OT Reading: Psalm 1
NT Reading: Galatians 3:16-29
Sermon Text: Matthew 5:13-20
[You can listen to the exhortation here.]
Law and Order has been one of the most iconic television series in recent decades, going all the way back to 1990. It’s cast members garner immediate recognition in whatever else they do, and it transitional 2-tone sound has earned instant recognition as well.
But the world of law and order didn’t start with Chris North and Jerry Orbach, or even with Moses from the time before TV. No, the original Law and Order hit the world stage, not in near Madison Square Garden but in the first garden long before. It’s creator wasn’t Dick Wolf, but the Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
The context of God’s law goes back to the Covenant of Works that He condescended to make with Adam in the Garden of Eden. All of God’s interactions with mankind have come through covenants. The Westminster Confession of Faith tells us in Chapter 19:
In the garden, God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
Indeed, whatever God says is law and becomes our command and duty as we see in Psalm 119.
Psalm 1 which Steve read starts out the entire book of Psalms by expressing how blessed the one is who delights in God’s law and meditates upon it. As we read in our call to worship, those who walk in obedience to God’s law are blessed. Appropriately, the psalmist prays that their obedience would come from their heart, from a love of God’s law. The psalmist prays there for God to enable them to walk in His ways both internally and externally. God’s law is perpetual, good and right, given for the benefit of His creatures.
But as we learn in Genesis 3 and see evidence around us every day, Adam as our federal head failed to keep God’s law. At that point, we needed a defense attorney to deliver us from the eternal Judge. Indeed, Psalm 1 tells us how the wicked are like chaff in the wind, how they will perish. Not a pretty picture. Everyone will ultimately be judged by the Law of God, not by our society and its values and morality. God’s law never changes, nor does God grade on a curve. He is perfectly holy and just.
As our Confession puts it:
This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
I want to touch on three topics today. What is God’s law? How did it apply to His people, Israel? How does it apply to us today? In order to properly answer those questions, we need to do a bit of theology to get us started.
Theologians have broken out God’s law into three categories: the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil or national law. Starting from the Covenant of Works, our Confession explains:
Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament.
But, you may well and properly ask, by what standard do we divide the law in this way? I’m glad that you asked.
Dr. R. C. Sproul, Sr., in Truths We Confess offers three key questions when approaching God’s law: “Were these laws based upon the eternal character and nature of God? Or were these laws legislated by God for a particular, redemptive, or historical reason? Were these laws imposed for a particular period of time, for a salvific reason?”
As we consider the ceremonial law, we look at the sacrifices and rituals. The author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show how the ceremonial laws were just shadows and types looking forward to Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross, and His atonement for the sins of the elect. See particularly Hebrews 10:4 in relation to the sacrifices. Jesus’ propitiation of God’s righteous wrath was absolutely complete, therefore the types and shadows are no longer needed. So we see that God did not base the Mosaic ceremonies on His eternal, immutable character. Being wholly fulfilled in Christ once and for all time, the old ceremonies and sacrifices are no longer to be observed by Christians.
Robert Shaw in his wonderful commentary on the Confession put it this way:
The ceremonial law respected the Jews in their ecclesiastical capacity, or as a Church, and prescribed the rites and carnal ordinances which were to be observed by them in the external worship of God. These ceremonies were chiefly designed to prefigure Christ, and lead them to the knowledge of the way of salvation through him.
Indeed, Galatians Chapters 2 and 3 tell us that no one was ever saved by the sacrifices themselves as works of the law. God scolded Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22 that He doesn’t delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, but in obedience. To obey is better than sacrifice, to listen better than the fat of rams.
The civil law of ancient Israel stood in the context of Israel as a theocracy with God as their King. He gave them judicial laws for their redemption and to order their society. In that context, the church was the state. One could argue that national Israel as set up by God ceased to exist either when Judah went into exile or in 70 A.D. with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Either way, the theocracy of Israel no longer exists and therefore their civil law is no longer applicable. Sadly, that means that you can no longer have your disobedient children stoned at the city gates. Sorry. And all the children said, “Amen!”
Does that mean that we can ignore the civil law entirely? Our confession tells us:
To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
We still consider the “general equity” of the civil laws given to Israel. Murder still should still garner the death penalty. God still finds sorcery, divination, homosexuality etc., as abominations. We watch over our neighbors’ metaphoric oxen when we safeguard their possessions from theft when they go on vacation. Again Robert Shaw says concerning the civil law that “as far as it contains any statute founded in the law of nature common to all nations, it is still obligatory.” So, sorry, we still don’t get to have our disobedient children stoned at the gates. And all the children said, “Amen.”
Now, there exists a small group today called theonomists who believe that we should order our national laws after the civil law of ancient Israel. The Presbyterian Church in America, together with the vast bulk of the Christian church, see this as an error. I don’t have time today to give the subject justice, but will offer one thought that sends chills through my spine whenever I consider this possibility. In ancient Israel, God spoke either directly to Moses and Joshua, or indirectly through His prophets to the kings of Israel. Although most of the kings sinned grievously and caused Israel to sin with them, the prophets were always there to provide a modicum of restraint by delivering God’s words provided directly to them.
Today we no longer have that restraint available. As Hebrews 1:1-4 tells us, God spoke in times past through the prophets. Those days are gone because now He has spoken to us definitively and finally through His Son. His Son sat down at the Father’s right hand, signifying that He completely fulfilled His mission. Direct revelation from God has ceased, His revelation now being complete in the Scriptures. So, if we implemented the civil law of Israel today, we’d be placing men in the place of God in interpreting and implementing that law. History shows that holocausts and other horrendous evils result when men rule as kings in the name of God. Jeremiah 17:9 comes to mind. May it never be so again.
So what about the moral law? We find that primarily in the Ten Commandments but also in other places. It directly reflects the eternal character and nature of God. They stand as creation ordinances, which we find in Scripture from Genesis 1:1 up through Noah. The Covenant of Works still stands requiring personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience. It binds us forever and God obligates us to it. Jesus says this clearly in our sermon text today, Matthew 5:13-20:
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Our Confession summarizes Jesus’ words thusly:
The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither does Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
Ouch! God still holds all mankind under His law. But Romans 3:10-18 tell us that none are righteous, no one seeks after God, no one does good, not even one. We’re doomed to eternal death, suffering God’s just and righteous wrath.
But wait. God promised more than a defense attorney, but a mediator and judge as well. That would be none other than Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, He came to fulfill the law perfectly, and did so for all who will trust in Him alone for their salvation. As Steve read from Galatians 3:25, the justified no longer stand under the law, but under grace. Through God’s grace alone and apprehended by faith alone we receive Jesus’ perfect righteousness earned for us in His perfect, sinless life. Christ’s righteousness credited to us infinitely exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
In accordance with His promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34, God has placed His Spirit and law in us and written it on our hearts. He regenerates His elect in His time, even giving us the faith that we exercise. Salvation is all of God. We contribute nothing but our sin. As Romans 8:1 reassures us, there is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ. Hallelujah? Hallelujah!
So, now we don’t need the law any more, right? Do we have a new creed?
Saved from the law, oh blessed condition,
I can sin all I want and still have remission.
As Paul replies in Romans 6:2 – by no means! Remember that the moral law reflects God’s eternal character and nature. God’s will for us, as explained in 1 Thesselonians 4:3, is even our sanctification, our conformance to the image of Christ. How can we know how to imitate Christ and please our heavenly Father without knowing His eternal character and nature as reflected in the law?
We return to our Confession for a wonderful summary of this:
Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law: and not under grace.
Thus our Confession nicely lays out Calvin’s three uses of the law as a mirror, a restraint, and as a rule of life for how true believers can please God and imitate Christ. Psalm 119:105 tells us that the law is a light to guide us in the way that God would have us go, to be conformed to image of Jesus. It therefore performs a revelatory function for believers in that it informs us of our duty to God and binds us to walk accordingly.
Notice that the blessings and cursings of the law are gone for believers. We no longer have a covenant relationship through Moses, but instead possess a gracious covenantal relationship through Jesus Christ, our Mediator. Yet even for believers, the law still serves as a mirror to continue to convict us of our sin and teach us to hate that sin. Although we are freed from the eternal curses of law, it shows us the temporal afflictions we may expect for our disobedience. The law serves as a means of grace in our sanctification, leaving us no doubts about what pains, and conversely what pleases, our Father in heaven.
Yet, we still excuse our sin. We see big sins in others, but mere peccadilloes in ourselves. However, ALL sin is cosmic treason against a perfect, holy, and just God. 1 John 1:8 teaches us that if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and are strangers to the truth. We need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day, seeing and appreciating how great a salvation Christ has earned for us, and where our only hope lies.
So, this morning we’ve looked at the Law of God, how it applied throughout redemptive history, and how it is still of great use to believers even though we now stand under grace. Though as Steve read in Psalm 1, blessed is the man who delights in the law, Romans 3 tells us that the natural man cannot do this. Only God can enable the elect through regeneration to walk by the Spirit. As Steve read in Galatians 3, we are justified by faith, no longer under the judgement of God’s law. Galatians 5 tells us that the Holy Spirit now enables us put aside our sin, and produce fruit pleasing to God. And this is only possible because Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly for us as He said in Matthew 5:17, then credits His perfect righteousness to us by grace alone through faith alone in the great exchange of 2 Corinthians 5:21 We thereby become empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey and be salt and light to the fallen world as required of us in Matthew 5:13-16.
If anyone here has not rested on Christ alone for eternal life, know without a doubt that you are still under the Covenant of Works, owing God personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience to His law. Know that Romans 6:23 reinforces that the wages of sin is death. Friends, believe the good news of the gospel; that the free gift of God is eternal life for those who trust in Christ alone for salvation. Rest in Christ, for His burden is light and His yoke easy.
What is the will of God for your life? Even your sanctification, which is simply whole-hearted obedience to God’s Law as given in Scripture. May we sing with the psalmist in Psalm119,
4 You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
5 Oh that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous rules.
8 I will keep your statutes…
Not out of a HOPE of salvation, but out of gratitude for the salvation ALREADY accomplished by Christ on our behalf. As Jesus tells us in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”