covenant theology

The Law in Romans

The Holy Spirit creates this desire [for holiness], not only by showing us our sins, but also by showing us God’s standard of holiness. He does this through the Scriptures. As we read and study the Scriptures or hear them taught, we are captivated by the moral beauty of God’s standard of holiness. Even though His standard may seem far beyond us, we recognize and respond to that which is “holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12). Even though we fail so often, in our inner being we “delight in God’s law” (Romans 7:22). (Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, p. 74)

There is a tendency for some Christians to look at the Law with hatred, as towards a former slavemaster, instead of looking at it as the beautiful standard of God’s holiness. One of the things that I appreciate about covenant theology is its respect for the Old Testament law, not as an alternate path, nor as the thing that Jesus came to rescue us from, but rather, as part of the progressive revelation of the gospel. In Romans 7:14, Paul says that “the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh”–the problem is not with the law, but with the fleshly striving to obey it, because it cannot be obeyed in the flesh. In other words, our contempt should be aimed at our carnality, and not at the law.

I’m reading Romans again, and one thing that is standing out to me this time is that the dualistic view of the flesh and the spirit, which applies to us as human beings, is also applied to the law. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2, ESV). These are not separate laws, like Jesus=good vs. Moses=bad, but rather, this is the same law, which in the spirit shows us the moral beauty of God, but in the flesh brings death because of the Original Sin which prevents us from fulfilling it on our own.

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:7-8, ESV). Clearly, obedience “to God’s law” is equated with “pleasing God.” We are to please God by obeying his law, and this is not something we can do ourselves, but requires the indwelling Spirit of God (v. 9). In this way, God gets all the glory. (Side note: I’m not talking about ultimate, saving justification here. It is Christ’s substitutionary death in our place which satisfies God’s wrath towards sin, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed on us, so that God is, in that sense, pleased by the fulfilling of the law in Christ on our behalf.)

This is what Paul means in chapter 9 when he talks about children of the flesh vs. children of the promise. It does not mean Arabs vs. Jews. It means those who try to obey in vain out of the flesh vs. the elect, who are regenerated and are obedient and righteous by the Spirit. “They did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:32, ESV).

“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified [cf. James 2:20 ‘faith without works is dead’: the works are the fruit of justifying faith]. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…” (2:13-15a, ESV). This “written on their hearts” is the new nature, the New Covenant from Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is available to Gentiles as well as Jews! The law, which is spiritual, does not change, so the covenant is essentially the same. The difference in Jeremiah is that the Lord is promising to regenerate a remnant of his people (cf. Rom. 11:5). Spiritual, regenerate obedience (from the heart) was always the point. Throughout Israel’s history, all those who obeyed by the Spirit and did not fail by the flesh were the elect. The key for the believer is that the law is written on your heart, so when you obey, you are actually seeking your heart’s desire (cf. John Piper’s “Christian hedonism”). This is the active sovereign grace of God!

It all comes down to the doctrines of grace, which applied 3,000 years ago just as they do today. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16, ESV).


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