Guided by the law

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (vv. 7–9).

- Matthew 15:1–9

In addition to telling us that good works are motivated by faith and the Lord’s glory, the Heidelberg Catechism also says that good works “conform to God’s law” (Q&A 91). The life we enjoy by faith in Christ alone, the life of good works (Eph. 2:8–10), is a life that reflects the Lord’s holy precepts and commands.

According to the New Testament, Christian living is not lawlessness but involves the Spirit-empowered effort to obey God’s law. In today’s passage, for example, Jesus does not condemn the Pharisees for obeying the Mosaic law but for equating obedience to their man-made traditions with following the commandments of God. In fact, His anger is particularly intense because the Pharisaic traditions cause people to break the law (Matt. 15:1–9). Furthermore, Paul expects Christians to fulfill God’s law by loving others according to the principles set forth in the Ten Commandments (Rom. 13:8–10).

Some Christians believe God’s law is irrelevant because they misunderstand Romans 6:14: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” But this verse cannot be telling us to ignore the commandments, since the Apostle expects us to fulfill the law. Moreover, there was grace in the old covenant (Jer. 31:1–3), and there is law in the new covenant (John 13:34). Romans 6:14 does not pit God’s law against His grace; rather, it contrasts two eras: the era before Christ’s ministry and the era after it. As a whole, the covenant people of God under the old era were bound to sin. Israel was exiled by Assyria and Judah by Babylon because these covenant communities were enslaved to idols (2 Kings 17:7–23; 24:1–25:21). During this era, before the Holy Spirit was poured out abundantly, the people were burdened by God’s law, and it moved them only to sin, increasing evil’s hold on the nation. There were exceptions— people such as David, Deborah, and many others, who, feeling the burden of the law, looked to God and were redeemed. God’s law delighted these individuals, but only because they first believed in the Lord and His promise to save (Pss. 51; 119:35).

These saints were believers who experienced freedom from sin’s power in Christ even though they lived during the time in which the covenant community, as a whole, experienced bondage to sin. Today, we likewise delight in God’s law once we are saved, and we follow it to please the One who redeemed us from sin and death.

Coram Deo

Under the old covenant, the covenant community was enslaved to sin and, therefore, burdened by God’s law. In contrast, we live under the new covenant, the era in which God has poured out His Holy Spirit abundantly. If we are in Christ, we have His Spirit and want to follow His guidance, delighting in His law. For the regenerate person, God’s law is not a burden but a delight because it points us to Christ and shows us how to walk in His ways.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 5:22–33
Psalm 119:161–168
Galatians 5:13–15
1 John 5:3

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