Pillar Journal

The Blessedness of Christian Law-Keeping

Your new obedience in Christ is your daily pursuit out of gratitude to Him for your great salvation.

Law-keeping blesses believers in many ways. Here I will expound just three major ways it does so:

1. The Law as an Objective Guide to Evidencing Justification

The Puritans taught that the role of good works in the Christian life is to confirm and demonstrate one’s justification. While the Antinomians taught that a Christian must obtain assurance from the testimony of the Spirit (see Rom. 8:16), the Puritans maintained that evidence of one’s justification must also be sought in good works (WCF 18.2). Simon Ford said that the immediate testimony of the Spirit is more easily drowned out by “the questionings of ‘a man’s own cavilling heart,’”1Simon Ford, Spirit of Bondage and Adoption (London, 1655), 233–34, 320. and so “the believer should direct his attention to” the evidence of sanctification in addition to the testimony of the Spirit.2Kevan, The Grace of Law, 210. Robert Traill perceptively noted that “the evidences of a Christian are not his charters for heaven (the covenant of grace contains them); but they are as light, by which a Christian reads his charters.”3Robert Traill, Sermons Concerning the Throne of Grace, in Works (London, 1696), 1:228. George Downame concluded, “Our new obedience or practice of good works is the fruite and end of our redemption.”4George Downame, The Covenant of Grace (Dublin, 1631), 67.

How does a Christian know his good works are good? The Puritans upheld the Law as an objective guide for good works and as a rule for the Christian walk. But “the Antinomians had a great distaste for the use of the Law as a rule of life and held that the only rule for the believer was the impulse of the Spirit within him through the inclination of his own heart.”5Kevan, The Grace of Law, 196. Baxter’s Neonomianism fell into a different error than antinomianism. “Throughout the centuries of Christian thought, it has been recognized by the wisest and deepest thinkers that the right holding together of the requirements of the Law and the liberty of the Spirit is one of the harder tasks in theology” (see also Luther, Galatians, 24). Baxter’s solution to the problem “is too easy…but it is not easy to find support for it in Scripture. Neonomianism fastens on the occurrence of the word ‘law’ in the New Testament, and then proceeds to identify ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ without sufficient reason. After this, it is not a long concept of salvation by human effort.” Kevan, The Grace of Law, 207. But “Law in the heart does not render written Law needless.”6Powell, Christ and Moses, 227. Bunyan’s imagined retort to Formalist and Hypocrisy sums up the Puritan attitude to the Antinomian opinion: “I walk by the Rule of my Master, you walk by the rude working of your fancies.”7John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London, 1678), 40. To put forward the judgment of your own heart in the place of the Law is “to have the Sun follow the Clock,” said Powell. The unstable inclinations of a believer’s heart, with its remaining corruptions, highlighted the need for an objective standard for Christian good works—the Law of God.8“Obedience to commandments…is the way of life which was demanded of being in Christ.” Kevan, The Grace of Law, 202. The use of the Law as an objective guide “both for instruction and in heart-searching, produced in the Puritans those sterling qualities of character for which they have become renowned.”9Kevan, 201. “It was the custom in many Puritan homes to display large sheets, which were frequently headed, ‘Rules for Self-Examination.’” Kevan, 198–99. See also Thomas Taylor, A threefold Alphabet of Rules concerning Christian Practice (London, 1688). Puritans “have sometimes been adversely criticized for their self-scrutiny…. but, as Edward Dowden says, ‘in a time of careless living and declining morals, the error of too scrupulous self-superintendence is not the most grievous error.’” Puritan and Anglican (London, 1900), 20.

2. God’s Acceptance of Our Imperfect Works

The question arose as to how God could accept our good works in view of our spiritual infirmity: “Sin hath so lamed and crippled us, that we shall never perfectly recover our legs while we live,” observed Thomas Gouge.10Thomas Gouge, The Principles of Christian Religion explained to the capacity of the meanest (London, 1645), 228. The Puritans knew God’s Law “still called for a perfection which the believer could not reach [and] that his best works fell far short of legal perfection.”11Kevan, The Grace of Law, 212. Antinomians such as John Eaton tried to solve this problem by teaching that all our works are made perfectly holy and righteous.12Eaton, Honey-combe, 321. But, as Owen argued, it would be against God’s nature to make sinful works holy; the sin of imperfect works must be condemned.13“Whatever is of self, flesh, unbelief (that is, hay and stubble)—that he consumes, wastes, takes away”; but in the time of reckoning and reward, “the saints’ good works,” being of the Spirit, “shall meet them one day with a changed countenance, that they shall scarce know them.” John Owen, Communion with God, in Works (Oxford, 1657), 2:171.

The Puritans taught that God accepts our imperfect obedience when performed in the Spirit and in sincerity: “The chief feature of sincerity is that of the general direction of the believer’s desire and purpose.”14For the Puritans, sincerity is the constitutive quality of evangelical perfection (taught by Richard Sibbes, Edward Elton, John Preston, Thomas Goodwin, Francis Roberts, William Perkins, and many others). Baxter went too far, teaching that sincerity is perfection. Kevan, The Grace of Law, 214. “We are not to be judged by a few actions, and a few paces,” wrote John Preston, “but by the constant tenor of our life.”15John Preston, The New Covenant (London, 1629), 210. Although our works are not sinless, they are “blameless,” for God condescends “through rich grace to crowne weak obedience.” Thomas Blake, A Treatise of the Covenant of God (London, 1653), 111. Jeremiah Burroughs said, “If God sees but anything of his own spirit in thee, he will be sure to take notice of that. If there be but one dust of Gold…God will not loose it, but will find it out.”16Jeremiah Burroughs, The Saints Treasury (London, 1654), 101–102. Antinomians like John Saltmarsh rejected the idea that “God loves us for his own graces in us,” because they continued to confuse justification and sanctification, thinking sanctification was imputed.17John Saltmarsh, “Shadows flying away,” in Reasons for Unitie (London, 1646), 12. Antinomians “were unable to distinguish between legal categories which belonged to justification and experimental categories which belonged to sanctification, and so applied the method of imputation to both.” Kevan, The Grace of Law, 218. The Puritans often explained, however, that “there is a righteousness imputed, and there is a righteousness imparted; the one inherent in Christ, and imputed to us; the other imparted by Christ, and inherent in us.”18Thomas Gataker, The Christian Mans Care (London, 1624), 24. But the Antinomians thought “that anything truly commendable in the believer had to be regarded as the direct work of the Holy Spirit, in the doing of which the believer himself took no part at all” and thus “the conclusion of the believer’s passivity became inescapable.”19Kevan, The Grace of Law, 219. John Eaton says we fulfill the Law perfectly, “not inherently and actively, by our own doing, but because his Sonnes perfect doing all things is objectively and passively so truly in us, that we are made perfectly holy.” Honey-combe, 288. But how can we “do” something “not actively”? Isaac Ambrose recoiled at the thought of such passivity:

Might we still lie in our ivory beds, under no law, under no obligation of doing, no danger of sinning, no broken bones, no terrors, no sense of sorrow for sin, no progress in personal Repentance, Mortification, Sanctification, no care of watchful walking to perfect holiness in the fear of God, no abstaining from worldly lusts, no strictness of conversation, but only believe that Christ hath suffered, and Christ hath done all duties for us, repented for us, mortified lusts for us, walked strictly and holily for us, this were an easie work indeed.20Isaac Ambrose, “The Middle Things,” in Prima, Media, & Ultima (London, 1650), To the Reader.

The Puritans pointed out that one of the dangers of inactivity was, as Robert Bolton said, that “he that endeavors not to be better, will by little and little grow worse and worse.”21Robert Bolton, “Saints Guide,” in A Three-fold Treatise (London, 1634), 40. The Puritans tried to walk a middle path and avoid extremes on both sides of the question of spiritual activity, neither being “Laodicean loiterers”22John Fletcher, Third Check, in Works (London, 1771–1775), 1:391. nor promoting “an activism that bordered on Socinianism.”23Kevan, The Grace of Law, 223. On the one hand, the Puritans held “that the believer’s sanctification in the eyes of God is both active and progressive.”24Kevan, 220. On the other hand, we must “renounce ourselves, and our owne strength, and by a lively faith rest upon the power and promises of God, for the beginning, continuing and perfecting of this worke” that we not “be discouraged by our wants and weaknesses, from undertaking or proceeding in it.”25John Downame, Guide to Godlynesse (London, 1622), 50. The Puritans thus preserved the balance of divine and human spiritual activity in the Christian life as taught by Philippians 2:12– 13.26Kevan, The Grace of Law, 222. Like the Puritans, do you strive to maintain that balance in your personal life?

3. Evangelical Obedience Fulfills the Law

God’s acceptance of evangelical obedience implies that our new obedience to the Law—in and through Christ—establishes and fulfills it. “The obedience of the regenerate is still obedience to Law, whatever change may have taken place in his ability and motive. The Law does not cease to be the Law now that the Christian has come to love it.”27Kevan, 223. As Thomas Goodwin wrote, “All grace is but the copy of the law,” and this Christian obedience is truly a “righteousness of the Law.”28Thomas Goodwin, Mediator, in Works, 5:85–86. “The Puritan insistence on Christian Law-keeping preserved their piety from evaporating into sentiment and fostered that moral virility which must ever be the mark of the redeemed and restored sinner.”29Kevan, The Grace of Law, 223.

Is this your goal as well—that your new obedience in Christ is your daily pursuit out of gratitude to Him for your great salvation through His accursed death on Golgotha’s hill and His intercessory life at His Father’s right hand?

Excerpt From
God’s Grace Shining through the Law
Joel R. Beeke