The following is a transcript of a sermon delivered on Wednesday afternoon, October 19th, 2011 during the annual pastor’s conference at Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, NJ. The preacher is Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and this is the sixth session in the conference.
When the various themes were being apportioned in preparation for the conference, I think I received a list of the topics that the organizers wanted us to cover in our thinking together about this marvelous theme of the law of God, and discovering what one another of the brethren were doing, I thought what I would try and bring for these sessions this morning would be essentially two probes. The first, a probe of a biblical-theological nature into how it is that the Scriptures as a whole understand the law of God, and then in the second address, in many ways far less stimulating and interesting than the Scriptures themselves, to take a look at how it is that our Reformed or evangelical tradition has understood the law, and one or two of the issues that have obviously arisen in the history of the Christian church around the place of the law and the significance of the law, especially of course in the life of the Christian believer. So, neither of these studies is by any stretch of the imagination comprehensive in character. It will be full of holes. It’s simply an attempt to fill in some of the dots so that we can get the big picture and see how some of the more detailed areas that are being dealt with also in the conference fit into the large picture of how it is that God has given His law, why it is that God has given a law to His people, and how it is, therefore, that His people are able to say that we love His law, meditate on it day and night, and rejoice in it in every way.
Everyone knows what a probe is. A housewife knows what a probe is when she sticks that little thing into the cake to see if it’s baked, or the turkey to see if it’s ready at Thanksgiving time. If you are a surgeon, you use probes, or a dentist, you use probes. If you are an astrophysicist, you use probes. And what I want to do in this first study is to send out a few probes into various parts of the Scripture to try to collect together how it is that the Scriptures teach us to reverence the law and to rejoice in the law. I want to begin by fixing the framework of reference. It seems to me that one of the most important statements made in the Scriptures about the law of God is found in Romans 7:12 where the Apostle Paul speaks about the holiness of the law and the goodness of the commandment. You remember the context because you’ve just been studying it together with Dr. Martin, when he says in this marvelous passage, “So,” he says—and this is significant because that “so” is set within the context of the enormous, internal struggle about which he is speaking. “So,” he says, what needs to be affirmed, especially because he’s speaking about the manner in which the law exposes sin. He says, “…you need to understand that the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” And it seems to me we will never be persuaded of the biblical understanding of the law or the role of the law in the life of the Christian believer until that principle is firmly fixed into our hearts: the law of God is good. It comes from a good God, and it is an expression of His goodness. And in some senses, every error—and there are many in connection with understanding and applying the law of God—manifest an inability or a lack of appreciation to grasp this principle: God’s law in every era of redemptive history is unmitigatedly good. And when we grasp that principle, I think we are ready to understand how it is that the believer is able to rejoice in the law.
Let me turn, first of all, to another major text—not a major statement, as simple as in (or “implicit as in”) Romans 7:12. But, it seems to me to be a major text in our overall study and understanding of how the law of God fits into the purposes of God: Hebrews 8:7-12 and continuing into 13. We are, at greater length, than the author does later on in chapter 10. There is this long quotation from the prophecy of Jeremiah 31 and the exposition of the new covenant. And it’s striking at this point, but the author of Hebrews gives us the entire quotation. I want you to notice two things that he is says because alongside this principle of Romans 7:12, this is perhaps the big principle to grasp if we are to see the big principle of the law.
First of all, he emphasizes the enormous advance and discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, doesn’t he? And that’s something especially because here we are convinced that there is one way of salvation, there is one covenant of grace—that’s something that needs enormous emphasis; that the contrast between the Old and the New is like the contrast between the revelation of the Trinity in the Old and the revelation of the Trinity in the New. And that the privileges of the Old are privileges that seem almost like bondage and slavery, by comparison with the glorious liberties of the New. And so, the author emphasizes in verse 13, in speaking of a New Covenant, “He makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” It’s an extraordinary statement. But within that context of his emphasis on advance and, therefore, discontinuity, even notice himself using the language of God finding fault in this connection and promising the New Covenant. Within that context, there is this enormous emphasis on continuity, deep continuity. Indeed, the adjective “deep” is the correct adjective to use because when this New Covenant in Christ bursts upon our lives, the writer is saying here in the ancient promise of Jeremiah, and here therefore, in our experience, there is something that is absolutely continuous, which is, that the law of God that was written on tablets of stone is now being re-written on tablets of flesh. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts” (v. 10).
Now this is a marvelous statement, but it’s also a very challenging statement to understand in the context of the whole Scripture. It implies clearly that there is a signal work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, we understand from our New Testaments that the Holy Spirit was working regeneration and transformation in the days of the Old Covenant as well as in the days of the New Covenant. We understand that the law of God was to be written into the mind of believers; that when the father in Proverbs 3 urges steadfast love and faithfulness on his son what he is looking to his son to do is to bind the very law of God upon his heart. And this is why, at the end of the day, we look at something like Psalm 119 and often say to ourselves, “I long to rise to that. I long to rise to be able to say, ‘Blessed be God for the marvel of His law. I delight in it.’” And we see in Romans 7—in a sense—that Paul is saying by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, “I’ve risen to Psalm 119.” So, while there is this dramatic advance, and therefore, discontinuity, there is a fundamental, basic principle of continuity. That is to say, what is written in the heart in the New Covenant by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and in the light of the fullness of the work of Jesus Christ is nothing less or other than the law of God.
If we were to explore how is there a difference between the Old and the New when there is this continuity of the role of the law in the life of the believer, I think we would need to exegete that in terms of Joel 2:18-20 and it’s fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. That, whereas revelation in all its form came in a mediated, as it were, second-hand fashion, to believers under the Old Covenant, it comes in a first-hand fashion to believers under the New Covenant. That it’s not only prophets in the Old Testament who have the secrets of the Lord, as Amos 3:7 says, but since that secret has now been embodied and manifested fully in Jesus Christ who is prophet, priest, and king, no longer to believers experience the revelation of God in that second-hand, humanly mediated fashion instituted by God, but immediately in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is why John is able to say in 1 John 2, “You don’t need anyone to teach you because you have all received the anointing.” If we were to take that to the foot of the letter we wouldn’t come to a conference where there were conference addresses because we wouldn’t need to teach or to be taught. And there are some who foolishly understand the text that way. They don’t need anyone to teach them. But the point John is making is, as it were, trans-dispensational. It’s a point that contrasts the epoch of the Old with the epoch of the New.
And so, there is this sense of immediacy. There is this Christ-centered fashion to every aspect of revelation that was, apparently, relatively opaque under the Old Covenant. And in this we rejoice. But whatever somewhat mysterious difference there may be between Old Covenant knowledge of God and His law and New Covenant knowledge of God and His law, the point that needs to be underlined—and it’s startlingly clear in this statement about the New Covenant—that what God writes in the heart in the New Covenant is the law that He had given under the Old Covenant. That’s surely the death nail of any kind of dispensationalism that sees the law of God vanish in the New Covenant. And it actually seems it to me, also, to be the death nail of what I call “novemalogueism.” “Decalogueism” would be believing that the entire Decalogue guards and guides Christian believers. “Novemalogueism” would be that the nine of the commandments guard and guide Christian believers. But it’s not possible to shave the edges off this statement. And you see, when we grasp that—when we’ve grasped these two basic principles—God’s law is unmitigatedly good. Without diminution, the law that God has given to us is an expression of His goodness to us. And at the same time, in that goodness, through the gift of the Holy Spirit and regeneration, however mysterious it may be, however beyond our ability to express in concrete terms what this means for us, we understand from this statement that what God writes into our hearts as Christian believers is His law.
And you see, when we put these three things together, the goodness of God, the gift of the Spirit, and the law of God, then we begin to understand how it’s possible to see the law of God, not as our enemy, but as our guardian, not with distaste, but with joy because it’s an expression of the goodness and the grace of our Heavenly Father. And because especially now, as it was impossible for Old Covenant believers, we receive this law and taste this law in union and communion with our blessed Lord, Jesus Christ, who embodied this law. Now, when we think of the teaching of Scripture along these lines, I think it’s possible for us with a new sense of spiritual health to begin to probe different epochs of divine revelation and see both areas of continuity and discontinuity that help us to understand and grasp a whole Bible picture. If we have the right framework of reference—perhaps someone has given you an old painting, and it’s a very fine painting, but it’s in a horrible frame, and therefore the painting itself isn’t allowed to stand out in its full riches. In the same way, unless we have this framework of reference of the goodness of God, the goodness of His law, the gift of the Holy Spirit, its embodiment in our Savior Jesus Christ, then we are almost certainly going to have intellectual, perhaps emotional, or psychological motivations that will warp the canvas of the exposition of God’s law within.
So let me put in four probes into the most obvious places in the pages of Scripture. First of all, I would to invite you to think just for a moment about the role of the law of God at the time of creation. It’s clear in Genesis 1:26-28, obviously, and also 2:16-17, that God gave to Adam what we might call a “law of mission” and also a “law of prohibition.” The law of mission was to exercise his God-given dominion as God’s vicegerent in the world and extend the garden to the ends of the earth. There’s something very significant about the fact that not all the earth was garden, but that God made a garden. The way I tend to think about it is it’s the Father saying to his Son, as you and I might say to our sons, “Now, I’m going to give you a little start, and what I want you to do is extend this. I want this to grow.” So, the law of his mission was to extend the garden to the ends of the earth. It was all good, but it wasn’t, as it were, finally perfected. It was part of the blessedness of the divine communion: Adam and the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day. What are they talking about? “How’s your gardening going?” That’s what they are talking about. It’s to stimulate communion and fellowship and to enable Adam to see–This is actually why even pagan fathers are in awe when they see their children born. It’s so that the image of God might have a taste of the infinitely glorious original, and to be able to share fellowship with Him, enjoy.
So there is the law of mission and of course there is also the law of prohibition, which for our purposes is particularly significant. The law of prohibition is that among all the trees in the garden of which Adam and Eve may freely eat, there is one tree in the middle of the garden from which they must not eat. And this is what is sometimes called “positive law.” In this sense it seems to me that this is not a command that Adam could have read off the pages of creation. It seems to me in the context of Genesis 1 and 2 as we pass by this tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it was indistinguishable from the other trees. It wasn’t that its fruit was poisonous. Indeed, if its fruit had been poisonous, if it had been ugly fruit, instead of attractive to the eyes and something about it that made the taste buds long to take it down like the other trees, if it had been attractive in a sinister way and poisonous in its nature, and not just attractive and beautiful in every sense, like the fruit of the other trees, then it wouldn’t have functioned in the way the law of prohibition was intended to function.
The law of mission was that in communion with God Adam would extend the garden to the ends of the earth. The law of prohibition was given to him in order that he might express the totality of his loving obedience to God as his Heavenly Father simply because God is God and God is good. Had the tree itself been noxious and ugly then Adam would have instinctively recoiled, you see? He would have obeyed the command out of instinct, out of emotional response, and not simply out of glad obedience to do anything that God told him to do. And it’s this—within the context of the opening chapters of Genesis—that I think provides the Apostle Paul with his understanding of how it is that the law of God functioned in Adam and from Adam onwards. That is to say, Adam was given the law of God in its best of all possible forms. Not written on tablets of stone, not written on pages of paper, but written into the human heart in such a way that he did the spiritual thing naturally, and he did the natural thing spiritually, in obedience to God. It’s a condition of heart to which we are all altogether strangers. By God’s grace in a fallen world through regeneration we get glimpses of it. But we guard ourselves far too much to look back on a moment of obedience and say to ourselves, “Now that was perfect” or “That was easy.” Because we know then our sins master us all over again and pride brings about a fall.
But for Adam it was natural—although Paul isn’t speaking precisely about that in Romans 2 or in Romans 1. But there are echoes of Adam in Romans 1 and 2, aren’t there?: when the Gentiles do by nature the things that are commanded in the law, however imperfectly, so that conscience excuses them or accuses them. It’s a reflection of something that’s deep-seated. When Paul speaks in Romans 1:18-32 about the sinfulness of man he’s speaking about man who doesn’t have the Sinaitic commands, isn’t he? And so he’s pointing us back to the—how can we describe it—echoes, the remnants, however distorted, of what God had placed into Adam right at the very beginning and by His grace will bring to consummation in all of His children right at the very end. It’s really amazing.
And then, Satan comes in. This is why Paul’s emphasis in Romans 7:12 is so significant. Satan comes in and says, “The law is not really good for you.” This law of prohibition that is meant to place gentle pressure on the law of creation, written into Adam’s constitution because he is the image of God, and because God’s law is the expression of God’s character manifested in His very being. It’s a little pressure, isn’t it?: to say, “Now will you be obedient to me just because of who I am?” It’s a calling to obedience to God because He is God.
But it’s also good in this sense: is there not something just a little sinister about God there? Putting that little pressure there? No, it’s because this is the only way in which Adam is able to grow in obedience: by moral choice, by recognizing God’s goodness, and by recognizing God’s greatness. Some of you know that the early theologian Irenaeus of Lyon spoke about Adam being an infant. And, while he wasn’t an infant physically, there’s something about that; that while he was created perfectly good–Think about the Lord Jesus Christ. He was capable of maturing. He was capable of so obeying His Heavenly Father, that His Heavenly Father, who had all pleasure in Him, would have even greater pleasure in Him. And as I say that sentence I think to myself, “Who is the antecedent? Am I talking about Jesus there or am I talking about Adam there?” I’m talking about both there, aren’t I? And so, Luke gives us that stunning insight at the end of chapter 2 when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph come down from the temple and eventually they are all home, and Jesus is submissive to them. For all their foolishness, He is submissive to them. And Luke puts in this little startling footnote that we so easily read but find so difficult to take in, that “Jesus grew in wisdom as well as in stature.” Now, we can follow that. That’s the easy bit to follow; that His humanity in its perfection grew in wisdom. That if we are bold enough to say what the text says, we want to say, “If your Jesus was not wiser when He was 18 than He was when He was 12, He can’t be the Jesus of Luke’s gospel.” It’s the next statement that is breathtaking: that He grew in favor with God as well as with man; that He was more in favor with God. Not that He was ever out of favor, but there were so many more reasons for His father to express favor towards Him.
You know, sometimes you have a young couple standing in front of you at a wedding service and you know the look in the boy’s eyes says there’s never been a man who has so loved a woman as this man loves this woman. And you want to say, “And by the way, come back in 5 years time and tell me you didn’t know what you were talking about. You have only just begun.” This is why Jesus says, you remember, in John 10, “The reason the Father loves me is because I lay down my life for the sheep. That’s the reason. My father loves me.” In other words, He is anticipating—this is the glory of the gospel. And we need to get back to the law, but we can’t appreciate the law without understanding the glory of the gospel in Christ. This is the glory of the gospel: that as He hangs and cries, “My God, I am forsaken, why?”—if I could put it reverently this way: His Heavenly Father is singing, “My Jesus, I love thee. I know thou art mine. If ever I loved thee, my Jesus ‘tis now.” He was obedient unto death.
And so you see in the first Adam as well as in the last Adam that there is this potential of growing in favor with God, in communion with God, in fellowship with God. And therefore there needs to be this gentle pressing upon His life: “Obey me simply because I am your God.” This is Jesus, isn’t it? “Father, if there is any other way let this cup pass from me. But Father, whereas my humanity naturally shrinks from any sense of being abandoned on the cross, the thought of one moment or hour without conscious communion with you shakes my very humanity. But Father, because you are God and you have given me the commandment, I will be obedient.” And this is the life into which Adam is being reared from infancy. Actually, there’s a principle here in the law of prohibition that will reappear in the Ten Commandments, and partly for the same reason.
When your children are children you don’t sit them down and explain how electricity works as a positive force. You say, “Don’t stick that screwdriver into that hole.” As they grow—and you see, this is what’s happening here. It’s the negative commandment providing the opportunity for the positive divine laws enshrined in Adam’s very being to grow from infancy to maturity. And the tragedy is especially when, as whole Bible Christians, we are able to see Genesis 1-3 in the light of Matthew 1 – Revelation 22. The whole event is such a cosmic tragedy: that he should exchange the truth about God for the lie. And that’s exactly what he does. And in doing so, he exchanges the truth about God’s law for the lie about God’s law.
Well, what then becomes of God’s law? It reappears, of course, dramatically, at Mount Sinai. But, it doesn’t reappear ex nihilo at Mount Sinai. And that’s the second place where we send a probe, in that period between Eden and Sinai. Here we need to be somewhat cautious. As Paul speaks about the first Adam and the last Adam in Romans 5:12-21, he leaps immediately from Adam to Sinai to Christ, doesn’t he? The law came in—and he means the Sinaitic giving of the law. The law came in in order to increase the trespass. And that might mislead us by a misunderstanding of what Paul is doing here. It might mislead us to think that His law is written in Adam’s heart and the next time the law of God appears is when it’s given to Moses on tablets of stone. But, within Romans itself, that isn’t Paul’s perspective on the Old Testament. He says nothing in Romans 5:12-21 about Abraham. And he’s just told us in Romans 4 that the role of Abraham between Adam and Sinai is enormously important. You’ll never understand Sinai unless you’ve understood Abraham. But he says nothing about Abraham in 5:12-21. So there is a much bigger picture in Paul’s mind than the one he expresses in 5:12-21. And so we are not to think, when he says in Romans 5:13 that “the law has come in,” that he believes there is no evidence of the law’s presence prior to the giving of the law at Sinai.
Indeed, I think it could be argued that what he says in Romans 5:12-14 implies the ongoing presence and influence of that law of God that was enshrined not in tablets but in the image-bearer. Sin indeed was in the world before the law, the Sinaitic law, was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law, yet death reigned. And part of the implication is that if sin brings death as its penalty and consequence, and death reigned between Adam and Moses, then death reigned between Adam and Moses because this was not a lawless world. Death reigned between Adam and Moses, and therefore sin was counted between Adam and Moses. And certainly it seems to me that what Paul says earlier in 2:12-16 drives us in that direction because he’s actually speaking here in 1:18 through a good deal of 2, anyway, apparently, about people who don’t have the Sinaitic revelation, isn’t he? He’s speaking about those who, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, “are people who haven’t got a Bible.” And the whole drive of his argument there is to bring us to the point of Romans 3:19-20, and to have all condemned because all have broken the law, to have every mouth shut, whether the mouth that has had Exodus through Malachi, or whether the mouth, in a sense, that knows nothing after Genesis 11—every mouth shut, the law condemns all. And sin is counted.
And there are two considerations, I think, that drive that point home. The first is the exegetical consideration: that the law of God is clearly the framework for everything that takes place between Genesis 4 and Exodus 19:25. And as you work your way through that section of Scripture—it’s not at all difficult, just with this thought in mind—to explore the narratives there in the light of the revelation of God in the Ten Commandments, and to see how here and there, there are evident signs that the law of God given at Sinai is indeed the law of God written into the life of Adam and the law of God to which all are accountable between Eden and Sinai—including the Sabbath and the gathering of the manna, including the first three commandments and the different ways in which the dishonoring of God and worshipping of idols is set up as a standard for analysis and judgment in those parts of Scripture, and the reverence for parents, or lack thereof. There’s a lack thereof that manifests itself in Genesis 4. There’s a presence of it that manifests itself, for example, in Noah’s sons and how they treat their father. There’s murder: Cain and Abel, and sexual sin that crops up in different kinds of ways in the story of Abraham. There’s theft. I’m preaching through the Joseph narrative on Sunday mornings just now, and here the cup of pharaoh’s prime minister is found in Benjamin’s sack. What do the brothers’ say? “We are guilty.” But, where there is no law there is no guilt. “We are guilty.” There’s also false witness and covetousness.
So it’s very interesting to notice that the strongest argument for believing that the law of God written in the heart to be revealed now in tablets of stone at Sinai continues to be present throughout the period between Eden and Sinai is not to be found in a little text that might say, “And by the way, the law of God is still in force,” but by the fact that if you pull the Law of God out of Genesis 4:1 through Exodus 19, the entire garment unravels. Some of us have a particular giftedness in doing that kind of thing, don’t we? Although our mothers told us not to do it and our wives have repeated it, we just pull at the little thread, and then we can no longer use the pullover, or the coat lacks buttons. And it’s exactly the same here.
But it’s not only the exegetical line of thought; there is the theological line of thought. That is, that if Adam delights in the law of God because he is created as the image of God and therefore constituted happily and freely to reflect the character of God by mirroring the character of God in the miniature, created world in which he lives, then that image is not destroyed by the fall. However, it may be marred indeed. However, again, it may be difficult to precisely describe what it is that happens to the image of God, hence, the several different views that we find among the best of theologians. The one thing that’s clear is that man does not cease to be the image of God and therefore man is not deserted by the laws that govern that image, nor may he desert them. And so, for example, in Genesis 9:6, man, the image of God, that someone seeks to destroy, carries a penalty. Matthew 22: the wonderful story of whether we pay taxes to Caesar or not and Jesus asks for the coin and who’s image and inscription is on this coin. It’s a very brilliant piece of theology. He says, “Well, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s if his image is on it.” And then he turns, you see, with sharp application, “And render to God what bears his image.” That is to say, give yourself unreservedly to a life of wholehearted obedience to Him. And similarly in James 3:9, how can we say we praise God when we curse His image? Or to use later language, which in some ways it’s always best to avoid when you are simply trying to expound the Scriptures. But, often, later language can be enormously helpful and insightful. In terms of later language, man has broken the covenant of works. But the covenant of works is not broken. We break ourselves against the covenant of works: the law of God.
But, what has changed? Well, at least five things. First of all, man has lost affection for the law of God. He no longer sees it as good and to be desired. Man has lost the power to keep the law of God. Man has lost an absolutely essential conviction about the law of God; that the law of God is my liberty. Natural man doesn’t think that way, does he? He might say he does just as he’s likely to say the God he believes in is a God of love. I sometimes say to our congregation, “Find a nice way to say to people, ‘You’re lying through your teeth.’ You don’t believe He is a God of love at all. How could you possibly treat Him the way you do? You would be flat on your face in astonishment before Him if you knew what you meant when you said, “God is a God of love.”’” People say they respect and admire God’s law, but they’ve lost affection for it, and therefore lost the power to keep it. Lose affection, lose power, lose conviction, lose clarity, because we are no longer able to discern how the law of God applies—this is one of the reasons. Actually, people are very uncomfortable with the law of God. They like it in a general sense, but when it comes down to practical, personal application with all its ramifications, they’ve lost the motivation, inwardly, to enable them to obey it. And this is our tragic situation by nature.
But behind it all think about where we began. Behind it all, we mustn’t ever lose sight of the fact that this loss of affection, power, conviction, clarity, and motivation has actually got to do with God Himself. It’s deeply personal. And our great tragedy is—what a world of debt there is in Paul’s statement—that men have believed the lie about God and exchanged the truth for it. Such a gracious, generous—imagine that garden with all those flowers and fruit, those tame animals roaming around, the lion lying down with the lamb, the beautiful river, extraordinary demonstration of the good love of God for His creation. I don’t think about them that way naturally because we’ve exchanged the truth for the lie, the serpentine lie. “Has he put you in this beautiful garden and He doesn’t want you to eat of any of the trees of the garden?”
Thirdly, the law given at Sinai. Now, I think perhaps I need to deal with this a little more speedily. We’ve already had discussion of the threefold use of the law, but I want you to notice what it is that God is doing here as He calls His people out of Egypt and brings them, eventually, into the promised land, but in the process gives the law from Sinai. He is dealing with the loss of affection, conviction, and motivation because this is a mighty rescue act. And we must never lose sight of that. The twentieth chapter of Exodus makes clear to us that the whole law of God is set in this context of God’s mighty rescue operation, and the purpose of that rescue operation: “Let My people go that they may worship Me.” Interesting, isn’t it? Adam worshipping God and now this mighty, gracious act of redemption to bring His people to worship Him; to see that He is a gracious God, and a powerful God, and a God who wishes them blessing; that brings a fresh affection and motivation and conviction. It’s the conviction I need: that the law of God is good and it comes from a redeeming God.
And then there, written by the finger of God on these tablets of stone. Now, why is that? What’s God saying there? Why did He not say to Moses, “Moses, I want you remember ten things. Just ten things and remember them. Tell me you know them. Memorize them. And then go down the mountain and pass them on.”? Actually, presumably, for the very same reasons, among others—for example the Westminster Confession explains to us—why Scripture is important to us. It could have all come down by word of mouth. But by the time it came to me, it wouldn’t be very lucid, and I couldn’t guarantee its accuracy. And so God writes it on tablets of stone. There are other reasons, of course, but He writes it on tablets of stone in order to deal with the loss of apprehension of what this law is and how this law is to be worked out in our lives. And it’s implicit you will have seen. It’s implicit in the very giving of the law; that it has this multiplex character of moral and ceremonial and civil. And that’s so important for this reason. Actually, that’s part of the reason why Paul is able to say in 2 Corinthians 3 that this law was attended with glory, but that glory seems to become almost darkness by comparison with the glory of the New Covenant. What God is doing in giving the law this way is making it clear from the beginning, if people had eyes to see, that this Mosaic revelation of the law is temporary by divine intention. It’s given, interestingly, in negative form, isn’t it? Largely in negative form. Why? Because they are infants and it’s the easiest thing to do to help them to grow: to say, “Not that and not that. Work out from the negative to the positive, but be clear about the negative.”
That connection is interesting and fascinating to me, that “Honor your father and your mother,” is a positive command, and “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” is a positive command. It’s actually why they may be in the last group, the ones that are more challenging to work through and to apply, because they are positive, and we feel like, “I don’t have the maturity to cope with this.” So you see, he’s speaking to them as infants, as immature in Adam. These laws are written, as it were, as great drivers of godliness. But here they are given to a people who are spiritually immature. But in His wonderful grace and mercy God also, in the midst of all the negative commands to save them, gives positive commands. And so He says now, “Get a taste for working it out in detail in your life.” And it’s interesting for all the exposition there is in the Old Testament of honoring your father and mother and of keeping the Sabbath day. There is endless space for working that out, isn’t there? So, what does this mean? How did they live? It’s amazing how little we know of how people spent the Sabbath day under the Old Covenant, and how an individual father and children would work out in their own (52:27 not sure if it’s “own” or “home”) situation, even with the book of Proverbs. What does it mean for me to honor my father and my mother? But it’s given to, as Paul says, “A people who are redemptive-historically under age.”
But not only because it has largely this negative form, but because it’s given to a particular nation until the world blessing promised to Abraham would come in Jesus Christ. So, we mustn’t lose sight of Paul’s point in Romans and Galatians. Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that Sinai is built on the Abrahamic promise and covenant; that what God has in view, and He is placing this into your life until these aspects of His covenant come to consummation in Jesus Christ, He intends world blessing in Christ. And therefore, the interim expressions and applications of the law of God in the Mosaic administration are given for a particular people, for a national church, until the church of God becomes international. And it’s not a second thought. It’s not Plan B that Christ should come and do this. It’s Plan A. It’s the Abrahamic-covenantal promise. I think when we see that we learn a great deal about how particularly Paul is able to think and speak about the giving of the law under the Old Covenant.
So, it’s temporary by divine intention, and secondly, it has—it’s difficult to find words for this—an in-built inadequacy. That is to say, there is something it can’t do. And this is part of the divine intention. This is what Paul says in Romans 8:3-4: “What the law could not do.” Not that it was inadequate for its purposes, but it didn’t have the power to effect the very things it commands. And so, there was a sense in which this couldn’t possibly be God’s final word. And not only so, this was made lucid by the ceremonial law, wasn’t it? The argument, for example, that the author of Hebrews uses in Hebrews 7-10, that the blood of bulls and goats can’t take away the sin of a man, that the priest stands daily and he’s still standing, rather than sitting down, that he offers his sacrifices day after day, indicate to us that all of this is shadow rather than reality, promise rather than fulfillment, ceremony rather than Christ. It all indicates—that’s not a New Covenant argument, that’s not something you need to be a Christian to be able to reason through. An Old Testament believer, by necessity, thought that way. So, it’s actually not something that the New Testament adds to how we understand the Mosaic administration. It’s built into the Mosaic administration in order to make you long for the reality; to enable you to see it’s not the ceremony, but the One to whom it points. And in this marvelous way it becomes clear that when the Apostle Paul—and it’s in a sense present also in Hebrews, isn’t it? When the Apostle Paul makes statements about the law of God that seem at first sight to be critical and pejorative, they need to be set in this context: that he’s standing in Zion and he’s looking at Sinai. He’s standing on Mont Blanc and he’s looking at Ben Lomond, and he says, “By comparison, there seems to be almost no…what is that tiny hole down there? Ben Lomond? Why do these Scots get so excited about it?” And there you are on the top of Everest, and it’s just a tiny little mound by comparison. And so those statements in which he speaks, that Christians throughout the ages have always found difficult rightly interpreting, are always to be interpreted in the light of the sheer glory of the New. The Old had a glory. Although he says it was a ministry of death, but it pales into insignificance by comparison with the glory that is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps some of us here have gone through this. We may have been brought up in a Jewish home and in a sense we’ve made this kind of Old Covenant – New Covenant transition. Most of us make some form of it because at the end of the day underneath the Jew and underneath the pagan Christian there is Adam isn’t there? Let me try and put it like this: When I was a little boy and was sent off to school I was one of those peculiar boys that actually loved school. I just loved school and I loved learning. I loved being able to write. I spent seven years at elementary school and then I went to what we call “senior secondary school” (junior high and senior high). The moment I got into secondary school, with teachers for every subject—somebody who actually all they did was teach me Latin, somebody who all they did was teach me Greek, somebody who all they did was teach me history, then running around doing arts and crafts there was somebody somewhere that probably did that—I thought, “This is a new world. I never knew it could be like this.” And I looked back on my elementary education. I thought, “Boy, those teachers were jailbirds.”
And then I left high school and went to the university. You know I spent the last six months of my secondary education in English literature studying King Lear…six months. I went in to a lecture by the Senior English Literature Professor in the university, my first week there, and he gave a lecture on King Lear. I learned more about King Lear in one hour than I had learned in the previous six months studying it in high school. I thought, “This is absolutely amazing. What bondage they kept us in.” And then, eventually—you know in the Scottish educational system in those days the only exams that mattered were the exams at the end of the degree course and your exams would have blown everything and your life or death depended on them. You would be marked forever. It’s a peculiar British thing. You are marked forever by what happens at that point. And then, I had begun life in the gospel ministry, and I thought, “That university was such a prison.” But you see, it’s all comparative. It’s only when you come to Christ. It’s not apart from Christ. But when you come to Christ, it’s safe to say, “Blessed be God that I am a New-Covenant Christian and that He has written His law into my heart, and His law has become, ‘Three claps,’ as Bunyan says. His law has become my delight.”
Now, I’m not sure what time it is, but I’m sure I’m over it, whatever it is. So, I have one more probe and I’ll take that up at the beginning of the next session.
Let’s pray together:
Our Heavenly Father, how gracious You are to us, and how much we delight in that grace. And in Your law we can hardly believe that we say the very things that the psalmist says. But we have discovered that Your law has made us wiser than our teachers and wiser than our enemies, and it is a delight to us. We struggle, Lord. We are sinners. Your law condemns our flesh. And we groan inwardly, as we wait eagerly for the day when the law that you have re-written into our hearts in regeneration by Your Spirit, will consummate itself in the whole of our being, and we will feel, at the end of the day, that we have been sick men living. But by Your grace, getting better, and now we are resurrected men, and it is so gloriously natural. Oh, we long for that day. But we thank You that You have begun it already in Your grace. And we pray You would continue to help us. Bless our fellowship for which we give You so much thanks. In Jesus, our Savior’s name, Amen.