Pillar Journal

The Place of the Law in the Christian Life

As the demands of God’s Law are unchangeable, its threatenings, promises, and chastisements are still active for the believer.

As seen above, the Law’s end is in Christ’s work, but the Law is not abolished, nor does the experience of God’s grace detract from the authority and permanence of the Law of God. So, how did the Puritans work out the implications of this in Christian experience? First, the human obligation to obey God continues in the gospel. Second, the Puritans press that the proper motive in obeying God’s Law is that He commanded it. Finally, the demands of the Law are unchanged, along with its threatenings, rewards, and chastisements.

Humans Are Obligated to Obey God

The bedrock of the Puritans’ conviction that the Law must be the Christian’s rule of life was rooted in our Creator-creature relation to God. Grace does not lessen, but increases, human obligation. “The challenge to God’s sovereignty contained in man’s fall must be matched in his restoration by the renewed recognition of that sovereignty.”1Kevan, The Grace of Law, 173; see also Stephen Charnock, Discourse on the existence and attributes of God, in Works (London, 1682), 2:494. This was the fertile ground that nurtured in the Puritans “one of their outstanding characteristics”: the holy fear of God. The Puritans dreaded impiety: “We are not to consult whether the will of God is to be obeyed or no,” wrote William Ames, “for such a consultation cannot be free from impiety: but we are to enquire only to this end, that we may understand what is the will of God.”2William Ames, Conscience, with the Power and Cases thereof (London, 1639), 4:25 As Samuel Bolton put it, “There were an impossibility of having one sin forgiven, as long as one sin is unforsaken.”3Samuel Bolton, The Sinfulness of Sin (London, 1646), 37. Therefore, we should obey God, in holy fear, because He commands us to do so, and should be careful not to take license as liberty.4Samuel Rutherford, A Survey of the Spirituall Antichrist, Part 2 (London, 1648), 93.

“One of the most established Puritan convictions” is “the continuance of the believer’s moral obligation to fulfil the law.”5Kevan, The Grace of Law, 193. It is unthinkable that grace should abolish the Law. When God in Christ became our Savior, He did not cease to be our Sovereign. In fact, grace increases our obligation to obey the Law of God.6Kevan, 251–53.

Obeying the Law because God Commanded It

The Antinomians rejected the concept of commandment. They held that “to serve God because of commandment to do so was legalistic and unspiritual.”7Such Antinomians were John Eaton, Robert Towne, and John Saltmarsh. Kevan, 167. There is “no Moses now,” and so, if we perform actions merely as commanded, we are brought into bondage. We would sympathize with this statement if the “Law as a covenant” were in view, but most of these Antinomian discussions did not distinguish the “Law as commandment and the Law as covenant.”8Kevan, 169. The Puritan reply to these discussions was clear: Burgess said that we must serve God as those who are “admonished, instructed, and commanded by the Law of God.”9Burgess, Vindiciae Legis, 51, 277. John Bunyan complained of the “ranters” who pretended they “could do what they would and not sin” and exclaimed, “Oh! These temptations were suitable to my flesh.”10John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London, 1666), 21. Baxter explained that “most of the prophane people in every parish where yet I have liv’d, are Antinomians…. And almost all the successe of my labours which hath so much comforted me, hath been in bringing men from natural Antinomianism or libertinism, to true repentance and saving faith in Christ.”11Richard Baxter, Rich; Baxters Apology against the Modest Exceptions of Mr. T. Blake (London, 1654), preface. The Puritans “affirmed it to be one of the marks of true believers that they perform, or refrain from, an action ‘when they see that it is the commandment of him who loveth them most dearly.’”12Kevan, The Grace of Law, 183; Richard Rogers, preface to Seven Treatises (London, 1603), see also 79. As Burgess noted, “Truly good actions are those that are performed because they are commanded. Do not therefore this or that, because this will agree with thy ends…but do it because God hath required it.”13Burgess, Spiritual Refining, 70.

The Demands of the Law Are Unchanged

The demands of the Law have not been altered by grace. William Strong wrote, “It is true, that perfect obedience…is required of us, as well as of Adam…but yet in the Covenant of Grace it is not required as the righteousness of the Covenant”—but rather as a rule of walking.14William Strong, A Discourse of the Two Covenants (London, 1678), 139. Taylor noted that if we see that Christ is the Lawgiver, we will realize that believers are not outside of “the compass of the Law for instruction, for subjection…in so far as it is written within their hearts.”15Taylor, Regula Vitae, 31–32. For Christ “will be Savior to none but those to whom he is a Master,” concluded John Preston.16John Preston, “Of Faith,” in Breast-plate of Faith and Love (London, 1630), 42.

As the demands of God’s Law are unchangeable, its threatenings, promises, and chastisements are still active for the believer. Believers need many goads, such as threatenings and rewards, to keep them motivated to piety because they have “much flesh and corruption in [them].”17Burgess, Vindiciae Legis, 14. As one can imagine, Antinomians repudiated the idea of threatenings, promises of reward, and chastisements, but “such threatenings as are made to believers are evangelical in purpose,”18Kevan, The Grace of Law, 188. and promises of reward, said William Perkins, “are not made to the worke, but to the worker”19William Perkins, Epistle to the Galatians (Cambridge, 1604), 274. as expressions of “God’s love of complacency towards His obedient child.”20Kevan, The Grace of Law, 189. “Penalty and reward spring from the same root, but their reasons are different. The penalty is by due, but the reward is by bounty.”21Kevan, 190; see also Coxe, Of the Covenants, 25. Similarly, divine chastisement for our sin is not forensically vindicatory but an expression of fatherly displeasure toward the sins of His children.

The Puritans “lived in an awareness of the commanding authority of God, and this gave glory and dignity to all their actions. The Antinomian minimizing of this—although with the intention of magnifying grace— tended to obscure the divine perfections and thus to destroy the glory of God.”22Kevan, 176. In this context, the application of the Law’s place in our Christian life today should be obvious: without the conviction that Law must be obeyed because it is Law, we cannot establish a biblical doctrine of sanctification. “Only the heart that can say ‘I delight to do thy will, O my God,’ can be adjudged to be truly converted and godly.”23Kevan, 183; see also Psalm 40:8. Does that delight resonate in your soul as well? Can you say with Paul, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22)?

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