‘The Grace of Law’ Deuteronomy 4:1-14 March 8, 1992

As you are well aware, some parts of the Bible’s teaching are more difficult than others. Christians of goodwill differ in their opinion and, though centuries have come and gone, still these differences remain in the church. These same doctrines, however, are also often some of the most important teachings of Holy Scripture, around which revolve some of the Bible’s most solemn summonses and warnings and to which are attached some of its most wonderful promises. So it is not possible, as some have thought, that in the interests of unity Christians should simply set such questions aside and think about them no more.

We have such a question, such an issue, such a debate before us this morning. It is this: what is the place of the law of God in the life of God’s people? Once a person becomes a Christian, once he is a free man in Christ, once he is no longer under law but under grace as the principle of his life, what is his relationship to the law of God, to the ten commandments, and to all the other commandments of God in the Bible?

There is very little disagreement about the role of the law in the life of a person before he becomes a Christian. As Paul says in a number of different ways, through the law comes the knowledge of sin, or the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. The law serves salvation by showing a person that he or she cannot satisfy the requirements of God’s justice and holiness by his or her own effort. The law not only requires perfect obedience to a great many commandments, each and every one of which we have broken countless times and continue to break every day, but it implacably threatens law-breakers with death and judgment. The law thus makes sinners despair of saving themselves and makes them ready to trust Christ instead for their peace with God.

So far, so good. But what of the person who is now a Christian? He is right with God through the righteousness which Christ has given him as a gift. What is the law now to him or to her? Do Christians have to live according to the law of God? And to that question, Christians give different answers.

I know very well that I am generalizing here, but it does seem to me that there are largely three positions one can take with regard to this question, though, no doubt, with many different shades of emphasis and interpretation.

In the first place, there are Christians, I mean professing Christians, who are legalists. I realize that that may seem to be an oxymoron, a self-contradiction, to call anyone a Christian legalist, but there are multitudes of them in the Christian church. Be sure you understand what legalism is. Legalism is not believing that the law is important; it is not even believing that the law must be obeyed. Legalism is the doctrine that we are saved by obeying the law. You will hear today people who think we should obey the law called ‘legalists.’

Legalism is the natural theology of human beings, the native soteriology — doctrine of salvation — of fallen, sinful mankind. Legalism makes men and women their own Savior, makes them equal partners with God. He may establish the rules, but by keeping them or failing to keep them, their destiny lies in their own hands. For their salvation, God depends on them. That does not sound anything like the gospel, like the salvation by grace which the Bible teaches, but, nevertheless legalists abound in Christian churches. Being so natural to our hearts, it is not surprising that the legalist principle is always seeping into the church and needs always to be guarded against. The church returns to legalism like a dog to its vomit. In a Christian form legalism is usually Christ and our obedience to the law. Christ is not denied altogether but our obedience becomes the decisive factor in salvation.

I don’t know how many times over the years I have spoken with folk who claimed to be Christians, who would have — and sometimes did — take great umbrage at the suggestion that they were not, who, nevertheless, sooner or later let it slip that they thought they would get to heaven because they paid their taxes, went to church, were baptized, and were generally nice to people — the latter claim, in most cases, no doubt a wild exaggeration. They were not trusting Christ and his righteousness which was theirs by faith, they were trusting their good works, or their doing the right things, or their keeping God’s commandments. They were legalists. There are so-called Christian theologians today who teach that folk who are nice enough, good enough, even though they don’t have a living faith in Jesus Christ, can still go to heaven. They are legalists. Contrary to Paul’s thundering declaration, they believe that by the works of the law some folk will be justified.

Sometimes this legalism ‘is latent, lies beneath the surface and masks itself behind evangelical sounding words; sometimes it comes to the surface as it did so often in Israel in the OT, and among the Jews of Jesus’ ministry and that of the Apostle Paul, and often subsequently in the church. Indeed, many of the great moments in church history, such as the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the Great Awakening of the 18th century were simply recoveries of the gospel of grace from the Christian sounding legalism into which most of the church had drifted.

As antithetical as it may be to the message of the Bible, the Christian church is full of people who think their salvation is a matter of them doing enough of the right things enough of the time. That is legalism.

In the second place, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, are Christians who deny that they have any obligation to keep the law of God. They are, they say, no longer under the law. These are what are called, in Christian theology, antinomians. Antinomian means ‘against the law’ that is, against the law as a continuing rule of life for believers. Now, the antinomians as a rule are not saying that Christians can go out and lie, steal, and murder. The doctrine is that Christians ought to tell the truth not because God commands it, but rather because of the inner principle of love for God and man which they have within them because they are Christians. They make a sharp distinction between obedience and love as a principle of life. If something is done out of obedience to a commandment, it seems to them that it cannot be done out of love. So Christians are done with the law and yet will live holy lives on a different principle. That is the claim of the antinomians. On the other hand, it needs to be said that antinomianism comes in a variety of forms, and some antinomian authors seem to come very near saying that Christians can lie, steal, and cheat with impunity, because, being in Christ, all their sins are forgiven. Most antinomians also, while they would be against murder and adultery, have little interest in keeping the Lord’s Day holy, or tithing their income, or doing any of those other acts which the law commands but which they themselves do not feel that love requires.

In the third place and lying between these two extremes, between legalism which makes obedience to God’s law the principle of salvation instead of grace and antinomianism which denies any place to the law of God in the Christian life is what I believe and what the Reformed faith has always taught to be the Bible’s own doctrine. The Bible teaches that the law has several uses. Its first use is to prove to us that we need a Savior. But, once we are saved, it serves another purpose: to show us how we ought to live out our love and gratitude to God. This is the view that law is the servant of love. Law is not antithetical to love as antinomians think. It can be and should be love’s servant. Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments!’ Christians, according to our teaching, keep the commandments of God, not in order to be saved — that would be legalism and not the gospel of grace. No, they keep the law because they have been saved by grace and wish to live a life which glorifies God. The law of God shows them the way.

As Ralph Erskine put it:                  

When once the fiery law of God

Has chased us to the gospel road;

Then back unto the holy law

Most kindly gospel grace will draw.

God gives the law to his children to keep, because as a wise parent he wants his children to live in a way that is safe, and healthy, and fruitful. And his children obey their Father in heaven because they love him and want to please him and because they trust him to give wise commandments. This is clearly the view of the law which is taught in the passage we read for our text this morning. The Lord very definitely tells his people that they must obey his commandments. He tells them that it will go well with them if they do and not if they do not.

Now, before I go any further, let me remind you that the NT is full of passages like this. There are those who claim that this kind of stress on obedience to commandments and keeping the law of God belongs to Moses and the Old Testament but Christ delivered us from this bondage in the New Testament.

But the reason why that viewpoint — even though it is naturally very attractive, after all, who wants to have to keep commandments! — the reason why that viewpoint has never won over the church is precisely because the NT itself has so much to say about obedience to God’s commandments — how God requires it and how true Christians will practice it — that it has never seemed possible to drive a wedge between the OT and the NT on this point.

Jesus said explicitly that not one jot or tittle of the law will fall away until all is fulfilled. He told his disciples that if they loved him they would keep his commandments. Paul said that, far from abolishing the law, his doctrine of justification by faith rather established the law. He taught that Christ redeemed us so that the righteous requirements of the law might be met in us who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit. He taught that the difference between the unsaved person and the one renewed by the Spirit of God is precisely this that the ‘sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.’ Elsewhere he says, for example, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God. In John’s first letter we are taught: ‘this is how we know that we are born of God: by loving God and carrying out his commandments.’ Many of the commandments are explicitly repeated in the NT as the continuing obligation of God’s people, as, for example, in Ephesians 6:2 when Paul commands the children of the church to ‘honor their fathers and mothers’ which, he goes on to say, ‘is the first commandment with a promise.’ This is just a smattering of a very large number of NT texts which could be cited to demonstrate that whatever we think about the law and about Christians needing to obey it, the issue is posed just as definitely in the NT as in the OT.

Now, back to Deuteronomy 4 and its view of the law and the law for the children of God. I want to say but two things among the many which might be said. Two things which together go a long way toward showing why Christians should love the law of God and not chafe under it, should love obedience and never resent the obligation laid upon them to keep the commandments of God.

First, here, as everywhere else in the Bible, the obedience being asked for is obedience to their heavenly Father. I mean this. The obedience which Israel is here summoned to give to God, is not for the purpose of making them God’s children, it is not for earning salvation. This obedience they owe to God because God has saved them and because they are already his children. Notice how throughout the chapter, beginning with v. 2, the law is referred to as ‘the commands of the Lord your God.’ They are already God’s people. And in v. 7, Moses refers to the way that the Lord is near his people to hear and answer their prayers.

It makes all the difference in the world whether commandments are being obeyed to earn God’s approval and acceptance or whether commandments are being kept because one has already been graciously given God’s approval and acceptance. The latter is the case here, very clearly. Israel did not receive the law of God at Mt. Sinai until after she had been delivered on eagles’ wings from her bondage in Egypt. Salvation comes first, then obedience; grace first, then the believer’s grateful response to God’s goodness.

What is more, of course, Deuteronomy will make completely clear that obedience has nothing to do with the earning of salvation, does not even earn the continuance of salvation, because believers, sinners that they are and remain, fail to keep God’s law all the time. That is why God’s forgiveness is always being given anew to his people. Many of the sacrifices of OT worship were, as we will see later in the book, appointed to be offered by the people when they had sinned and were enactments of God’s forgiveness being given again to them. The saints in the OT knew very well that they couldn’t earn God’s favor; that they were sinners through and through. In the Psalms they are always acknowledging their sin, always pleading for more forgiveness, always trusting themselves to God’s grace and love. Their hope was in a God who delights to show mercy. It was not in their own frail, fitful, and profoundly imperfect obedience.

Parents, you do not tell your children that if they obey you, you will let them become part of your family and they will become your children. No, you tell them that they should obey you because they are your children and it is right that they should obey their parents. Well, it is right that we should obey our heavenly father who saved us from our sins and made us to be at peace with him and to be his own children now and forever.

The obedience required of believers in the Bible, in the OT and the NT is not unto life, it is from life. It is not in hopes of becoming the children of God, it is because God has, in his grace and mercy through Christ, made us his children. There is a very firm statement of the necessity of God’s people obeying his commandments here in Deuteronomy 4, but it has nothing to do with legalism it has to do with what is fit and right in the family of God; the family which God’s grace and God’s love and Christ’s life and death has called into being in the world.

Now the second thing to say about this obedience being called for from God’s people is that here, as everywhere else in the Bible, the law is God’s good gift and blessing to his people. Many people have an almost visceral reaction to the idea of being made to keep commandments. They will speak of the Mosaic law as if it were come galling yoke, some terrible burden that those poor benighted people had to stagger under all through life. But the saints in the Bible never thought so. They said such things as ‘Oh, how love I thy law; it is my meditation all the day.’ And ‘If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.’ And ‘He has revealed his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation. Hallelujah.’ And ‘It pleased the Lord for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious.’ It is the same in the NT. Paul reminds his readers that the law of God is holy, just, and good and John reminds us similarly that ‘This is love for God, to obey his commands, and his commands are not burdensome.’ That is, while some may think they are a burden, in fact, they are a boon. [Ernest Kever’s The Grace of Law – God’s gift, kindness, blessing.]

I don’t deny that an unbeliever may find the law of God burdensome. Having no love for God and no eyes to see the true state of affairs, he or she chafes under the obligation to do what he or she does not want to do. But it is to be utterly different for the Christian. As Erskine again put it in his Gospel Sonnets:

A rigid master was the law, Demanding brick, denying straw;

But when with gospel tongue it sings, It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

Moses makes this point emphatically here. In vv. 6 and 8 he says that living by the commandments of God will make this people wise and understanding, so wise as to be the envy of their neighbors. And that is the truth about God’s law. It is not some set of unreasonable and onerous requirements which God imposes upon us simply to test our loyalty or fortitude. No, God’s law is his wisdom, his instructions for how human life should be lived if it is to be lived aright. It is God’s fatherly counsel to his children so that they might live happily and fruitfully and safely.

If you buy a new car you find an owner’s manual in the glovebox. If you operate your car according to the instructions in that manual you will get many years of good service from it. But, it you break all of those rules, if you hitch up a plow to it and use it as a tractor in the back 40, soon it will be a useless heap of junk. Well, the law of God, is our heavenly Father’s owner’s manual for human life. If you want life, full and rich, live it by God’s law. The tragedy of the unbeliever is that, in his rebellion against God, he will not and cannot submit himself to God’s law and so lives as human life was not meant to be lived. Nothing so perfectly and poignantly demonstrates the abiding authority of God’s law as the misery which eventuates when it is disobeyed.

Find me a commandment obedience to which does not enrich our lives, and make them more useful to others, more beautiful, more pure, more secure. Today people think that being obliged to keep commandments is the antithesis of being free. But it is not so. No man or woman is more a prisoner than he or she who will not live by the law and commandments of God. Let me illustrate.

I would love to be able to play the piano. I would love to be able to sit down at the piano and play with perfect freedom whatever piece, whatever hymn I chose. But how does one acquire that freedom at the piano? One acquires it by learning the rules and by practicing the piano according to those rules until to play in that way is second nature. There are laws governing the fingering, governing the key signature, the time, and all the rest. And only the one who masters those laws and learns to play by them is truly free at the piano.

Life is the same way. God made it to be lived in a certain way, made it to be good and rich and full and beautiful only when lived a certain way. In our day, more than other days, we have learned that freedom from law, especially the law of God, is a terrible bondage; that freedom to do drugs is death; that freedom from the laws of finance is bankruptcy; that sexual freedom is AIDS. True freedom is a glorious thing, it is the liberty to live life to the full, to be all that we have been created to be. God made men to be truly free — but only in that way — all other supposed freedom — all of man’s casting away of constraints and denying of God’s law is finally cruel bondage! And the way of freedom and of fulness of life, is the way of obedience to God’s law.

There are some of you whose lives are but a pale shadow of what they could so beautifully and gloriously be for God, for others, and for yourself, but you are not keeping God’s commandments; you seem to think that you know better than your heavenly Father what you ought to do. You are being very foolish and it is very sad to see a life squandered that could be so fine.

I want you all to love God’s law. I want you to think of it as his wisdom and as his gift to you. I want you to think of his commandments as his Fatherly counsel to you — the kind of counsel you godly parents sit down and give to your children when you tell them how to live if they want to be happy and holy. I want you to think that nothing would be wiser for you, nothing lead to a richer life, than that you should with real zeal and scrupulous attention to detail, keep the commandments of God, every one of them: laws governing your time, your money, your relationships, your responsibilities in the church, in your family, and in the world. Every one of them is the path to God’s best and highest and happiest.

Do you think that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, would give you bad or unmerciful or arbitrary and unnecessary laws? He loves you. Just as you command your little ones not to touch the stove because you love them, he has given his children commands because he loves them and wants the best for them. That is the Bible’s doctrine of the law of God in the Christian life. It is a gift of God’s love to his children whom he has saved by grace. And obedience is our response of love to a God who has not only delivered us from the wrath to come by the death of his Son, but has given us such wise and sound counsel that our lives might be rich and full and good. God has given his laws to us and laid us under obligation to keep them, because we are his children and he loves us and wants the very best for us.

It is high time that Christians, in the spirit of the gospel, came back again with the vengeance of love, to the law of God and began practicing it faithfully and scrupulously for love’s sake. If we did, I have no doubt that the people round about would soon say, ‘Surely this is a wise and understanding people.’