How do we obey the moral law without being moralistic? – Sinclair Ferguson
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How do we obey the moral law without being moralistic? – Sinclair Ferguson


We obey the moral law first of all by understanding
what it’s for, and there are various ways of putting this. I happen lifelong to be interested in the
game of golf. Golf is played according to rules. I have never met a golfer who has said to
me “if I move my golf ball nearer the hole,” never said “that’s fine” because the game
ceases to work when you don’t play the game according to the rules. And one of the most important things for us
to understand is that, take the Ten Commandments for example, the moral law. The moral law given in Exodus chapter 20,
is a written form and set in a negative cast for sinners of the basic way in which Adam
and Eve functioned as human beings. And of course, it’s written now for sinners,
and so it has a lot of negatives. But what the law is telling us¬—this is
the master plan for your life. You only function as the image of God as you
give expression to these principles in your life. As we do that, trusting in the Lord, there
really is, there’s no real danger that we will become legalistic. I think it’s true that people, many people
say just obedience to the law is legalistic because actually what they are irritated by
is the notion that anybody would tell them what to do. But if you are Christian, Jesus tells you
what to do. He says if you love me, keep my commandments. So, faith in Christ produces love for Christ. Love for Christ produces a desire to be like
Christ. Christ fulfilled the law, and so being like
Christ fulfills the law. There are two other elements. One is that’s the way we please our heavenly
Father, and the other is that both the Old Testament prophecy of the new covenant and
the letter to the Hebrews twice citing the words says that when you are born again what
is written into your heart is the law. So, in a way it’s kind of surprising that
so many Christians who believe in the Holy Spirit are apparently not well enough instructed
to know what it is that the Holy Spirit comes to do—that is to work into our hearts an
affection for an obedience to the law of God because of our love for and trust in the Lord
Jesus Christ. So long as we keep our loving heavenly Father
in view, as long as we keep our savior in view, as long as we keep the Holy Spirit in
view, we will be saved from any danger of falling into legalism no matter how much we
may be accused of doing that because we think it’s important to be obedient to the law. Usually that kind of accusation comes from
people who are irritated about the notion that anybody would tell you what to do, and
there’s a bundle of commands in the New Testament. I think the answer is fairly straightforward. The challenge is growing in grace so that
that becomes a reality in our lives.

4 Comments

  • Derek Thompson

    Legalism is hardly a problem. Being accused of being legalistic is a far greater problem. I think Sinclair hints at this. A "legalist", by definition, is anybody more observant than I am. At least that's my working definition. <sarcasm intended>
    Christians need to rethink the Law. These are God's commandments. One of the most common phrases in the Torah is: "And the LORD said unto Moses, 'Speak unto the children of Israel, saying…" The entire book of Leviticus should be in red ink.
    And Christians need to rethink the artificial designation of moral/civil/ceremonial. While it's true that there are some commandments that cannot – and should not – be kept, they are not kept because the Torah specifically forbids their keeping except when certain conditions are present. The entire sacrificial system, for instance, cannot be performed unless the "place the LORD chose to place His Name" is capable of supporting that system (i.e. Jerusalem, Temple Mount) and unless a functioning Levitical priesthood is in place. To "keep" the sacrificial laws on our own would be transgressing the Torah. But there are others that could be kept, but are not, simply because of erroneous Christian theology that teaches against it (e.g. the Sabbath – one of the 10; the food laws; the holy days and festivals). There is no viable biblical reason for not observing these commandments. Jesus kept them; His disciples kept them and continued keeping them after his ascension. And there is every thematic reason to keep them – the holidays speak not only to Jesus's redemptive work, but to his coming work at his return. Christian holidays are a cheap substitute for God's appointed times, commanded by His Own mouth to be observed by His people.
    I don't think this is a matter of legalism. We do the commandments to love God, and for no other reason (except for our own good, but that's a given)

  • D a n

    One has to wonder how Enoch was able to live for 365 years and have the testimony that "he pleased God" when he lived thousands of years before the Reformed "rule of life" was given at Sinai. https://illbehonest.com/topic/the-law

  • Thomas Harp

    I remind myself of 2 things. If we could do anything to save ourselves then Jesus dying on the cross would be pointless.  And if there was any way for us to lose our ticket to heaven we would. It's God who saves us and God who keeps us saved.

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