Reformed Spirituality

Not Under Law but Under Grace

By Simon PadburyMarch 15, 2019
In Irresistible Grace7 min read
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For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
Romans 6:14.

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 mankind to, and which we fall short of when we sin (Romans 3:23).

That’s bad news. The worst of all bad news for the sinner is—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). He 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 law,1 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?

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 works.2 However, we do understand that as Christians we should 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.

Some Christians think that they do not need to be concerned with learning the moral law for the purpose of taking it as the 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 it.3

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 a freedom to sin!

We understand, 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.

But they say that as Christians, instead of studying the moral law in order to live according to its precepts,4 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).

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 people not agree with us when we likewise define that sin is any lack of conformity to, or transgression of, the (moral) law of God?5 Is not sin doing what God forbids, and not doing or being what he requires—in his law? Of course, they do agree. For the definition of what is sin and what is not 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—i.e. in practice they 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” (compare Galatians 6:2).

The Law Of Christ

Here is where we point out that according to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the greatest commandments in the law are these two: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

Should we not obey these great commandments? Not in order to become Christians—but as Christians? Yes, of course we should. And we should be our pleasure to do so!

Remember also, that in the Sermon on the Mount6 our Lord expounded the spiritual depths of the moral law, clearly referring back to the Ten Commandments, and thereby he re-commands us to keep them—this is the law of Christ, surely:

7 If you cannot remember it, then learn Matthew chapters 6-8.

“Therefore whosoever8 heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 8:24-27).

We believe that as Christians—people who are saved by the Saviour—we should live moral lives. And we too understand that we should “walk in the Spirit” and bear the “fruit of the Spirit” and fulfil the “law of Christ”. What we are asserting is that this certainly involves keeping God’s moral law—and therefore it can’t be true that we should have nothing to do with it.

I repeat, and in so doing I hold out the hand of Christian fellowship and friendship: in all Christians, whose heart and conscience are tender because of the work of the Holy Spirit within them, we can trust that there is no tendency toward lawlessness—in their new nature. No, we do not question the moral intentions of those who argue against keeping the moral law as Christians.

But where we Reformed Christians say that, as Christians, we should still study the moral law in order to keep it—those who reject this doctrine are thereby questioning whether we have really understood the Gospel. Or, they question whether we really are standing for the doctrines of salvation by Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone and to the glory of God alone—four of the five Solas of the Reformation!

Some go further than accusing us of a fundamental inconsistency here: they even assert that we are some kind of legalists—as though (they think) we are striving to keep God’s moral commandments as a means of earning salvation. And thereby they deny that we are Christians at all.

Keep God’s Commandments

The apostle John teaches Christians: “Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ,9 and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments10: dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us” (1 John 3:21-24).

So then, we should keep God’s commandments and we should keep his commandment11 to believe in his Son Jesus Christ.

  • It is not that the commandment to believe in Christ replaces the commandments of the moral law in the way we should live.

  • And it is not that in our keeping of the commandment to believe in Christ that we are thereby somehow automatically going to keep the commandments.

  • But it is that, as Christian believers, we should still endeavour to keep God’s commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.

John is correct about that, of course. Surely, living according to God’s moral standards is something we really ought to do.

And, you know, we really ought to believe the Gospel.

Chapter 16 of God’s Grace In Our Experience.

To be continued.

  1. 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 at the section, The Covenant of Life Was Broken. Christians are those who have been transferred to the covenant of grace in Christ.
  2. I. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
    II. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments…
    V. The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither does Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
    VI. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them…—Westminster Confession of Faith, ch.19.
  3. It is incorrect to categonise 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.
  4. 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 Reformed Christians have consistently argued that the 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 commandment 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 should be in the civil restraint of evil.)
  5. Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 14.
  6. It will not do to argue that after Pentecost (Acts 2), or at the birth of the New Testament Church, all the Old Testament Laws—and Christ’s own teaching on them here—are done away with. No, but Christ’s “whosoever” here must include you.
  7. The law of God should focus us on this one commandment of God: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Or as Paul says, the law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. See Chapter 14 at the section, What the Law Can Do.
  8. Note the plural, commandments.
  9. It was not only the apostle John who used a word usually associated with the Law when they teach us about the Gospel. While John referred to God’s call to believe in his Son as a commandment, Paul and Peter wrote of obeying the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17) and obedience to the faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26).

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