We have seen that the way of life of the age to come, when sin shall be no more, is faith, just as it was the way of life before sin entered the human race at the fall. The cross makes this modus operandi a reality again in this present age. As the church hears the scandalous gospel more clearly, she will learn to walk by faith more consistently. A church living by faith and not by obedience to the law strikes fear in the devil’s heart, and as she proclaims the gospel of the grace of God she is lobbing atomic hand grenades at the gates of Hell. Her attack will not be withstood by Satan and his demons, [1] as the Lord gradually turns the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our God, as we are exhorted to pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

In the last article, we distinguished clearly between the law and the gospel. In this issue we will distinguish between the two distinctly different functions of the law—the two edges of the sword of the law-word of God—as God penetrates our hearts with His truth. [2] Just as differentiating between law and gospel is crucial, recognizing the two distinct functions of the law as the Holy Spirit uses it in our lives is equally critical if we are to “give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” [3]

The theological or internal use of the law–as an accuser to condemn us and drive us to faith in Christ

The law of God, representing His eternal standard, is everywhere. Every man comes into the world under the law. It is written on our hearts, in the Law of Moses, the teachings of Jesus and the injunctions of Paul and the other apostles in the Bible. We cannot escape it. It bores in upon us in one of its forms at every turn. It represents God’s immutable character and fills His universe.

The first way God uses this eternal law in our lives has to do with our relationship with Him–that One who is above us and whom every man, even the atheist, knows in his heart is there. This internal purpose of the law is not to lay out a standard which we must strive to keep, nor is it to be the ultimate guarantor that we won’t fall into sin (sort of a divine safety net or holy hand rails around the grace of God to keep us from falling off the straight and narrow).

Neither is it to be a gentle guide by which Christians are to attempt to order their lives, always falling short but always striving to do better. That would be “living by the law,” a practice Paul condemns in Romans and Galatians as not being at all helpful in producing a less sinful life. As a matter of fact, living with the law as a guide to try to follow in our relationship with God actually produces more sin, not less. [4] What the law of God demands we do, we find it impossible to successfully perform. We are culpable but not capable.

No, the internal, theological purpose of the law, wherever God’s law is found, is not to show us how to please God by obeying it, but always to show us our utter inability to obey it successfully and therefore to “kill” us! Paul’s ex­perience in Romans 7 is a classic example of the law at work internally—God using His law to destroy Paul’s confidence in his ability to ever keep it and to bring him to faith. [5]

There is no other purpose for the law in terms of our relationship with God but to show us our sin and to “kill” us—to make experiential today the reality of our death with Christ on the cross 2000 years ago. [6] Then God brings to life those He has “killed” totally by grace through faith. [7] It is something only God can do. It is His responsibility. We proclaim the law and the gospel to all who will listen, but only God can bring faith to the hearers. Once He has done that to us, we are no longer under the law of God as we relate to Him. [8] We are free from it. We are dead to it. It has completed its internal work in our hearts. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to those who believe.” [9] “For by the law, I died to the law, that I might live (by faith) unto God.” [10]

The creature of the age to come (a “believer” rather than a “doer”) is progressively learning to live in this age as he will live then–by faith alone, apart from the law. Learning to live more consistently by faith in our relationship with God and less consistently by obedience to His law constitutes spiritual growth. Then, wonder of wonders, obedience results, as a natural, spontaneous, unconscious result, with no effort by the believer (Romans 8:4)!

The external use of the law in restraining evil by the civil government

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But there is another, very important use of the law. What about those in this age who have as yet not come to faith, those who have as yet not seen the wickedness of their hearts and turned to Jesus as their only hope? They cannot live by faith in a Savior whom they do not acknowledge and within whom the Holy Spirit does not dwell to empower them. Paul teaches that the law has another purpose in their lives. What is it? “Before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law.” [11]

Historically, the law has been seen as having a civil or external use as well as a theological or internal one. In other words, the law of God is used to restrain evil. It represents God’s common grace in a fallen world, blessing believers and unbelievers alike by making it possible for men to dwell together in peace. Without this biblical use of the law, including appropriate sanctions when the law is broken, all who have not come to genuine faith do what is right in their own eyes. Without law, society quickly degenerates into chaos, as pictured for us in Romans 1:18-32.

So, the law of God should be used by those in authority in the God-ordained institution of civil government to restrain those under their authority who are not functioning by faith in the gospel (either Christians or non-Christians).

Martin Luther called this external use of the law God’s “left handed rule.” He went on to say that this use of the law amounts to being responsible for “what is beneath you,” i.e., those things of this age over which God has given mankind responsibility. This would include the family, the church, the civil government and the marketplace.

Conversely, we are not responsible for “what is above us,” i.e., our relationship with God—our salvation, sanctification and glorification.  These things are entirely God’s job, completely out of our realm of responsibility and hence out of our control. Our relationship with Him is totally by grace through faith.

The law of God is used in its external sense to suppress crime and develop and protect our relationships with our fellow man, not for suppressing sin and enhancing our relationship with God. Remember, the law does not suppress sin, but makes sin more sinful.

The external, pedagogical use of the law in the family

Just as there must be order in the community, there must be order in the family. The law of God, by its proper external administration, brings that order. The civil government must demand external obedience to its laws by its citizens, and the family must do the same with its family members. Children must obey their parents as the parents attempt to teach their children the family standards of conduct, whether they want to obey them or not. If the children do not do so, the parents must exercise appropriate sanctions. This is how we teach our children character that will equip them to function successfully in the world, a task God has unmistakably given to parents as a responsibility.

However, parents must remember that this application of the law has nothing to do with their children’s salvation or their relationship with God in any way, nor can they use the law of God to dictate what their children believe in their hearts. The external use of the law deals with actions, not thoughts and intents of the heart. If this is not clearly understood, we as parents find ourselves trying to control and manipulate our children’s thoughts and beliefs, something only God can change. By doing so we find ourselves again succumbing to the temptation of the Garden to want to be as God, attempting to do what only He can do—change our children’s hearts.

John 1:12, 13 tells us that we are not born again (nor are we sanctified) by “blood (being born into a Christian family), by the will of the flesh (moral achievement), or by the will of man (intellectual attainment or doctrinal orthodoxy), but by God alone.” God is responsible for our salvation and the salvation of our children in all its aspects.

Once this new birth occurs and the Holy Spirit genuinely lives within, and one begins to learn to walk by faith, one has an overwhelming desire to keep the law of God. That is characteristic of all true Christians. We position ourselves to begin to relate properly to “what is beneath us.” We want to take the responsibility God has given us, whether it be training our children, obeying our parents, being diligent at work, handling our money prudently, living in harmony with our neighbor or obeying the civil authorities rather than running from responsibility and seeking our own will. Once the internal work of the law is accomplished in our lives by bringing us to faith in the God above us, we are ready to use the law externally as we give ourselves to bringing order to the world around us, i.e., caring for God’s creation beneath us.

Next week we will look at how the law of God can be applied properly in its external use as we carry out God’s dominion mandate on the earth.

[1] Matthew 16:18
[2] Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12
[3] 1 Peter 3:15
[4] Romans 7:5, 10, 13
[5] Romans 7:13-25
[6] Galatians 2:19
[7] 1 Samuel 2:6
[8] Galatians 3:25
[9] Romans 10:4
[10] Galatians 2:19
[11] Galatians 3:23

Recommended further reading:

Robert Andrews: The Family-God’s Weapon for Victory
Rousas Rushdoony: The Institutes of Biblical Law
Wilhelmus a Brakel: The Christian’s Reasonable Service