Which Laws Apply?
by R.C. Sproul
To this day, the question of the role of the law of God in the Christian life provokes much debate and discussion. This is one of those points where we can learn much from our forebears, and John Calvin’s classic treatment of the law in his Institutes of the Christian Religion is particularly helpful. Calvin’s instruction comes down to us in what he calls the threefold use of the law with respect to its relevance to the new covenant.
The law, in its first use, reveals the character of God, and that’s valuable to any believer at any time. But as the law reveals the character of God, it provides a mirror to reflect to us our unholiness against the ultimate standard of righteousness. In that regard, the law serves as a schoolmaster to drive us to Christ. And one of the reasons that the Reformers and the Westminster divines thought that the law remained valuable to the Christian was because the law constantly drives us to the gospel. This also was one of the uses of the law that Martin Luther most strongly emphasized.
Second, the law functions as a restraint against sin. Now, on the one hand, the Reformers understood what Paul says in Romans 7 that in a sense the law prompts people to sin—the more of the law unregenerate people see, the more inclined they are to want to break it. Yet despite that tendency of the law, there still is a general salutary benefit for the world to have the restraints upon us that the law gives. Its warnings and threats restrain people from being as bad as they could be, and so civil order is preserved.
Third, and most important from Calvin’s perspective, is that the law reveals to us what is pleasing to God. Technically speaking, Christians are not under the old covenant and its stipulations. Yet, at the same time, we are called to imitate Christ and to live as people who seek to please the living God (Eph. 5:10; Col. 1:9–12). So, although in one sense I’m not covenantally obligated to the law or under the curse of the law, I put that out the front door and I go around the back door and I say, “Oh Lord, I want to live a life that is pleasing to You, and like the Old Testament psalmist, I can say, ‘Oh how I love Thy law.’” I can meditate on the law day and night because it reveals to me what is pleasing to God.
Let me give you a personal example. Several years ago, I was speaking in Rye, N.Y., at a conference on the holiness of God. After one of the sessions, the sponsors of the conference invited me to someone’s house afterward for prayer and refreshments. When I arrived at the house, there were about twenty-five people in the parlor praying to their dead relatives. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I said, “Wait a minute. What is this? We’re not allowed to do this. Don’t you know that God prohibits this, and that it’s an abomination in His sight and it pollutes the whole land and provokes His judgment?” And what was their immediate response? “That’s the Old Testament.” I said, “Yes, but what has changed to make a practice that God regarded as a capital offense during one economy of redemptive history now something He delights in?” And they didn’t have a whole lot to say because from the New Testament it is evident that God is as against idolatry now as He was then.
Of course, as we read Scripture, we see that there are some parts of the law that no longer apply to new covenant believers, at least not in the same way that they did to old covenant believers. We make a distinction between moral laws, civil laws, and ceremonial laws such as the dietary laws and physical circumcision. That’s helpful because there’s a certain sense in which practicing some of the laws from the Old Testament as Christians would actually be blasphemy. Paul stresses in Galatians, for example, that if we were to require circumcision, we would be sinning. Now, the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws is helpful, but for the old covenant Jew, it was somewhat artificial. That’s because it was a matter of the utmost moral consequences whether they kept the ceremonial laws. It was a moral issue for Daniel and his friends not to eat as the Babylonians did (Dan. 1). But the distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws means that there’s a bedrock body of righteous laws that God gives to His covenant people that have abiding significance and relevance before and after the coming of Christ.
During the period of Reformed scholasticism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Reformed theologians said that God legislates to Israel and to the new covenant church on two distinct bases: on the basis of divine natural law and on the basis of divine purpose. In this case, the theologians did not mean the lex naturalis, the law that is revealed in nature and in the conscience. By “natural law,” they meant those laws that are rooted and grounded in God’s own character. For God to abrogate these laws would be to do violence to His own person. For example, if God in the old covenant said, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” but now He says, “It’s OK for you to have other gods and to be involved in idolatry,” God would be doing violence to His own holy character. Statutes legislated on the basis of this natural law will be enforced at all times.
On the other hand, there is legislation made on the basis of the divine purpose in redemption, such as the dietary laws, that when their purpose is fulfilled, God can abrogate without doing violence to His own character. I think that’s a helpful distinction. It doesn’t answer every question, but it helps us discern which laws continue so that we can know what is pleasing to God.