J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

Bragging Rights

In Galatians 6:14, Paul writes, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

We can either “boast” in ourselves in some way, or we can boast in Christ & His cross.   It’s really that simple – we all do one or the other.   We can have a religion of our own accomplishments (self-salvation) or of the work of Christ on our behalf.  There is no in-between.  There is no both-and.  Let us make sure that in our worship, witness and work, we are boasting only in the cross of Christ, not ourselves.

If we are boasting in the Cross, we are admitting that the only thing we truly contribute to the equation is our sin. And if that is the case, all that there is to boast about is another – Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God who came to seek and save sinners, who died in our place & was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).

Of course, if we are boasting in the Cross of Jesus Christ, it will sound like anything but boasting, won’t it?  There is a simple word for what it will sound like – worship.

If we are boasting in the Cross of Christ our witness will not sound like we are recommending to the “great unwashed” that they really ought to consider becoming more like us.  It will sound like what it is supposed to be – one sinner telling another sinner where he or she can find grace, mercy & life – in the Lord Jesus Christ.   Until we are convinced (like Paul) that we really are the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) our witness will sound more like judgment than evangelism.  Until we ourselves are amazed by grace, our neighbors won’t be either.

And boasting in the Cross of Christ is the only thing that keeps our work from turning into mere legalism.  If we are boasting in Christ, we will not be boasting in our work.  And we will not be jealous of the accomplishments of others.  If we are truly boasting in the Cross, we will finally be set free to really work, to throw ourselves with abandon into the work that God has given us without an eye toward how we might look to others.

By faith in Jesus we have the ultimate bragging rights – we have the privilege to boast in the Cross!