Heidelberg 92: What Is The Law Of God? (2)

Law-ScrollIn part 1 we considered the abiding validity of God’s moral law as revealed first in creation, then at Sinai, and as re-stated under the new covenant or New Testament by our Lord Jesus and the apostles. We also distinguished the moral law from other types of laws within the 613 commandments given under Moses. Failure to distinguish that which is natural, i.e., that which is built into creation (i.e., the fabric of human existence) from that which was intentionally temporary makes it very difficult to see that the moral law is permanent.

The moral law is also permanent because it reflects the nature and character of God. Ours is not only an antinomian (lawless) age, it is also a nominalist age, i.e., a time in which many doubt that there is any sort of fixed relationship between signs (e.g., words) and established truths and realities. In the wake of French Deconstructionism it is widely assumed, especially by Millennials, who have been raised after Deconstructionism, that there can be no transcendental, objective Truth that is true for you and for me in the same way, at the same time or even for all times and places. They have been taught that all truth can be only subjective, that “truth” (scare quotes intended) is a social construction that can and must be deconstructed. Such a conviction necessarily makes one suspicious about truth claims. This view of the world suspects that behind transcendental truth claims lies an ulterior motive such as a desire for control, authority, or power.

Of course this suspicion is transient and selective. If all truth is nothing more than a social construction and a cloak for some sort of power grab then we may trust the deconstructionist either, may me? What are they after? Who deconstructs the deconstructionists? Then where are we? Nihilism, despair, and desperation. As much as those three nouns describe the spirit of this age they are not Christian ways of thinking nor are they Christian ways of interpreting authors and texts. They are not even reasonable ways of approaching the world and no one actually lives this way. It is nothing but a game. STOP means stop and we all know it.

So, in the world as we actually experience it, as God ordered it, there are fixed truths, he has ordained language to communicate that truth and even himself. One of the chief places where God reveals himself is in his law. When the moral law says, “You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not take the name of the Yahweh your God in vain” it reflects God’s holiness. God says of himself, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut 4:24; see also Deut 9:3).Leviticus 11:44 reveals to us something of God’s holiness: “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” God is the antithesis of that which is common. He is pure. He is clean. He is righteous. The Levitical laws (e.g,, 10:10; “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean… “) distinguishing between clean and unclean, even though typological (illustrative of future realities) help us to understand the difference between a holy God and us, a fallen, unholy people. The God who redeemed Israel out of Egypt with plagues and through the Red Sea is the God who redeems us graciously and calls us to holiness and purity (James 4:8). According to James, being “double-minded” is the antithesis of purity toward God. The writer to the Hebrews sounds like an Old Testament prophet when says, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 9:3) but he was writing to New Testament believers about very real New Testament realities.

In short, God’s moral law is not some mere convention, some arbitrary word from God that bears no relation to who and what he is. Of course, we do not and, by nature, cannot know God as he is in himself. The Triune God is, in himself, hidden from us (Deus absconditus; Ps 10:5; Isa 55:8, 9; John 1:18; 14:8–11). Nevertheless, what God says to us about himself is true. Our Lord Jesus said, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). There is a divinely ordained, stable relationship between God’s Word, in this case his law, and who and what God is. His law is what he wants us to know of his character and attributes relative to his moral will for us.

God’s law also reflects our original and fallen condition. In Belgic Confession art. 14 we confess that Adam, and we in him, “transgressed the commandment of life….” The triune God came to Adam as the first head of all humanity, whom he had created in righteousness and true holiness and able to keep the law.

We believe that God created man from the dust of the earth and made and formed him in his image and likeness—good, just, and holy; able by his own will to conform in all things to the will of God (BC 14).

The fall is a great mystery. How could righteous Adam fall? Why would he freely choose to disobey? These are questions to which there are no ready answers in this life and we should resist the temptation to give them, since those answers and most often led to mischief and even to heresy. Still, we confess that Adam was able to obey. We were able to obey. Yet, tragically, we chose death over life and glory.

The law was a covenant of works, not a covenant of grace. The “commandment of life” was “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). It was a commandment of life because, if Adam kept the commandment he would have entered into eternal life (see also Heidelberg 6, 9; Rev 22:14). The condition of the covenant was, to use the words of Christ, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). His status before God was conditioned upon his obedience to God’s holy law.

The law also reveals our own state after the fall. As Paul says, the law has not changed in its character. Is the law sin? “By no means!” (Rom 7:7).

Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once “alive” apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died (Rom 7:7-9; ESV).

After the fall, the law is “not for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine…(1 Tim 1:9-10; ESV)

Notice how Paul again walks us through the Ten Commandments and applies them to us. His regular use of the Decalogue, as we noted last time, shows us that we may not say that the Ten Commandments are “not for today,” i.e., no longer in force as the standard of Christian ethics.

Paul says the law was added at Sinai “because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (Gal 3:19). This is why we say in Heidelberg 3 that we learn the greatness of our sin and misery not from the gospel nor from grace but from the law.

This is why it is perfectly right and faithful to Reformed theology, as Mr Murray taught us, to distinguish between the principle of law and the principle of gospel or grace: “…the purity and integrity of the gospel stands or falls with the absoluteness of the antithesis between the function and potency of law, one the one hand, and the function and potency of grace, on the other” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 186).

When Mr Murray wrote of “potency” he was thinking of “power” or what the law is able to do relative to what the gospel is able to do. One of the first things (sometimes referred to as the “first use of the law”) is to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery. Again, Mr Murray wrote:

Recognition of this datum of awful sanctity, and republication of it with conviction and authority is the only path of repentance and restoration. As we recognize the awful sanctity that surrounds the law, we shall certainly be crushed with a sense of our own hell-deserving guilt and hopeless inability. We shall certainly be constrained to cry out, “Woe is me for I am undone.” “Surely I am more brutish than any man and I have not the understanding of a man.” (Isa. 6:5; Prov 30:2). But in that condition there falls upon our ears and into our hearts the sweet news of the gospel, the gospel of a crucified and risen Redeemer and Lord. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3;13). We shall be constrained to come to Calvary.” (John Murray, “Sanctity of the Moral Law” in Collected Works of John Murray vol. 1.”

Here he was following in the broad and consistent Reformed tradition, which has been documented many times here. Both principles are reconciled in God even though they remain distinct to us.

Finally, the because God’s law is grounded in God himself, because it is an appropriate reflection of his nature and character, it is justly the pattern of the Christian life. This is the pattern we see in Psalm 40. The needy sinner cries out to God for salvation (v. 1), which God graciously gives—it was he who caused us to see that we were blind and in danger, in a “pit of destruction (v. 2)”—and in response to God’s free grace to us, in Christ, the believer says, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (v. 8).

Ours is a selectively skeptical age. The Deconstructionist asks us to read his text the way he intends it to be understood but to deconstruct everything else. In that way, he is a literary vandal. The believer, however, is selectively critical. He accepts God’s Word, he receives it, and trusts it implicitly but, on the basis of God’s sufficient word (sola Scriptura) he sits in judgment over all other claims to authority.

Next time: the three uses of God’s law.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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