How do we determine right and wrong? In a rapidly changing society, a society which has legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the question becomes more pressing than ever. And even among professing Christians questions arise over various particular ethical norms – is it ever right to take a drink, or to go dancing? What exactly does God expect from us?
For many years the answer was that “the moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 41). The Catechism then goes on to give an exposition of each commandment, stating that something is required in each and something forbidden. Together they constituted “a perfect rule of righteousness” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX,ii), and “doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others” (Section v).
More recently that view has been challenged by some, primarily Dispensationalist theologians. A footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible on “The Christian doctrine of the law” states that “Law is in contrast with grace,” that Christ “redeemed the believer both from the curse and from the dominion of the law,” that “law neither justifies a sinner nor sanctifies a believer,” “The believer is both dead to the law and redeemed from it, so that he is ‘not under the law, but under grace,’” and that “Under the new covenant of grace the principle of obedience to the divine will is inwrought” (pp. 1244-1245). There are scriptural references for each assertion but little in the way of explanation, and it is not exactly clear what the editors of the Scofield Bible meant by “redeemed from the dominion of the law,” “dead to the law,” and “not under the law.”
What underlies both positions are distinctive systems of theology. The Westminster Divines held to a system of Covenant Theology, which argues that God made a Covenant of Grace with Adam after the Fall, and that we are still under that same Covenant of Grace today. The result is a tendency to minimize the difference between the Old and New Testaments, between law and grace. There is no mention in Scripture, however, of any such covenant with Adam.
The Dispensational position, on the other hand, tries to draw a sharp distinction between “the Dispensation of Law” and “the Dispensation of Grace.” But is a Christian still obligated to keep the Ten Commandments? Now that we are “under grace” is it alright to commit adultery? The editors of the Scofield Bible say that we are not “under the law,” but that we are not free to sin either. But apart from the law how do we determine what is sin? Is there not some sense in which we are still “under the law”?
The apostle Paul did, in fact, say that we are “not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14,15; cf. Gal. 5:18). But what exactly did he mean by that? The context in both Romans and Galatians is the controversy surrounding Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, and his conviction that Gentile converts are not required to be circumcised or to keep the Mosaic law. What undoubtedly lies in the background here is the Pharisees’ conception of the Mosaic law as a collection of 613 individual commandments, and that sanctification involved stringent rule keeping. This, however, misses the point of what God really requires, which is that we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Mic. 6:8; NKJV).
When Paul draws a contrast between “law” and “grace” he does not intend to say that the believer is free to sin. Far from it. “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:14). But what does he mean? He goes on in the next chapter to say that “You also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God (Rom. 7:4). He then says that “we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we could serve in newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (7:6).
What Paul is saying here is that the written law, per se, is powerless to change us or make us holy. Only Christ working through the Holy Spirit can do that. Hence the contrast between “the newness of the Spirit” and “the oldness of the letter.” He then goes on in chapter 8 to say “what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son . . . that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4,5). The “righteous requirement of the law” must still be fulfilled. But what does it mean to “walk according to the Spirit”? It means to “live according to the Spirit” and to “set their minds on the things of the Spirit” and “to be spiritually minded” (vv. 5,6). Paul, then, is not saying that there is no moral law, but that the only way to fulfill the law is not by keeping the letter of the old covenant but by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as He produces His fruit in us.