March 7, 2014 Broadcast

Creation Ordinances

A Message by R.C. Sproul

In the Old Testament God established a covenant with the Jewish people that served as the basis of the Mosaic Law.  And Christ established a new covenant with Christians by His work on the cross.  But what about everyone else?  Are atheists and people of other religions also in a covenant relationship with God?  In this lesson, Dr. Sproul explains the creation ordinances and the foundation of all law.

From the series: Building a Christian Conscience

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    What Have You Done?

  2. article

    Reflecting Sin: The Pedagogical Use of the Law

  3. article

    Law and Gospel

What Have You Done?

David VanDrunen

Get a group of conservative Christians together and before long someone will probably express shock at the latest evidence of cultural decline: “Can you believe what they did?” It’s not nearly as common in such settings for someone to say, “Well, of course outrageous things happen in society — we’re all a bunch of rotten sinners.”

From a biblical perspective, perhaps what is really surprising is not how morally corrupt things can be but how well they often turn out. Many societies have legal, economic, and healthcare systems that, however imperfect, provide tremendous benefits for large numbers of people. Given the moral state of humanity — “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5) — this is remarkable.

Christians have appealed to several theological concepts to explain the existence of these wholesome aspects of human culture. By His providence God works out good results from wicked human intentions. God’s common grace restrains the full outbreak of evil and showers many non-saving blessings upon human life. And many Christian theologians have pointed to natural law to explain the moral instincts and insights of so many non-Christians. Natural law is simply an aspect of natural revelation. God reveals Himself and His moral law in the structure of the created order, including human nature itself as it reflects the image of God. Natural law does not reveal the gospel and has no power to regenerate fallen human hearts. Though natural law does not save, it does press God’s moral claims upon the conscience of all people, even those unaware of God’s revelation in Scripture.

The New Testament refers to Christians as “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). By God’s grace in Christ we are already citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), but we live temporarily away from home, “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15). Natural law must surely play an important role as we seek to live “peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18) in such a world.

Though Scripture never uses the term “natural law,” it refers to the concept of natural law on all sorts of occasions. Some of the most interesting and relevant occur in the stories about the patriarchs in Genesis. When the New Testament calls us “sojourners,” it points us back to the experience of the patriarchs, the original “sojourners” (Gen. 12:10; 15:13; 20:1; 21:34; 23:4). The patriarchs were believers in the true God, living amidst pagans and without a true home in this world. Scripture wishes us to learn something about our life in the present world by observing the patriarchs in their world. How did the reality of natural law shape their sojourn?

The fascinating encounter between Abraham and the pagan king Abimelech in Genesis 20 is an illuminating example. Fearing for his own life when he entered Gerar, Abraham announced that his wife Sarah was his sister, and Abimelech promptly took Sarah for himself. Informed by God that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, Abimelech confronts Abraham: “What have you done to us?” (v. 9). The pagan king is apparently shocked by this reckless disregard for marriage. He accuses Abraham: “You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (v. 9). Abraham replies, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place” (v. 11). As it turns out, Abraham was wrong. These pagans actually did fear God (in some sense) and understood that people should not do certain things to one another. Natural law had impressed fundamental moral truths upon their consciences.

There are certainly things to learn from this story that are relevant for Christian sojourners today. First, natural law gives unbelievers a sense of moral boundaries that people simply should not cross. Even pagans like Abimelech are sometimes appalled when such boundaries are transgressed. This should provide encouragement and remind us that it is possible to have meaningful moral conversations with unbelievers.

Second, people often transgress these moral boundaries, though they know better, and this can bring great hardship for believers. Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped by a pagan prince, though “such a thing must not be done” (Gen. 34:7). Sodom and Gomorrah grossly violated social propriety and Lot was forced to flee (Gen. 19). Natural law will never usher in utopia. We should be sober-minded with respect to this world and remember to set our hearts upon the city that is to come (Heb. 13:14).

Third, believers themselves, sadly, sometimes transgress fixed moral boundaries. Abraham and Isaac tried the wife-sister stunt three times and were rightly rebuked by pagans on each occasion (Gen. 12:18; 20:9; 26:9–10). In response to cultural decline, Christians can be self-righteously quick to denounce others for moral degeneracy. But we are often the ones who do terrible things, and we shouldn’t think that unbelievers don’t notice. Christian sojourners should live with circumspection and humility. We must always remember that our own true righteousness is not of ourselves but is a gift of Christ to which we cling by faith.

Reflecting Sin: The Pedagogical Use of the Law

David Murray

"Ouch!" That first look in the mirror every morning doesn’t get any easier, does it? In fact, I’d rather do without looking in mirrors at all. And I might get away with it — for a few days. Because, although I wouldn’t know my hair was looking like a mohawk, that yesterday’s ketchup was still on my chin, or that last night’s basil was lodged between my front teeth, my wife and children would, and so would my employer and colleagues. And that might well have more painful consequences — socially and even financially — than just looking in the mirror. So, although it is humbling, and sometimes horrifying, I still meet up with my mirror every morning. It sends me to my hairbrush, my shaver, my toothbrush, and my soap.

Similarly, although we may not always enjoy reading or hearing God’s law, we must keep reading and preaching it because it reveals His holy standards, highlights our desperate need (which is humbling and horrifying), and sends us to God’s gracious remedy — the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But imagine that you stumbled into my bathroom one day and saw me scrubbing myself with the mirror or brushing my teeth with a small broken piece of it! Apart from shouting, “Stop! Are you mad?” I hope that you would also quickly convince me that while the mirror shows what needs cleaning, it is dangerous to do the cleaning with it. The attempt is doomed to fail, as it would only produce a bigger mess.

Well, that more or less sums up Paul’s ministry to the Galatian believers. They had been in the tortuous confines of Law Prison (Gal. 3:23), trying to earn release with their works of obedience. The law demanded and commanded, demanded and commanded. They tried and failed, tried and failed. But despite the daily futility and failure, they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—dare stop trying.

Then, one day, the apostle Paul came and preached the gospel of a crucified Christ. He preached a Christ who had obeyed the law for sinners, a Christ who had suffered the penalties of a broken law, and a Christ who had abolished the Old Testament rituals and ceremonies by fulfilling them.

Many Galatians believed in Christ. Their chains fell off and they left the bondage of Law Prison behind to enjoy a new world of freedom and liberty. Who would ever give that up?

Tragically, the Galatians did. Under the influence of Judaizing false teachers, they reverted to salvation by the law. Paul wrote with great urgency to remind them of how Christ set them free by faith (3:1–3). The law had a role, but it was a preparatory role not a final goal. The law was “our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (vv. 25–26, KJV).

God commonly shows us ourselves in the mirror of His law before pointing us to the gospel of His grace. The mirror is good and useful, so long as it is used as a mirror and not as soap and water. That’s when mirrors become dangerous. Let’s look at this mirror of God’s law more closely that we might use it rightly.

God’s law is a constant mirror. With the passing of time, some mirrors lose their sharpness and brightness. Others get damaged and cracked. But God’s moral law never changes, never fluctuates, and never “cracks,” no matter how many years pass or how many stones are thrown at it. God’s moral standards are the same today as they were on day one in Eden.

One of the reasons why human law changes so much is because human law is always flawed. It always leaves loopholes that require constant addition and amendment. But God’s law is perfect. It gives us a flawless picture of God’s perfections and of our imperfections. Some mirrors may flatter us. But this mirror gives us a constantly accurate picture of our spiritual state. The law gives us knowledge of our sin (Rom. 3:20).

God’s law is a complete mirror. Most mirrors only show us parts of our bodies. Even full-length mirrors cannot show us our entire backparts. They certainly cannot show us what is inside us. But God’s law can show us everything — inside and outside. It provides an x-ray into our hearts, motives, and aims.

This will not happen, however, without the Holy Spirit’s work alongside the law. Without Him, God’s law can be heard and repeated a thousand times without once reaching our hearts. For example, when Paul the apostle was Saul of Tarsus he regarded himself as an expert in divine law (Phil. 3:6). However, he had been studying it in the dark. One day the Holy Spirit came and “turned on the light,” with a special spotlight on commandment ten. Until then, he said, he had not really known what sin was (Rom. 7:7). He had heard the tenth commandment many times, but not as he heard it that day. By the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, the law became a mirror that enabled him to see his own lust-filled heart.

God’s law is a condemning mirror. When the Holy Spirit applies God’s law to our consciences we not only feel uncomfortably guilty, we feel utterly condemned and doomed (Rom. 7:9).

As we have noted, Paul described the law as a “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24, KJV). The ES V translates this as “guardian.” However, none of the English versions convey the original concept fully. The word refers to a specific role given to well-educated slaves by wealthy fathers in the Roman Empire. A father would commission such a slave to make sure that his child went to school, kept away from trouble and danger, and completed his studies. The father gave the slave full disciplinary rights over the child, and as the slave’s own life depended on the success of the student, he was often quite brutal in ensuring the student’s compliance.

It was therefore a huge relief for the student when he reached adulthood and was loosed from the slave to become a fully fledged member of the father’s household. Paul is saying to the Galatians: “You are full members of the Father’s household. Why do you want to go back to the harsh slave and his punishment?”

God’s law is a cross-shaped mirror. God’s moral law comprises more than the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments summarize God’s moral principles, but these principles are also demonstrated and displayed elsewhere: in God’s providential judgments on nations and individuals, in the life and teaching of Christ, and more. But Christ’s cross reveals God’s law in an unprecedented way. Although the law sends us to the cross, the cross also sends us to the law. The old Scottish professor, James Buchanan, put it like this:

Does not the sinner now feel in his inmost soul, that if Sinai be dreadful, Calvary has its terrors too; that if “by the law is the knowledge of sin,” the Gospel adds its sublime and harmonious commentary; that the cross of Christ is the most awful monument of Heaven’s justice, the most solemn memorial of the sinner’s danger . . . The cross, the cross of a crucified Saviour, is the most powerful, the most impressive demonstration of sin, and righteousness, and judgment.

Buchanan’s point here is that the cross magnifies and amplifies the law and carries home God’s law into the conscience with massive power. At the cross, especially, I see what God thinks of my sin, what God will do with my sin, and what my sin really deserves. But, thankfully, Buchanan does not stop there:

Look once more; for the same cross which wounds will also heal; the same conscience which is pierced by the arrows of conviction may be pacified by the Gospel of peace; and thus all that is terrible in the cross, when combined with the tenderness of God’s mercy, and the amazing, the self-denying, the self-sacrificing love of the Savior, will then only awaken convictions in the conscience, to melt and change them into sweet contrition of heart.

The second use of the law is not to destroy us or to leave us in utter despair. It is to lead us step by step to Christ that we might seek His pardon. Feeling weak and empty-handed, we realize our need for mercy, apply for it, and rest in it. It does not send us to soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, but to the blood of Christ, which alone can cleanse us from sin. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why so many today are reaching for the ineffective soap and toothpaste of their own “good works,” rather than turning to Christ, is that many preachers have hidden God’s holy mirror under a large pile of seeker-sensitive, pew-filling, manpleasing strategies and excuses.

Let’s get God’s mirror out. Let’s polish it. Let’s face it. Let’s be horrified and humbled by what we see in it. And let’s be driven into the welcome embrace of Christ and the blood that washes us whiter than snow.

Law and Gospel

Michael Horton

As has already been pointed out in this issue, “Reformed” theology just is “covenant” theology. However, that doesn’t necessarily settle the question as to what kind of covenant theology is being espoused. By far the question that has been taken up the most in the history of Reformed theology is whether the covenant that Israel made with God at Sinai is a re-publication or renewal of the covenant of works made with humanity in Adam. Agreeing on the covenant of works/covenant of grace scheme, Reformed pastors and theologians nevertheless differed over the question of the Mosaic covenant. Was Israel, like Adam, expected to fulfill a covenant of works and at least remain in the land on the basis of its own obedience?

Answering that question with a “yes,” many of the great Reformed thinkers of the past (such as Rollock, Perkins, Owen, Witsius, all the way to Charles Hodge) carefully pointed out that the promises made to the nation of Israel were of two types: temporal and conditional on one hand, and everlasting and unconditional on the other. In Genesis 15, God unilaterally swears to Abraham that He will give to his descendants a land and that He will bless the whole world through his seed. Yet at Mount Sinai, the people swear an oath to keep God’s law (“All this we will do”), and this is the condition not for entering God’s typological land of rest (since that was already a gift) but for remaining in the land and securing God’s blessing (“that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you”). On this interpretation, the land-promise is conditional. The entire theocracy that God commands as part of this covenant at Sinai is provisional — to use the language of the New Testament (Hebrews), “a shadow of things to come.” It was never intended to bring salvation but only to serve as a type of the salvation that the Lord Himself would bring. Walking in Adam’s shoes, Israel also proves unfaithful. “Like Adam, they transgressed the covenant” (Hos. 6:7).

All of this bad news sets us up for the good news in Jeremiah 31:31–34. Crucial especially in Jeremiah’s announcement is the fact that this new covenant will not be like the Sinai covenant, which Israel broke. Even in Deuteronomy, we are confronted with the impossible demand to circumcise our own hearts, to fulfill God’s commands, and to preserve ourselves and our families in the land. However, Israel’s history proves what we already knew about humanity in Adam: Even with God’s commands written on tablets, we are transgressors. Even Israel is “in Adam,” under a curse, unable to bring about that obedience that God’s good law requires. The new covenant, like the promise to Adam after the fall, renewed in the covenants with Abraham and David, is not like the Sinai covenant. The blessings of the new covenant do not depend on our obedience, but on God’s grace: He will put His Law within us, so that it will not only be an external command that condemns us but an inward longing of our heart; He will be our God and we will be His people — yet another one-sided promise on God’s part. Instead of always giving imperatives (like “Know the Lord”), in the new covenant people will know the Lord because He has revealed Himself as their Savior. In fact, the basis for all of this is clear in verse 34: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Forgiveness is the basis for everything else. Once God completely clears their debt, the heirs of this new covenant will be given the new hearts and a new relationship to God that could never be accomplished under the Law.

The Law is good, but we are not. The Law commands, but cannot give. It tells us what must be done, but helping us get it done is simply not in the Law’s job description. It condemns us for violation, but cannot exercise clemency for violators.

But once the Law’s legitimate claim against us is satisfied, the gospel and the law conspire together to give us both grace and direction for our Christian life, in relation to God and our neighbors. Having fulfilled the Law as well as having borne its wrath in our place, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” by “nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14), we who were dead in sins are now made alive. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we now “put on” the “new self” (Col. 3:1–17). As Jeremiah 31 made so clear already, the new covenant is effective because it rests on indicatives, not imperatives; on gospel, not law; on promises, not commands. Notice that I didn’t say the new covenant dispenses with imperatives, laws, or commands, but merely that it is not based on them. God has done in Christ what the Law could not do in us. In Christ, God not only finds the perfect substitute for our sins but the fulfiller of all righteousness on our behalf. We are not only forgiven, but are accounted as those who have perfectly fulfilled God’s moral will in thought, word, and deed.

In this way, the classic covenant theology that is promoted by Reformed theology shares Paul’s concern simultaneously to uphold the Law and yet demonstrate that this can only be done if there is a way for us to be forgiven, justified, renewed, and sanctified on the basis of another’s Law-keeping. Because of Christ’s success as the second Adam and faithful Israel, we can enter God’s rest — this time, not the typological rest, in Canaan, but the everlasting rest to which it pointed and for which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David all longed. Once the new covenant arrived in the person of Christ, the old covenant became obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Having served its function of leading Israel to Christ, the sacred status once applied to the nation and its land is now applied to the body of Christ, consisting of Jewish and Gentile believers together. This church constitutes “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

What then are we to say about Moses’ status in the church today? Reformed theology has traditionally insisted that the moral law (that is, the Ten Commandments) remains in force, while the ceremonial and civil laws of the old covenant are now obsolete along with that covenant itself. No other nation was brought into a covenant relation with God as a typological witness to His coming kingdom. While the Sinai covenant is itself a covenant of works, where Israel promises to do everything it says on pain of death, we inherit God’s promises in a covenant of grace. And precisely because Christ has fulfilled the covenant of works for us, we can inherit all of the everlasting promises in a covenant of grace. Only the heirs of that covenant, after all, are able to begin in this life to say with the Psalmist, “How I love your law, O Lord!”

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