Reflections on The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689: Part 19 ~ The Law of God

After a brief break we return to our weekly reflections here at Gospel Convergence on the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.  I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.

The Law of God

In many ways the idea and theme of law is a problematic one for gospel-preaching-evangelicals.  It is difficult to know exactly how to treat the law when found in the Old Testament and more than a little puzzling to see it both repudiated and yet upheld in the New Testament.  An in-depth discussion of the law is well beyond our remit here, however I would recommend you get your hands on Brian Rosner’s Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God.  It is an excellent treatment of Paul’s use of the law.

What we will simply do today is reflect on some characteristics of the law of God.

Universal and Particular

Language which is often connected with salvation can equally be applied to discussions on the law.  The law of God is both universal and particular.  First, it is clear that God’s law is universal in some sense.  The Confession notes that God wrote the law of obedience into the 1689 - Finalheart of man, and asserts that this law of the heart has continued even after the Fall.  Paul, writing in Romans, agrees: ‘[Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts’ (2:15).  In fact, in the previous verse Paul states that they can obey the law of God even though they don’t have the law of God (v. 14).

Second, however, the law of God is particular.  We can note this from Romans 2:14 as Paul makes it clear that the Gentiles obey a ‘particular’ law accidently in their obedience to a ‘universal’ law written on their hearts.  There are more explicit ways in which God’s people are given explicit commands though.  Adam is given the ‘particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ (pg. 82; Gen. 2:17).  The children of Israel are given the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai which detail particular laws to obey.  Moses remembers, ‘he wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments that the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly’ (Deut. 10:4).

A Limitation?

Within the context of both universal and particular laws the Confession does revert to the longstanding and somewhat helpful classifications of moral, ceremonial and judicial laws for the people of God in the Old Testament.  This is perhaps a slight limitation, as there has been much work on developing a more holistic understanding of the law of God.

Perhaps this is most acute in the Confession’s argument that the ‘ceremonial laws…prefigure Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings and benefits’ (pg. 83).  While I certainly wouldn’t deny that, I would contend that the whole of the law points forward to Christ, not just the ceremonial aspects of the law.  This is testified to repeatedly in Rosner’s book (see in particular chapter five – ‘Witness to the Gospel: Reappropriation of the law as prophecy).  D. A. Carson writes:

According to Paul God gave the law not only to regulate the conduct of his people and to reveal their sin until the fulfilment of the promises in Christ.  He also gave it because the law has a prophetic function, a witness function: it pointed in the right direction; it bore witness to the righteousness that is now revealed. (Quoted in Rosner, Paul and the Law, pg. 153).

Carson and Rosner are not breaking new ground in referring to the entire law pointing forward to Christ.  The biblical authors also make this same point.  Speaking of the law, Paul writes to the church in Colossae, ‘These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ (2:17).  Again, the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities’ (10:1).

The Law is Good

One final note to hear from chapter 19 of the Confession is that the law is indeed good.  I quote at length to let the Confession speak for itself:

Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience; it is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unallayed rigour thereof. The promises of it likewise show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works; so as man’s doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace. (pg. 84-85)

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