Heidelberg 115: The Three Functions Of The Law In The Christian Life

board-of-educationIn the ancient world a teacher (a pedagogue) was not your friend nor your therapist. He almost a legal figure whose job it was to see that you had done your lessons properly, that you made memorized your vocabulary and paradigms and finished your translation (e.g., from Latin into English). This is why Paul described the law as a “tutor” (παιδαγωγός; Gal 3:24). By common law (still in effect today), the teacher acts in loco parentis, in place of one’s parents. The traditional assumption was that sensible parents would discipline their children with corporal punishment. That is almost certainly the assumption behind Hebrews 12:7 when it says, “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline…?”  So, acting in that capacity, a teacher would commonly spank a student who had failed to hit the mark. It was not that long ago that a teacher or a vice-principal in the USA could turn a disobedient student over his knee and administer a paddling. It was called corporal punishment. To date it is banned in 31 states. Corporal punishment was certainly in practice when I was in grammar school. My first school principal had a switch and she was not afraid to use it and I certainly deserved what I got. The knowledge that our Jr High School vice-principal had a paddle (in which holes had been drilled to improve aerodynamics) helped to keep us in line. Whatever abuses have occurred, and doubtless they have occurred, the move to abolish corporal punishment generally is a symptom of triumph of the therapeutic over the forensic. Whatever one’s view of corporal punishment it is clear from Holy Scripture that God is not a therapist. He is a judge and a Father and his law is a reflection of his unbreakable, immutable righteousness.

As we saw under Heidelberg 114, even though believers are no longer under the law for justification and salvation, part of our ongoing restoration into the image of Christ (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10) is learning to delight in God’s law (Ps 119:70, 97). Nevertheless, as Paul recognized in Romans 7, there remains a persistently difficult relationship between the justified, saved sinner and God’s holy law. Thus we confess

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life (Heidelberg Catechism).

Sometimes we are given the impression that in light of our free justification and our union with Christ our relation to the law is so transformed that it no longer convicts us of sin. Some modern Reformed writers have been known to suggest that it is a distinctively Lutheran doctrine to say that the law always accuses (lex semper accusat). To be sure this language is found the Lutheran confessions and in that form one finds it principally in Lutheran writers (e.g., Melanchthon used it about 5 times in works) but one does find Reformed writers saying very similar things. Martin Bucer (1491–1551) used similar language in his massive commentary on Romans and Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) used similar language in his 1579 commentary on Romans.

Here the catechism first reflects on the elenctic or correcting (2 Tim 3:16) or convicting function of the law in the Christian life. The law remains the law and we remain sinners. “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar” (1 John 1:10). The nomist thinks that, now that we have grace, we have no need of the gospel or that the gospel is only to help us obey the law. The antinomian thinks that now that we have grace, we have no need of law. Both are wrong. The gospel is that Christ obeyed in the place of, died for,and was resurrected for, and intercedes for sinners. We were justified in order that we might be gradually, graciously sanctified and that means being brought into conformity to Christ and to his holy law.

Nevertheless, the law continues to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and to drive us to Christ, not because we are under the law for acceptance with God but because we are under grace and need the law to continue to push us to Christ. It is all to easy to think that we might be done with the gospel, that we can move on from the gospel, as if it were milk and obedience is meat. That is not true. The law teaches us Christians that we need the gospel every day. It teaches us to continue to seek the forgiveness of our sins for Christ’s sake alone. It teaches us that we are not yet fully sanctified, that, indeed, in the bright light of God’s holy law, we have only a small beginning of sanctification (Heidelberg 114). We are not perfectionists.

In the final part of the answer, the catechism hints at the next section, on prayer. The law is a stimulus to prayer and one of our first prayers is to acknowledge our ongoing struggle with sin and for continued sanctification. The law is God’s objective measure of righteousness. Though we can never stand before God, neither in justification nor even in salvation, on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity that does not mean that we do not now seek the formation of actual righteousness (Matt 5:6). We do. Our personal righteousness is no part of our standing before God but it is an effect, a fruit of our justification and sanctification. It is the product of grace. We reject the idea that we are justified or even saved by the formation of a disposition (habitus) but, in Christ, we do seek now the formation of godly dispositions. Constant prayer is one of those habits that is being formed in us. We have been forgiven but we continue to seek forgiveness because we continue to sin.

Particularly, we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is actively, graciously, mysteriously working in us to conform us to Christ. The wonder is that he does so, in part, through prayer. One of the great lies of the Evil One is that Christians need not pray or that prayer is not very important after justification. Our first cry to God for forgiveness is only that: the first of daily prayers. We go to the Father, in the name and righteousness of the Son, the Spirit helping us, to confess our sins, that, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “there no health in us.” Indeed, the General Confession (of sin) in the 1662 BCP is an excellent guide to confessing one’s sins:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

To those who have trusted Christ and confessed their sins comes this gospel promise, which we accept prayerfully and for which we give heartfelt thanks in prayer:

ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins : He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Christian life is a penitent life. We shall never be done with sin in this life but we are learning daily to die to sin and to live to Christ and that begins with the daily prayer for forgiveness of our sins.

The same Holy Spirit who gave us new life, who united us to Christ, who is actively at work in us, will also glorify us. As Geerhardus Vos wrote a century ago, glory is preeminently the realm of the Holy Spirit. We are running, Paul says, with the Spirit’s help, a race toward an imperishable prize (1 Cor 9:25). There is great effort involved in the struggle against sin and toward glory (Phil 3:112–14) but it is the Spirit who enables the struggle. There is a place between “let go and let God” and “you are on your own.”

God’s holy law is spiritual and good. One day we shall be spiritual and good too. Until that time the law continues to illumine the dark places in our hearts, minds, and wills and the believer runs to Christ his Savior for grace, forgiveness, renewal, and ultimately for glorification: total conformity to Christ the firstborn from the dead (Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18)

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

Comments are closed.