We believe that God’s commands are good and play an important role in the Christian life and in society even though they have no power to save us or help us overcome our sinful natures!
Resting on the foundation of covenant theology, Reformed Christians have a robust understanding of the goodness and the importance of God’s law that avoids the errors of legalism and antinomianism. The Reformed understanding of the law provides us with resources to pursue justice and morality in the public square, with a starting point for conversation with non-believers about our need for salvation, and with guidance in the Christian life.
Everyone Has a Conscience
Even though sin has pervasively impacted the world and each individual person, God has not left us without some understanding of our obligations to him and to one another. Each person made in the image of God possesses a conscience. We might describe a conscience as an intuition of our creation covenant obligations to love God and others. Reformed Christians are not surprised by the fact that people in every culture throughout the world and throughout history share basic moral tenants. However, because of sin, we suppress the truth, lie to ourselves, and pervert the law written on our hearts. This is why people disagree about moral issues. But even though we might disagree about the exact moral obligations on this or that issue, and even though some moral issues will carry more weight in certain contexts and eras, there exists a basic moral compass in all of us. This is part of what it means to bear the image of God and to be created in his likeness.
The Ten Commandments
The Reformed understanding of the Law of God interprets the Bible to teach that our consciences are stamped by God’s eternal Law. Therefore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses and summarized his Law to them in the Ten Commandments, he was making public what mankind already knew by nature but suppressed in sin. In other words, the Ten Commandments outline the basic moral obligations God has created all mankind to obey. Our consciences can be ignored, malformed, and hardened, but when God’s commandments clearly set forth how we must live as those made in his image, we cannot distort or pervert what we already knew to be true. This suggests that the Ten Commandments do not merely belong to the Old Covenant but set forth the eternal moral law of God.
Three Uses of the Law
The Law of God is a good thing. Scripture teaches quite clearly that the Law is good, holy, and perfect (Romans 7:12). However, as sinners, we naturally use the Law in sinful ways. The Law is not an instrument of salvation. It cannot rescue us from sin. We cannot obey it in order to please God, merit his favor, or transform our corrupted selves. Salvation is by grace alone and not through works of the Law.
But the Law is useful when rightly appropriated. Reformed Christians speak of three valid uses of the Law. First, the Law can act as a mirror. It shows us who we are. It exposes us as sinners and even provokes us to sin. This awareness of sin that comes through the Law can drive us to seek salvation in Christ alone.
Second, the Law serves as a guide to justice for civil authorities and the general restraint of evil in the world. Since the Law of God resonates with our consciences, the Law promotes a culture where people conform outwardly to justice. In other words, the Law shows us what is just, and therefore, we can be guided to make good laws that will promote public justice even if people pursue doing the right thing for sinful reasons.
Third, for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ and received his grace through the work of the Spirit, the Law can guide faithfulness. The Law cannot transform sinful people, whether a non-Christian or a Christian. But it can guide Christians being transformed by the Spirit into faithful living. It can stir Christians to obey God out of joy and gratitude since we have been set free from the curse of the Law and the threat of a death sentence.
When the Law is understood properly, Christians avoid legalism (seeking salvation or transformation through the Law) and antinomianism (throwing out God’s commands altogether as having no place in society or the Christian life).