I believe that the law of God, summarised in the 10 Commandments, still ‘binds’ Christians – that is, those whose sins are absolutely forgiven by God simply on the basis of who Jesus Christ is and what he alone has done. This means, for instance, that I do not think that Christians are free to disregard these commandments, nor do I think God’s law may be regarded simply as ‘wisdom’ literature, although wisdom is certainly there. It is God’s law, and as such it clearly reflects the character of him who does not change. God, in his law, unambiguously states how he requires his human creatures to behave.
As an elder in my local church, I’ve promised to assert, maintain and defend the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith. I’ve declared that this confession expresses the sense in which I understand the Bible’s teaching, and as such, the WCF is a confession of my own faith. In chapter 19:v of that confession, it states that the law of God ‘does for ever bind all, as well justified persons [Christians] as others, to the obedience thereof’. I believe this because I believe it is what the Bible teaches. Now, I understand that the relationship of human beings to the law of God has been a vexed one for a very long time. The vexing nature of it is wholly due to our fallen, sinful condition. What follows is how I understand the relationship works for Christians.
The position of the Old Testament saints — those of Israel and other nations who had been brought by God’s grace to trust the Gospel — seems to be fairly clear. God had chosen the Israelite nation, before it existed, in Abraham, the man of faith. In saying this, I am reminded by Paul that not all Israel were true children of Abraham by faith. Nevertheless, God rescued the nation Israel from Egypt by virtue of the blood of the Passover lamb (which lamb pointed to Jesus). This indicates that the Israelites in their own person deserved to meet with the angel of death just as much as the Egyptians. Both groups were sinful people. The only reason the first born of Israel survived that night long ago was because of the substitute that God provided, the passover lamb who died in the place of Israel’s first born. Israel was rescued from Egyptian slavery and brought to the mountain of God to received his law.
This law was never intended to save anyone but, as indicated in Ex 20:1, it was intended for the people whom God had already saved. This reality was always in the context of the sacrificial system which displayed to sinners their release from death through the replacement death of God’s appointed substitute. The covenant (Ex 25) was also sealed in the blood of an acceptable sacrifice. That acceptable sacrifice was not really a bull or lamb or goat (this was acknowledged by David and others long before the birth of Christ) but the Lord Jesus himself to whom these sacrifices pointed.
Israel’s main failure was not their inability to keep God’s law perfectly. It was in their failing to hold to the Good News which the sacrificial system set forth. The sacrificial system anticipated the believer’s personal failure and it brought comfort to the sinner-saints, reminding them that God would provide an acceptable sacrifice for his people — those sinners who trusted the message of forgiveness. The Old Testament sacrifices did a similar job to that which the Lord’s Supper does today. The first pointed forward to Jesus, the latter points back to Jesus. Again, Israel’s real failure was that it kept on rejecting the true God and his Good News (gospel) for other gods and non-gospels. In the main, they were not regenerated, though there were some who really did believe God’s promises and were saved. Jeremiah 31:33-34 points to the days when the true Israel (the church of Jesus Christ from every nation) will be brought to trust the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The religious leaders in the days of Jesus had a slightly different problem. They claimed to keep the law, but as Jesus showed clearly, they had rejected both the law and the Old Testament presentation of the Gospel. If they had held to the OT faith, they would have received Jesus with open arms. As the New Testament also points out, the Law was never meant to save, but it was for those who are saved. The language of Ex 19 is taken up by Peter in the second chapter of his first letter. Keeping God’s law is part of how the church shows forth the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvellous light. Paul in Romans 6 urges those who are saved by grace to live like saved people, using their body parts as weapons for righteousness rather than for sin. Obviously, the law is useful for convicting people of their personal sin so they can see the need for the Saviour, but in the context of Ex 20 and the New Testament, the law is for the people of God as they live in this sinful world. The law reminds Christians that they are always dependent on Jesus, which is to keep them gospel focused (for by the works of the law is no one justified). It is also to be a light to their feet and a lamp to their path regarding right and wrong, and show them what love looks like in practice.
Of course, efforts at law-keeping, such as they might be, do not and cannot contribute to a Christian’s salvation in any way, but nevertheless I do think the law is more than wisdom literature. It is, in fact, the rule by which we are to live as God’s people. Christians are to flee sin, and sin, as 1 John 3:4 tells us, is lawlessness. Interestingly, the same apostle twice indicated in the book of Revelation two features that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. The first was that they ‘keep the commandments of God’, the second feature was expressed as ‘and [they keep] the testimony of Jesus’ or ‘the faith of Jesus’ (Rev. 12:17 & 14:12). These are people saved by the grace of Jesus alone.
Again, the law is shown to be binding by the very nature of Christ’s obedience to it for us. We are to be followers of Christ. Christians are to do what he did. This is to be their aim. In this sense, the law is to be aspirational for the Christian. As saved people Christians are to live for Christ, and to say with David ‘Oh how I love your law’. Only a saved person can say that sincerely, and it should only be said with humility.
The great news, then, is that the law no longer condemns Christians because Jesus alone has lived and died and has risen again in their place. Those who trust Jesus are free from the law of sin and death. The death that the law demands for our sin no longer has a hold on those who trust Jesus Christ. James, in his letter, calls the 10 Commandments the law of liberty (James 2:25) – God’s law is for those who have been set free from condemnation by the finished work of Christ. Christians have been made free and are kept free by their great God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. They can now live in order to love and obey him.