The Puritans often addressed the question, What is the place of the Law in the Christian life? We must consider the Puritans on the nature of the Law, the knowledge of it by man, and the relationship between the Law and sin.
Law Is God Exercising His Right to Command
What is the nature of the Law? All sorts of answers to this question may arise if man is seen as the measure of all things. The strong bent to humanism we see today was just as strong in the seventeenth century, and the Puritans rightly met this humanism with a robust doctrine of “the majesty of God, with its corollary in the doctrine of the law of God.”1Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (London: Carey Kingsgate, 1964; repr., Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 50. Quotations from Kevan’s magisterial work will be noted only in footnotes. The Puritans never thought about the Law as an abstract concept but as a part of their “awareness of the exalted Lawgiver: behind the lex (Law) stood the Legislator.” The Law of God is thus “the expression of Divine majesty.”2Kevan, 48. When the pagan nations see the majesty of God’s Law given to Israel, they cannot but see the majesty of the Lawgiver: “For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:7–8). As Anthony Burgess summarized, “Law is law only if God be God.”3Anthony Burgess, The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated (London: A. Miller for Tho. Underhill, 1664), 2:379. The Law is God exercising His supreme will.
The Law is personal to God because it reflects the perfections of His nature.4Kevan, The Grace of Law, 48. Because the Law is inseparable from God’s personal will and glory, it has a permanent quality from man’s creation onward.5Kevan, 47. God’s Law is not like human laws, for when we break a human governor’s law, it does not violate his or her person—but, as Thomas Taylor wrote, “God and his image in the Law, are so straitly united, as one cannot wrong the one, and not the other.”6Thomas Taylor, Regula Vitae, The Rule of the Law under the Gospel (London, 1631), 233. Since the Law is “the immediate expression of His perfections, then whether ‘what God willed was right’ or ‘what was right God willed’ was irrelevant, for they must merge into one and the same thing” (77). The Puritans taught that we do right “from the simple motive of worshipping God in utter obedience” (77). Since sin is the breaking of the Law of God, we should estimate it “not merely by intrinsic wrongness of the action” but by the offense it gives to God’s majesty.7Kevan, The Grace of Law, 251–52. Sin is therefore always a personal affront to God, since the Law “bears the very character of God himself.”8Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 166.
Since the Law is essentially a revelation and statement of God’s will,9Kevan, The Grace of Law, 50. it is never necessary for God to explain Himself, and sometimes, as Thomas Manton noted, God gives “no other account of his law, but this: ‘I am the Lord.’”10Thomas Manton, Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm (London, 1681–1701), 3:172. God’s right to command, however, “is not a doctrine of Divine arbitrariness.” To the Puritans, the Law of God did not make Him deistically remote, but personally near—the same God who has the right to command is the God “whose grace and truth are revealed in Christ.”11Kevan, The Grace of Law, 52.
The Law of God in the Heart of Man
God wrote His Law on the hearts of men when He made us (Rom. 2:14– 15). John Lightfoot said, “Adam heard as much in the garden, as Israel did at Sinai, but onely in fewer words, and without thunder.”12John Lightfoot, Miscellanies, Christian and Judaicall, and others (London, 1629), 182–83. And Vavasor Powell added, “It’s probable he had written in his nature the substance of the Ten Commandments.”13Vavasor Powell, Christ and Moses Excellency (London, 1650), 186. See also Kevan, The Grace of Law, 60. “This in-written Law is the very foundation of conscience”14Kevan, The Grace of Law, 59. and a vehicle of man’s blessedness. The Law was “not burdensome in its original purpose” but “the essence of man’s delight.”15Kevan, 60–61. Richard Baxter said, “It is a contradiction to be happy and unholy.”16Richard Baxter, End of Doctrinal Controversies (London, 1691), 205. John Preston illustrated it more quaintly:
As the flame lives in the oyle, or as the creature lives by its food; so a man lives by keeping the Commandements of God, that is, this spiritual life, this life of grace, it is maintained by doing the Commandements: whereas on the other side, every motion out of the ways of Gods Commandements, and into sin, is like the motion of the fish out of the water, every motion is a motion to death.17John Preston, Sermons: New Life (London: 1631), 53.
Because the Law is an expression of God’s holiness, the nature of the Law is spiritual. “The Law’s demands are inward, touching motive and desire, and are not concerned solely with outward action.”18Kevan, The Grace of Law, 63. Thomas Wilson said, “The spirituality of the Law makes demands on the believer which he is unable to fulfill”; only the Spirit, who is the author of the Law, can help us obey the Law “in some measure of truth and sincerity.”19Thomas Wilson, A Commentarie upon the…Romanes (London, 1614), 220.
When sin came into the world, however, it diminished our knowledge of the Law, weakened our moral ability, and rendered us completely unable to fulfill it.20Kevan, The Grace of Law, 69. The fall in Paradise crushed human strength to obey, “yet the obligation to Obedience remains. We are no more discharged of our duties, because we have no strength to doe it: than a debter is quitted of his bands because he wants money to make payment.”21Kevan, 152. William Pemble, Vindicae Fidei (Oxford, 1625), 91–92. Burgess wrote that God preserved some knowledge of the moral Law within the heart of man to leave men inexcusable and to provide “a ground of conversion,”22Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining (London, 1652, 1654), 337. though “man has no power to convert himself.”23Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis (London, 1646), 94–95.
The Law, Sin, and the Believer’s Imperfections
Many know that the Puritans “took a serious view of sin,” but this attitude grew from an understanding of sin’s “relation to the Law.”24Kevan, The Grace of Law, 107. “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature” (WLC 24). The Puritans taught that the Law and sin are correlatives, for “where no law is, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15). While the Law defines, restrains, and condemns sin, convicting the sinner of his guilt, it also, paradoxically, provokes sin because of man’s corrupted nature (Rom. 7:5, 8).25This provoking function of the Law is an “accidental” contradiction (not by design). “In the unregenerate it ‘doth by accident make these lusts swell higher.’” Thomas Goodwin, An Unregenerate Man’s Guiltiness before God, in Works (London, 1692), 10:64. See also Kevan, The Grace of Law, 81. And yet, the Law still condemns sin and convicts the sinner, not because “of anything inherent in the law” but because “of the evil that is inherent in us.”26Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 165. Edward Elton explained,
Without the true knowledge of the Law, the corruption of nature lies hid, and as it were dead…. Men are ready to soothe up themselves; and to think well of themselves…. They bless themselves, and think they are well and in every good case. The Law of God…makes men see and feel themselves as dead men, and in a most wretched case, by reason of their sins.27Edward Elton, Complaint of a Sanctifyed Sinner, in Three Excellent and Pious Treatises, Part 1 (London, 1618), 86, 89, 95.
The Puritans preached the Law, in what they called “legal preaching,” to awaken men to an awareness of sin for, as Giles Firmin noted, “men may be convinced of sin without the gospel, but not without the Law.”28Giles Firmin, The Real Christian (London, 1670), 51–53. Legal preaching is “the great work that the Ministers of God have to do in their congregations in these times.” Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, 143. In typical Puritan thought, John Flavel wrote, “The Law of God hath a Soul-winning and Heart-Cutting Efficacy,” and until the soul “be wounded for sin, it will never be converted from Sin, and brought effectually to Jesus Christ.”29John Flavel, Method of Grace (London: 1681), 221, 224.
Antinomians such as John Eaton and Tobias Crisp stirred up controversy on the subject of sin in the believer, denying that “his shortcomings [are] to be regarded as sin.”30Kevan, The Grace of Law, 93. As Whitney Gamble summarized, to them, “God’s gracious act of accepting Christ’s mediatorship meant not only that God no longer viewed His people as sinners but also that believers should no longer view themselves as such.”31Whitney Gamble, Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 55. One of the hallmarks of the Antinomians was to erroneously use “the categories of justification when speaking of sanctification.”32Kevan, The Grace of Law, 95–97. To them, “justification eliminated the need for ongoing sanctification” since believers would “automatically…walk in the law.”33Gamble, Christ and the Law, 53. “This doctrine that the justified children of God must be kept from sin, and driven to holy walking for fear of correction and punishments, doth quite mar the true nature of sanctification.” John Eaton, The Honey-combe of Free Justification by Christ Alone (London, 1642), 145. John Eaton was “arguably the first Antinomian.” Gamble, Christ and the Law, 155. “The root of the antinomian fallacy was in the concept of the justification of the believer’s works,” but “it is morally impossible to justify sinful works; God cannot call evil good, or make unjust works just. Sin can never be anything but sin.”34Kevan, The Grace of Law, 99–100.
Walter Cradock insightfully links spiritual depression to its root “because in some sort, even to this day, you mix sanctification with justification.”35Walter Cradock, “Priviledge and Practice of the Saints,” in Gospel Holinesse (London, 1651), 234–35. The Antinomians also spoke of sin as a disease, but it is more than a disease. Sin springs not from weakness but from wickedness.36Kevan, The Grace of Law, 103.
Therefore, the Puritans taught that believers must recognize and humbly confess their indwelling sin as sin.37Kevan, 79. Thomas Goodwin taught that believers often experience that “a Regenerate man is…guilty of more known sins than an unregenerate man,” for the sins of the believer are not only against knowledge, they are also sins “against mercy.”38Thomas Goodwin, Aggravation of Sin, in Works (London, 1637), 4:169, 185, 188. John Ball wrote that after a relapse a believer must recover “by a speedy consideration of what he hath done, renewing his repentance with sorrow and shame, bewailing his sinne before God, reforming his life, and laying hold upon the promise of mercy.”39John Ball, A Short Catechism Contayning the Principles of Religion (London, 1642), 41. Sin is no less sin because it is committed by a believer; so the Christian experience that begins with the cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13) must be continued by the prayer, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults” (Ps. 19:12).40Kevan, The Grace of Law, 79–80.
The application to us today is obvious: we must acknowledge and confess our sins as wickedness, not excuse or explain them away as weakness. Sin must remain sin to us. Is that true for you as a justified, assured believer? Is sin “exceeding sinful” to you (Rom. 7:13)?
God’s Grace Shining through the Law
Joel R. Beeke