Introduction to the Law
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The Importance of the Law
When Wyclif wrote of his English Bible that “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” his statement attracted no attention insofar as his emphasis on the centrality of Biblical law was concerned. That law should be God’s law was held by all; Wyclif’s departure from accepted opinion was that the people themselves should not only read and know that law but also should in some sense govern as well as be governed by it. At this point, Heer is right in saying that “Wyclif and Hus were the first to demonstrate to Europethe possibility of an alliance between the university and the people’s yearning for salvation. It was the freedom of Oxfordthat sustained Wyclif.”  The concern was less with church or state than with government by the law word of God.
Brin has said, of the Hebrew social order, that it differed from all others in that it was believed to be grounded on and governed by the law of God, who gave it specifically for man’s government. [ 2] No less thanIsrael of old, Christendom believed itself to be God’s realm because it was governed by the law of God as set forth in Scripture. There were departures from that law, variations of it, and laxity in faithfulness to it, but Christendom saw itself as the new Israel of God and no less subject to His law.
When New England began its existence as a law-order, its adoption of Biblical law was both a return to Scripture and a return to Europe’s past. It was a new beginning in terms of old foundations. It was not an easy beginning, in that the many servants who came with the Puritans later were in full scale revolt against any Biblical faith and order. [ 3]Nevertheless, it was a resolute return to the fundamentals of Christendom. Thus, the New Haven Colony records show that the law of God, without any sense of innovation, was made the law of the Colony:
March 2, 1641/2: And according to the fundamental agreem(en)t, made and published by full and gen(e)r(a)ll consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall lawof God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the moral law, and neither ceremoniall nor typical nor had any reference to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. 
April 3, 1644: Itt was ordered thatt the judiciall lawes of God, as they were delivered by Moses .. . be a rule to all the courts in this jurisdiction in their proceeding against offenders. . . . 
Thomas Shepard wrote, in 1649, “For all laws, whether ceremonial or judicial, may be referred to the decalogue, as appendices to it, or applications of it, and so to comprehend all other laws as their summary.” 
It is an illusion to hold that such opinions were simply a Puritan aberration rather than a truly Biblical practice and an aspect of the persisting life of Christendom. It is a modern heresy that holds that the law of God has no meaning nor any binding force for man today. It is an aspect of the influence of humanistic and evolutionary thought on the church, and it posits an evolving, developing god. This “dispensational” god expressed himself in law in an earlier age, then later expressed himself by grace alone, and is now perhaps to express himself in still another way. But this is not the God of Scripture, whose grace and law remain the same in every age, because He, as the sovereign and absolute lord, changes not, nor does He need to change. The strength of man is the absoluteness of his God.
To attempt to study Scripture without studying its law is to deny it. To attempt to understand Western civilization apart from the impact of Biblical law within it and upon it is to seek a fictitious history and to reject twenty centuries and their progress.
The Institutes of Biblical Law has as its purpose a reversal of the present trend. It is called “Institutes” in the older meaning of that word, i.e., fundamental principles, here of law, because it is intended as a beginning, as an instituting consideration of that law which must govern society, and which shall govern society under God.
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The Validity of Biblical Law
A central characteristic of the churches and of modern preaching and Biblical teaching is antinomianism, an anti-law position. The antinomian believes that faith frees the Christian from the law, so that he is not outside the law but is rather dead to the law. There is no warrant whatsoever in Scripture for antinomianism. The expression, ”dead to the law,” is indeed in Scripture (Gal. 2:9; Rom. 7:4), but it has reference to the believer in relationship to the atoning work of Christ as the believer’s representative and substitute; the believer is dead to the law as an indictment, a legal sentence of death against him, Christ having died for him, but the believer is alive to the law as the righteousness of God. The purpose of Christ’s atoning work was to restore man to a position of covenant-keeping instead of covenant-breaking, to enable man to keep the law by freeing man ”from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2), “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). Man is restored to a position of law-keeping. The law thus has a position of centrality in man’s indictment (as a sentence of death against man the sinner), in man’s redemption (in that Christ died, Who although the perfect law-keeper as the new Adam, died as man’s substitute), and in man’s sanctification (in that man grows in grace as he grows in law-keeping, for the law is the way of sanctification).
Man as covenant-breaker is in “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7) and is subject to “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2), whereas the believer is under “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ” (Rom. 8:2). The law is one law, the law of God. To the man on death row in a prison, the law is death; to the godly man, the same law which places another on death row is life, in that it protects him and his property from criminals. Without law, society would collapse into anarchy and fall into the hands of hoodlums. The faithful and full execution of the law is death to the murderer but life to the godly. Similarly, the law in its judgment upon God’s enemies is death; the law in its sustaining care and blessings is for the law-abiding a principle of life.
God, in creating man, ordered him to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Man, in attempting to establish separate dominion and autonomous jurisdiction over the earth (Gen. 3:5), fell into sin and death. God, in order to re-establish the Kingdom of God, called Abraham, and then Israel, to be His people, to subdue the earth, and to exercise dominion under God. The law, as given through Moses, established the laws of godly society, of true development for man under God, and the prophets repeatedly recalled Israel to this purpose.
The purpose of Christ’s coming was in terms of this same creation mandate. Christ as the new Adam (I Cor. 15:45) kept the law perfectly. As the sin-bearer of the elect, Christ died to make atonement for their sins, to restore them to their position of righteousness under God. The redeemed are recalled to the original purpose of man, to exercise dominion under God, to be covenant-keepers, and to fulfil ”the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 8:4). The law remains central to God’s purpose. Man has been re-established into God’s original purpose and calling. Man’s justification is by the grace of God in Jesus Christ; man’s sanctification is by means of the law of God.
As the new chosen people of God, the Christians are commanded to do that which Adam in Eden, and Israel in Canaan, failed to do. One and the same covenant, under differing administrations, still prevails. Man is summoned to create the society God requires. The determination of man and of history is from God, but the reference of God’s law is to this world. “To be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6), and to be spiritually minded does not mean to be other-worldly but to apply the mandates of the written word under the guidance of the Spirit to this world.
Lawless Christianity is a contradiction in terms: it is anti-Christian. The purpose of grace is not to set aside the law but to fulfil the law and to enable man to keep the law. If the law was so serious in the sight of God that it would require the death of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, to make atonement for man’s sin, it seems strange for God then to proceed to abandon the law! The goal of the law is not lawlessness, nor the purpose of grace a lawless contempt of the giver of grace.
The increasing breakdown of law and order must first of all be attributed to the churches and their persistent antinomianism. If the churches are lax with respect to the law, will not the people follow suit? And civil law cannot be separated from Biblical law, for the Biblical doctrine of law includes all law, civil, ecclesiastical, societal, familial, and all other forms of law. The social order which despises God’s law places itself on death row: it is marked for judgment.
The Law as Revelation and Treaty
Law is in every culture religious in origin. Because law governs man and society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious, in that it establishes in practical fashion the ultimate concerns of a culture. Accordingly, a fundamental and necessary premise in any and every study of law must be, first, a recognition of this religious nature of law.
'Second, it must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society. If law has its source in man’s reason, then reason is the god of that society. If the source is an oligarchy, or in a court, senate, or ruler, then that source is the god of that system. Thus, in Greek culture law was essentially a religiously humanistic concept. In contrast to every law derived from revelation, nomas for the Greeks originated in the mind (nous). So the genuine nomas is no mere obligatory law, but something in which an entity valid in itself is discovered and appropriated. … It is “the order which exists (from time immemorial), is valid and is put into operation.”
Because for the Greeks mind was one being with the ultimate order of things, man’s mind was thus able to discover ultimate law (nomas) out of its own resources, by penetrating through the maze of accident and matter to the fundamental ideas of being. As a result, Greek culture became both humanistic, because man’s mind was one with ultimacy, and also neoplatonic, ascetic, and hostile to the world of matter, because mind, to be truly itself, had to separate itself from non-mind.
Modern humanism, the religion of the state, locates law in the state and thus makes the state, or the people as they find expression in the state, the god of the system. As Mao Tse-Tung has said, “Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people.”2 In Western culture, law has steadily moved away from God to the people (or the state) as its source, although the historic power and vitality of the West has been in Biblical faith and law.
Third, in any society, any change of law is an explicit or implicit change of religion. Nothing more clearly reveals, in fact, the religious change in a society than a legal revolution. When the legal foundations shift from Biblical law to humanism, it means that the society now draws its vitality and power from humanism, not from Christian theism.
Fourth, no disestablishment of religion as such is possible in any society. A church can be disestablished, and a particular religion can be supplanted by another, but the change is simply to another religion. Since the foundations of law are inescapably religious, no society exists without a religious foundation or without a law-system which codifies the morality of its religion.
Fifth, there can be no tolerance in a law-system for another religion. Toleration is a device used to introduce a new law-system as a prelude to a new intolerance. Legal positivism, a humanistic faith, has been savage in its hostility to the Biblical law-system and has claimed to be an “open” system. But Cohen, by no means a Christian, has aptly described the logical positivists as “nihilists” and their faith as ”nihilistic absolutism.”3 Every law-system must maintain its existence by hostility to every other law-system and to alien religious foundations, or else it commits suicide.
In analyzing now the nature of Biblical law, it is important to note first that, for the Bible, law is revelation. The Hebrew word for law is torah, which means instruction, authoritative direction.4 The Biblical concept of law is broader than the legal codes of the Mosaic formulation. It applies to the divine word and instruction in its totality:
. . . the earlier prophets also use torah for the divine word proclaimed through them (Isa. viii. 16, cf. also v. 20; Isa. xxx. 9 f.; perhaps also Isa. i. 10). Besides this, certain passages in the earlier prophets use the word torah also for the commandment of Yahweh which was written down: thus Hos. viii. 12. Moreover there are clearly examples not only of ritual matters, but also of ethics.
Hence it follows that at any rate in this period torah had the meaning of a divine instruction, whether it had been written down long ago as a law and was preserved and pronounced by a priest, or whether the priest was delivering it at that time (Lam. ii. 9; Ezek. vii. 26; Mai. ii. 4ff.), or the prophet is commissioned by God to pronounce it for a definite situation (so perhaps Isa. xxx. 9).
Thus what is objectively essential in torah is not the form but the divine authority.
The law is the revelation of God and His righteousness. There is no ground in Scripture for despising the law. Neither can the law be relegated to the Old Testament and grace to the New:
The time-honored distinction between the OT as a book of law and the NT as a book of divine grace is without grounds or justification. Divine grace and mercy are the presupposition of law in the OT; and the grace and love of God displayed in the NT events issue in the legal obligations of the New Covenant. Furthermore, the OT contains evidence of a long history of legal developments which must be assessed before the place of law is adequately understood. Paul’s polemics against the law in Galatians and Romans are directed against an understanding of law which is by no means characteristic of the OT as a whole.
There is no contradiction between law and grace. The question in James’s Epistle is faith and works, not faith and law.7 Judaism had made law the mediator between God and man, and between God and the world. It was this view of law, not the law itself, which Jesus attacked. As Himself the Mediator, Jesus rejected the law as mediator in order to re-establish the law in its God-appointed role as law, the way of holiness. He established the law by dispensing forgiveness as the law-giver in full support of the law as the convicting word which makes men sinners. The law was rejected only as mediator and as the source of justification.9 Jesus fully recognized the law, and obeyed the law. It was only the absurd interpretations of the law He rejected. Moreover,
We are not entitled to gather from the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels that He made any formal distinction between the Law of Moses and the Law of God. His mission being not to destroy but to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 5:17), so far from saying anything in disparagement of the Law of Moses or from encouraging His disciples to assume an attitude of independence with regard to it. He expressly recognized the authority of the Law of Moses as such, and of the Pharisees as its official interpreters (Mt. 23:1-3).
With the completion of Christ’s work, the role of the Pharisees as interpreters ended, but not the authority of the Law. In the New Testament era, only apostolically received revelation was ground for any alteration in the law. The authority of the law remained unchanged:
St. Peter, e.g., required a special revelation before he would enter the house of the uncircumcised Cornelius and admit the first Gentile convert into the Church by baptism (Acts 10:1-48)—a step which did not fail to arouse opposition on the part of those who ”were of the circumcision” (cf. 11:1-18). 1
The second characteristic of Biblical law is that it is a treaty or covenant. Kline has shown that the form of the giving of the law, the language of the text, the historical prologue, the requirement of exclusive commitment to the suzerain, God, the pronouncement of imprecations and benedictions, and much more, all point to the fact that the law is a treaty established by God with His people. Indeed, “the revelation committed to the two tables was rather a suzerainty treaty or covenant than a legal code.”12 The full covenant summary, the Ten Commandments, was inscribed on each of the two tables of stone, one table or copy of the treaty for each party in the treaty, God and Israel.’3
The two stone tables are not, therefore, to be likened to a stele containing one of the half-dozen or so known legal codes earlier than or roughly contemporary with Moses as though God had engraved on these tables a corpus of law. The revelation they contain is nothing less than an epitome of the covenant granted by Yahweh, the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, to his elect and redeemed servant, Israel.
Not law, but covenant. That must be affirmed when we are seeking a category comprehensive enough to do justice to this revelation in its totality. At the same time, the prominence of the stipulations, reflected in the fact that “the ten words” are the element used as pars pro toto, signalizes the centrality of law in this type of covenant. There is probably no clearer direction afforded the biblical theologian for defining with biblical emphasis the type of covenant God adopted to formalize his relationship to his people than that given in the covenant he gave Israel to perform, even “the ten commandments.” Such a covenant is a declaration of God’s lordship, consecrating a people to himself in a sovereignly dictated order of life.
This latter phrase needs re-emphasis: the covenant is “a sovereignly dictated order of life.” God as the sovereign Lord and Creator gives His law to man as an act of sovereign grace. It is an act of election, of electing grace (Deut. 7:7 f.; 8:17; 9:4-6, etc.).
The God to whom the earth belongs will have Israel for His own property, Ex. xix. 5. It is only on the ground of the gracious election and guidance of God that the divine commands to the people are given, and therefore the Decalogue, Ex. xx. 2, places at its forefront the fact of election.’5
In the law, the total life of man is ordered: “there is no primary distinction between the inner and the outer life; the holy calling of the people must be realized in both.”16
The third characteristic of the Biblical law or covenant is that it constitutes a plan for dominion under God. God called Adam to exercise dominion in terms of God’s revelation, God’s law (Gen. 1:26 ff.; 2:15-17). This same calling, after the fall, was required of the godly line, and in Noah it was formally renewed (Gen. 9:1-17). It was again renewed with Abraham, with Jacob, with Israel in the person of Moses, with Joshua, David, Solomon (whose Proverbs echo the law), with Hezekiah and Josiah, and finally with Jesus Christ. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the renewal of the covenant: “this is my blood of the new testament” (or covenant), so that the sacrament itself re-establishes the law, this time with a new elect group (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; I Cor. 11:25). The people of the law are now the people of Christ, the believers redeemed by His atoning blood and called by His sovereign election. Kline, in analyzing Hebrews 9:16, 17, in relation to the covenant administration, observes:
. . . the picture suggested would be that of Christ’s children (cf. 2:13) inheriting his universal dominion as their eternal portion (note 9:15b; cf. also 1:14; 2:5 ff.; 6:17; 11:7 ft). And such is the wonder of the messianic Mediator-Testator that the royal inheritance of his sons, which becomes of force only through his death, is nevertheless one of co-regency with the living Testator! For (to follow the typological direction provided by Heb. 9:16, 17 according to the present interpretation) Jesus is both dying Moses and succeeding Joshua. Not merely after a figure but in truth a royal Mediator redivivus, he secures the divine dynasty by succeeding himself in resurrection power and ascension glory.
The purpose of God in requiring Adam to exercise dominion over the earth remains His continuing covenant word: man, created in God’s image and commanded to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it in God’s name, is recalled to this task and privilege by his redemption and regeneration.
The law is therefore the law for Christian man and Christian society. Nothing is more deadly or more derelict than the notion that the Christian is at liberty with respect to the kind of law he can have. Calvin, whose classical humanism gained ascendancy at this point, said of the laws of states, of civil governments:
I will briefly remark, however, by the way, what laws it (the state) may piously use before God, and be rightly governed by among men. And even this I would have preferred passing over in silence, if I did not know that it is a point on which many persons run into dangerous errors. For some deny that a state is well constituted, which neglects the polity of Moses, and is governed by the common laws of nations. The dangerous and seditious nature of this opinion I leave to the examination of others; it will be sufficient for me to have evinced it to be false and foolish.
Such ideas, common in Calvinist and Lutheran circles, and in virtually all churches, are still heretical nonsense. Calvin favored “the common law of nations.” But the common law of nations in his day was Biblical law, although extensively denatured by Roman law. And this ”common law of nations” was increasingly evidencing a new religion, humanism. Calvin wanted the establishment of the Christian religion; he could not have it, nor could it last long in Geneva, without Biblical law.
Two Reformed scholars, in writing of the state, declare, “It is to be God’s servant, for our welfare. It must exercise justice, and it has the power of the sword.”20 Yet these men follow Calvin in rejecting Biblical law for “the common law of nations.” But can the state be God’s servant and by-pass God’s law? And if the state “must exercise justice,” how is justice defined, by the nations, or by God? There are as many ideas of justice as there are religions.
The question then is, what law for the state? Shall it be positive law, the law of nations, a relativistic law? De Jongste and van Krimpen, after calling for “justice” in the state, declare, “A static legislation valid for all times is an impossibility.”21 Indeed! Then what about the commandment, Biblical legislation, if you please, “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not steal”? Are they not intended to be valid for all time and in every civil order? By abandoning Biblical law, these Protestant theologians end up in moral and legal relativism.
Roman Catholic scholars offer natural law. The origins of this concept are in Roman law and religion. For the Bible, there is no law in nature, because nature is fallen and cannot be normative. Moreover, the source of law is not nature but God. There is no law in nature but a law over nature, God’s law.22
Neither positive law nor natural law can reflect more than the sin and apostasy of man: revealed law is the need and privilege of Christian society. It is the only means whereby man can fulfill his creation mandate of exercising dominion under God. Apart from revealed law, man cannot claim to be under God but only in rebellion against God.
- Friedrich Heer, The Intellectual History of Europe (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1966), p. 184.
- Joseph G. Brin, “The Social Order Under Hebrew Law,” The Law Society Journal, vol. VII, no. 3 (August, 1936), pp. 383-387.
- Henry Bamford Parkes, “Morals and Law Enforcement in Colonial England,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 5 (July, 1932), pp. 431-452.
- Charles Hoadly, ed., Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven from 1638 to 1649 (Hartford: for the Editor, 1857), p. 69.
- Ibid., p. 130.
- John A. Albro, ed., The Works of Thomas Shepard, III, Theses Sabbatical (1649) (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1853; New York: AMS Press, 1967), p. 49.
- Hermann Kleinknecht and W. Gutbrod, Law (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1962), p. 21.
- Mao Tse-Tung, The Foolish Old Man Who Removed Mountains (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1966), p. 3.
- Morris Raphael Cohen, Reason and Law (New York: Collier Books, 1961), p. 84 f.
- Ernest F. Kevan, The Moral Law (Jenkintown, Penna.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1963) p. 5 f. S. R. Driver, “Law (In Old Testament),” in James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of the Bible, vol. Ill (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), p. 64.
- Kleinknecht and Gutbrod, Law, p. 44.
- W. J. Harrelson, “Law in the OT,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), HI, 77.\
- Kleinknecht and Gutbrod, Law, p. 125.
- Ibid., pp. 74, 81-91.
- Ibid., p. 95.
- Hugh H. Currie, “Law of God,” in James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), II, 15.
- Olaf Moe, “Law,” in James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of the Apostolic Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), I, 685.
- Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King, The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 16. See also J. A. Thompson: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Old Testament (London: The Tyndale Press, 1964).
- Kline, op. cit., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 17
- Gustave Friedrich Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1883), p. 177.
- Ibid., p. 182
- Kline, Treaty of the Great King, p. 41.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. IV, chap. XX, para, xiv. In the John Allen translation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), II, 787 f.
- See H. de Jongste and J. M. van Krimpen, The Bible and the Life of the Christian, for similar opinions (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 66 ff.
- Ibid., p. 73.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- The very term “nature” is mythical. See R. J. Rushdoony, “The Myth of Nature,” in The Mythology of Science (Nutley, N. J.: The Craig Press, 1967), pp. 96-98.