Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 5 (Dec. 11, 2013), pp. 22-24.
In Romans 15 and 2 Timothy 3, we have seen the broad New Testament foundation for the Heidelberg Catechism’s use of the Ten Commandments as a description of the new life we have in Christ, summarized in the confession that the life of gratitude is that which “conforms to God’s law.” The Apostle Paul rejects the Judaizer’s misuse of the law – their treating it as a means of earning one’s justification and their clinging to the ceremonial laws as a means of excluding Gentiles. But he also clearly says that the Old Testament Scriptures continue to guide and direct the life of the believer in Christ: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4) and “all Scripture is … for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Understood properly in the context of the covenant of grace, the law remains the framework for the Christian life.
Someone might object that this isn’t yet an explicit affirmation of the use of “the law,” and so we now turn to a few passages that speak, not just of the Old Testament Scriptures in general, but of the law in particular as applying to the believer in Christ.
Romans 13:8-10 – “Love is the Fulfilling of the Law”
The first of those passages is Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Paul says that the heart of the Christian life is the calling to “love each other,” and the one who does so has “fulfilled the law.” He then lists most of the commandments of the second table of the law, together with the command of Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He concludes by summarizing his point: “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul’s reasoning is very clear: God’s people are called to a life of love, and that life is explained in the decalogue. This is, in a very direct and pointed way, exactly what the Heidelberg Catechism does. We are called to a life of love in Christ. The commandments describe that life, and so we should use the commandments to learn how we should live.
Someone might argue that when Paul speaks of love “fulfilling” the law, he means that love and the law are alternatives, that in Christ we now love instead of following the law. But this misses the character of the New Testament’s fulfillment of the Old. Jesus reveals the heart of the law more clearly than the Old, and he expands and intensifies its demands (e.g., the “neighbor” of Lev. 19:18 was focused on the “brother” Israelite, while Paul has the Gentiles in mind with the broader “one who loves another”). But the fulfilment is a matter of organic development, such that the heart of the law expounded by Jesus and Paul is the heart that was there all along. The fulfillment is such that, far from being de-centered in the life of the believer, the law comes into its own in Christ.
Paul demonstrates this way of fulfillment by using the Old Testament Scriptures themselves to explain the heart of the life that we are being given in Christ. When Paul says that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” he is not saying something new, something that by virtue of its newness would thereby displace the use of the Commandments themselves. Rather, he is simply expanding and explaining what the Old Testament Scriptures always said: that God’s people are called to love God (Deut. 6:4-5) and neighbor (Lev. 19:18), and that the Ten Commandments describe that life and are fulfilled in it.
Moreover, as we saw in 2 Timothy 3, this life of following the commandments is again most emphatically not something other than following Jesus and being made like him. Instead, the life that conforms to God’s law just is the life of being made more like Christ. That was the purpose of the law in the first place – to point to Jesus – so that now the life that conforms to Christ is at the very same time the life that conforms to the law.
It’s almost as though Paul knew we would be tempted by such a law/Christ or law/love dichotomy based on his polemics elsewhere in Romans. Over against that temptation, he places the Christ-centered and Christ-energized character of the Christian life side-by-side with the exhortation to embrace the commandments as the life of love: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 8:14).
These are not alternatives; they are one and the same thing. Now that Israel’s Messiah has come, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” simply is to love your neighbor as yourself as the fulfilling of the law. It is this biblically rich, gospel-saturated truth that the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes for us when it wisely uses the Ten Commandments as an outline of the Christian’s life of gratitude.
Ephesians 6:1-3 – “The First Commandment With a Promise”
In Ephesians 6, we have another example of the Apostle Paul applying the Ten Commandments to the Christian life, only with greater precision and directness. After describing the sovereign grace of God in salvation in Christ in Ephesians 1-3, the Apostle Paul summarizes the Christian life as a matter of being part of the body that is growing up into Christ as our head:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Many have argued that it is precisely this exhortation, the call to grow up into Christ as our head, that in the New Testament replaces or de-centers the Ten Commandments. But Paul sees no such dichotomy or divide. Instead, by way of applying this calling to live a life shaped and formed by our union with Christ, he directly applies the commandments, explicitly affirming their continuing use as the framework for the Christian life.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)
It’s almost too obvious to say, but at this point the New Testament affirms – with boldness and clarity – that the church should look to the Ten Commandments for guidance and direction. There are any number of ways Paul could have made his point regarding the need for children to obey and honor their parents. He chose to use the decalogue, plain and simple.
Moreover, this use of the decalogue is perfectly consistent with the life that is “in the Lord” or “in Christ.” In verse 1, he calls children to obey “in the Lord.” By way of explanation of that very same requirement, he cites the fifth commandment in verse 3. Following Jesus or being made like him is not an alternative to following the law. Rather, the law describes the shape and form of what being “in the Lord” looks like.
And this continuing use of the law isn’t just true for the basic moral principle – “obey your parents.” The law continues to apply as the pathway along which God’s people enjoy blessings: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” This is a strikingly earthy, this-worldly promise, boldly reaffirmed by Paul as continuing to apply to the church. The Heidelberg Catechism is therefore correct to say that God continues to reward his people “in this life and the next” (Q&A 63), not as a payment that is earned, but as a gift of God’s grace.
This is, of course, the same Paul who teaches clearly in Galatians and Romans that we are no longer under the law. However we understand that polemic – emphasizing the Judaizers’ misuse of the law, or the need for the Mosaic administration of the covenant to give way to the new covenant – it obviously does not mean that we are to stop treating the Ten Commandments as a manual for the Christian life. Paul’s polemic against “the law” in Romans and Galatians is perfectly consistent with the direct and paradigmatic application of both the demands and the promises of the law in the Christian life.
The Heidelberg Catechism is robustly faithful to Paul – and to all of Scripture – when it uses the Ten Commandments to frame and outline the Christian’s life of gratitude.
James 1:25 – “The Law of Liberty”
The Apostle Paul, of course, is not the only one who commends the law to the New Testament believer. James, for example, exhorts Christians to be not only hearers of the word of God, but also “doers of the Word” (James 1:22). That word that James wants us to do is the Old Testament Scriptures, including the law of God.
But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:25)
James tells the church to be those who do what the law of God commands, and he says it very unambiguously. More than that, he tells us how we should characterize the law of God – as “the perfect law” and “the law of liberty.” God’s people are to continue to sing with psalmist, “Oh, how I love your law” (Psalm 119:97).
As Paul said in Romans 6:3, so James says here: the law continues to apply, not only as moral information, but as the life pathway along which God’s people enjoy blessings. Of the one who does the “law of liberty,” James says “he will be blessed in his doing.”
When James says this, he is simply explaining, celebrating, and applying the grace of God. This is part of the gospel. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is good news that Jesus not only redeems us by his blood, but renews us to be like himself (Q&A 86). This is expressed in a verse that is pivotal for James’ epistle as a whole:
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)
Many have worried that James’ emphasis on obedience is in tension with Paul’s emphasis on God’s grace. But this is far from the truth! All that James is explaining is the fruit of God’s grace: that God has “brought us forth,” given us new life, as “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” As Paul says, we are God’s creatures, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10).
This is why James calls the law “the law of liberty.” The law describes the life of freedom from slavery to sin, the life that God gives us in Christ, by his Spirit. In this way, James and Paul both say that we should view the law and the life of obedience in the same way as Israel: the life of gratitude, in response to God’s grace, always in the context of God’s promises. As the decalogue began with the declaration of redemption by God’s grace – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 5:6) – so James begins with God’s grace – “he brought us forth by the word of truth.” As in Deuteronomy, so in Paul and James: our obedience to God’s law is a gift of the gospel, always in the context of God’s covenant promises.
The Heidelberg Catechism is correct to say that the Christian life is that which “conforms to God’s law,” because the law is the law of liberty, a description of the freedom we have in Christ.