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VI. The True Purpose of Law in the History of Mankind

Until the law sin was in the world
(Rom. 5:13)

This part of our study will focus on the relationship of Adam and the Gentiles to "law." Historically, the Reformed tradition has asserted that "the law [is] that law of nature engraven in the heart of man in innocency."47 The validity of this teaching needs to be examined in the light of Scripture. To do so, we will divide human history into the pre-Christ and post-Christ eras. In the pre-Christ era we will examine "law" with reference to Adam and Moses.

The Pre-Christ Era: Adam

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law . . . Indeed, when Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts . . . for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 2:12, 14-15; 5:13-14)

Admittedly, these are difficult passages. But perhaps we can make some observations and raise some questions that will stimulate insight into this difficult matter. Adam was created upright in holiness, yet mutable with the ability to fall. The only outward command ("law") imposed upon him and his wife Eve was to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17). Many difficulties arise if it is said that the Ten Commandments were placed in their hearts. In that pre-sin environment there was no reason for Adam to possess a commandment such as "you shall not covet." The existence of law, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, "assumes the sin of man to be an accepted, unalterable state of affairs."48 Law as set forth in the Ten Commandments presupposes the fall. Even Fairbairn, quoting J.B. Lightfoot approvingly, agrees that Adam did not have specific commandments on his heart, "but this law in general, of piety and love towards God, and of justice and love toward our neighbor."49

The general solution to this issue lies in viewing man as image-bearer rather than in trying to locate the Ten Commandments in his heart. In Rom. 1:18-32, Paul formulates the Gentile apostasy in terms of their constitutional inward knowledge of God, and perversion thereof, as image-bearers confronted with general revelation (creation). C.K. Barrett agrees:

Paul in Rom. 1ff. deduces his views about universal obligation and responsibility from the place of man in creation; it is the fact that man is God's creature, and is related to God upwards and to the rest of creation downwards, that makes him answerable to God, not a set of legendary commands. 50

After Adam fell into sin, his offspring came into the world manifesting an inherently sinful behavior (Gen. 6:5, 8:21). In the period between Adam and Moses, this wickedness is not measured in relation to specific commandments, for indeed, as Fairbairn admits, there were none:

In earlier ages of mankind [there was no] law in some definite and imperative form, standing outside the conscience, and claiming to regulate its decisions . . . of law, strictly so called, we find nothing applicable to the condition of mankind generally, from the period of the fall to the redemption from Egypt. 51

What does Paul mean, then, when he writes "sin is not imputed when there is no law" (Rom. 5:13)? John Gill states, "there was a law [Gen. 2:17] before that law of Moses, which law was transgressed, and the sin of it was imputed to men to condemnation and death."52 Samuel Bolton gives the following interpretation:

"Sin is not imputed when there is no law"; that is, though sin and death did reign, yet men were secure and careless, and having no law to discover sin to them, they did not charge their own hearts with sin; they did not impute sin to themselves.53

Fairbairn notes that Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Beza all took a position similar to Bolton's.54 Since "there was no formal and express command of God from the time Adam was forbidden to eat of the fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden until the time when the law was given to Moses on Sinai,"55 Gill's position seems to be the most accurate. Paul's point is that the disobedience of one has been imputed to the many. But sin cannot be imputed where there is no law. So whatever law Adam violated by eating of the forbidden fruit must have been imputed to the entire race. This accounts for the universal reign of sin and death from Adam to Moses and the giving of the encoded law.56 It also explains why Paul describes the Gentiles as those who have "sinned without law" (Rom. 2:12). It is because external law does not have to be present in order for sin to reign.

Looking more closely at Rom. 2:12-16, therefore, we find Paul outlining the sinful condition of the race - both Jew and Gentile. "The centre of the epistle is a great blaze of light . . . For this blaze of light a lamp-black background is provided by the description of human sin which we find in Rom. 1:18-3:20." 57 Paul sees mankind divided into two initial categories, then ultimately three (1 Cor. 10:32). The Jews were blessed with covenantal law and are thereby huponomos ("under law"). The Gentiles possess, in varying degrees, constitutional law (referring to their makeup as fallen image bearers) and are anomos ("without law"). Christians are related to Christ's law and are ennomos Christou ("in law") [1 Cor. 9:20-21]. Paul's point in Rom. 2 is not that Jew and Gentile stand under the identical law, especially since Paul specifically says that Gentiles will "perish without law."58 It is clear that Paul's point relates to God's impartial judgment upon Gentiles even though they are "without law." Fairbairn's summary of these verses touches on the crucial arguments of Paul in Rom. 2:14-15:

What, in regard to particular requirements of the law, forms the proper ground of approval, or constitutes good character? Is it hearing or doing? Doing, says the apostle; and then goes on to add that, on this account, Gentiles may justly be placed in the same category with Jews. "For when" - here comes his matter of fact proof or reason - "Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature [constitutionally] the things of the law, they are to themselves the law." It is not said of Gentiles as a whole that they do this, but only when they do it, or insofar as any of them do it . . . And as regards the performance of what is ascribed to such heathen, the law-making (we are told) is of themselves - that is to say, it is the dictate of their own instinctive sense of right and wrong; forming, to a certain extent, a substitute for the written law; so also the law-doing is by nature . . . it is such as arises from the impulse and energy of the moral faculty, naturally implanted in them, as contradistinguished from the discipline of a formal legislation, or the gift of sanctifying grace.59

It is important to observe that Paul is not stating a universal truth in Rom. 2:14, namely, that all Gentiles do all the things in the law. Rather, he is making the observation that some Gentiles instinctively do some things contained in the law.60 It should be clear that "the work of the law" mentioned in 2:15 is not equal to the law itself. Again, Fairbairn notes that:

by doing the things of the law, they [the Gentiles] show that they have prescribed for themselves as right what the law prescribed, and imposed on themselves the obligation the law imposes.61

This, again, points to the fact that Paul is not anxious to get Jew and Gentile under the same (covenantal) moral law, but is concerned to demonstrate that the Gentiles possess a constitutional "instinctive sense" of moral obligation as apostate image-bearers. Their instinctive moral notions sometimes correspond outwardly with "the things of the law," but in any event they know inwardly that those who practice unrighteousness are worthy of death (Rom. 1:32).

J.B Lightfoot's previously cited statement seems particularly appropriate at this point. His view is that love toward God and neighbor comprised the spontaneous ethical disposition of Adam as he stood created in holiness.62 It appears that his observation may provide the link in the relationship of "law" to Jews, Gentiles and believers. Jesus taught that love of God and love of neighbor are the two greatest commandments, and that "on these two commandments hang all the law and prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:25-28). The word "hang" indicates dependency. Therefore, in these two abiding precepts "was comprised all moral obligation."63

Paul asks, "Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: seeing it is one God, who shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision by faith" (Rom. 3:29-30). For Paul, the one-ness of God is an over-arching link between Jew and Gentile. 64 He taught that "a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one . . . But the Scripture has concluded all [Jew and Gentile] under sin, that the [Abrahamic] promise of faith might be given to those who believe" (Gal. 3:20,22). What does this one God require of both Jew and Gentile? He requires not the Ten Commandments, but what the Ten Commandments hang upon - love for God and love for one's neighbor. In the New Covenant in which both Jew and Gentile are brought into one body, the following pattern emerges:

Our Saviour's expressing them [the Ten Commandments] by loving God, shows us that the law of God was not fulfilled in the observation of the letter of those commandments, but doing these things which God commanded out of a principle of love . . . There is nothing commanded in all the Old Testament but may be reduced to these two heads [of love to God and neighbor]. This is the whole duty of man there commanded . . . Moses summed up all in the Ten Commandments, to which, truly interpreted, all the precepts of Scripture are reducible. Christ here brings the Ten to two. The apostle brings all to one, telling us love is the fulfilling of the law.65

The two greatest and most fundamental commandments, then, summarize the requirements of the one God upon Adam, apostate Gentiles, law-breaking Jews, and Christ-loving Christians.

The "New Commandment" of love (new only in a redemptive-historical sense) given by Christ in John 13:34-35 stands as a sufficient motive to keep his commandments (John 14:15). The Holy Spirit who is given to both Jew and Gentile (Acts 10:45-47) sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, and empowers us to love our neighbor (Gal. 5:14, 22). Thus, believing Jews and Gentiles in the New Covenant are not referred to the Mosaic Ten Commandments as a "rule of life," but to the sayings of Christ and his inspired apostles (Eph. 2:20). As Meredith Kline puts it:

The words of the New Testament which the enthroned Christ has spoken through his inspired ministers of the New Covenant are his architectural directives for the holy task of constructing this New Covenant home.66

The Pre-Christ Era: Moses

The law was given only to Israel (Rom. 2:17-18; 9:4). The appearance and development of this temporary Mosaic economy stood in an organic relation to the promises given to Abraham (Gen. 15:13,14,16,18). To do justice to the Biblical data, however, we must also assert that the principle underlying the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were quite different. For Paul, the Abrahamic covenant is based on "promise" and "faith," while the Mosaic covenant is "not of faith, but the man that does them shall live in them" (Gal. 3:6-9, 12; Exod. 19:8; Ezek. 20:11). The Mosaic covenantal adminis-tration, therefore, stood between the promise of a "seed" ("who is Christ") and the actual historical manifestation of that seed (Gal. 3:16, 17, 19). With the establishing of a "new" and "better" covenant by Christ, there is no longer any need for the disciplinary oversight of the law (Gal. 3:24-25).

The Mosaic law-covenant should be viewed as a unity. To be sure, the civil ceremonial and moral aspects are separately discernible. Paul, however, was adamant that even if only one precept were isolated and made binding - such as circumcision - it would automatically create a liability to the entire Mosaic system (Gal. 5:3). How could Paul make such a far-reaching statement unless he viewed the whole Mosaic economy as an indivisible unit?

Some have suggested that the denial of the moral, ceremonial and civil distinctions in the law is peculiar to Dispensationalism. Viewing the law as a unity, however, has also been the position of a number of non-Dispensational scholars. Consider the following quotations:

Herman Ridderbos: "True, one can say that Paul here (Gal. 5:2; 4:10) speaks of certain ceremonial elements of the law; however, over against this stands the fact that he nowhere in a formal sense distinguishes between the ceremonial and moral (portions) of the law, and he always speaks of the law, (i.e.) the Torah known from of old, as a unit."67

F. F. Bruce: (Referring to the Acts 15 decisions) "While the collation of ethical and non-ethical requirements may seem strange to us, it would not necessarily have seemed so to Jewish Christians; they were familiar with the juxtaposition of such (to us) disparate requirements in the law."68

Andrew J. Bandstra: "Paul does not make a basic distinction between the so-called 'moral law' and 'ceremonial law,' as is indicated by the fact that the Apostle always uses the singular of the word and never the plural . . . Yet it is true that the Apostle, upon occasion may place emphasis upon the ethical side of the law."69

W. Gutbrod: "Paul makes no distinction on principle between the Decalogue and the rest of the legal material."70

D. E. H. Whiteley: "St. Paul never makes any explicit distinction between the moral and the ritual law."71

Thus, when the New Testament speaks of the end of the Mosaic order - "He takes away the first, that he may establish the second" (Heb. 10:9) - we are obliged to view the Old Covenant in its entirety as terminated. A New Covenant has taken its place - a covenant whose Priest has fulfilled the "ceremonial" types and shadows, whose King rules over a spiritual kingdom which has taken the place of the "civil" theocracy, and whose Prophet now stands as the "moral" Lawgiver in the new age.

The Reformed tradition has historically assigned a special priority to the Ten Commandments because they were placed in the ark (Heb. 9:4):

engraven by God on the mount, two tablets of stone - the only part so engraven, and, in this enduring form, the sole contents of that sacred chest or ark which became the centre of the whole religious institutions of Judaism.72

To be sure, there is a centrality of the Ten Words in the Old Covenant. However, the Old Testament data reveals to us that the Ten Commandments were not the "sole contents" of the ark. In Deut. 29:1, reference is made to a covenant renewal in the land of Moab. This entire written document (Deut. 31:24) was also placed "in the side of the ark of the covenant" (Deut. 31:26).

Merideth Kline observes that we have the "disposition of the Decalogue, and of Deuteronomy too, laid up in or by the ark of the covenant from the time of Israel's beginnings."73 What was it that Hilkiah the high priest discovered in the house of the Lord? It was the "Book of the Law," that is, Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:8,10,11,13,16). While the Ten Commandments were certainly constitutive in the Israelite community, closer examination reveals that the whole law was viewed as an entirety, even in or near the ark.

The Post-Christ Era

We have already alluded to the place of law in the New Covenant - a topic to be further developed when we consider the teaching of Paul. Here it must be emphasized again that law must be identified with the covenant in force. We are faced with a delicate balance that must be maintained. In the New Testament, we are confronted with two facts about the Old Testament: (1) the Mosaic covenant administration as a whole has been terminated in history and succeeded by a better covenant, but, (2) the Old Covenant documents still remain as valuable and necessary to the New Covenant community. A failure to make this basic distinction has caused confusion. Many have complained that to make the first assertion is tantamount to "throwing out the Old Testament." But such is definitely not the case as outlined earlier. The following illustration establishes this point. When a country adopts a constitution, it stands as "law" for its citizens. If some years later that constitution is replaced with a new one, then the old constitution, though useful, no longer has the force of "law" for that nation. As George C. Knapp puts it:

When a ruler introduces a new statute-book into his dominions, the old book, after its rejection, is no longer the rule by which right and wrong are determined, although much in it still remains true.74

Loraine Boettner, author of The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, crystallizes this point when he says:

The old order died when Christ died. No requirements from the Old Covenant are binding upon the Christian except the moral principles that are repeated in the New Covenant. The Old Testament is our history book. It is not our law book.75

The national constitution illustration has admitted limitations, but it does portray the basic relationship between Old and New Covenant law. If the Old Covenant is no longer in force, it cannot impose its laws as normative and binding. It is the law set forth in the New Covenant by our Prophet, Jesus Christ, that has become normative and binding upon those he purchased with his blood. But because the Old Testament is also Christ-centered and is "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12), the New Covenant church does not discard or disregard it, but holds it in high esteem. The Old Testament is as inspired and infallible as the New Testament. But we must view it now in light of New Covenant fulfillment, and this markedly qualifies the binding nature of its theocratic law structure.


47. Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, London: Banner of Truth, 1964, p. 59.

48. W. Gutbrod, Law, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1962, p. 90; F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, p. 193.

49. Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957, pp. 46-47.

50. C.K. Barrett, First Adam to Last, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1962, p. 25.

51. Fairbairn, pp. 70, 71, 76.

52. John Gill, Exposition of the New Testament, Vol. 2, London: William Collenridge, 1852, p. 35.

53. Bolton, p. 82.

54. Fairbairn, p. 418.

55. Charles Carroll Everett, The Gospel of Paul, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1893, p. 247; Fairbairn, p. 70.

56. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, Vol. 1, p. 189, note 22, he states that this view "fits perfectly well with the thought of this passage," but does not adopt it because he feels it conflicts with Rom. 4:15.

57. Whiteley, pp. 58-59.

58. Rom. 2:12; Murray, Vol. 1, p. 70, where he sees "perish" as equivalent to the "infliction of God's wrath" in judgment.

59. Fairbairn, pp. 406-407.

60. Whiteley, pp. 59-60; Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, Banner of Truth, 1961, p. 230; Murray, Vol. 1, p. 73.

61. Fairbairn, p. 407.

62. Quoted by Fairbairn, pp. 46-47.

63. Fairbairn, p. 240.

64. Bandstra, pp. 123-124.

65. Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, London: Banner of Truth, 1969, pp. 106-107.

66. Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, p. 85.

67. Quoted by Bandstra, p. 76, note 6.

68. Bruce, p. 185.

69. Bandstra, p. 76.

70. Gutbrod, p. 102.

71. Whiteley, p. 86.

72. Fairbairn, pp. 82-83.

73. Meredith Kline, "The Correlation of the Concepts of Canon and Covenant," New Perspectives on the Old Testament, Waco: Word Books, 1970, p. 275.

74. George C. Knapp, Lectures on Christian Theology, New York: Lutheran Publications, 1845, p. 414.

75. Loraine Boettner, "Response to Dispensational Premillennialism," The Meaning of the Millennium, ed. by Robert G. Clouse, Downers Grove: IVP, 1977, p. 98.

This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 20-26.