Law: What is it Good For?

Feb 25, 2023 | Articles, by Luke Walker, Marrow Ministries Free Content

In the 1998 motion picture Rush Hour, the Chinese and American police officers Lee (Jackie Chan) and Carter (Chris Tucker) engage in endless cross-cultural banter. It’s hilarious. One of the most memorable scenes is Lee’s butchering of the 1970 soul song War, in which Motown artist Edwin Starr asks:

War, huh, yeah

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing!

Unfortunately, sometimes we seem to hear a similar cry from evangelical Christians with regard to God’s law as set forth in the Ten Commandments:

Law, what is it good for?

Absolutely nothing![1]

At least not anymore. To be sure, it used to be good for something, when God declared it to be so. But now believers are freed from its yucky shackles. Historically, this sentiment has not been the case with Calvinistic Christians. Reformed theologians have classically extolled God’s law and set forth its uses in three heads: it exposes sin, it restrains evil, and it teaches us holiness (see, for instance, the 1689 London Baptist Confession, 19.6). In this article, I would like to focus on the third use.

But first, a little more about what we mean by God’s law. It is true, the word has various significations in the Bible. Sometimes law can mean the writings of Moses (it is capitalized when referring to this), sometimes it can mean instruction, sometimes it can mean the administration of the Mosaic Covenant, and sometimes it can mean a narrower set of commands within the law of Moses, namely, the Ten Commandments, otherwise known as the eternal, moral law of God. It is that standard of holiness that is true for all people, at all times, in all places. Unlike the ceremonial and civil laws of the Mosaic Covenant, these commands do not change because they reflect God’s own unchanging character. They are etched onto the heart of every human being who has ever lived, set forth in the Ten Commandments of Moses, and exposited and applied by our Lord Jesus in the New Testament.

This law, the very shape of God’s righteousness, is in fact quite useful to believers. According to the first use of the law, it acts as a mirror to reveal our sin in light of God’s righteous standards. It continues to be this for believers. We still need our remaining sin revealed so that we might repent of it and flee to Christ. But because we have been justified in Christ, even this legitimate use of the law no longer brings with it the threats of God’s judgment. The law no longer stands over us to condemn us. Jesus kept it perfectly for us and gives His righteousness to us. The law is not a way to be saved. It never was. In fact, Paul reacts fiercely against any idea that we can be justified by our keeping of God’s law in any way, shape, or form. Rather, the moral law was given to show that we can’t be saved by it.

Once we stop trying to save ourselves by keeping God’s commandments, then we are free to follow them in the joyful freedom of our salvation. In Christ, the law has changed its tone. The commandments no longer call for our condemnation,… Share on X

The commandments of God do not work against the gospel, but together with it. Consider the words of the confession:

Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done (19.7).

Once we stop trying to save ourselves by keeping God’s commandments, then we are free to follow them in the joyful freedom of our salvation. In Christ, the law has changed its tone. The commandments no longer call for our condemnation, but rather, teach us the ways in which to walk with God. The law is a guide now. I am justified in Christ. But how do I please God in my daily life? What does he really want from me? The law teaches me. It clearly sets forth those things which are pleasing to God and those things which are not, so that I can cling to the one and flee from the other.

Incidentally, the law also safeguards Christian freedom. The conscientious believer who struggles with doubts and fears over honoring the Lord is easily swept away into legalisms of their own making. “If only I do this or that, my ways will be pleasing to God.” The Lord does not, however, expect us to find secret commandments in His Word or make sure we get our spiritual antennas just right in order to receive a private transmission from heaven. He tells us plainly and clearly what he expects of us.

But doesn’t Paul speak unfavorably of the law? A careful reading of relevant passages shows that Paul speaks against the use of the law as a means of salvation. In other words, he speaks against the illegitimate uses of the law. But as to the law itself—once again, the Ten Commandments—he says, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Again, “We know that the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:14). He calls it holy, righteous, good, and spiritual. It is we who are sinful, corrupt, and vile.

Think carefully: if the law was holy, righteous, good, and spiritual when Paul wrote to the Romans, then it is all those things for believers today (or else we’ve got a lot more to give up from that sublime letter). And if it is true that the law is holy, righteous, good, and spiritual even now, then it necessarily teaches us what is truly holy, what is truly righteousness, what is truly good, and what is truly spiritual.

While we may seem to hear some evangelical Christians speak about the eternal, moral law of God as Edwin Starr did of war—Law, I despise—that is a far cry from the words of the 1000 BC smash hit single Psalm 119, written, produced, and performed by our dear brother King David:

Oh how I love your law!

It is my meditation all the day.

[1] These are the type of guys who probably leave the huh, yeah part out.

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