The Law of God
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

The Law of God

What is the place of the God’s law in the life of a Christian? Does the Gospel message really replace the Ten Commandments with grace, as some believe? Surveying the Bible’s answers to these questions, Alistair Begg examines the law’s functions and limitations. While following regulations neither justifies nor sanctifies us, God’s moral law still plays an important role for the believer, convicting us of sin and leading us to place our faith in Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let’s read from the Bible in Hebrews chapter 10. And although I did not pick that hymn but it was picked for me it, it couldn’t have been a better hymn to precede the reading of the first seventeen verses of Hebrews chapter 10:

“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body [you have] prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.”’

“When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

“And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”


And Father, bless your Word to us now, we pray. Grant us understanding that we might live. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

I want us on short notice—although it’s been in my mind in the week—to address a subject that we touched on in our study this morning as we began to look at the question of parents and children. And that to which I refer is, namely, the place of the law of God in the life of the Christian. I don’t want to tackle it exegetically—I don’t want to tackle it expositionally, I might say—in terms of either of the passages that we have read, from Romans 8 and now from Hebrews 10, although both of those passages are pivotal in the principles that I hope we can uncover for ourselves. I want to deal with it, then, topically.

When we think of the law of God, encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, we’re thinking of something that is even more than that. We’re thinking not simply in terms of legislation but in terms of revelation. But inasmuch as the Ten Commandments give to us that apt summary, it is an expression, in specific detail, of God’s will and purpose for the life of man (and when I use “man,” I mean for the life of humanity); that instead of the Ten Commandments being viewed as some restrictive mechanism that would spoil and ruin life, when we consider them with any care at all, and certainly if we come to them with a believing heart, we realize why it is that Paul in Romans 12, after he has encouraged his believers to submit themselves entirely to God (as we sang in our hymn: ears and eyes and heart and everything)—and then he says, “And you’re going to do this in relation to his will, which is his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”[1]

One of the challenges that is represented when we come to this subject just, as it were, out of the blue is that there is just manifold confusion in the minds of people—even good people who would profess to know their Bibles. I think of all the things I regret, I regret that I never went through the catechism with my children. We have introduced that at a latter stage. I’m certainly aware of it, but I never did it. I’ve lost the opportunity to do it, I suppose. But both the catechism and the creeds in their summary form are really, really helpful in relationship to a subject like this.

For example, there is a logical progression in the Shorter Catechism when it begins with the question that we all know, “What is the chief end of man?”—asking the question, “What is the reason for my existence?” And, of course, we know the answer to that: we exist “to glorify God, and … enjoy him forever.” Most of us have stopped at that point in our knowledge of the catechism and would be in difficulty immediately with question 2, which is “What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” In other words, how are we supposed to know what it means to glorify God and enjoy God? The answer to that is: “The Word of God, … contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us [as to] how we may glorify and enjoy him.”

Question 3: “What [then] do the Scriptures principally teach?” The answer is: they “principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (or “doody,” as some say). But the “duty” that “God requires of man” immediately raises a flag in the minds of some people. And you have to proceed through the catechism all the way to question 39 before it follows up on that and asks, “What is the duty which God requires of man?” And the answer to question 39 is: “The duty which God requires of man is obedience to his revealed will.” “Obedience to his revealed will.” Question 40: “What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?” Answer: “The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law.” Inevitable question: “Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?” Answer: “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”[2]

Now, having said that—and this is very clear, catechetically—and I am saying to you that it is also, as clear as that may be and as ignored as that has often been, there is a sort of confusion in the minds of many. And it stems in certain circles from the kind of study Bibles that we’ve been using. Those of us who grew up relying too heavily on the Scofield Reference Bible or the Ryrie Study Bible have actually been led to believe that since we are now living in the age of the church and we’re awaiting the age of the kingdom, that the law of God has actually no place in our lives. That’s the standard package there. If you’ve been saved from that, then be thankful that you started later than those study Bibles.

John Murray, in referring to that answer to question 41, “Where is the moral law … comprehended?” Murray writes, “The statement of such a position”—i.e., that this is where we can know how to fulfill our duty to God—

The statement of such a position is exceedingly distasteful to many phases of modern thought both within and without the evangelical family. It is [agreed] that the conception of an externally revealed and imposed code of duty, norm of right feeling, thought and conduct, is entirely out of accord with the liberty and spontaneity of the Christian life. We are told that conformity to the will of God must come from within, and … therefore any stipulation or prescription from without in the form of well-defined precepts is wholly alien to the spirit of the gospel. It is inconsistent, they say, with the spirit or principle of love: “Don’t speak of law, nor of moral precepts, nor of a code of morals. Speak of the law of love.”[3]

Now, to the extent that that does not fit where you are, then you can just tuck it away for future use, but it is not uncommon to meet this. I’ll give you an illustration out of the blue. Some years ago, a fellow wrote a book—I can’t remember what it was called—but his thesis was… And it’s good that I can’t remember (or his name), because there’s no advantage to me in recommending his book or appearing to be unkind to him. But anyway, he wrote a book. I know what it was called now, but I’m not going to say, and I’ve remembered his name as well. But let’s just leave it alone. But basically, his thesis was this: the reason that men in the evangelical church are in the predicament they’re in is because they’re not having enough of an adventure. They’re in the kind of context where there are far too many shoulds and shouldn’ts, and if they could be set free from all the shoulds and the shouldn’ts and just get out and have the adventure of their lives, then, you know, everything would fit in perfectly. And I remember when I read that book, I said, “I’m not sure that that’s the problem that I’ve been facing. In fact, most of the adventures that I may conceive of might lead me into some of the really bad sections of Pilgrim’s Progress rather than right down the narrow road that leads to the Wicket Gate.”

So, there are two essential perils that confront us in relationship to these things. On the one hand is the danger of dealing with the law in such a way that we embrace a form of legalism—essentially, an approach to things which conceives of the idea that salvation is dependent upon observing various laws and fulfilling various regulations. Paul has dealt with that in Galatians very clearly. I won’t go through all these different references, but if you’re making a note at all, you just note Galatians 2:15–16. Paul is hitting that head-on, and he’s taking on these people who are suggesting that that is the case. And he says, “If anyone was going to come to you with a gospel like this, then actually, let him be accursed.”[4] That’s how strongly he felt about it. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is antinomianism. Nomos is “law”; anti- is “against”: “against the law.” So you have a certain group of people who are saying the key to salvation is in the rules and regulations and in our fastidious obedience, and on the other hand you have the person who is there saying that the law of God no longer has any place in the lives of believers—so, you know, there’s no reason for us to give consideration to it. So, in summary form, the legalist sees the law as the solution, and the antinomian sees the law as the problem. John Stott, always helpful: “Legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it.”[5]

Not for Justification, Legislation, or Sanctification

Okay, with that said, the question still remains: What does Paul actually mean when he says, “You are not under law but under grace”?[6] Because in any conversation regarding the place of the law in the life of the Christian, it’s only about a minute and a half before somebody will say, “But wait a minute. After all, it says in the Bible that the law has got nothing at all to do with us. Paul says it in Romans chapter 6.” Well, if you listened carefully to Romans chapter 8 when we began the service, you’ll know that in verse 4 he says that he is concerned “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled” in the believer. So he’s not contradicting himself; therefore, we need to understand what it is he says when he says that.

Now, the answer to that I can give you in just perhaps three straightforward statements. What Paul means by that or what we are to understand by that is, first of all, that we are not, as believers, under the law as a means or as a way of justification. We’re not under the law as a way of justification. Again, Galatians pulsates with this. Galatians 3:11: clearly, says Paul, “no one is justified before God by the law.”

Now, one of the ways in testing whether in our lives we have confidence in the finished work of Christ—and we’ve addressed this in our hymns this evening, I think very carefully and very helpfully—one of the ways in which we can explain to ourselves that we have a solid experiential grasp of this essential truth is to determine how we react to the accusations of the Evil One. So, when we are tempted to despair, when we are reminded of our guilt, as we sang in the hymn, how do we respond? Do we respond by pointing out our obedience and our good deeds and our righteous acts?

So, the Evil One comes, says, “I can’t believe you had that thought, Begg. I thought you were the pastor of the church.” What is the answer to that? “Well, I’ve had a lot of good thoughts, and I’ve more good thoughts than I have had bad thoughts.” No. I hope that’s not your answer. Because the only safe and true answer is to point away to the Lord Jesus Christ—again, Galatians—as having become a curse for us.[7] He has become a curse for us. Therefore, the law has no authority to accuse the child of God nor to instill in us the fear of final condemnation. We have been saved in Christ from sin’s guilt, not by obedience to the law. We have been saved by the precious blood of Christ.

The Holy Spirit will do the work of convicting. But our responsibility is to say not just ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’ but ‘You are a sinner, standing before a holy and a righteous God.’

It was this, actually, which turned the lights on for Martin Luther. He failed to find peace with God in meticulous religious observance of the law. If you’ve read anything of him, you know that to be the truth. And then, finally it dawned on him that Christ had borne the curse and that as a result of that, even though he was a lawbreaker, Christ had kept the law on his behalf, and the righteousness which was his to enjoy was an alien righteousness. Therefore, he was able to look out from himself, and he was able to write and say so much of the Christian life is actually outside of us. “Behold him there, the risen Lamb, [our] perfect, spotless righteousness.”[8] That is it.

So, we’re not under law as a means of justification, nor are we under the law as it relates to Mosaic legislation. This is one of the ways in which people often stumble as they read the Old Testament: “Well, what are we supposed to do with the ceremonial and the judicial law?” Well, again, that was what Paul was addressing in Galatians. Because the Judaizers were saying, “You know, if you’re going to be a proper Christian, you’re going to have to not only do this, but you’ve got to do all these other things as well.” And that’s why Paul, he gets to chapter 5, and he says, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty in which Christ has made you free, and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”[9] What’s he pointing to? He’s pointing to the fact that in Jesus, all those ceremonial and judicial elements have been fulfilled by his sacrifice and by his life. And so, when the people were coming and trying to trip one another up in relationship to all these rules and regulations, Paul is saying, “We’re not under law in that way.”

Nor are we under law as a dynamic of sanctification. As a dynamic of sanctification. Someone says, “Well, I get it now, what you’re saying. We can’t be put in the right position with God by means of the law, but it’s by means of the law that we keep ourselves in a good position with God.” No! Because the law is not the dynamic of sanctification either. Again, Paul: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under … law.”[10] In other words, we say no to sin and yes to righteousness not as a result of struggling to keep the law but by the power of the indwelling Spirit.

Now, I could spend a long time working through this, but I think it’d suffice simply to say that. The believer gives up looking to the law in terms of any of the ceremonial legislation and Mosaic material. That’s why we’re not doing the sacrifices. That’s why we’re not going back to these things. That’s why the Council of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 15 was so crucial, because they were hammering out these very issues: “Well, what part, then, does all this old stuff fit in our newfound profession of faith in Jesus?” And as they worked that out together, they were laying down, if you like, a foundational premise from which everything else must follow.

So, the believer gives up looking to the law for justification or for sanctification.

The Threefold Function of the Law

Are you still with me? Are we okay? All right.

When the Reformers picked up this material, they spoke in terms of the threefold function of the law. And they spoke of the law first of all in terms of its civil or political function—obviously, within the context of the Mosaic law. But even beyond that, the Reformers were quick to point out that, as we said in the outset, the Ten Commandments—the moral law of God—actually are a specific summary statement of how the world is able to work perfectly according to the plan of the Creator. In other words, if you just think about it: every so often I say to somebody in a department store when they’ve caught some poor soul for trying to steal a handbag or something, I’ll often say, “Can you imagine what it would be like if just for one week, everybody in the United States of America obeyed the Ten Commandments?” And usually the answer is “Well, it would shut down the entire nation.” Well, yes it would, actually. I mean, it would just bring everything to a crashing halt.

So, the Reformers were very clear. When people come around and say, “You know, the pathway to freedom is to is to overturn these dreadful and ridiculous commands of God,” then the Reformers said, “No, that is actually the pathway to chaos. Because the law of the Lord is perfect.” There’s a reason why the Ten Commandments are in the Rotunda where the Supreme Court sits. There’s a reason why British jurisprudence and American law is as it is. It was because at the outset of things, the founders of the nation agreed with the Reformers about the civil and political place of the law in establishing the bounds of a civilization and of a country.

Secondly, they referred to it not only in terms of its political function but in terms of its pedagogical function. And this they were simply picking up, again, from Galatians, where Paul talks about the law as a teacher leading us to Christ.[11] A paidigōgos in Roman culture was the slave whose duty it was to take the child to school. And so, that would be the job in the morning: to guide the child to the place of instruction and learning. And it is in that use of the word, which gives us our adjective pedagogical, that the Reformers were speaking. So they said, “When you take the law of God, what it actually does is it performs the function, as per the Roman slave, of leading us to the Lord Jesus Christ.” Bolton—just by memory—Bolton, when he was thinking of this, he said, you know, it is the law that leads us, then, to Christ to discover the way of salvation, and Christ then returns us to the law to frame our way of life.[12] But that is to anticipate my third point, to which I’m just about to come.

But under the pedagogical function of the law, listen to Luther. Luther regarded this as the most valuable contribution of the law. This is what he said: “As long as a person is not a murderer, adulterer, thief, he would swear that he is righteous.” This is what I was saying this morning about the place of the law: we need to teach our children the law so they can realize how bad they are. Otherwise, they’re going to buy the lie that they’re really quite good, and especially if we keep telling them that as well. As long as you’re not an adulterer, a thief, or a murderer, you’ll swear that you’re righteous.

How is God going to humble such a person except by Law? The Law is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the [thunder] of God’s wrath to bring down the proud and shameless hypocrites. When the Law was instituted on Mount Sinai it was accompanied by lightning, by storms, by the sound of trumpets, to tear to pieces that monster called self-righteousness.

Now, think about who’s writing this. This is Luther! “That monster called self-righteousness.” He knew about the monster. Every time he looked in the mirror, he saw the monster. That was his whole deal. He was righteous—and yet it didn’t work.

As long as a person thinks he[’s] right, he is going to be incomprehensibly proud and presumptuous. He[’s] going to hate God, despise His grace and mercy, and ignore the promises in Christ. The Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through Christ will never appeal to the self-righteous.

This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that is what the Law is, a big axe. Accordingly the proper use and function of the Law is to threaten until the conscience is scared stiff.[13]

Just in passing: if I—and let’s not do the royal we at the moment—if I am not careful, I may find in my teaching that a neglect of that element is a key reason for how it is that people are able to walk in and out of Parkside Church self-righteous, smug, and say to you afterwards, “That was really good; I enjoyed that.” And you just say to yourself, “Apparently, they never heard a word of it.” But no, maybe they heard every word of it—but maybe there was no axe. Maybe there was no law. Maybe there was no expression of the condition of the heart of man, irrespective of what that man or woman conceives of themselves to be. That is not brought about as a result of our pointing out sins and faults and flaws. It’s simply as a result, says Luther, of wielding the axe of the law of God, which shows a self-righteous individual their need of a Savior. The Holy Spirit will do the work of convicting. But our responsibility is to say not just “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” but “You are a sinner, standing before a holy and a righteous God.” Now I’m just preaching to myself.

So, the threefold use of the law in the civil and political dimension, in the pedagogical dimension, and then, thirdly and finally, the place of the law of God as the rule of life for believers. That is Bolton; I said I anticipated him a moment ago. In other words, as a believer, you are free from the law as a way of salvation—either justification or sanctification—but not freed from the law as a way of life. Freedom from the law is not freedom to disobey the law. Again, Bolton: “The Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty [in being] justified.”[14] Not to be justified, but what is our duty, having been justified? Not justified by keeping the law but, having been justified, then keeping the law—made aware of our sinful condition. Then, with Augustus Toplady, we find ourselves saying,

Not the labors of my hands
[Could] fulfill your law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,


[So] all for sin could not atone;
[So] you must save, and you alone.[15]

Now, when we, as it were, get up off our knees in that awareness of the provision of salvation in the atoning work of Jesus—when we get up from our knees—it is not, then, to find the moral law of God abrogated. It is not, then, to find that the moral law has been set aside. But rather, it is to discover that the very moral law of God is now actually, if you like, impregnated into the very fiber of our newfound life in Christ—that it has actually become part and parcel of us. Says John Murray, “If the cross of Christ does not fulfill in us the passion of righteousness, we have misinterpreted the whole scheme of divine redemption.”[16]

It is by means of the law of God—his moral law—that as a believer, I am kept from the slippery paths of transgression.

Now, Luther regarded the second use of the law as the most important. Calvin regarded the third use of the law as most important. This is what he says: “The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”[17] We began, “Lord, reign in me. Reign in me.” This is the cry of the believer. This is not the cry of the unbeliever. The unbeliever’s got no interest in God reigning in him. He’s got no concept of it at all. If you’re here tonight and we started with that song, you said, “I haven’t a clue about what these people are on about.” Well, that’s okay, because I’d love to talk to you about what it really means. I’d be glad to. Others would. But no, that’s what he’s saying:

In … the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God …, that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law.[18]

Now, it’s by means of the law—and again, this is Calvin—that the believer learns thoroughly the nature of God’s will. It is by means of the law of God—his moral law—that as a believer, I am kept from the slippery paths of transgression. You see, it’s when you’re driving down the road, and you come to a sign that says it’s got a 1:12 degree, or whatever that thing is. It’s mathematical; I shouldn’t mention it. But if it’s a steep hill, all right? There’s a big sign, says, “Steep hill. Don’t kill yourself.” Now, it’s there. You say, “I hate that law—somebody coming here and putting that thing up there. If I want to kill myself, it’s up to me entirely.” No, it’s actually a very important thing, ’cause you might kill somebody else in the process, even if you’re stupid enough to think in that way. But it is the moral law of God that keeps us from transgression. Think about it!

You see, the people who reject the validity of the law of God in the life of a believer argue with me along these lines. And this is what they always say: they say, “Oh, you don’t understand the Bible, Alistair, because love replaces law. In the living of the Christian life, we no longer operate under law. After all, Romans 6”—which is then misquoted, as per usual. “But we are simply moving according to love as the rule of life.” So they reject the idea of the believer being taught and guided by the Spirit of God to display his love for God, or her love for God, by keeping his commandments. And instead they say, “How we live is not by rules but is according to the judgments of our own heart as constrained by love alone.” Okay? Dangerous.

Thomas Taylor in an earlier era says if you’re going to try and love God and obey God according to the spiritual promptings of the moment, look out: “To say we obey God by the Spirit without a Law or a commandment is a mere pretense: for is [there] any obedience without a Law? … What can be more ridiculous than for a subject to profess obedience to his Prince, but yet … will not be under any Law?”[19] Or Anthony Burgess, 1646: to substitute the judgments of our own hearts for the law, wrote Burgess, was “to have the Sun follow the Clock”[20] rather than the clock follow the sun. The Puritans, in the same way, were aware of the fact that it was possible for the believer to keep the law in an external way, in a fastidious way, in a moralistic way. And that’s why the Reformers said the true keeping of the law in the life of a genuine believer is according to a “evangelical ability.”

And what they said—and Alec Motyer picks up on this in some of his stuff—they essentially said that God has, if you like, fashioned the believer’s heart in the shape of his law, so that he keeps the law not by natural endeavor but as the impact of the energizing power of the Spirit of God. The Westminster Confession, helpfully, again: “The Spirit of Christ … subdues and enables the will of man to do [that] freely and cheerfully … which the will of God, reveal[s] in the law, requires”[21] to be done. “I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom,” says the psalmist, “for I have sought out your precepts.”[22]

If you think about this, it all fits, doesn’t it? Because God gave the Ten Commandments not to the surrounding nations but to his people. He gave them not in order that they might be redeemed, but he gave them because they had been redeemed. He didn’t take them out of Egypt because they kept the Ten Commandments; they were to keep the Ten Commandments because he took them out of Egypt. In the same way, the Sermon on the Mount is not an ethical, moralistic code given by Jesus to help people that would like to be accepted by God to try their best and do these things, but rather, it is a handbook that is given to us by God’s grace as a result of his goodness to us in Jesus.

In fact, the Puritans believed that the highest spirituality was to be seen in a life that rejoices to be commanded. A life that rejoices to be commanded. Samuel Rutherford, he gets it perfectly when he says, “The Law of God”—and I’ve quoted this to you on a number of occasions—“the Law of God, honeyed with the love of Christ,” has “a Majestie and power to keep from sin.”[23] Or John Owen: “A universal respect to all God’s commandments, is the only preservat[ive] from shame.”[24] “A universal respect to all God’s commandments, is the only preservat[ive] from shame.”

Now, think about it. If you’re going to try and navigate your Christian life on the impulse of the moment, I don’t know about you, but some of my impulses would get me in really, really bad trouble. So what is it that keeps me? It’s the law of God: “God said, ‘Don’t.’” And what God wants God wills. What he demands he enables. He’s not asking us to try and go out and do this on our own. No. He has redeemed us, and the promise and the wonder of it all is that “I will take my law, and I will write it in their hearts, and I will establish it in their minds.”[25]

That’s why we read from Hebrews. I’d better not start on Hebrews right now. But that’s why we read that section. All that God wants, says the writer to the Hebrews in that chapter—all that God wants in terms of salvation—has been achieved. All that we need in Christ has been accomplished. And the Holy Spirit then testifies to that. That’s the significance of the quote. That’s what he says: “And the Holy Spirit bears witness to us.” So, how does the Holy Spirit bear witness? Quotes the Bible, quotes the Old Testament. What does he quote? Quotes Jeremiah 31, the promise of God that “I will write my law on their hearts.” There’s no conflict between that heart and the requirements of holy living. We make progress—we make progress in our Christian lives—as we are obedient to God’s Word.

Well, I think I’ve said more than enough. Let me just try and wrap it up in this way: let’s say again that the church in every generation, including our own, is tempted to fall off one side or the other of the Striding Edge of God’s perfect law of liberty, to fall into the gully either of legalism or of license. Years ago, I remember one of my pastors decided that he was going to rewrite one of the Easter hymns because he didn’t like the theology of it. Unfortunately, it’s one of my favorite hymns and maybe one of yours too. It’s written by our Irish friend, Cecil whatever her name was. And “there is a green hill far away, outside a city wall,” remember? And then the line that reads, the verse that reads,

Oh dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him, too,
And trust in his redeeming [love],
And try his works to do.[26]

And my pastor said, “No, we’ve got to get that changed.” So we’re changing it to

Oh dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him, too
And trust in his redeeming blood,
Not try his works to do.

Now, I never had the chance to talk to him. He may simply have been seeking to counteract a view of the Christian life which was essentially legalistic. But in doing so, he ran the risk not of getting the pendulum back to the middle but actually getting the pendulum off on the other side altogether—so that you have this constant dilemma, where people’ll say, “You know, well, the key to effective Christian living is just get yourself out of it. I mean, just get out of it. I mean, just let God do everything.”

It’s never seemed to work for me at all—never turned my TV off, never pulled me out of a movie theater, never caught me at nine o’clock with a girl I shouldn’t be with and whisked me out of the car. Never! Never! Never! I guess passivity is not the key. But neither is slavish exertion. Because the law is not the means of our justification nor of our sanctification, but it is written in our hearts. “I [very] much doubt,” said one of the Puritans, “whether, if God did not command us to do more than we can, we should do as much as we do.”[27] “He that endeavours”—Bolton—“he that endeavours not to be better, will by little and little grow worse.”[28]

Okay, one Luther quote, and then we’re done:

There are three ways in which the Law may be abused. First, by the self-righteous hypocrites who fancy that they can be justified by the Law. Secondly, by those who claim that Christian liberty exempts a Christian from the observance of the Law. “These,” says Peter, “use their liberty for a cloak of maliciousness,” and bring the name of the Gospel into ill repute. Thirdly, the Law is abused by those who do not understand that the Law is meant to drive us to Christ. When the Law is properly used its value cannot be too highly appraised. It will take me to Christ every time.[29]

Every time.

Father, we want to be brought again and anew to the Lord Jesus, to find in him the one who has kept the law in its perfection and the one who has died in the place of we who by our very nature break your law. We thank you that your Word is worthy of all of our investigation and study and that we find ourselves again and again saying,

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
And show me myself, and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[30]

Thank you for those who have lived and died in these deep convictions and have left us, in their writings and in their hymns, that which helps us stay on that path of liberty which is ours in the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

[1] Romans 12:1–2 (paraphrased).

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 41.

[3] “The Sanctity of the Moral Law,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 198.

[4] Galatians 1:8 (paraphrased).

[5] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), 192.

[6] Romans 6:14 (ESV).

[7] See Galatians 3:13.

[8] Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).

[9] Galatians 5:1 (paraphrased).

[10] Galatians 5:18 (ESV).

[11] See Galatians 3:24.

[12] Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 71.

[13] Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535), trans. Theodore Graebner.

[14] Bolton, True Bounds, 71.

[15] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776). Language modernized.

[16] “The Sanctity of the Moral Law,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 204.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philaldelphia: Westminter, 1960), 2.7.12.

[18] Calvin, Institutes 2.7.12.

[19] Thomas Taylor, Regulae Vitae: The Rule of the Law under the Gospel (London, 1631), 183. Archaic spellings have been modernized.

[20] Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining: Or a Treatise of Grace and Assurance (London, 1652), 360.

[21] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 19.7.

[22] Psalm 119:44–45 (NIV).

[23] Samuel Rutherford, The Trial and Triumph of Faith (London, 1645), 122.

[24] John Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers (Philadelphia, 1793), 60.

[25] Jeremiah 31:33 (paraphrased).

[26] Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill” (1847).

[27] Ezekiel Hopkins, Discourses on the Law, in Works, ed. Josiah Pratt (London, 1809), 2:12.

[28] Robert Bolton, A Three-fold Treatise (London, 1634), 40.

[29] Luther, Galatians.

[30] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.