In this chapter, I want to examine what place, if any, the preaching of God’s law has in the proclamation of the evangelistic message. What do we find in the biblical record concerning this question? Did the apostles first proclaim God’s law in their evangelistic message? If so, did they always do so?
We should never engage in a discussion of the law without first identifying in what sense we are using that term. I want to list a number of different ways in which the terms “law” (nomos) is used in the Bible. It is my view that a large part of the difficulty surrounding this issue [and every issue for that matter] results from a lack of accurate definition of terms. I believe it will become clear as we proceed that “law” cannot simply be used as a synonym for the Ten Commandments.
- God’s universal and perpetual standard of righteousness–The word “law” may be used of God’s universal and perpetual righteous standard that exists by virtue of the righteous character of the Creator and Governor of the universe. It is this overarching righteous standard that provides the foundation for every other expression of law.
- Natural law–God’s universal law is expressed in what some might call “natural law.” Human kind possess an innate understanding that certain actions and attitudes are right and others are wrong. Even those who proclaim their autonomy and freedom from moral constraints most vociferously still suffer from guilt for having violated universally accepted norms. Paul wrote concerning Gentiles who do not have the law [Mosaic law], “. . .they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law [Mosaic]” (Rom. 2:14). We should not understand “a law unto themselves” according to common usage. Generally, when we say a person is “a law unto himself,” we mean he is lawless and acts as though there is no law. He simply does as he pleases. Instead, what Paul seems to mean here is that though they do not have the Mosaic law, they, through their innate knowledge of God’s righteous norm, perform the function of the law for themselves. When he says they “do what the law requires” he does not mean they live in complete conformity to the law, but that they practice certain righteous requirements of the law. His point is that these people obey certain aspects of the law, not because it comes to them in codified form but because they possess an innate sense that certain actions are right and others wrong.
- Law as Covenant or Mosaic Law—It is important to understand that when the New Testament writers refer to the Old Covenant, their reference is to the Mosaic law, specifically, to the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Whenever we find the phrase “hupo nomon” (under law) in the New Testament Scriptures the reference is always to law as covenant. The contrast between being “under law” and “under grace” is not an existential contrast, but a covenantal contrast.
Moses wrote, “and he wrote on the tablets [the two tables of stone] the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments [or ten words]” (Ex. 34:28). The Ten Commandments are the words of the covenant. This was the document that officially constituted Israel as a nation. It is clear, or should be clear, that this law was neither perpetual nor universal. Paul makes it clear that “it was added” 430 years after God granted the promises to Abraham. This indicates it came into being long after the creation. Additionally, he stated that it was to endure only “until the Seed [Christ] should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal. 3:19).
The law as covenant was a conditional covenant of works that promised the continuation of life in the land of promise to all who observed its commandments. It foreshadowed the eternal life and everlasting rest of all those on whose behalf its rigid demands were met. Additionally, it provided the stage on which the drama of redemptive history would be played out. It is interesting that in Romans 5:20 Paul wrote, “WHERE sin increased or overflowed, grace overflowed all the more.” It was in the very place, “under law,” WHERE sin took on this intensified character, namely, “trespass” or “transgression” that grace entered and superabounded in establishing the reign of grace in Christ
God’s intention in giving the law/covenant was to give sin an intensified character. There are several phrases in the Pauline corpus that lead to this conclusion. For example, he wrote in Romans 5:20, “but the Law came in alongside (presumably alongside the imputation of the Adamic transgression) so that the offence might overflow or be multiplied. Jesus won our redemption on a stage where the definition of sin had been honed to a fine point and sin itself had been given the character of transgression. It was not in the nebulous atmosphere of natural law but in the intensified milieu of codified covenant that Jesus wrought the work of redemption. No one, having read the law, could ever have a question about the kind of behavior God loved and the kind of behavior he hated. In Galatians 3:19, Paul stated that the purpose of the law was to give sin the character of transgression. Many of our translations render his words “because of transgressions” as though the law was given so that transgressions that were already in existence might be curbed. But this cannot be Paul’s meaning. Paul writes in Romans 4:15, “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” Transgression is a deliberate overstepping of a clearly defined boundary. Such an overstepping cannot occur in this case apart from codified law. It is better to understand Galatians 3:19 to mean that the law was added for the sake of transgression, i.e., to more clearly define sin and righteousness and give sin the character of transgression—deliberate rebellion against God.
Apart from the emotional attachment people have to the Ten Commandments and the belief that apart from the Ten Commandments believers would “be left without a moral compass” [perhaps someone should put in a good word for the Holy Spirit and the New Testament Scriptures here], it should be obvious to any thinking person that God never intended the Ten Commandments to be a universal and perpetual document. It would require extreme prejudice in favor of the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments/Old Covenant to produce sufficient blindness to cause one to ignore Paul’s clear teaching in 2 Corinthians. Verses three and following. It is beyond the scope of this article to give a full exposition of that passage, but I wish to call your attention to one aspect of that passage that is pertinent to our point here. Paul contrasts that which is permanent, the New Covenant/gospel, with “that which is being brought to an end,” the Old Covenant/law, and identifies that covenant as “the ministry of death, CARVED IN LETTERS ON STONE.” What part of the law was “carved in letters on stone?” Clearly, it was the “ten words.” If the Ten Words have perpetuity, how can it be that they are “being brought to an end?” It is not merely the civil and ceremonial commandments necessary for the implementation of the covenant that have been fulfilled and brought to an end. The covenant itself [the Law as a covenant in Ten Commandments] has been fulfilled and replaced with a New Covenant.
Of course, there will be those Reformed folks who will have a visceral reaction to what I have just written and accuse me of being an Antinomian, but nothing I have written should give the slightest impression that I am against the law or that I believe Christians should live as libertines. I honestly believe some of these folks are more concerned with being faithful to their confessional standards than they are with being faithful to the Scriptures.
- Law as Torah—At times “nomos” refers to Moses’ writings– E.g., John 1:45— “we have found him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets wrote.”
- Law as Old Testament Scriptures—E.g., Psalms 19:7— “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. . ..” “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps. 119:18). See also Ps. 119:70, 72, 92, 97, 113, 174.
- Law as the Law of Christ—Paul wrote that he was “. . .to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God, but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21).
- Law as a principle or rule of operation—At times, “law” refers to the way things work. Paul wrote, “I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Romans 7:21). “What then becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law [principle or rule of operation]? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom3:27).
God’s Law as the Standard of Justification
It seems clear that God’s law must be the standard of justification. If we deny that perfect obedience to the law is the standard of justification before God, we must be prepared to answer what that standard is. Since justification is a forensic declaration, how else could one define it if not in terms of law? If righteousness is not to be defined in terms of law, how would one ever know if God is pleased with him? Micah wrote, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 5:8)? How can one know if he is “doing justice” if there is no judicial standard of righteousness? Was not law the standard by which one was to know if he was indeed “doing justice?”
I am not arguing that the Covenant that God established at Mt. Sinai is the universal standard by which God will judge all humanity. That covenant is but one expression of God’s eternal standard of righteousness. Biblically, when we think of the Ten Commandments, we should think of the temporary covenant God made with the nation of Israel. It did not exist before God established it on Mt. Sinai and it lasted only until Christ came. Paul wrote, “it was added [it did not exist when God made the Abrahamic covenant], until Christ came [to fulfill it and establish a new covenant].” As a codification of God’s overarching righteous standard, it gave sin the character of transgression. The Bible does not teach that sin does not exist where there is no law. It teaches that transgression does not exist where law is not explicitly stated in a codified form.
The Scriptures clearly teach us that there are some who “have sinned without the law” (Rom. 2:12). Verse fourteen of that chapter also tells us that the Gentiles do not have the law. Does that mean there is absolutely no standard of righteousness for them? Of course not! It could mean they do not have the Scriptures, but it most likely means they are not under the Covenant God made with Israel. The commandments of that covenant are not God’s standard of righteousness for Gentiles. For this reason, I believe the standard of righteousness for justification is not Mosaic Law, but the two commandments on which that covenant depends. Jesus does not say that the Decalogue “is summarily comprehended” in these two commandments, but that the Law and the Prophets “hang on” these two commandments.
Law Preaching to Prepare for the Gospel
Must We Preach the Decalogue?
One area in which my understanding of the evangelistic message would depart from that of many in the Reformed camp is that I find no biblical and theological evidence that we must preach the Decalogue to sinners before we preach the gospel to them. I will come back to my exegetical reasons for that conviction in a moment.
Several years ago, Pastor Walter Chantry wrote a book entitled, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic. In that book, he argued that a person cannot rightly proclaim the gospel without first proclaiming the law as Jesus did when a rich young ruler approached him seeking eternal life. It seem clear in light of other books he has written that by “law” he was referring to the Ten Commandments. Though his book is helpful in many ways, its major flaw is that it fails to take into account other examples of Jesus’ evangelism that do not follow the same pattern. We cannot argue that we must always do what Jesus and the Apostles did not always do. The fact is we have not a single biblical example of gospel preaching in which the preacher told sinners of their responsibility to keep the Sabbath or upbraided anyone for failure to do so. This is significant since the fourth commandment was the ceremonial sign of the covenant (see Ex. 31:13, 17; 34:28;), not a perpetual, universal, moral commandment.
There are two primary verses on which the proponents of law preaching in preparation for gospel proclamation base their view. One is Romans 3:20, “for by the Law is the knowledge of sin.” The other is Galatians 3:24 which in the A.V reads, “Therefore, the law was our school master to bring us to Christ.”
In the case of Romans 3:20, the apostle is merely stating that it was not the function of the law to justify any sinner. It was the function of the law to demonstrate the depth of human guilt, not to remedy man’s sinful condition. The law was not intended to justify sinners but to magnify the nature of sin. The codification of God’s eternal righteous standard gave sin the character of transgression. Where there is no [codification of] law, there is no transgression (see Romans 4:15). That is to say this passage is descriptive of the law’s function and not prescriptive relative to gospel preaching. I have argued elsewhere that Israel’s experience under the law was intended to show the full depravity of the entire race. In The Fullness of Time: A biblical-theological study of Galatians, I wrote,
It is obvious that Israel enjoyed privileges that the nations of the world knew nothing about. But, along with these privileges came great responsibility. Israel as the servant of Jehovah had as her task to reflect the light and glory of the Lord to the pagan nations around them. One of the ways in which Israel was to function in this witness bearing capacity was to be dealt with by God as a representative sample, a sort of microcosm, of the entire race. Thus, Israel’s failure under that covenant mirrors the failure of all. Because of this failure, every mouth is stopped and all the world becomes guilty before God.
T.L. Donaldson has made an important and insightful observation in relation to this function of the Mosaic law. He wrote,
Israel, the people of the law, thus functions as a kind of representative sample of the whole. Their plight is no different from the plight of the whole of humankind, but through the operation of the law in their situation that plight is thrown into sharp relief. Being under νόμος [law] is a special way of being under τὰ στοιχεῖα το κόσμου, [the elemental principles of the world] because only under the former can the true nature of the bondage to the latter be clearly seen (Donaldson 104, 1986).
Douglas Moo seems to be sounding the same note when he writes, “Perhaps it is best to view Israel’s experience with the law as paradigmatic of all nations (Moo, 213, 1988).
The experience of Israel and the experience of the Gentiles is the same as far as their sinfulness is concerned. The difference is that Israel was being dealt with in terms of more specific and more clearly revealed requirements than those imposed on the Gentiles. Since the boundaries were more clearly defined for Israel than they were for Gentiles, the people of Israel had greater responsibility.
Israel’s rebellion against God’s law (see for example, “My people are like a heifer that backs away from the yoke” (Hosea 4:16)), tells us how all of us would have reacted had we been subjected to the same law. For this reason, the apostle Paul wrote, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, (“under law” in the New Testament Scriptures always refers to God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel), so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). In demonstrating the culpability of God’s covenant people, the law shuts everyone’s mouth so that no one can boast of his own righteousness. In condemning those under the law covenant of Sinai, God condemned us all.
Galatians 3:24-Three Interpretive Issues
The other text, Galatians 3: 24, has been understood to mean that the law is the school teacher who instructs us individually about our sin so that we will flee from our sin and be justified by grace through faith. There are at least three factors that have led people to understand the verse this way. The first is the failure to understand the text in a redemptive-historical way and not in an individualistic, existential way. The second is related to the first and results from the third factor. The second is the mistranslation of the verse. The third is the failure to take the context into account. Perhaps it would be best to consider these factors in reverse order since it seems it is in that order the misunderstanding has occurred. By that I mean if the translators had considered the context, they would not have translated the text as they did and we would have understood it in a redemptive-historical sense and not in an individualistic sense.
The apostle is answering the question “Why then the law?” If the law could not alter the promise made to Abraham in any way, then why did God give the law? He answers, “It was added. . . until the Seed should come to whom the promise had been made” (v. 19). In verse twenty-three we read, “Now before faith came [I understand this as a reference to THE FAITH in terms of the full-blown revelation of God in Christ as opposed to our subjective act of faith in God’s promises], we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” In verse twenty-five he wrote, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” The guardian represents the law. What Paul is saying is that the law covenant has come to an end now that Christ has come. The law was our guardian until Christ came, but we are no longer under that guardian. That is the clear teaching of verse twenty-four. Everything in the context would point us to the conclusion that the law produced an uneasy confinement. Verse twenty-two speaks of “imprisonment.” Verse twenty-three speaks of being “held captive” and “imprisoned.”
Because of the failure to note the context, the text has been misunderstood by the translators. The word translated “school master” in the A.V. speaks of the same uneasy confinement. A friend of mine who attended Catholic school said that when he understood the real meaning of that word, it made him think of a nun with a ruler. It referred to a slave whose task it was to discipline an underage child until he came to his majority. When necessary, he was hard and harsh so that he might keep the child in line. His task was not to instruct, but to discipline. Understanding that, if we remove the italicized words “to bring us,” and understand eis in a temporal sense, i.e. “until” Christ came, the verse fits perfectly into the context. A better translation would be “the law was our child trainer until Christ came.” It was the function of the law to provide the stage on which Christ would redeem his people “that we might be justified by faith.”
Redemptive Historical Understanding
Paul teaches the same idea in Galatians chapter four and expands the idea of the law as disciplining slave. Though the believer in Israel under the law was heir to the Father’s entire inheritance, he was no better off than a slave since he was under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the Father, at which time the heir would be placed as a son, i.e., be adopted, and receive his inheritance. Verse four “when the fullness of the time had come” corresponds to the phrase “the time appointed by the father” in verse three. It follows that “the fullness of the time” refers to the time of fulfillment in contrast to the period of Israel’s nonage, a time of promise and expectation. As a sign that our inheritance has been granted and as a pledge that the full inheritance will be ours, God has send forth his Spirit into our hearts, crying out Abba, Father (cf. Romans 8: 23-25). The contrast between being under the tutelage of the harsh slave and no longer under the harsh slave is clearly redemptive-historical in nature and not existential in nature. That is to say, Paul’s focus was not on what God is doing in us but on what God has accomplished in Christ. If we consider this as an existential reference to our coming to personal faith and thus no longer being under the law, we will have great difficulty explaining Paul’s statement that the law was added, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made. He was speaking about the law as covenant, and that covenant was expressed in Ten Commandments. He was not saying the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law were added until the seed should come. He knew of no such artificial theological distinction.
I would conclude that there is not sufficient exegetical evidence to induce us to proclaim the Decalogue to every sinner before we can witness the gospel to him or her. This is especially true since we do not find evidence in the biblical record that the apostles included an exposition of the Decalogue in their evangelistic messages.
God’s Righteous Standard in Apostolic Preaching
In Romans 1:18, the apostle Paul begins to explain why he is delighted with God’s method of putting sinners right with himself. He begins to explain why sinners are in need of his saving grace. He writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” This verse speaks to us of the sinner’s two most serious problems in their relationship with God. The word translated “ungodliness” focuses attention on our sinful hostility against God. The word translated “unrighteousness” focuses attention on our wrong relationship to our fellowman. Hodge wrote, “The first represents impiety toward God and the second injustice toward men.”
This verse also indicates that our proclamation of the gospel must not gloss over the vast gulf that separates the sinner from God. A message that begins by assuring sinners that God loves them and that Jesus has died to pay for all their sins proclaims peace where there is no peace. If we would pattern our evangelism after the example of the apostles, we must begin where they began. I cannot find a single example of New Testament preaching that began with a proclamation of God’s universal, redeeming love. Instead, New Testament evangelists began their messages by telling their hearers that God’s wrath was engaged against them because they were both unrighteous and hostile toward him. Romans 1:18 speaks of the sinner’s impiety. This indicts the sinner for his guilt in breaking the first and great commandment— “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deut. 6:5). As evidence of this impiety, the apostle shows that in the face of all God’s self-revelations, in spite of all his benevolent goodness and patience, and in defiance of his proffers of mercy, sinners remain recalcitrant and obdurate in their rebellion against him. Here it is patently clear again that the sinner is not inclined toward God and goodness. One could not even draw from the New Testament Scriptures that he is neutral toward God. Instead, the apostle alleges that the sinner hates God and is at cross purposes with him.
Sinners are Ungodly and Unrighteous
In the indictment that follows Romans 1:18, Paul Apostle presents cogent evidence of the sinner’s failure to love God. Consider the following statements.
- “For although they knew God (from his revelation of himself in the creation), they did not glorify him as God” (v. 21).
- “. . .or give him thanks (v. 21).
- “. . . exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and bird and animals and creeping things” (v. :23).
- “. . .they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, . . .” (v. 25).
- “. . .they did not see fit to acknowledge God, . . .” (v. :28).
- “They are . . .haters of God. . ..” (v. 30).
In the same way, Paul indicts sinners for breaking the second commandment. In consequence of their impiety in breaking the first commandment, God gave them over to unrighteousness in breaking the second commandment. Consider these verses:
- “Therefore, God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity, . . .” (v. 24).
- “Therefore, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . ..” (v. 26).
- “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness. . ..” (vv. 28-31).
It is important that we understand that when the text tells us God “gave them over to unrighteousness,” it does not mean he made them worse than they were already. It merely means that, as an act of judgment, God withheld from them his restraining grace and allowed them to act out their natural sinful desires. Apart from God’s hand holding us in check, we are all capable of the most heinous sins imaginable.
Sinners are Unrighteous Because Impious (Ungodly)
The order in which Paul places these terms is significant. All our problems with our fellowmen stem from our impiety toward God. A brief survey of Romans one makes this order quite clear. Verses nineteen through twenty-three concern the sinner’s impiety toward God that is evinced by his suppression of God’s self-revelation. These verses speak of the sinner’s failure to glorify God as God and his failure to show him appropriate gratitude for his gracious benevolence. Additionally, they charge the sinner with idolatry since he has exchanged God’s glory for images of created beings. Verse twenty-four describes their unrighteous acts in dishonoring their bodies between themselves. This verse is connected with the foregoing passage by the word “therefore.” The meaning is clearly that God gave them over to unrighteousness as a result of their impiety toward him. Likewise, verse twenty-five describes impious behavior toward God in exchanging his truth for a lie and in worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. For this reason, God gave them up to unnatural relations between themselves (vv. 26-27). This behavior was unrighteous. Notice the words “For this reason.” They indicate that these acts of unrighteousness resulted from their impious behavior toward God. We observe the same order in verses twenty-eight through thirty-one. Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, he gave them up to a debased mind. The result was that they were filled with all manner of unrighteousness. All our unrighteous actions result directly from our rebellion against God.
It should be clear that we should never consider proclaiming a message to sinners that is not calculated to deal with their great plight in sin. Any message that skims lightly over the sinner’s grave predicament that has resulted from his persistent rebellion against God will heal the sinner’s wounds “slightly saying ‘Peace, Peace’ where there is no peace.” For this reason, we must confront the sinner with his failure to love God and his neighbor. It is in this sense that the good news of Christ’s victorious redemption, must be preceded by a clear proclamation of the sinner’s guilt as a transgressor of God’s law. The cross cannot be understood properly apart from the context of God’s wrath that is revealed against impiety [refusal to love and glorify God] and unrighteousness [refusal to love and do good to our neighbor]. Additionally, any biblical presentation of God’s good news must include a clear call for sinners to leave their rebellious way that is characterized by high handed insurrection against the Lord of heaven and earth and return to him in humble submission to his revealed will. It is clear that the good news of redemption in Christ and the demands of the gospel cannot be adequately understood and appreciated apart from a clear explication of God’s holiness and righteousness and our consequent duty.
How, then, do we answer the question, “Must we preach God’s law in preparation for gospel preaching?” The answer depends on what we mean by “law.” If by “law” we mean the Ten Commandments, it seems to me we face an insuperable problem if we answer that question in the affirmative. We do not find a single example of a New Testament gospel preacher upbraiding any sinner or group of sinners for failure to observe the Sabbath commandment. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that nothing prohibited in the other nine commandments is permitted under the New Covenant. If this commandment were a universal moral commandment, as we are told it was, would it not have been important for first century preachers to have informed their hearers of their duty to observe it and their sin in failure to do so? Certainly, there must have been many in the pagan world who knew nothing of the fourth commandment. The preachers of the first century were bold in crying out against other sins; why not this one? It is my view that this commandment was not a “moral” in nature at all. Instead, it was the sign of the covenant (See Exo. 31:16-17) just as the rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah and circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
If when we ask this question about preaching the law we are asking whether we must press upon the unconverted their duty to love God and neighbor as that duty is clearly set forth in the New Testament Scriptures, the answer is clearly that we cannot preach the gospel unless we do so.
Donaldson, T.L. (1986) “The ‘Curse of the Law’ and the Inclusion of the Gentiles: Galatians 3. 13-14,” New Testament Studies 32, pp.94-112.
Moo, Douglas, 1988. “The Law of Moses or the Law of Christ,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books.
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