The Nature of the Moral Law - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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Sometimes Christians often do not think through theological ideas past what its primary function substantiates. They seem to stop short on grasping the nature of a theological “thing.” 21st Century Christendom often falls in the realm of the simple-minded, if mindful at all, especially when it comes to what God requires of them. Give me heaven, but not obedience. Give me the crown, but no cross.
In terms of the moral Law, either first bestowed in the garden to Adam as a means of works-probation, or in the Ten Commandments as a means of tutoring men in sin, Christians believe that the Law was always assigned as means to work for one’s salvation in respect to what God requires. The error that many Christians believe is that the Law was given to men so that they could be justified by it. They then believe that after Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the Law becomes obsolete in the shadow of the grace offered in the Gospel. “We are not under Law, but under grace,” they say. Obviously, this is fallacious. Moses would never have stood before God and argued that by his works he should be justified. In agreement with the Apostle Paul these Christians rightly state that the Law was a tutor until the time of grace, but fail to recognize some of the more important aspects of its nature. They must not only formulate ideas around the application of the Law, but to determine its part in the overall scheme of redemption, they must understand its composition and identity.
The structure of the Law is something Paul certainly understood. His conceptions surrounding the “Law Covenant” are further rooted in Old Testament concepts where the average Christian’s idea surrounding the Law’s nature is usually based on “antiquated ideas” that are bygone, instead of theological foundations that never change. It is true that the New Testament is absolutely necessary in understanding or explaining the Old Testament. But one will never grasp the basics of Christianity in the New Testament until they are firmly grounded, as Paul was, in Old Testament theology. Some bock at this believing that since Paul is the greatest exegete of the Old Testament all one needs is to understand Paul’s letters. However, if that were the case, our Bible would simply contain the letters of Paul and nothing more. This, to the thinking exegete, is preposterous; he knows full well that everything Paul explains in the New Testament has been exegeted from the Old Testament texts in which he was grounded. Until one foundates himself in the Old Testament, there will always be a problem understanding the nature of God and the nature of the Law, which consequently are the same. New Testament concepts surrounding the Law will become blurred at best.
One may helpfully argue that Jesus Christ reveals the nature of the moral Law in the New Testament and that the Christian should reap his conceptions of “Law” there. For instance, Christ expounds the Law in Matthew’s Gospel chapters 5-7. The Sermon on the Mount is a classic example of His teaching of the Law, if not the typification. But is Matthew 5-7 the locale where Jesus is notified of His own conceptions of the Law, or did He obtain His conceptions of the Law in the Old Testament? Though Christ is the Superior Exegete of the Old Testament Law in terms of its application to the Christian, the Christian would be doing a disservice to himself, and to the nature of progressive revelation, to simply rest on Matthew 5-7, as he would on simply resting on the letters of Paul.
There is a faulty consensus among professing believers that once we cross into the New Testament, after the death of John the Baptist, that the Old Testament somehow becomes obsolete in this respect. A good example of this misconception can be seen in the basic writings of many Christian authors who believe that being “born again” or “born from above” is a New Testament concept. However, Jesus rebukes Nicodemas in John 3 for misunderstanding the concepts surrounding being “born again” by virtue that they are Old Testament ideas. In John 3:10 Jesus says, “Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” Without fully realizing the nature of the Old Testament moral Law, New Testament conceptions of the Law will be artificial at best.
Knowing that the Law is commonly misunderstood, the question must be asked, “What is the nature of the Law?” To ascertain the nature of the moral Law one must discover the nature of God. The Law is a substantive reflection of the identity of the Lawgiver. Without one, the other does not exist. God cannot exist apart from the Law, and the Law cannot exist apart from God. Does this sound strange? Is God truly bound by this statement? The reality to this statement is found in equating the Law to the attributes of His person. Here we see that the nature of God determines what is “good” and “right”, and then the will of God necessarily imposes that standard upon His creatures as moral obligations. God requires they reflect the synopsis of what He is as right and good. Thus, the Law of God is defined as the perfect reflection of His nature and will. What it solicits when it is dispensed is to bind all rational creatures to perfect conformity in character and conduct. To contemplate the Law is to reflect on the nature of God. To examine a Christian, one who is continually conformed into the image of God, is to consider the workings of the Law exemplified. Shall this be considered obsolete in the New Testament?
How do we know that contemplating the Law is equal with considering the attributes of God? Simply, God communicates this to us in His Word. In Jeremiah 9:9 He states, “Shall I not visit them for these things? saith the LORD: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?” This same phrase is used in two other instances in the beginning of Jeremiah; in 5:9 and 5:29. The phrase “my soul” is the Hebrew nephesh and is understood as meaning “living being, soul, self, or life.” It is the identity and description God breathed into Adam when He formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed into him “the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) In the context of Jeremiah 9:9, knowing God is a pure spirit (John 4:24), the words revolve around the idea of self, or being. It is a designation here of the attributes or divinity of God as a “self.” It describes who He is: “…shall not my divine nature be avenged on such a nation as this?” is the concept behind the question. Since the Israelites sinned against the description of God’s personality, His holiness, by transgressing the command and standing in want of conformity to the command, God’s divine nature will be avenged on them. His holiness will enact judgment since they did not reflect back to God the brilliance of who He is, and of His infinite worth as “good” and “right.” It is an interesting thought to imagine that the individual attributes of God, so to speak, avenge themselves on transgressors of the Law. It is as though when one sins against God, His attributes cry out for vengeance. Such an example is taken from the Israelites who, instead of reflecting the worthiness of God before the heathen nations, reflected the abominations of the gods of other lands; mute idols that neither act nor think, but are the carnal creation of human and demonic devices. When this occurs, professing believers destroy the image of God in the face of the world, and reflect their own ego instead of God’s identity and attributes. They engage in self-love instead of the love due to their Creator and Redeemer (Matthew 22:37).
The implications of the above are life changing for the Christian; thoughtful meditation on the concept bears this out rather quickly. If God’s nature is reflected in the moral Law, and the moral Law communicates to the Christian the reality of God’s being, then in what way is the moral Law obsolete? Rather, it is substantiated for the Christian not annulled. The Covenant of Redemption that was ratified before the foundation of the world by the Father’s oath is structured in terms of blessing and curse. This covenant is worked out in time and appears in men’s eyes as the Covenant of Grace. However, both Christ in the Covenant of Redemption, and men in relation to the Covenant of Grace are involved in covenants that are directly related to and structured on the moral Law, or Law Covenant. Neither covenant would stand exegetical scrutiny if they were not affixed on the concept of Law, since the obedience of Christ would be made irrelevant, and salvation would be impossible. Christ would not have redeemed His people through active obedience to the Law, and would not be able to lead His people back to the Law in order for them to obey it by His Holy Spirit after their conversion. James authenticates this point when he says that we are to show the world our faith by what we do, not what we say (James 2:14). And knowing that Christ’s commands are not burdensome to the redeemed (1 John 5:3), we take up the Law, not as a means for justification, but as a means for sanctification. Obedience to the Law demonstrates we are covenant people, and conforms us into the image of Jesus Christ, where the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. Neglect of the Law demonstrates we are cursed; it demonstrates we are repulsed by the divine nature of God and do not desire to be conformed into that image. We are then covenant breakers, lawbreakers, and lawless, now under malediction. To say, then, that in the New Testament we are under grace, and not under Law, is to say we have no relation to the attributes of God. This in turn means we have no relation to the attributes of Christ’s divinity, and no relationship to the reason He lived a perfect life in the plan of Redemption. Such a move to Antinomian ideas is contrary to the Gospel and repudiation of it.