The Law

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.

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.

The Antinomianism of the Pharisees


What is antinomianism? Antinomianism is not as easy to define as it sounds; it is even more difficult to recognize.  The word itself means to be against (anti) law (nomos = law), and so the most basic definition is that an antinomian is one who is against the law of God in some way.

But as Mark Jones has so ably points out in his book on this very subject (Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest), antinomianism cannot be rightly understood merely in terms of its etymology. In fact, there are many different forms of antinomianism, which makes it even more difficult to define or diagnose.

Perhaps the most common form of antinomianism might be referred to simply as practical antinomianism. 1 John 3:4 speaks of this kind when it says,

“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (ESV)

The person who “makes a practice of sinning” lives in such a way as to be without law or anti-law. Licentiousness, then, is a common form of antinomianism, and is probably the form that most readily comes to mind when one thinks of antinomianism in the first place.

But what if I told you that legalism is often just as antinomian at heart as licentiousness? Legalism (ironically enough), when all is said and done, really just devolves into another form of antinomianism.  One need look no further than the Pharisees to prove this point. Were the Pharisees anti-law? Did they not teach God’s law? Were they not experts in God’s law? Certainly. But the effect of their teaching was such that it actually led people away from obeying God’s commandments.

In Mark chapter 7 Jesus essentially rebukes them for a form of antinomianism. Of course, He doesn’t use the word itself, but just look at what He says to them in v.6-9:

“And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘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.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (ESV)

They left and rejected “the commandment of God” (v.8, 9) in order to establish and uphold their own tradition. A legalist may be all about rules, but it is often the case that it is not really God’s rules or commandments that he or she is most concerned about keeping, but rather their own!

In case anyone thought that Jesus was exaggerating, He even gives an example. He mentions their traditional practice of “Corban” (v.11). Notice how Jesus shows us that this was in direct contradiction to the law of Moses. In v.10-11 He tells them,

“Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—”

To declare your property as “corban” was to declare it as dedicated or reserved for God. Think of it as leaving property to the church in your will. Once it was declared as “corban,” it could not be sold to be used for other things, even for helping one’s elderly parents who are in need! And what was the result? They, in effect, ‘no longer permitted’ a person to do anything for father or mother! They essentially prevented people from obeying God by their own tradition! And this was not an isolated instance! Jesus adds in v.13, “And many such things  you do.”

Think about that for a moment –  it is possible to actually teach God’s law, and yet do so in a way that is essentially antinomian at-heart! (See why it can be so difficult to define?) It is not without reason that Jeremiah 17:9 says,

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Here we see that antinomianism & legalism are often really just two sides of the very same coin – they really aren’t that different after all! Were the Pharisees legalists? Certainly. But even so, they were just as antinomian as any licentious person, for they rejected the commandment of God in order to establish their tradition in its place.

John Owen on Obedience as Sons

owen-communion-with-god-2It should go without saying that believers in Christ have an obligation to obey God’s commandments. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament provides more than ample evidence of this truth.

Read through the Gospels, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands. There you will often find the Lord Jesus quoting, explaining, and applying the commandments to His hearers. A lengthy section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) explicitly deals with a right view of God’s commandments.

Read through the Epistles, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands, even citations and quotations from the ten commandments. There is not the slightest hint that God’s moral law as expressed in the ten commandments has somehow been set aside or abrogated.

For just one such example, both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul taught the continuing validity and importance of obedience to the 5th commandment. (See Mark 7:8-13; Ephesians 6:1-3.) Honoring one’s father and mother is still a basic and essential part of the life that God’s redeemed people are expected (commanded!) to live. That has not changed.

The gospel of Christ has not reduced or done away with our obligation to obey God’s commands. In fact, quite the opposite is true! The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, tells us the following:

“The moral law doth 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 doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5, italics mine)

So in the gospel of Christ we have even more reason (not less) to obey God’s law! Christ, in the gospel, ‘much strengthens’ our obligation to obey. (When was the last time you heard anything like that in a sermon?)

But what does such obedience look like? What is the essence of truly Christian obedience? In his book, Communion With God, the English Puritan writer John Owen (1616-1683) offers a helpful (and thoroughly biblical) analogy:

“Slaves find freedom when released from their duties. Children find their freedom in doing their duty. There is no greater mistake in the world than the idea that the freedom of sons in God’s house lies in choosing whether they will obey or not, whether they will do their duty or not. This is a freedom stolen by slaves, not a liberty given by the Spirit to sons.

“The liberty of sons is in the inward spiritual freedom of their hearts gladly and willingly obeying God in everything.” (p.160)

In Christ we are not freed from obeying God’s law, but rather for obeying it! The “liberty given by the Spirit to sons” (to use Owen’s phrase) leads us to obey God as sons, not slaves. Sons obey their heavenly Father out of love and gratitude, not out of slavish fear or for the expectation of wages, as a hired hand. As 1 John 5:3 says,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

We are to keep the commandments out of love for our heavenly Father. And in Christ, by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are both enabled and led to truly love and obey God for the first time. As sons we may at times find keeping His commandments difficult, but not burdensome. And that is because, as sons, we no longer view God as a tyrant, or as a difficult taskmaster, but as our heavenly Father!


shorter-catechism-explainedThis is part 4 of a brief series of posts going through what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (in Q.57-62) has to say about the 4th commandment. Question and answer #57 deals with the actual text of the commandment itself (which is found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The questions that follow explain and interpret the meaning of the commandment.

Question and answer #58 deals with the question of what – the substance of what is required in the fourth commandment – keeping one day in seven holy unto God. Question and answer 59 deals with the question of when – which day of the seven is now to be sanctified.

We now come to question and answer #60, which asks the all-important question – how? What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath or keep it holy?

Q.60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

So according to the Shorter Catechism, sanctifying the Sabbath involves at least two (2) things: holy rest and worship.  In his book, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, Puritan writer Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) puts it this way:

“We are to observe and keep the Sabbath as holy, partly by a holy resting, partly in holy exercises on that day.” (p.146)

Vincent there shows us the balance that we must keep between those two things, as well as the right relationship between them. Let us then briefly turn to look at them in order.

First the Sabbath (or Lord’s day) is to be sanctified “by a holy resting all the day.” Not just rest, but a holy rest. So it is clear right at the outset that what is in view here is not mere inactivity or sleep. So what does this holy resting entail? We are to rest “all that day” (not just for an hour or two) from two (2) things: our “worldly employments” (i.e. our work), and our “recreations” (i.e. our play).

And the point here is certainly not just that we are to refrain from sinful work and recreation, as we are always to refrain from those things no matter which day of the week it may be. No, the writers of the Catechism explicitly state that we are to rest from even those employments and recreations “as are lawful on other days.” So we are not to treat the Lord’s day like any other day, whether that be for work or for play.

Some people might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another work day, another day to labor and make money. Time (as the saying goes) is money, and so for some people, a holy resting all the day sounds costly, rather than beneficial. And so such people may need to learn to trust in God’s provision. Is that not the lesson we are to learn from God’s instructions regarding the manna in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16? There was one day in the week when the manna would not appear – the Sabbath. Exodus 16:26 states, “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” The only day that the people of Israel were allowed to gather extra to save for the next day was on the 6th day. Why? To free them up to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Even gathering food (manna) was not to be done on the Sabbath.

Others might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another day off, another day to play and have fun. Such people may need to learn to enjoy God more. (And who among us doesn’t need to learn that more?) To use a personal example, I like sports. I enjoy watching some sports on television and occasionally even in-person. (As a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, my sports fandom is often more an exercise in patience and long-suffering than of celebrating championship parades, but I digress.)

Nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional game. But that being said, if I enjoy watching (for example) a football game (yes, even the Super Bowl) more than I enjoy spending time with the Lord and His people in worship, then both my priorities and tastes are out of whack.  Again, nothing wrong with sports or entertainment per se (as long as there is nothing inherently sinful involved), but those things should not be in any position to compete for our ultimate affection and enjoyment. And we are to rest from those things on the Lord’s day for our own good.

And that brings us to the second thing that sanctifying the Sabbath involves – worship. The Sabbath is to be sanctified, not just by a holy resting from worldly employments and recreations, but also by “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” The whole time. And so the former is for the purpose of the latter. In the 4th commandment we are essentially being given a break from our worldly activities in order to free us up for worship.

Now if the first part (the holy resting) seems foreign to most people (even most Christians?) in our day, almost certainly this part (spending the whole day in the worship of God) is even more so. One need only look at the rarity of the Sunday evening worship service in our day to see something of a barometer of that. Structuring the whole day around worship seems like a nearly forgotten art. Sadly, many who were not raised in the Reformed faith (myself included) have had to learn much of this the hard way, with very little in the way of an example to emulate. This was not always the case.

Notice that the worship of God that is commended to us here is both public (corporate) and private (personal and with our family). And so we should make attendance upon public worship perhaps the highest priority of the day, although that by no means excludes time spent alone or with one’s family in prayer, the study of God’s Word, and even song (!). The latter is often closely-related to the former, with time spent considering and discussing the sermon from earlier that day. (How much more might we benefit from even the simplest preaching of the Word if we were to make that our practice!)  And here we also see that private worship is no substitute for diligently attending public worship of the church on the Lord’s day. In truth it should not be an either/or proposition.

That might sound like a rather daunting task. Surely there are things that cannot be left undone, even on Sundays, right? And that is where the common-sense exceptions to the rule come into view here in Q.60. It states that the whole time is to be spent in public and private worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” One’s family still needs to eat, for example. The sick or injured must still be cared for. Someone in need must still be shown mercy. (In truth, the Lord’s day may actually provide us with more time and opportunity for this than other days.) And there are occupations or lawful callings in which people cannot reasonably be expected to take the whole day off from their work, which is necessary for the life, safety, and well-being of their neighbors (such as law enforcement, military, or medical personnel, just to name a few).

There is obviously much more that could be said, but I hope that you find this thumbnail sketch from the Shorter Catechism to be a helpful starting point, and perhaps something that may spur you on to more careful study and application of what the Scriptures have to say on this important subject. May we all learn to view this holy rest and worship, not as a burden, but as a blessing.

The Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath (Shorter Catechism Q.59)

1710_largeHave you ever wondered why Christians now worship on Sundays (the first day of the week) rather than Saturdays (the seventh day)? Why Sunday?

No doubt there are a great many believers who gather for worship regularly on Sundays (sometimes twice!), without seeing any relation of this practice to either the 4th commandment itself or any explicit statement in the New Testament. Still others may indeed gather with the Lord’s people for worship every Sunday, but view the choice of that particular day as somewhat arbitrary, perhaps chosen at some point by an authority figure or council early on in the history of the church.

Having established in the previous question (Q.58) that the basic requirement of the 4th commandment is that we keep holy to God one day in seven “to be a holy Sabbath to himself,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism now turns our attention to the question that naturally follows – which day of the seven has God appointed? Shorter Catechism Q.59 puts it this way:

Q.59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath? A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Note the dividing line between the Old Testament and New Testament observance of the Sabbath – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead on “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1) – a Sunday. And so the reason for the change in observance of the Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to the first day is, in a sense, eschatological in nature. It is a weekly testimony to both the truth and the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You could say that every Sunday (not just Easter Sunday) is resurrection Sunday. Every time the church gathers for public worship on Sunday (whether we realize it or not), we are in some way testifying to the truth of the resurrection, which Paul says is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Now is there a verse or passage in the New Testament that explicitly settles this issue for us? No, not if what you are looking for is a simple proof text. There is no verse that says something like, “Thou shalt now remember the first day of the week, to keep it holy.” Nowhere does the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament author come right out and say, “Of course the Christian Sabbath is now the first day of the week rather than the seventh day.” That would sure make much things simpler, wouldn’t it?

So then where do we get the idea that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath? From both Scripture and church history. In his book, Call the Sabbath a Delight, Walter Chantry points out:

“It became the habit of Christians to meet for worship on the first day of the week. This was firmly established in the apostolic era” (p.83).

Notice that he states that this was “firmly established.” It became a settled issue for the church. And how early was this the case? Chantry explicitly points us to “the apostolic era.” In other words, the church gathering together for public worship on Sundays was basically a settled issue in the early church, while the apostles themselves (at least some of them) were still with us.

How do we know this to be the case? There are a number of passages in the New Testament that are helpful here. First, there is Acts 20:7, where we read the following:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” (ESV)

What day was it when the church was gathered together for worship? Sunday. Why does Luke mention that it was “on the first day of the week”? His readers would have understood the implication. The context here is public worship. The breaking of bread was almost certainly the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and Paul’s “speech” was a sermon, and a rather long sermon at that!

In addition to that passage, we also see something similar in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, where Paul writes,

“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

When did the church gather together? And when was this “collection for the saints” (a relief fund of sorts) to be put aside and stored up? Not just on the first day of the week, but “on the first day of every week” (v.2)! Every week. The church in Corinth met for worship every Sunday.

Lastly, in Revelation 1:10-11 we read the following:

“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”” (ESV)

What day was it? John identifies it as “the Lord’s day” (v.10). So as early as the first century A.D. Sunday was already being referred to as “the Lord’s Day.” Even in his exile on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John marked the time and the days Sunday by Sunday. The Lord’s day was meaningful to him, and the revelation that we now have in the book by that same name was given to John for the sake of the church on the Lord’s day!

May we learn by God’s grace to consider the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day a delight!