The Law as Guide: Some Thoughts on the Law and the Gospel

The law always accuses the sinful flesh (Rom 3:20). The law is a salutary guide for those who are free from its condemnation through faith in Christ (Psalm 1:2; 119:6, 97). The law always accuses the sinful flesh. The law is a salutary guide for those who are free from its condemnation through faith in Christ. Just keep repeating this, and eventually you start to realize that the law always accuses the sinful flesh, and yet, because we have Christ, it becomes a salutary guide to us despite the sin within us, which it condemns.

I love talking about the first commandment, because, despite the fact that it continually condemns me (yet not me, but the sin that is within me), hidden behind it I see Christ who is my only God. I love talking about how I should sacrifice myself for my wife, because despite the fact that it exposes my selfishness against her, I see through faith how God instituted marriage as a shadow of Christ and his church (Eph 5:25 ff). I love the law, because despite the fact that it condemns me in the flesh (In fact, my inner man is thankful for this!), God lets me see, at least in part (1 Cor 13:12), what Christ, the fulfiller of the law (Matt 5:17; Rom 10:4), gives me in full by grace through faith alone (Rom 3:28). If the law ever stops accusing me, then either I am in heaven or I have grown cold and become a hypocrite, calling God a liar who in fact is accusing me whether I feel it or not (1 John 1:10). If the law stops guiding me and I am not prompted by faith to see Christ in every inch of what he has fulfilled, then I am despairing. I haven’t necessarily lost my faith — not yet! — but I am in need of pure gospel preaching, which grounds me in the truth that, despite what the law declares against my conscience, I am not under condemnation, but my conscience is ruled by Christ (Rom 5:1; 8:1). Because though the law always accuses the sinful flesh, it is fulfilled in Christ and is therefore a guide to our lives, embodied in Christ who suffered on our behalf (fulfilling righteousness for us) and thereby left us an example to walk in (1 Pet 3:21; cf. Rom 8:3-4). The conflict within us won’t end until we have put off this sinful flesh entirely and wait for the resurrection of our flesh to new life. Until then, remember that the law always accuses our sinful flesh, and yet we learn from it through faith in Christ what good works to pursue in the joy of imitating our Savior.

The new obedience isn’t merely ethics. It is an article of faith, which we pursue by faith under the cross of dross in this sinful life.  In other words, the fact that the law is a salutary guide for a Christian is not something that our human reason can grasp.  Our carnal, unbelieving reasoning can only see the law as a curb to bring about outward results.  The law as a guide looks like a mere curb for outward behavior, but it can only be seen as a positive instruction through eyes of faith in Christ.  It is not a guide because of how appealing we are able to make it sound.  Some family friends of mine used to have us do chores when we stayed over at their house.  They didn’t call them chores.  Instead, they called them “fun jobs.”  This illustrated their sense of humor that was shaped by a correct understanding of the law.  The law isn’t delightful simply by calling it fun.  Chores are chores.  You either have the desire to do them or you don’t.  The law is instruction for the Christian not because the law has become more attractive.  Instead, it is by faith in Christ that the veil is removed by the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:12-18).

The law doesn’t give life, but through faith in the gospel we can see life hidden behind the commandment even as it condemns our sinful hearts. Learn the law. Pursue righteousness by faith even as you have it fully through faith.

I used to not like calling the law a guide, because I knew that the law could never be a positive thing in this world. But it is positive only through eyes of faith that point to the flesh of Christ where sin was condemned and the law was fulfilled. I didn’t like the idea of the law as a guide, because it didn’t seem to express the truth of the law’s office of condemnation. I would hear sermons that were more manipulation than admonition. And they would, ironically be more vague than clear. For example, I remember when I was in seminary hearing from a retired pastor in chapel a moralizing sermon on marriage, which was all law and no gospel. And yet, it conveniently avoided the topics that talk about submission of wives to husbands and sacrifice of husbands to wives, and it didn’t condemn the things that attack marriage. This soft moralism (By soft, I mean no teeth!) led me to dislike the concept of the law as guide, since it reminded me of a tour guide who tells corny jokes and convinces you that you like him even though you know in your heart of hearts that he is a joke.

And yet, with all this reality about soft-peddling, moralistically safe preaching, I must still conclude the following. It does no good to deny that the law is a guide, because this would only be the old, carnal reason’s way of keeping the law from accusing us and thus showing us our true need for what the gospel alone gives: Christ who is our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). So keep the law as a guide. But do so not in a safe, dishonest way, which takes the bite out of the accusing elephants in the room. Instead, let the law be your stern guide, which is only possible if Christ bore the full sternness and wrath of the law in your place.  So even though we learn through affliction that nothing good dwells in our flesh, Christ has fulfilled all righteousness.  He has done good.  As the Psalmist says, “You are good, and you do good.  Teach me your statutes . . . It was good that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. (Ps 119:68, 71)”

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