts4, we should rather “walk in the Spirit” in order to bear the “fruit of the Spirit”—and in that way we will not fulfil the lusts of our flesh but mortify them (compare Romans 8:1-13; Galatians 5:16-26).
Sin is the transgression of the law
The apostle John, however, teaches that the very definition of sin is whatever is against God’s moral law: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).
So, can these Christians not agree with us when we likewise define sin as any lack of conformity to, or transgression of, the (moral) law of God5? We affirm that sin is doing, saying or thinking what God forbids, and not doing, saying or thinking what he requires6—in his moral law. So it makes sense for us to learn God’s moral law and for it to be the moral standard that we seek to keep—as Christians7.
Of course, they do agree—but they don’t like to involve the laws of the Old Testament, unless they are repeated somewhere in the New Testament. However, we are sure that the definition of sin did not change for the Christian at his or her conversion.
Therefore, even in their endeavour to avoid sin by walking in the Spirit, they will find themselves heading towards non-transgression of the moral law—the same moral law as is summed up in the Ten Commandments. That is to say, in practice they increasingly become law-keepers! But here is where they hold up their hand in anguish at such a thought, saying, “No, you’ve got it all wrong! But what we as Christians should want to do is fulfil the law of Christ”8 (compare Galatians 6:2).
What “not under Law but under Grace” means
If Christians are not free not to keep God’s moral commandments, and if Christians should learn and obey God’s moral commandments, then what does Paul mean in his teaching that we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14-15)?
By the phrase “the law”, as often used by Paul, Reformed theologians and Reformed Christians have understood that he means the covenant of life (also known as the covenant of works) that God established with Adam, and all his posterity in Adam. This same law has continued as a perfect rule of righteousness for mankind; and as such it was delivered by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, in the Ten Commandments9.
The Ten Commandments (the “two tables of the law”) were the foundation of the Old Testament (Old Covenant) that God established the people of Israel under Moses who was their leader, priest and prophet (Exodus 20; 24; Deuteronomy 4:13, 23-31).
So, we say that we are “not under the law” in this covenantal sense, because we are in the New Covenant (the covenant of grace) in Christ.
Yes, we agree, Christians are led by the Holy Spirit, and we are not under the broken covenant of life (“the law”) any more (Galatians 5:18). But this in no way means that the moral law has ceased to remain a perfect rule of righteousness for us as Christians.
- All mankind is born in Adam under the law of God—in what we call the “covenant of life” or “covenant of works”. (See chapter 1, Death Passed upon All Men). Christians are those people who have been transferred to the covenant of grace in Christ.↩
- It is technically incorrect to categorise or label these Christian brothers and sisters as antinomians (the word means “against the law” of God). Neither their pedigree nor practice identifies them with those antinomians of hundreds of years ago, whom, e.g. Martin Luther had to contend with. No, but their confusion on this issue has more to do with their rejection of what we call covenant theology.↩
- See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19.↩
- To some people, this statement sounds too much like trying to earn salvation by doing good works. They argue that there is only one use for the law of God, and that is to reveal God’s righteousness, give us knowledge of sin, and show us our need of pardon and our danger of damnation to Hell in order to lead us to repentance and faith to Christ—a use that ended at the Christian’s conversion. But, besides this first use of the Law, Reformed Christians have consistently argued that, as Christians, we should show our love for God by doing good works—and this surely involves keeping God’s moral commandments, which are also Christ’s commandments to us (see Matthew 5-8; 22:36-40; 28:20; John 14:15 Ephesians 2:10). That is what had been traditionally referred to as the third use of the law. (The second use of the law is where it it was applied for civil restraint of evil in the judicial laws of Old Testament Israel.) ↩
- See the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 14.↩
- The Christian church has always understood that we can sin in thought, word or deed, and that sin can be by commission or omission.↩
- We will say more about learning God’s moral law when we discuss the adding of knowledge to virtue and faith, in chapter 44, Add to Your Faith (2): Knowledge.↩
- We will discuss this objection in the next chapter, The Law of Christ.↩
- Here I am drawing phrases from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19. See also chapter 1, Death Passed upon All Men, where we discussed the covenant of life and Adam’s breaking it—and all mankind in him.↩