WCF 19: Of the Law of God

Dear Church Family,

When it comes to interpreting and applying God’s Law, many questions arise. For instance, I have heard non-Christians ask, “If you claim to believe and follow the Bible, then why do you eat shellfish?” Some Christians even ask, “If I am saved by grace, then what does the Law of God have to do with me?” Still others erroneously look to the Scriptures as an economic or political guidebook for our nation. Amidst all of this confusion, the teaching of chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” in the Westminster Confession of Faith is a great help, and answers many of these questions.

I have written previously about the believer’s relationship to the Law of God and how we are to learn to delight in it. And, I have also written about how to apply and interpret the law of God using the three different types of law and the three uses of the law. I encourage to check out those links; however, here we will have a simple summary and overview of our lesson from the adult Sunday school class on the 19th chapter of the confession.

WCF 19.1 – The Origin and Continuance of the Law of God

If God is holy and just, then the Law of God must be part of His nature. That is to say, we ought not to think of the Law of God as some abstract set of random principles. Rather, the Law of God is part of who God is. Or, we might say, the Law of God originates in the ‘mind’ of God. Thus, in the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam a law, as a covenant of works, requiring of him personal and perpetual obedience (Genesis 2:16-17). This law which was given to Adam, continues to be written on man’s heart – even since the Fall – and continues to be binding on all human beings who are created in God’s image (Romans 2:14-15).

WCF 19.2 – The Ten Commandments are the same Law that was written on man’s heart

We might think of the process of communication of God’s Law in this way: the Law exists in the ‘mind’ of God; since man was created in God’s image, God’s Law was written on his heart; this same Law continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness and was delivered on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments (James 2:10-11). Thus, Jesus summarized the Law of God with the great and foremost commandment to love God, and the second greatest commandment to love one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40).

This Law, written on man’s heart, and then written on tablets of stone is often referred to as “the moral law.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this teaching: “the rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law” (WSC 40). And, “the moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (WSC 41).

WCF 19.3 – Ceremonial Laws

As a church ‘under age’ – that is, awaiting the full revelation of God through Jesus Christ – God, in the old covenant, gave Israel ceremonial laws. These ceremonial laws are of two different kinds. One kind of ceremonial law deals with worship; these prefigure (or point to) Christ (Hebrews 8:13-9:1; 10:1). The other kind of ceremonial has to do with moral duties; these kinds of ceremonial laws often highlighted the idea of God’s people being distinct and separate from the rest of humanity (1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 6:17).

Since Jesus Christ has broken down the barrier of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile through His death on the cross (Ephesians 2:14-16), these ceremonial laws have been abrogated (or abolished) in the new covenant (Colossians 2:13-17). Because Jesus Christ offered His body, once for all, as an atonement for sin (Hebrews 10:10), the animal sacrifices of the old covenant are no longer needed; that which they pointed to has come. And, because the gospel has gone out to Jew and Gentile alike, the distinction between Jew and Greek has been done away with (Galatians 3:28-29; Colossians 3:11). God’s people are no longer defined by a distinctive culture (dress, diet, etc.) but by faith in Jesus Christ.  

WCF 19.4 – Civil Laws

In the old covenant, God’s people were also a political body with various judicial laws by which the nation-state of Israel was governed. These civil laws expired with the political state of God’s people at the coming of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22; Matthew 5:38-39). God’s people are no longer a commonwealth (or independent nation). Yet, even as these civil laws no longer apply to any particular nation-state or political entity, these laws are helpful to instruct us concerning what justice and fairness look like (1 Peter 2:13).

WCF 19.5 – The Moral Law

As was noted in the first two paragraphs above (WCF 19.1 and 19.2), all human beings – believers and unbelievers alike – continue to be bound by the moral law; the ten commandments bind all people, at all times, to obedience (Romans 3:31; 13:8-9; 1 John 2:3-6). Christ, in the Gospel, does not dissolve the Law of God, but actually strengthens our obligation to it (Matthew 5:17-19).

Summary (WCF 19.1-5)

Briefly, we may summarize the teaching of the first five paragraphs of this chapter under three main points:

(1) The moral law, which is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments, was written on Adam’s heart and given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This moral law is a perpetual and perfect rule of righteousness, forever binding on all people.

(2) The ceremonial laws, which were given to Israel as a church under age, were typological and instructive. They point us to Christ and remind us of God’s call to holiness, and have been abrogated in the new covenant.

(3) The civil laws, which were given to the commonwealth of Israel as a nation-state, expired with that political state of Israel. They are no longer binding, yet they teach us of our general equity (fair and just) obligations.

WCF 9.6 – The Three Uses of the Moral Law

The sixth paragraph of this chapter is rather lengthy and requires close examination; however, the main teaching may be summarized this way: there are basically three uses of the moral law (the ten commandments).

(1) Civic Use – Goad to civil righteousness – the ten commandments serve the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large to restrain sin and promote righteousness. Thus, for believers and unbelievers alike (as human beings created in God’s image yet fallen into sin), the moral law may function simply as a behavioral hedge (e.g., Romans 2:14-15).

(2) Pedagogical Use – Tutor to drive us to Christ – the ten commandments also function as a tutor that leads us to see our need for Christ. In this way, we see how the law condemns us as law-breakers and shows us our need for the one perfect law-keeper, Jesus Christ (e.g., Romans 8:3-4; Galatians 3:23-24).

(3) Teaching Use – Rule of life – for believers, and only for believers, the ten commandments also provide a guide for righteousness and holy living (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:19; Romans 7:12, 22, 25). Thus, believers will learn to delight in God’s Law (Psalm 1:2; 40:8)

WCF 9.7 – The Law sweetly complies with the Gospel

This chapter of the confession concludes with a reminder and an admonition that we ought never to think of the Law of God as being contrary to the grace of the Gospel (Galatians 3:21). Rather, one of the promises of the new covenant is that the Lord will teach His people to walk in His ways, according to His commandments (Ezekiel 36:27; Hebrews 8:10; Jeremiah 31:33).

Conclusion

As Christians, we should remember two things concerning the moral law (or ten commandments). If we remember these two things, we will be able to avoid much confusion in the Christian life. First, no one is able to be justified in God’s sight by the works of the law; through the law comes the knowledge of our own sin (Romans 3:20) and our need for Christ and His righteousness (Romans 8:3-4). Second, if we have come to love Jesus, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15); those who have been born of God keep His commandments (1 John 5:2-3).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch