The Role of the Law
in the Sanctification
of the Believer
by Mitch Cervinka

Every true Christian realizes that he cannot be justified in God's sight by keeping the law. This is clearly stated in many passages of Scripture, such as Romans 3:20...

Romans 3:20 - because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
If the law cannot bring justifying righteousness, does this mean then that its purpose is to provide sanctifying righteousness for those who have been justified? The unregenerate man is totally unable to keep the law of God, because he is a rebel at heart—he hates a holy, sovereign God, and he hates to submit to God's rightful authority. He lives only to please himself.

However, man's underlying motives change when God regenerates him. Does this changed heart provide the dynamic he needs to pursue obedience to God's law? Does Christian sanctification consist, in part, in a willful effort to learn and to keep the revealed law of God?

Or, has the purpose of the law been totally fulfilled once it has pointed us to Christ and we have embraced Him by faith through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit? After all, doesn't Scripture say that the Christian is no longer under the "tutor" of the law?

Galatians 3:24-25 - Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
This has become a significant controversy among people of Reformed thought. Those who hold the former view are often labeled as "Legalists" by those who hold the latter view, and those who hold the latter view are often labeled as "Antinomians" by those who hold the former view. Does the truth lie wholly in one camp or the other, or should we dig a bit deeper to find those points of scriptural truth held by each view?

This treatise is not intended to be a thorough study of these issues, but it is intended to offer some insights to help us think more clearly about these matters, and, by God's grace, to arrive at a more Biblical understanding of the function of the law in the sanctification of the believer.

The Purpose of the Law in the Judgment of Sinners.
Before we examine the relation of the Moral Law to the sanctification of the believer, we first need to remember that God's Moral Law represents God's divine standard for human behavior.  The Moral Law contains both positive commands, such as the injunction to obey parents, and also negative commands, such as prohibitions against theft, murder and adultery.  These laws describe how men ought to live in this world, and make it very clear that each of us is a rebellious sinner who deserves the judgment of God.

The Law itself is a good and holy thing, since it is God's description of what is good and holy, and because it encourages men to good and holy behavior.  However, to the sinner, this good and holy thing is nevertheless a token of his own guilt and condemnation.

Romans 7:12-13 - So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
On that final day when God judges the world, those who have never been clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ will be judged by His holy Law, and it will serve as proof of their guilt, vindicating God's righteousness in condemning them.  Those who are saved by Christ are no less guilty than the rest, but our sentence has already been served by the Lord Jesus who, as our willing Substitute, took our place and suffered God's wrath for our sins.  For us, the Lord Jesus has taken away the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.  Because of our Lord's death on the cross, the Law cannot condemn those who genuinely trust Him as their Lord and Savior.

Justifying Righteousness vs. Sanctifying Righteousness.
It is important to distinguish between two aspects of righteousness involved in the salvation of God's people: justifying righteousness and sanctifying righteousness. Justifying righteousness is what saves us from hell, satisfying God's unyielding righteousness. The righteousness we need to be accepted by God is the perfect, untarnished righteousness which only Christ possesses. This righteousness does not reside within ourselves, but within Christ Jesus, and is judicially imputed to us by God.

Sanctifying righteousness refers to the nature of our life and character. Every true believer possesses at least some "spark" of sanctifying righteousness, and there will be an overall growth of this righteousness throughout the believer's life. However, no believer during this life ever possesses a full or perfect sanctifying righteousness. Sin will always be present in our hearts and lives until we depart to be with the Lord. Then, and only then, will our sanctification be complete, and then alone will we possess an indwelling righteousness that is pure enough and glorious enough to dwell in the sight of our perfect God.  (Of course, even then our own personal righteousness, as glorious as it will be, will not be our confidence or shield—we will still delightfully rejoice in Christ's imputed righteousness as our ground of acceptance with God.)

The failure to distinguish between these two kinds of righteousness is at the basis of the Roman Catholic errors of infused righteousness and purgatory.  There is a huge difference between justifying and sanctifying righteousness.  Yet, these two righteousnesses are always present together. A true Christian may possess sanctifying righteousness in large or small degree, but no justified person is totally devoid of sanctifying righteousness.

In order to be righteous in God's sight, we need a perfect righteousness. The least shadow of sin deserves the eternal wrath of God. No man, in this life, possesses the kind of unblemished personal righteousness needed to satisfy the unyielding holiness and righteousness of God. We are justified before God by the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us by God. Our sins were laid upon Him, and His righteousness is credited to us.

2 Corinthians 5:21 - He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Legalistic Justification vs. Legalistic Sanctification.
Just as there are two aspects of righteousness: positional (justifying) and practical (sanctifying), so also there are two kinds of legalism. If it is wrong to trust the law to justify us, then it is just as wrong to trust the law to provide the sanctifying righteousness we need.

Galatians 3:2-3 - This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
The Galatian saints received the Spirit of God by hearing and believing the gospel of Christ. They had "begun by the Spirit", but now they were attempting to be "perfected by the flesh". What does he mean by this?

The problem is that, when we trust the law for righteousness—any kind of righteousness—we are really trusting in ourselves, and in our own fleshly ability to do what God requires of us. Instead, we must trust the Lord for sanctifying righteousness, just as we trust Him for justifying righteousness. We grow more holy and Christlike as we keep our focus upon the Lord.

Are we justified by grace alone, only to be sanctified by the law?  Having begun by grace, should we not continue in it?  The very same principle that initiates salvation also preserves and nurtures it.  If the law's only role in leading us to Christ was to reveal to us our sinfulness, then that is also its role once we have come to faith in Christ—it daily reveals to us sins of which we need to repent.  The law has no power in itself to generate righteousness of any kind—whether justifying or sanctifying.

This is Paul's point in Galatians 3:2-3.  If we begin the Christian life via the power and presence of the Spirit, we do not perfect our life by seeking righteousness from the law.  God forbid that any Christian, having learned of the inability of the law to take away sin, or to quicken us to spiritual life, should then turn to the law as the means of growing in godliness and achieving the practical righteousness that can only be wrought by the Holy Spirit as He applies the benefits of the cross of Christ to our hearts and lives.

Symptoms vs. Disease.
Consider the following statements spoken by our Lord...

Matthew 5:21-22 - "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."

Matthew 5:27-28 - "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

How are we to think of these statements? Was it our Lord's purpose here to contradict Moses, or to assert that His authority was greater than that of Moses? Was it His purpose to institute a new law, superseding the law given by Moses?

We should remember that the law given through Moses originated with God. Indeed, it originated from the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Himself. For Jesus to contradict Moses' law would be to contradict His own law, and this would not serve the purpose of proving Himself to have greater authority than Moses. Rather, it would only demonstrate confusion on His part... a disunity of His own purposes.

When Jesus compared anger with murder, are we to suppose that, in the Old Testament, murderous thoughts were not a sin, but that, in the New Testament, murderous thoughts have suddenly become a sin? Are we to suppose that murderous thoughts had never been a sin before, but now our Lord was arbitrarily declaring them to be a sin?

In like manner, when our Lord compared lust with adultery, are we to suppose that, in the Old Testament, adulterous thoughts were not sinful, but that, in the New Testament, adulterous thoughts had suddenly become sinful? Are we to suppose that the sinfulness of adulterous lusts is a matter of God's arbitrary sovereignty?

Absolutely not! On the contrary, sinful actions are merely the fruit of sinful thoughts.

Our Lord was not contradicting Moses, nor was He instituting a higher law than Moses.  Rather, He was explaining the true intent and extent of the Mosaic Law—that it prohibited adultery and murder, not only in the outward, physical realm, but in the human heart as well.  Please notice that He did not change the wording of the original commandments—all He did was to explain the intended scope of those commandments.

The phrase "You have heard..." that begins each of our Lord's statements is contrasted with "But I say to you ...".  There are some who suppose that our Lord is here contrasting His own authority and teaching with that of Moses.  However, it was not Moses that our Lord was contending with, but the Pharisaical Rabbis of His day, who hypocritically supposed that outward conformity to God's law was all the obedience that the Law required.

Outwardly violating God's Law, then, is the tip of the iceberg—it is merely a symptom of a deep-seated disease.  By providing a moral standard by which we can measure our behavior, the Law demonstrates us to be sinners inwardly.  As we apply the Law to our thoughts as well as to our actions, we begin to see just how pervasive and rampant this disease is.  It is like a cancer that is consuming our entire body!  You may live your entire life without outwardly committing murder or adultery.  But who can go for a day, or even an hour, without thinking sinful thoughts?  When we apply the Law properly, it reveals sin in our inward parts, proving that our hearts are desperately sick with sin and deceit...

Jeremiah 17:9 - "The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?

Uses of the Law in the Old Testament.
Because the Mosaic Law was intended to be applied in a variety of ways, its extent was determined by its context and application.  The Moral Law had two important uses...

First, it was the basis for Jewish Civil Law.  A person who was caught in physical adultery was to be put to death.  A murderer was likewise to be put to death.  This was necessary to maintain law and order within the society—to protect life and property.

However, the civil magistrate was not expected to condemn a person for thinking adulterous or murderous thoughts.  Even though evil thoughts are just as sinful as evil deeds, the magistrate cannot always know what we are thinking.

1 Samuel 16:7 - But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
Also, just as God gives men a few years of amnesty before he brings them before His judgment seat, so also, He prevents the civil magistrate from executing judgment too hastily, and waits instead until the sin has materialized into an outward transgression.
Romans 2:4-5 - Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
Nevertheless, sinful thoughts are still exceedingly sinful.  Often, the only difference between the sinful intent and the outward act of sin is that of opportunity.  There may be some who daydream of the sinful exploits they would engage in if only they had the wealth and leisure to do so.  A man in prison may spend years contemplating his revenge upon the attorneys, officers, witnesses, judge and jury who accused, condemned and sentenced him; yet, he may die in prison, never having the opportunity to act out his evil plans.

Because the magistrate wielded the sword of justice against those who outwardly violated the Moral Law, this provided a deterrent against overt acts of immorality and violence.  The Moral Law thus serves its function of protecting life and property in two ways: (1) It deters men from perpetrating injustice, by threatening them with punishment. (2) It eliminates or disarms those who violate life and property, by visiting punishment upon them.

Second, the law was to be the standard for self-examination.  The spiritual man was to recognize that the things forbidden by the law were forbidden in thought as well as deed.  God condemns adultery—whether in deed, or in the imagination.  God condemns murder—whether it be literally taking the life of an individual, or hating the person so much that you engage in fantasies about taking that person's life.

Of course, even the seeds of murderous and adulterous thoughts are sinful.  That is why our Lord equated lust and unjust hatred with adultery and murder.  If you hate someone enough to wish to hurt them in some way, then you are demonstrating the same murderous seed which, when allowed to mature, would find its expression in murder.  If you lust after someone enough to wish to see them in a scanty swimsuit, you are demonstrating the same adulterous seed which, when allowed to mature, would find its expression in adultery.

The civil magistrate cannot know what you are thinking.  However you know your own thoughts.  If, in your thoughts, you transgress the Moral Law of God, then you are a lawbreaker.  The spiritual man will examine himself with the goal of bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ...

2 Corinthians 10:5 - We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,
David seemed to understand well this use of the Law. In the 119th Psalm, he wrote often of how he meditated upon God's precepts...
Psalm 119:15 - I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways.

Psalm 119:27 - Make me understand the way of Your precepts, So I will meditate on Your wonders.

Psalm 119:48 - And I shall lift up my hands to Your commandments, Which I love; And I will meditate on Your statutes.

Psalm 119:78 - May the arrogant be ashamed, for they subvert me with a lie; But I shall meditate on Your precepts.

Likewise, God commanded Joshua to meditate upon His law day and night...
Joshua 1:8 - "This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success."
The apostle Paul wrote that...
2 Timothy 3:16 - "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable ... that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work".
If we genuinely believe this, then we will not argue as though certain parts of the scriptures (i.e. the Moral Law) are of no value to us.  Paul gives us some specific ways in which the Scriptures are profitable to the man of God... Who can deny that, at the very least, the law provides correction or reproof for the believer who falls into sin?  Moreover, the law can act as a deterrent against sinning when we are tempted to sin.  There is no question that the Law has an important role to play in the life of the believer.

The Analogy of the Fuel Gauge.
However, we must never suppose that the Moral Law possesses any power to make us genuinely righteous.  It has the power to make us aware of the sin within us, and it can often help us from stumbling into various sins.  But how do we ultimately overcome sin?  Do we simply resolve to do better?  Or is that merely trusting in the flesh?  What is the role of the Law in the life of the believer?

Consider the fuel gauge of an automobile. The fuel gauge tells you the condition of the tank. It is an external, visible indicator of something that is hidden and difficult to observe. When the gauge points to "E", it means that the tank is empty and needs to be refilled. You cannot fix the problem by pushing the needle over to the "F" mark. That only creates a deception, but the root problem still remains—the tank needs fuel.

Likewise, when we violate God's law, this shows that we are lawbreakers. The solution is not to resolve to quit violating God's law. That is only a superficial solution which treats the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying problem. This was the way the Pharisees sought to solve the problem of human sin, and it resulted in a hypocritical display of superficial righteousness. Our Lord compared them to whitewashed tombs...

Matthew 23:27 - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."
So what is the Biblical solution to violating God's law? The Biblical solution is the powerful grace of God, purchased by our Lord on Calvary, and applied to our hearts by His Holy Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-23 - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
When a true Christian sins, he is in no danger of losing His eternal salvation. However, the practical righteousness he needs to overcome sin and temptation is sovereignly imparted by the Holy Spirit. We need to humbly confess our sin to God, and ask Him for the sanctifying righteousness we need, as we look in faith to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We must remember that the cross is the only source of true righteousness, and that practical righteousness comes to us when, as we look to the cross by faith, the Holy Spirit applies the merits of the cross to our lives.
1 John 1:9 - If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
We need to understand that a man's actions are governed by his thoughts.  Proverbs 23:7 says "For as he thinks within himself, so he is...."  The Christian is sanctified by the renewing of his mind, as he seeks the things above...
Romans 12:2 - And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Colossians 3:1-2 - Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.

Whether our need is justifying righteousness or sanctifying righteousness, the role of the law is the same—it is our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. We must never trust in the law to provide either type of righteousness, for such confidence is to trust in the flesh (i.e. our own human abilities) rather than to trust in God's grace. It is God who must justify us, and it is likewise God who must sanctify us. Our part is to trust Him for this grace as we confess our sins to Him, humbly and earnestly praying for the grace we need to overcome sin and temptation.

We need to understand that there is no power in the Law to provide righteousness. It does not provide justifying righteousness, nor does it provide sanctifying righteousness. The Law serves one function only—it reveals sin. It reveals the sin of the unbeliever, and thereby leads him to Christ for salvation. It likewise reveals the sin of the believer, leading him to repentance and a renewed devotion to Christ.

Romans 3:20 - because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Galatians 3:2-3 - This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Galatians 3:21 - Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.

Galatians 3:24-25 - Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

We don't trust the Law for sanctifying righteousness, rather we trust Christ. The law is useful, however, in showing us when we have wandered away from our Lord, that we might return to Him.

The Parable of the Fence.
A parable may help illustrate this point...

There was once a fence that surrounded a beautiful pasture of green grass and crystal streams. In the middle of the pasture there lived a flock of sheep, and in the center of the flock was their beloved Shepherd. The fence was a strong old fence, and it served two important purposes—it kept predators from getting too near the sheep, and it kept the sheep from wandering too far away from the Shepherd. Most of the time, however, the sheep did not go near the fence, for they loved and trusted the Shepherd and stayed near Him.

Occasionally, a goat would climb over the fence, entering the sheepfold. But the goat stayed near the fence, for it feared and distrusted the Shepherd, and tried to stay as far away from the Shepherd as possible without leaving the pasture. The goat liked to pretend it was a sheep. Indeed, the goat imagined that, because it was inside the fence, it really was a sheep! But, because the goat stayed far away from the Shepherd, most of the sheep knew that the goat was not one of them.

Occasionally, a sheep would manage to find its way outside the fence. This would cause the rest of the sheep great alarm and embarrassment. It made the sheep within the fence wonder whether the stray sheep was a genuine sheep. However, the Shepherd was always faithful to go rescue His wayward sheep and bring it back inside the fold.

Most of the imagery in this parable should be transparent to the student of Scripture: The fence is the Law. The sheep are the true Christians. The Shepherd is Christ. The goats that climb over the fence are hypocrites, such as the Pharisees, or those who falsely profess Christ. The sheep who wander outside the fold are true believers who fall into open sin for a time.

The most important thing to understand about the parable is that the faithful sheep are not preoccupied with the fence, but with the Shepherd. Keeping their focus on the Shepherd keeps them well inside the fence.

The fence is the Shepherd's fence, to be sure. He built the fence. But the only time the sheep would actually come near the fence are at times when they have wandered away from the Shepherd. Then the fence reminds them that they have strayed away from their Shepherd, and it causes them to return running to Him. They know that those who live outside the fence are the ungodly—those who have never experienced the grace of God, and it reminds the sheep how they, too, had once lived outside the fence, away from the joyous presence of the Shepherd.

There may be times when the sheep wander away from the Shepherd and graze near the fence before realizing that they are so near the edge of the field.  The fence helps to keep them from straying into overt sin until they once again regain their focus on the Shepherd.  By having the moral standards of the Law ingrained within us, it keeps us from falling into open sin during periods of spiritual weakness, and this helps to protect our conscience and reputation until we regain our spiritual focus.  Even here, the Law provides no actual righteousness, but only helps to contain our sin until the Spirit revives our appetite for the things of God.

There is considerable space between the fence and the Shepherd. This is because the Law does not give us a complete definition of righteousness. In principle, one might be in full conformity to the dictates of the Law, yet still fall short of the righteousness of God. True righteousness lies somewhere inside the confines of the Law, but merely to be within the fence does not assure this. This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that our Lord gave His disciples a "new commandment", that they should love one another as He had loved them.

John 13:34 - "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."
By giving this command, our Lord was not redefining true righteousness. Rather, He was moving the fence a little closer to the center of the pasture. True righteousness had always involved devoted love among the people of God, but this had never been articulated in the Law until Christ gave this commandment.

Thus we conclude that the Law is never an exhaustive summary of what constitutes true righteousness. Rather, it provides a partial definition of what is entailed by true righteousness. True righteousness is wrought by the Holy Spirit, and resides well within the dictates of the Law. To have true righteousness, we must not seek it from the Law, but from the Spirit, as we focus our attention upon our glorious Lord as revealed in His eternal Word.

Just One Fence?
If we examine the fence more closely, we find that it is not a single fence, but a set of concentric fences.

The outermost fence is the Mosaic Law, viewed merely in terms of outward behavior. This is the way the self-righteous Pharisees viewed the Law, and it appears that they were often able to stay within this fence through their own efforts. The apostle Paul writes of his own pre-conversion life in this way...

Philippians 3:4-6 - although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh ... as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
This outer fence stood as the basis of Jewish civil law. Civil authorities cannot easily monitor your thoughts and motives, but they can and do govern your actions. One purpose of the Mosaic Law was to provide a basis for Jewish Civil Law, whereby peace and justice might be maintained within the nation.

Within this outer fence is another: it is the Mosaic Law in its intended "spiritual" sense—the Law as God intended it to be understood personally by individual people, as they weighed their own motives and desires. This is what our Lord meant when He said...

Matthew 5:27-28 - "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Our Lord here was not contradicting Moses. Rather, He was explaining that the Law was meant to govern our hearts as well as our actions. Adulterous thoughts lead to adulterous actions, but both are sinful. They were sinful in the Old Testament, as well as in the New.  A person may live in outward conformity to the Mosaic Law, while inwardly transgressing that very Law.  This demonstrates that this second "fence" lies inside the outer "fence"—those who stay within the inner fence are closer to true righteousness than those who merely stay within the outer fence.

Another fence stands even closer to the center of the field.  It consists of the two "greatest commandments"—the "laws of love"—to love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:36-40 - "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And He said to him, "'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' This is the great and foremost commandment. "The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."

Romans 13:8-10 - Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, "YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET," and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

All the other commandments are summed up in these two commandments.  Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that these two commandments are identical to the ten commandments of Sinai.  After all, many of the ten commandments are written in the negative, telling you what you may not do.  However, true righteousness does not consist merely in avoiding the wrong, but in doing the right.

A person who loves God will not worship other gods, nor bow down to idols.  A person who loves his neighbor will not steal from him, misrepresent him or try to kill him.  But the converse is not true—a person might abstain from all these sins without having any true love for God or man.  He might, like the Pharisees, do it to receive glory from men, or for personal wealth or power.  He might do these things out of pride or a desire for self-exaltation.

These two commandments are "greater" than the rest, not merely because they encompass the rest, but because they identify the proper motive for keeping the others.  Hence, they represent a stricter law than the others.  One could, in principle, keep the ten commandments without loving God or men, but no one could properly love God or men without keeping the ten.

The Law is not made for the Righteous Man.
Scripture plainly tells us that the law is not made for the righteous man, but only for the ungodly and sinners...

1 Timothy 1:9 - realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers
It also tells us that the law was a "schoolmaster" to lead us to Christ, and that, now that faith has come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster...
Galatians 3:24-25 - Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Thus, in one sense, the law is not for Christians, but only for unbelievers.  However, no Christian is sinlessly perfect in this life.  As long as we continue to wrestle with sin, the law will continue to have its place in our sanctification.  But, again, we must remember that the role of the Law in the life of the believer is the same as in the life of the unbeliever—it reveals sin, but cannot impart righteousness.

This is Paul's point in the above passages.  A righteous man has no need of the Law, since he does not transgress the Law.  However, those who break the Law need to be rebuked by the Law so that they will flee to Christ for the righteousness only He can give.  The Law cannot condemn the believer to hell, but it can show him his sin so that he will turn from it to Christ, seeking from God the true righteousness he needs.

The Law is Descriptive of a Righteous Man.
When you are considering the purchase of a new car, you typically visit various dealers to get the sales brochures for several cars which might meet your needs. By comparing the specifications, you can determine which of the cars is more powerful, more fuel-efficient, has more interior space, a tighter turning radius, a shorter stopping distance, etc. The brochures can also help you determine the accessories that are standard or optional on the various contenders. The sales brochure identifies various distinctive characteristics which help you distinguish one car from another. However, a sales brochure does not tell you everything there is to know about a particular automobile. It is not a recipe or blueprint for building such an automobile.

The law is much like a sales brochure. It tells you the key distinguishing characteristics of a righteous man, but it leaves a great deal unsaid. The law is sufficient to show unrighteous people that they do not measure up to God's standards, but even if a person could outwardly keep the law, this would not necessarily prove that he was a genuinely righteous man. This is evident by Paul's statement that, when he was still unsaved, he was, according to the law, blameless!

Philippians 3:6 - as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
How could he say this? He could say it only because it was possible to understand the law (excepting the 10th commandment, which forbade covetousness) to deal with overt sin—the kind that could be enforced by human observers. At heart, every unregenerate person is an incurable idolater, rebel, thief, murderer, liar and adulterer. However, like the Pharisees, he may be able to contain his sin so well that his outward behavior satisfies the demands of the law while his inward condition and motives are totally corrupt.

A man who possesses sanctifying righteousness is the man who is filled with God's Holy Spirit. Such a man finds great delight in God and in His Holy Word. Such a man finds it easy to speak to others of his glorious Lord, because the Lord is his constant delight. Such a man takes great delight in His Christian brothers, because they share his delight in the Lord. Such a man feels the burden and shame of his own sinfulness, but rejoices in the overpowering forgiveness and righteousness purchased by Christ Jesus with His own blood at the cross. In short, there is an energizing principle which animates the Spirit-filled Christian, simultaneously filling him with joy, peace, humility, kindness, faith and love toward God and men.

We have allowed the charismatics to steal the term "Spirit-filled" to refer to one who performs signs and miracles. However, Scripture generally uses this expression to refer to one who is so controlled by God's Holy Spirit that he exhibits the fruit of the Spirit in full measure...

Galatians 5:22-23 - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
These spiritual qualities do not come about by diligent attempts to keep the Moral Law.  Rather, they are the qualities imparted to us by God's Holy Spirit when He regenerates us, taking away our heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh.  The Spirit at times increases His influence over our hearts, imparting greater courage, greater love, greater peace, greater faithfulness, etc.

Such spirituality is always accompanied by a greater sense of the glory of God and the grandeur of His ways. This sense of glory and grandeur comes ultimately from the written Word of God—perhaps directly by reading it in the Scriptures, but more often by meditating upon the Scriptures, or by hearing them preached or taught to us.  Thus, we see the importance of the Scriptures in our Christian growth, service and sanctification.

The inward righteousness imparted by the Holy Spirit at regeneration is so much better at producing righteous thoughts and behavior that Scripture sometimes refers to regeneration as though God had written His Law on our hearts...

Jeremiah 31:33 - "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people...."
We should not presume that He is speaking here of Scripture memorization, nor of meditation on the Law of God.  Rather, this describes the miraculous change that occurs when God pours out His cleansing, sanctifying Holy Spirit upon the people of God...
Ezekiel 36:27 - "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
The regenerate man keeps God's Moral Law, naturally.  That is, he possesses a righteous nature—he is the kind of person described by God's Moral Law.  But this does not mean that the Moral Law can produce such a man.  The Law is descriptive of the righteous man, but not productive of such a man.

The Moral Law as Doctrine.
As we stated at the outset, the Moral Law is a statement of God's unchanging standards of right conduct for mankind.  While we deny that the Law posseses the power to produce godly conduct, we must never deny that it is a description of right conduct.  In particular, a person is almost certainly unsaved if he contradicts the Moral Law, teaching that there is no sin in committing murder, theft, adultery or disobedience to parents.  This is especially significant in our present day, when so many claim that it is not a crime to murder an unborn infant, or who brazenly assert that there is no sin in committing homosexuality.

We must never forget that mankind will be judged by God's holy Law.  It is a serious enough crime to violate God's Law through moral weakness, when temptation is very strong and our resistance is diminished.  It is a far more heinous crime to rebelliously reject or deny God's Law.  Those who militantly march for "Gay Pride" or "Abortion Rights" fully deserve to be called "the wicked", and, considering the greatness of God's wrath against the wicked, they also deserve to be called "fools"...

Psalm 11:6 - Upon the wicked He will rain snares; Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.

Psalm 53:1 - ... The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God," They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good.

Psalm 119:53 - Burning indignation has seized me because of the wicked, Who forsake Your law.

Proverbs 13:19 - ... it is an abomination to fools to turn away from evil.

In our creeds and doctrinal statements, we appropriately include such things as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the character of God, the character of man, the nature of salvation, and so on.  Yet, God's Moral Law represents essential eternal truths that cannot be safely compromised.  It is high treason against the Sovereign God to deny the sinfulness of sin, or to reject His Moral Law.  One of the first and most reliable evidences of regeneration is submission to God, and a full acknowledgement that God's law is holy and true.  If you have never felt the weight of your sin in the light of the Law, it is likely that you have never experienced the grace of true regeneration.

Antinomianism vs. Spirit-Filled Living.
There are some who suppose that, if you don't attempt to keep the law, then you are an antinomian person (Greek: a=without, nomos=law) who violates God's law, and that this implies that you will live in licentiousness.

There is a basic flaw in this way of reasoning, however. It assumes that genuine righteousness comes by means of trying to keep the law—of trusting the law to provide the sanctifying righteousness we need. However, the Biblical truth is that the law cannot produce righteousness. True sanctifying righteousness is produced by the Spirit of God, and this righteousness automatically produces the behavior demanded by the law. It is a great mistake to trust in the law for righteousness, since the law is merely a mirror, reflecting back to us our own moral state, showing us what kind of person we are...

James 1:23-24 - For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.
To trust the law is to trust self. It is to trust your own faithfulness. It is to trust your own spiritual and moral strength. It is to trust your own will-power to resist sin.  In short, law-righteousness is nothing but self-righteousness.  To seek righteousness from the Law is Pharisaism.

True sanctification, on the other hand, consists of Spirit-filled living, being so controlled by the Spirit of God that you do the works of God by nature. The law cannot impart a Spirit-controlled nature. Rather, that comes only by the Spirit of God as He sovereignly changes our hearts and empowers us for faithful Christian living.

What about the Ceremonial Law?
Those who claim that believers today are expected to pursue obedience to the Moral Law (as though they could attain sanctifying righteousness by attempting to keep the Moral Law) claim that those passages that teach that the believer is not under the law are merely speaking of Ceremonial Law (e.g. sacrifices, circumcision, dietary laws, feast days, etc.), and not of Moral Law.  How do we respond to such a charge. Are they correct?

Let us examine the passages we have cited in support of the claim that we are not to seek righteousness through keeping the Moral Law...
Galatians 3:2-3 - This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Paul rebukes the Galatian saints, calling them "foolish", for thinking that, having begun by the Spirit, they could now be perfected by the flesh.  What sort of "works of the Law" were they doing in an attempt to be "perfected by the flesh"?  Obviously, one of the "works of the Law" was that they were being persuaded to be circumcised (Galatians 5:2-6), and I certainly grant that this fits in the category of Ceremonial Law.

However, by submitting to circumcision, these Gentile Christians were pledging to keep the entire Law of Moses.  This is evident from the way the Judaizers preached circumcision to the Gentiles...

Acts 15:5 - But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses."
Paul himself acknowledges this later in Galatians ...
Galatians 5:3 - And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.
It is clear, in Galatians 3, that Paul has both Ceremonial Law and Moral Law in mind.  We shall examine further evidence of this, but first, let us consider a second verse in this context which I have cited in support of my thesis...
Galatians 3:24-25 - Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
In what sense was the Law a tutor to lead us to Christ?  Undoubtedly, the Ceremonial Law foreshadowed our Lord in many ways.  The sacrifices typified His redemptive work at Calvary.  The washings typified the cleansing of regeneration.  The various features of the temple—the lamp, the showbread, the incense—portrayed Him as the Light of the world, the Bread of Life, and a sweet-smelling savor to the Father.

However, the Moral Law was also a tutor to lead us to Christ.  It showed us our sinfulness, and our inability to attain righteousness by our own efforts.  Thus, it showed us our need of a Savior.  Indeed, it can be argued that the Law serves as a tutor in this sense for every believer, since no one ever comes to Christ who does not first see himself as a sinner in need of salvation.  On the other hand, many have come to Christ without having any acquaintance with the Mosaic Ceremonies.  To them, the Ceremonial Law could not have been a tutor.

Those who claim that believers are to seek sanctifying righteousness from the Moral Law must claim that passages like Galatians 3:24-25 are speaking only of the Ceremonial Law.  I would claim that such passages encompass the entire Law—both Moral and Ceremonial.

I believe the context bears this out.  Paul makes it clear that the Law serves to curse or condemn anyone who does not faithfully keep it...

Galatians 3:10-13 - For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM."  Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH." However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE" —
What is meant by verse 13? - "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us"  Does this mean merely that Christ redeemed us from the "curse" of trying to find righteousness in the Mosaic Ceremonial Law?  Or does it mean that He redeemed us from God's righteous wrath, which He bore against us for having violated His Moral Law?  Christ "became a curse for us" when He bore our curse at Calvary—a curse that resulted from our transgression of the Moral Law of God.

The fact is, that "law-keeping", as it is understood in the New Testament, is seldom divided into the two categories of Moral Law and Ceremonial Law.  Rather, the Law is typically viewed as a unit.  Those professing Christians who were led astray by the Judaizers did not imagine that circumcision alone was able to provide the righteousness they needed.  Rather, they received circumcision with the understanding that they were committing themselves to keeping the Moral Law as well.

Another passage I cited earlier is clearly speaking of the Moral Law, rather than the Ceremonial Law...
Romans 3:20 - because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Here, it is clear that it is the Moral Law, not the Ceremonial Law, that provides "the knowledge of sin".  It is true that this passage is not saying that the believer is not under the Law.  However, what it does say is that the purpose of the Law is to reveal sin.  Those who claim that believers should be trying to keep the Moral Law would have to claim that the Law has an additional purpose—namely, to direct the believer in the way of righteousness.  The New Testament, however, never claims that the Law is to be used in such a way, nor that the Law can somehow help the believer to live a more holy life.

Also, this passage speaks of justifying righteousness, rather than sanctifying righteousness.  However, Scripture gives us no reason to believe that the Law suddenly gains a new burst of power once we receive the grace of God.  The Law remains just as powerless as ever to impart righteousness of any kind.  It is the Spirit working within us who causes us to love righteousness—and He performs this miracle by means of the Gospel rather than the Law.  The Law can only accuse and condemn—it is the Spirit that gives life and godliness.

Paul says that righteousness is not based on law...
Galatians 3:21-22 - Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Verse 22 should make it clear that it is the Moral Law that is meant, since it gives the reason why righteousness could not come through the Law:  namely, that "Scripture has shut up everyone under sin...".  All mankind is shut up under sin, and therefore the Law serves only to condemn.  It has no power to make anyone righteous.  Righteousness would have been based on law, if God had given a law that was able to impart life.  But He gave no such Law.  The Law is a dead thing that has no life in itself.  Indeed, the Law is an instrument of death to those who have violated it.  It is the Spirit alone who imparts life...
2 Corinthians 3:6 - who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Of course, some may wish to argue that Galatians 3:21-22 is speaking of justification rather than sanctification.  However, the issue in Galatians 3 is whether the believer, having begun in the Spirit, is now perfected by keeping the Law (verses 2-3).  It is very clear that Paul considered the Law and the Spirit to be contrary principles by which to attain righteousness.

Whether justification or sanctification is in view here, the fact remains that we are to find our righteousness in the Spirit rather than in the Law.  The righteousness provided by the Spirit will, of course, keep the Law of God.  In fact, it will keep it far better than any deliberate attempt at law-keeping ever could!

Finally, Paul says that "law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners...."
1 Timothy 1:9 - realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers
Surely, here he is speaking of the Moral Law!  He describes various sins that are common among unbelievers—indeed, he describes their godless, profane character.  If it were true that the Moral Law was designed for Christians, so that they might use it as a guide for their own Christian sanctification, then he would have said just the opposite.  He would have said:  "Realizing the fact that law is made for a righteous person, but not for those who are lawless and rebellious...."  But this is NOT what he said!!!  He said that the law is not made for the righteous man, but for the lawless, rebellious, ungodly, unholy, profane, etc.

This should make it plain that the "Law" of which he is speaking is the Moral Law, and that the Moral Law serves no purpose except to expose and condemn sin.  Indeed, the apostle seems to be saying that the only purpose of the Moral Law is to expose the grossest sins of mankind, and to display the unregenerate man's exceeding sinfulness and depravity.  But believers can likewise profit from the Moral Law to the extent that it reveals to them sin in their hearts that needs to be confessed and cleansed.

In Conclusion.
The principal issue in this discussion is whether the Moral Law can provide sanctifying righteousness.  This we deny, while admitting that the Moral Law does play the important role of revealing sin to us so that we may flee to the Lord for cleansing.  So long as we view the Moral Law as an alarm system that lets us know when we have strayed by taking our eyes off the Lord, it is a good and holy thing.  But when we suppose that we can attain sanctifying righteousness by fleshly attempts to keep the Moral Law, we have resorted to Pharisaism and have made an idol of the Law.

A second role of the law in the believer's life is to deter him from straying too far from true righteousness.  Even though the law cannot produce genuine righteousness, it can help keep the believer, during periods of spiritual weakness, from straying too far into overt sin.  This helps to preserve the believer's reputation and conscience from serious damage until such time that he regains his true priorities and again sets his heart on heavenly things.

Yet, while we deny that the Law can make us righteous, we firmly confess that the Law is good and holy, and we abhor any violation of it in thought or deed.  God has repeatedly declared that He will judge the world by His perfect, unbending Moral Law, and this should strike terror in the hearts of sinners, and unspeakable awe in the hearts of the redeemed.  The Law has its purpose—but that purpose is simply not to impart righteousness to either saint or sinner.

Let us never forget that true righteousness comes only by the Spirit of God as we look by faith to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!

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