WE AFFIRM that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.
WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.
The same God who gave us the gospel has also given us his law. This point can be easily overlooked by Christians who are concerned to be centered on the gospel. That concern is appropriate and those believers who have lived through seasons where the gospel was neglected or at best assumed are understandably sensitive to anything that would compete with its pride of place in the life of the church. However, we can never honor God’s gospel by despising his law.
In fact, lack of clarity about the nature and significance of the law inevitably results in a lack of clarity or even confusion about the gospel. A clear understanding of God’s law provides the foundation for the proclamation of the gospel. I agree with John Bunyan, who wrote, “The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Savior.”
Article 4 of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel is vital because it gets at the foundation of much that is being erroneously advocated under the banner of social justice. John Newton wisely observed,
Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes. This is the root of self-righteousness, the grand reason why the Gospel of Christ is no more regarded, and the cause of that uncertainty and inconsistency in many, who, though they profess themselves teachers, understand not what they say, nor whereof they affirm.
The God who saves us is the same God who created us and who rules us. He has revealed his will to us in his law. Our duty, therefore, can only be defined in terms of what he has commanded.
Obviously, Scripture reveals various types of commandments that have come from God. To rightly understand our relationship to all that has been commanded we must make distinctions, as Paul clearly does in Romans 2:25-27.
Historically, interpreters from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin to the Puritans to the Westminster & Second London Confessions of Faith have all recognized a three-fold division within the commandments in order to understand God’s law. As John MacArthur helpfully explains,
“We can divide the law of God into three parts: the moral law, the judicial law, and the ceremonial law. The moral law was for all men, the judicial law was just for Israel, and the ceremonial law was for Israel’s worship of God. So the moral law encompasses all men, it is narrowed down to Israel in the judicial law, and to the worship of Israel toward God in the ceremonial law.”
It is that moral law that the statement affirms as God’s unchanging standard of righteousness. In other words, God and God alone has the authority to tell us what constitutes righteousness and, conversely, what sin is.
This is vital for Christians to keep in mind as we think about how people should live. We are not free to live only for ourselves. We were made for God and must love him supremely above all else. Along with that we must love our neighbors–our fellow image-bearers–sincerely.
What does such love look like? It looks like obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and Paul writes, “For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9).
What does sin look like? Violation of God’s commandments (1 John 3:4). Before we call anyone to repentance we should be clear that the offense in view is actually a violation of God’s law. And before we start justifying ourselves by thinking that the moral law only governs our outward actions, we must remember the strictness and spirituality of that law as explained by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Both the physical act of adultery as well as the lustful, sexual desires are violations of the seventh commandment.
Though the law of God was never designed to provide a way of salvation for sinners, it does show us what God requires. That remains just as true for Christians as for unbelievers. It also helps us to understand and appreciate all that Jesus has provided for us by his life of obedience and death in behalf of lawbreakers.
It is impossible for people to live without standards of right and wrong. When God’s standard that he has revealed in his law is ignored, neglected or assumed, you can be sure that other, man-made standards will be enforced. That is why J. Gresham Machen’s words are as true now as they were when he wrote them in the early part of the twentieth century:
A new and more powerful proclamation of [the] law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law…. So it always is; a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail.