Dos and Don'ts, all we need to know is the Bible; however, not all is covered explicitly. Discuss how Christians should act or what they should do when facing divorce, smoking, and other issues.

The Sanctity of the Moral Law

Collapse
X
  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • The Sanctity of the Moral Law

    John Murray

    The history of the Christian church is to a large extent characterized by controversy. It could not be otherwise. It was our Lord who said: "Think not that I am come to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). And his inspired apostle wrote: "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Eph. 6:12). At no point in history has the controversy been more acute than at the present time. If the conflict were exclusively with enemies of the faith from without and the church could maintain a united front against error, then how different history would have been. But this has not been the case. The master strategy of the archenemy is to plant the exponents of error within Christendom and hence the gravest issues are precipitated within the professing church.

    Not so long ago it could readily be supposed that within the confines of professed Christianity the issues were concerned merely with articles of faith and not with standards of conduct; that the Christian ethic was inviolate but that outworn dogmas of belief had to give way so that the Christian way of life might come to its rights. This is a fallacy. Doctrine and life are inseparable. What we believe determines conduct and our conception of the norms by which life is to be directed. This is verified by the sequel that has come in the wake of doctrinal unbelief. In our day the most naive must see that not merely articles of faith are at issue but the basic criteria of behavior. What had been regarded as the unalterable standards of integrity professed leaders of Christian thought now maintain are variable and may properly yield their sanctions to the dictates of love and necessity. This is the "new morality." It is not new. The only thing new about it is that it is made new to qualify "morality." It is the old immorality.

    The church has failed for too long to proclaim with insistence and power the unchanging sanctity of the law of God. The result has been the loss of consciousness of this sanctity and of the gravity of sin as transgression of law. There are many reasons for the impasse with which we are today confronted. But no reason can be more justly assigned than the poison of antinomianism that in various forms has polluted the witness of the church. The situation summons us to a renewed appreciation of the sanctity of the moral law, of its implications in truth, justice, and love, and to proclamation of this sanctity with the demonstration that only the Holy Spirit can impart.

    What is moral law? The word "law" frequently arouses antipathy. It may be associated in our thinking with externalism and even with what is primitive and arbitrary. Antinomian bias resides in our sinful hearts and, sadly enough, what is native to the mind of the flesh is often promoted by what is alleged to be Christian teaching. The perversity of this attitude becomes apparent when we reflect on what the law of God is. The moral law is, in the last analysis, the transcript or expression of the character of God. God is holy, just and good, and the law which is also holy, just and good is simply the correlate of the holiness and justice and goodness of God. Man is created in the image of God and the demand, the inescapable postulate of that relation that man sustains to God as responsible and dependent creature is that he be conformed in the inmost fibre of his moral being and in all the conditions and activities of his person to the moral perfection of God. "Ye shall be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44), "Ye shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5 :48). No rational being can ever be relieved from the obligation to love the Lord our God with all the heart and soul and strength and mind and his neighbor as himself. Moral law is the moral perfection of God coming to expression for the regulation of life and conduct.

    But if this is what moral law essentially is, where is it to be found? What is its content?

    It is true that the sense of obligation is engraven upon the moral constitution of man. It is the apostle Paul who says that the Gentiles who have not the law do by nature the things of the law, in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts accusing or else excusing them. Man has a conscience and that means that in some vague sense at least he recognizes that there is a distinction between right and wrong.

    But the conscience of man though indispensable to the fact and sense of obligation, and though not eradicated by sin, has nevertheless suffered just as much damage by the ruin of sin as does any other function or activity of his being. Man has fallen as a totality, and we must remind the naturalistic moralist that his conscience has fallen, as we remind the Arminian that his will has also. Can man by the movements of conscience in relation to the various experiences of life determine what is right and good and holy? Is man's conscience so perfect and accurate a reproduction of God's perfection that it can reveal to us what is in accord with his will? Does it so derive its life-blood from the eternal God that its heart-beat is in perfect accord with his? If I may use the words of James Henry Thornwell, "In our present fallen condition it is impossible to excogitate a standard of duty which shall be warped by none of our prejudices, distorted by none of our passions, and corrupted by none of our habits. . . It is only of the law of the Lord as contained in the Scriptures that we can justly say, it is perfect."[1]

    Yes, the conscience of man may give us the dictum that there is a distinction between right and wrong, that it is right to do right and that it is wrong to do wrong, but it cannot tell us what the right is, nor how we are to apply it and fulfill it. The fact is that in the matter of right and wrong we are just as dependent upon special divine revelations as we are in the realm of truth. It is the principle of our Christian faith that we have in holy Scripture a complete infallible and sufficient rule of duty and conduct.

    This is a very comprehensive proposition. It would be disastrous to tone it down in any way. It is holy Scripture in all its manifoldness and richness, extent and detail, yet in its compact organic unity, that sets before us the sum of human obligation and the rule of duty. His word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. There is no circumstance or situation of life in all its variety and detail for which the revelation of God's will in inspired Scripture is not a sufficient guide. We must do nothing to prejudice the principle that the rule of life as well as the rule of faith is the whole of Scripture.

    But we nevertheless do find in Scripture itself a summing up of the moral standard of which Scripture as a whole is the representation. It should not strike us as strange that it does so. It does very much the same thing in the realm of faith. The inspired writers sometimes with a conciseness that simply overwhelms us express in a few pregnant sentences the cardinal basic truths of the scheme of redemption. When we appreciate such brief statements and try to drink them in we have no sense of confinement; we are not conscious of any prejudice to the principle that the rule of faith is the whole of Scripture from which we are to take nothing and to which we are to add nothing. That summary statement only leads us to a high eminence from which we get a new appreciation of the whole of God's special revelation in the length of it and in the breadth of it.

    It is similar with the moral law. It also has its central, cardinal, basic principles and our Westminster divines were right when they asked the question: "Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?" and answered, "The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments."

    The statement of such a position is exceedingly distasteful to many phases of modern thought both within and without the evangelical family. It is argued 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 that therefore any stipulation or prescription from without in the form of well–defined precepts is 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.

    Furthermore we are told that the Christian is not under law but grace. To argue that the moral law binds the conscience of the believing man who has been set free by the grace of the gospel is to abolish, they say, the distinction between the dispensation of law and the dispensation of grace, and thus to enthral the Christian again in the yoke of bondage.

    We should not be forgetful of the elements of truth embodied in such a series of slogans. It is true that the Christian is freed from the dominion of sin because he has been redeemed by the grace of God. He has not been saved from sin's guilt or sin's thraldom by his own obedience to any law. He has been set free by the precious blood of Christ. It is true on that account that he is not under the law but under grace in the sense in which Paul in Romans 6:14 meant it.

    It is true also that conformity to the will of God must be first a condition of the heart, created by the Spirit's regenerative grace and fostered by his sanctifying presence. Upright conduct can never coexist with impurity of heart. Merely external and servile conformity to precepts of law does not constitute obedience. Upon none did the anathemas of our Lord descend with such severity as upon the legalistic Pharisees who made clean the outside of the cup and of the platter but who were within full of malice and hypocrisy, who were like whited sepulchers outwardly beautiful but within full of dead men's bones and of all uncleanness. Without the inward condition of purity and the inward impulsion of love obedience is impossible.

    But in these watchwords of our modern exponents of the Christian ethic there is also devastating error. We are not saved by obedience to the law, but we are saved unto it. In their insistence upon love they have placed love in opposition to law. We have just to remind them with well–balanced emphasis that love is the fulfilling of the law. It is not love in opposition to law but love fulfilling law. What our modern apostles of love really mean is the very opposite of this: they mean that love fulfills its own dictates, that love not only fulfills, but that it is also the law fulfilled, that love is as it were an autonomous, self–instructing and self–directing principle, that not only impels to the doing of the right but also tells us what the right is. This is certainly not what Paul meant when he said, "love is the fulfilling of the law." He tells us not only that love fulfills, but also what the law is which it fulfills. "Owe no man anything but to love one another, for he who loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet, and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, in this,thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."[2] It is noteworthy that Paul cites four precepts. He reminds us by the brief sentence, "and if there is any other commandment," that he does not consider these four as the complete sum of man's duty to man. He has cited four to exemplify his meaning. But what I wish especially to stress is first, that these four he enumerates are four of the well–known ten commandments. It is in the decalogue that Paul finds the epitome of moral law. And second, it is that law that love fulfills. The directing principle of love is objectively revealed statutory commandments, not at all the dictates which it might itself be presumed to excogitate.

    A study of another passage in Paul will yield the same result. This passage is more negative, just as the preceding is more positive. It is I Cor. 6:9-11. There Paul is condemning sin-fornication, idolatry, adultery, effeminacy, sodomy, thievery, covetousness, drunkeness, reviling, extortion. They who commit such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. The most cursory review of these sins will show that the obligatoriness and authority of the ten commandments underly his whole exhortation and doctrine. Idolatry-the first and second commandments; adultery-the seventh commandment; thievery and extortion-the eighth commandment; reviling-the ninth and perhaps the third; covetousness-the tenth. He has not exhausted the list of sins; elsewhere he mentions others not specifically mentioned here. But he has enumerated enough to evince to us that the underlying presupposition of his thought is, that summarily, at least, the decalogue is the norm by which sin is to be known as it is also the norm of that righteousness which characterizes the kingdom of God and those who belong to it. He says in effect what the apostle John says that "sin is the transgression of the law." Abolish or abrogate law and you deny the reality of sin. Where no law is there is no transgression.

    It might, however, be objected that this principle of love in subordination to law is not as invariable as these two instances might lead us to think. For is not the apostle Paul, for example in the eighth chapter of I Corinthians, to be understood as commending to his readers at Corinth his own example of abstinence, in certain circumstances, from meat offered to idols, lest their eating of that meat should be a stumbling–block to them that are weak? There is no law against the eating of meat offered to idols, for the apostle contends in this matter for the liberty of the strong and intelligent believer. He knows that no idol is anything in the world and there is no other God but one. The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. And for the man who is aware of that fact and serves the Lord, meat is not contaminated by the fact of its having been offered by another, who is an idolater, to an idol. He may freely eat and give the Lord thanks. Yet there are certain circumstances under which considerations of love to another and the consideration of the weakness of the conscience of another constrain him to abstain. Now it might be plausibly argued that here you have love operating in complete abstraction from law, and so love conceived of as an autonomous, self-instructing, and self–directing principle.

    A very cursory examination of the passage will expose the fallacy of such an interpretation. The law of God, its sanctity and authority, underlies the whole situation. Why is the intelligent believer enjoined in the circumstance to abstain? Simply and solely because there is the danger of the sin of idolatry on the part of the weak brother, the danger of wounding his weak conscience in the eating of meat as offered to an idol. In other words, it is the danger of transgression, on the part of the weak believer, of the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Remove that fact from the situation and the whole argument of the apostle is nullified. The law requires that we ourselves abstain from idolatry; but it also requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and so when our doing what so far as we ourselves are concerned is a perfectly innocent act becomes, and that to our knowledge, the occasion for the commission of sin on the part of another believer, love to our neighbor as ourselves will impel us to abstain from so unloving and unworthy conduct. It is not, however, love abstracted from law but love operating under the authority and sanctity of that commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

    We have the same result when we examine the teaching of our Lord himself. "If ye love me ye will keep my commandments." "He that hath my commandments and keepeth them he it is that loveth me." "Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."[3] He leaves us in no doubt as to what he had in mind by commandments, for he proceeds to give us examples. In the succeeding context of the last quotation he appeals to the sixth and seventh of the decalogue, and asserts in the most emphatic way the penetrating and searching depth and breadth of their application when he says, "Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment;" "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."[4] His teaching with respect to obedience and his denunciation of sin are simply steeped in the permanent authority and inviolable sanctity of the decalogue. Just look at the catalogue of sins he condemns-fornication, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye. railing, pride, foolishness, idolatry, false swearing,the obscuration and virtual nullification of the Sabbath institution by the carnal impositions of men and the ten commandments as the basic norm of righteousness is the lesson which he who runs may read.

    On one occasion when accused by the Pharisees for violation of the tradition of the elders he exposes their hypocrisy by asking pertinently, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition. For God said, Honour thy father and thy mother . . . Ye have made void the law of God because of your tradition" (Matt. 15:3-6).

    Yes, with all the emphasis of which I am capable I do say, that in the denial of the permanent authority and sanctity of the moral law there is a direct thrust at the very center of our holy faith. for it is a thrust at the veracity and authority of our Lord himself. If we wish to lend speed and force to the widespread attack upon the Christian religion, we need but endorse and support this antinomian propaganda.

    It is scarcely necessary to give more instances from the New Testament, but there is one from the Epistle of James which I cannot refrain from quoting. It is James 2:8-12. "If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons. ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall do the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill,thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty."

    The widespread indifference and even antagonism to ethical standards has come to be the shame of our Protestant churches, a shame in company with and just as much as the shame of our theological heterodoxy. What is to be the remedy? The only remedy is the path of repentance. Repentance must start with change of mind, recognition of the facts, the fact of our shame and the fact of the truth of our Christian faith.

    Our Christian faith is a body of fact and doctrine. It is not a vague sentiment, some mystical feeling of communion with the unseen. It produces true sentiment and results in communion with the great unseen God, but it is first of all a faith in certain well–defined and unchangeable data of fact and teaching. But as truly as it is a faith it involves a life. And just as there is the unchangeable and immovable in the realm of what we call faith, so there is the unchangeable and immovable in the norms and principles of life. God does not change; his moral perfections do not change; his moral law does not change. Times change; conditions change; we change. But under and through all there remains man's conscience, man's responsibility, and over all there is the unchanging holiness, justice, and authority of God, issuing in the commands that bind man's conscience and with a divine imperative must regulate his life, in one word, the moral law.

    Recognition of this datum of awful sanctity and republication of it with conviction and authority is the only path of repentance and restoration. As we recognize the sanctity that surrounds the law, we shall certainly be crushed with a sense of our own hell–deserving guilt and hopeless inability. We shall be constrained to cry out 'Woe is me for I am undone." "Surely I am more brutish than any man, and I have not the understanding of a man."[5] But in that condition there falls upon our ears and into our hearts the sweet news of the gospel, the gospel of a crucified and risen Redeemer and Lord. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us."[6] We shall be constrained to come to Calvary.

    But when we come to Calvary for the expiation of our guilt and the remission of our sin, it is not to diminish our esteem of that law nor relax our sense of its awful sanctity and binding authority. Oh, no! As the brilliant and eloquent James Henley Thornwell spoke and wrote a hundred years ago, "He that stands beneath the cross and understands the scene dares not sin; not because there is a hell beneath him or an angry God above him, but because Holiness is felt to reign there the ground on which he treads is sacred, the glory of the Lord encircles him, and, like Moses, he must remove the shoes from his feet. The Cross is a venerable spot. I love to linger around it, not merely that I may read my title to everlasting life, but that I may study the greatness of God. I use the term advisedly. God never appears to be so truly great, so intensely holy, as when from the pure energy of principle, He gives Himself, in the person of His Son, to die, rather than that His character should be impugned. Who dares prevaricate with moral distinctions and talk of death as a greater evil than dishonor, when God, the mighty Maker, died rather than that truth and justice should be compromised? Who at the foot of Calvary can pronounce sin to he a slight matter?"[7]

    When we are possessed by the sense of the authority and sanctity of the moral law we must come to Calvary if any true and living hope is to be engendered within us. But when we rise from our prostration before the cross, it is not to find the moral law abrogated but to find it by the grace of God wrought into the fibre of the new life in Christ Jesus. If the cross of Christ does not fulfill in us the passion of righteousness, we have misinterpreted the whole scheme of divine redemption. "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."[8] Is it that the moral law might cease to bind and regulate? Oh, no! But "that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."
Working...
X
Articles - News - SiteMap