The Law/Gospel Distinction (Olevianus)

An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism The Reformers understood the difference between the law and the gospel.  It wasn’t just Luther who made this important distinction.  For one example, here’s how Caspar Olevianus (d. 1587) explained it (as quoted by Otto Thelemann):

“With reference to the relation between the law and the Gospel, Olevianus says:

“The law is a principle which God has implanted in nature, and has repeated and renewed in the commandments, in which He presents to us as in a handwriting what we are bound to do and what to leave undone, viz., a perfect inner and outer obedience; and He promises eternal life on the condition that we keep the law of God perfectly all our life. But on the other hand, eternal damnation is threatened if we do not keep it, but transgress it in one or more points. Deut. 27:26. After the law has once been transgressed, there is no promise that our sin will be forgiven through its help, i.e., through the works of the law, but the sentence of condemnation follows immediately. But the Gospel, or the glad tidings, is a truth concerning which the wisest men have known nothing by nature. It has been revealed from heaven. In it God does not make a demand of us, but He offers and gives to us the righteousness which the law demands of us, viz., the perfect obedience of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, whereby all our sins and condemnation with which the law threatens us, are pardoned and blotted out. Rom. 5, Gal. 3. God gives us in the Gospel the forgiveness of sins, not under the condition that we keep the law, but as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. Although we have never kept the law, and even now cannot keep it perfectly, He has nevertheless forgiven us our sins and offers eternal life. John 1:17, Rom. 8:3, 4, Gal. 3:12–15.”

 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (pp. 61–62). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Advertisements

Paul’s Devastating Exposure of Universal Sin and Guilt (Stott)

 Romans 3:19-20 makes this declaration: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (NET Bible).

I appreciate John Stott’s conclusions on this part of Romans 3:

In conclusion, how should we respond to Paul’s devastating exposure of universal sin and guilt, as we read it at the end of the twentieth century? We should not try to evade it by changing the subject and talking instead of the need for self-esteem, or by blaming our behaviour on our genes, nurturing, education or society. It is an essential part of our dignity as human beings that, however much we may have been affected by negative influences, we are not their helpless victims, but rather responsible for our conduct. Our first response to Paul’s indictment, then, should be to make it as certain as we possibly can that we have ourselves accepted this divine diagnosis of our human condition as true, and that we have fled from the just judgment of God on our sins to the only refuge there is, namely Jesus Christ who died for our sins. For we have no merit to plead and no excuse to make. We too stand before God speechless and condemned. Only then shall we be ready to hear the great ‘But now’ of verse 21, as Paul begins to explain how God has intervened through Christ and his cross for our salvation.

 Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (pp. 104–105). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Three-fold Use of the Law (Berkhof)

Systematic Theology For quite some time Reformed theologians have, following various texts and nuances in Scripture, said there is a three-fold use of God’s moral law.  Here’s how Louis Berkhof explained it:

It is customary in theology to distinguish a three-fold use of the law.

1. The three defined. We distinguish:

a. A usus politicus or civilis. The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large. This means that from this point of view it cannot be regarded a means of grace in the technical sense of the word.

b. A usus elenchticus or pedagogicus. In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes his tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God’s gracious purpose of redemption.

c. A usus didacticus or normativus. This is the so-called tertius usus legis, the third use of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians.

 Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic Theology (pp. 614–615). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Old Covenant Has Come to an End (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (17 vols.) Hebrews 8:13 says that the Old Covenant is “obsolete”: “When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (NASB).  In this context, the Old Covenant had to do with the priesthood, sacrifices, and Moses’ law (broadly speaking).  The Old Covenant was the covenant God made with Israel after he rescued them from Egypt (Heb. 8:9).

Based on Hebrews 8 and other texts such as Ephesians 2:15-16 and Acts 11:2-10, Reformed theology teaches that the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have been “abrogated” (WCF 19.3).  Furthermore, Reformed theology also says that Israel’s judicial laws in the Old Covenant have “expired together with the state of that people” (WCF 19.4).  This abrogation and expiration is due to the fact that the Messiah has come and enacted a new and better covenant, as Hebrews says so clearly.

I appreciate John Owen’s explanation of Hebrews 8:13.  He noted that some 1st Century Christians believed that the Old Covenant was still in force.  Owen then said that the author of Hebrews “knew that this persuasion was destructive to the faith of the gospel, and would, if pertinaciously adhered unto, prove ruinous to their own souls.”  Therefore the author of Hebrews gives many reasons and examples how and why the Old Covenant is no longer in force.

Owen wrote that God, in his providence, broke in upon and weakened the administration of the Old Covenant by showing that it was “decaying”:

Immediately after the giving of this promise [Jer 31:31 – Heb 8:8ff], the Babylonian captivity gave a total intercision and interruption unto the whole administration of it [the Old Covenant] for seventy years. This, having never before fallen out from the making of it on mount Sinai, was an evident token of its approaching period, and that God would have the church to live without it.

In other words, during the Babylonian captivity the Old Covenant was interrupted.  This showed Israel that it wasn’t going to last forever.  Or we could say that the Old Covenant had built-in limitations and a built-in time limit.  Here’s Owen again:

Upon the return of the people from their captivity, neither the temple, nor the worship of it, nor any of the administrations of the covenant, nor the priesthood, were ever restored unto their pristine beauty and glory. And whereas the people in general were much distressed at the apprehension of its decay, God comforts them, not with any intimation that things under that covenant should ever be brought into a better condition, but only with an expectation of His coming amongst them who would put an utter end unto all the administrations of it, Hag. 2:6–9. And from that time forward it were easy to trace the whole process of it, and to manifest how it continually declined towards its end.

Owen then wrote that no institution of God will ever decay or perish “unless it be disannuled by God himself. Length of time will not consume divine institutions; nor can the sins of man abate their force.  He only that sets them up can take them down.”  Owen ends with this wonderful statement:

All the glorious institutions of the law were at best but as stars in the firmament of the church, and therefore were all to disappear at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness.

You can find these quotes and the entire commentary on Hebrews 8:13 in John Owen, (1854). An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 23, p. 175). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Apart from the Law Sin is Dead

 Romans 7 is a rich text that has some very deep truths about sin and the law.  Some phrases that stick out to me are these: “Sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind...” and “…when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” and finally “…sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom  7:8, 9, 11 NASB).  Herman Ridderbos has some helpful comments on these verses:

It is not the law itself, therefore, which is sin.  But sin avails itself of the law as its starting point, that is to say, sin – here thought of as a personified power – gets its opportunity through the law.  For the law forbids sin.  Consequently, when the law comes on man with its prohibition, sin springs into action and awakens in man the desire for what is forbidden by the commandment.  In that sense it can be said that the desires are ‘by the law’ (v. 5).  Thus it can also be understood that sin is ‘dead’ apart from the law, that is, sin asserts itself in man only when the law comes to him with its prohibitions.  Then sin begins ‘to live’ (v. 9), it stirs from its slumbering, its resistance awakens to the power that is bent on bridling it.

What is written in 1 Corinthians 15:56 applies here as well: ‘the strength of sin is the law.’  Without the law sin would not have been able to make men rebellious and lawless.  For this reason it can also be said that sin, starting from the law, deceives man.  By holding up the commandment to man as the end of his liberty and by promising him life in the transgression of the commandment, sin draws man under its enchantment.  It promises him just that which the law appears to take away, and leads him thus into death.

Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 144.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Law as a Rule of Life

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae Commentary (21 vols.) As long as I can remember I have resonated with the teaching that the law of God is a guide of gratitude for the Christian’s life.  I’ve always liked how the Heidelberg Catechism says that obeying the law is a Christian’s way of saying “thanks” to God for salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Q/A 2, 32).  I also appreciate how the Westminster Confession says that the law isn’t a covenant of works for believers, by which they should seek justification; rather, it is “of great use to them” as a “rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty; it directs and binds them to walk accordingly” (WCF 19.6).  Along with these insights, here are some helpful comments by Charles Simeon on 1 John 2:6 (the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked – NASB).

There are some who deny that the law is to the believer a rule of life. But supposing this error could not be refuted by direct testimony, which it easily and abundantly may, what would the advocates of it gain, if once they admitted, what I suppose no man would deny, that Christ is an example for us to follow? Did not he “fulfil all righteousness,” even to the utmost extent of the moral law? And if he did, and is an example to us, must not we obey the law in the same manner, and to the same extent? We are not indeed to fulfil it for the same ends; because he alone, as the Mediator between God and man, can save men by his obedience unto death: but in all that he did as a man, we are to follow his steps: and if we neglect to do so, we shew, that we have no part or lot in his salvation.

Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae: James to Jude, vol. 20 (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1833), 382–383.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Law and Gospel in the Canons of Dort

I really like how the Canons of Dort talks about the law and the gospel.  It’s found in the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine:

ARTICLE 5
Neither can the decalogue delivered by God to His peculiar people, the Jews, by the hands of Moses, save men. For though it reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet, as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate him from this misery, but, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.

ARTICLE 6
What, therefore, neither the innate understanding nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings [good news] concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015