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Thursday, August 24, 2017
Date Posted:

The Law of God - The Touchstone Of The Protestant Ethics - Part 1

By Professor W. Childs Robinson, D.D. Columbia Theological Seminary, An Address given at the Edinburgh Calvanistic Congress in 1938 IN FOUR PARTS
Professor W. Childs Robinson

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, brought the whole moral life and ethical conduct under the eye of the heavenly Father. According to the high theism   which He taught, the standard and the promise is the Father's perfection, the motive His glory and the reach of the Divine requirement as far as the all‑seeing eye of God can penetrate.  Our Lord so completely subsumed ethics under religion that certain of the Formgeschichte teachers have said that  He taught no ethics. Their statements serve to  emphasise the fact that He did not teach men to measure their conduct by human values or tribal customs, but by the revealed will of God.  Indeed, the Saviour removed the law of the Lord as far as possible from mere custom, norm, or abstract legality, and presented God Himself at its every point of impact upon the human soul. Moreover, both undergirding and overarching this penetrating exposition of God's holy will are those assur­ances of His grace which make His yoke easy and His burden light. For those who are destitute of spiritual wealth there is the blessing of Heaven's Kingdom; for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness the promised fullness. “Ye shall be perfect.”


John Calvin apprehended the Saviour’s point of view and gave ethics a definite place in his systematic presentation of Christian doctrine. He accepted the Ten Commandments in the rich content which the Lord gave them in the Sermon on the Mount. Calvin insisted on a life as well as a faith Reformed by the Word of God. For him doctrine meant any teaching of the Word, duty as well as dogma, promise as truly as precept. In thus recognising that “the dogmatic itself is ethics and the ethics is dogmatics”  he receives high commendation from Barth. Calvin used the law of God to define duty and included it in the Genevan Confession and the Institutes. As a result expositions of the Commandments received a large place in Calvinistic catechisms and frequently in Reformed worship. In recognition of this phenomenon, B. B. Warfield have no other justifying righteousness than that obtained from the Mediator (III. xiv. II).


According to Calvinism there is no justification apart from regeneration, since the faith which is the condition or instru­mental cause of justification is the work of the Holy Spirit. And at the same time as He works justifying faith in the soul, the Spirit writes the law of God upon the heart. Or, as Calvin puts it, “By the Holy Spirit Christ dwells in us so that we are sanctified, that is, consecrated to the Lord by real purity of heart, having our hearts moulded to obey His law, so that it is our prevailing inclination to submit to His will and to promote His glory by all possible means” (III. xiv. 9). “The state of Christians under the law of grace consists not in un­bounded licence, but in being engrafted into Christ, by whose grace they are fundamentally delivered from the curse of the law, and by whose Spirit they have the law inscribed on their hearts” (II. viii. 58). The law of God is inscribed and engraved by the finger of God on the hearts of those in whom the Spirit lives and reigns (II. vii. 12).


This doctrine is not that the law written on the heart exempts a Christian from the external Word of the Lord. Rather the law within causes one to delight in the objective law of God. Calvin is not among those who substitute love, consecration, conscience, or inferences - even in regenerated hearts - for the law of God. “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.” Thornwell has well written, “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 God contained in the Scriptures that we can Justly say, It is perfect.” Calvin expressly teaches that “the law exhibits a perfect model of righteousness” (II. vii. 13).


And neither the advent nor the appropriation of Christ has detracted from the observance of the law. The Saviour said that He came not to destroy the law but to fulfil it, that till heaven and earth shall pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled, and that if ye love Me ye will keep My commandments. “Thus the law has received no diminution of its authority, “rather,” the doctrine of the law remains therefore inviolable, which by tuition, reproof and correction forms and prepares us for every good work” (II. vii. 14, 15). God's call places us “with the comfort of the Gospel under the discipline of His law,”  under the obedience of the faith. Indeed, Calvin holds that the third work of the law, which is to regulate and guide the lives of the faithful, is its principal use. When excited and animated by the Spirit they desire to obey God, they derive a twofold advantage from the law. First it gives them a better understanding of the Divine will and confirms them in the knowledge of it. A servant animated by the strongest desire to gain the approbation of his master carefully inquires for and observes the orders of his master in order to conform thereto. In the second place, the law not only instructs, it also exhorts. Meditation thereon excites to obedience and restrains from transgression. The indolence of the flesh deters even regenerate souls from proceeding with due promptitude in the path of piety. “To this flesh the law serves as a whip, urging it like a dull and sluggish animal forward to its work; and even to the Spiritual man, who is not yet delivered from the burden of the flesh, it will be a perpetual spur that will not permit him to loiter” (II. vii. 12). Thus Calvinism echoes the doctrine of the Psalmist (Ps. xix. 7‑8; cxix. 8‑10), as that of the Saviour and of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. vii. 12; xiii. 8‑10); and holds that “the praise of the Law of God, as it sounds in the one hundred and nineteenth psalm, will never through all eternity become obsolete.”


Professor John Murray has well summarised the matter: “The believer is not redeemed by obedience to the law, but he is redeemed unto it. He is not free to sin but to righteousness, and righteousness is simply conformity to the law of God. The moral law is the reflection or expression of the moral perfection of God and is therefore the immutable standard of obligation, norm of righteousness and rule of life. To deny the permanent authority of the moral law is to deny the holiness of God. God has declared, ye shall be holy for I am holy.”

The Statue of Liberty holds in her hand the Book of Law. Liberty is not licence; but grace to wish to do what He commands, grace which makes His yoke easy and His burden light. And this great Scriptural doctrine illumines every duty with God's own light, elevates every task and every vocation.

“A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.”

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