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The Puritan Perspective: Thomas Watson

Watson's underlying presupposition is that ethical fullness is to be found only in keeping the Ten Commandments. The starting point for Christian duty in his system is not "as I have loved you," but "I have brought you out of Egypt." For Watson, therefore, it is the type rather than its fulfillment that is normative. This is typical of the Old Covenant orientation of Puritanism.

Watson specifically identifies the Ten Commandments as the Christian's rule of life. He believes that "obedience [to the Ten Commandments] must be in and through Christ."164 It is a view that begs the question, where does the New Testament ever send us back to Exodus 20 to define our duties? Do not the New Testament writers consistently point us to Christ's "New Commandment" as the sole basis for our obedience?

"Do This and Live"

Puritan ethics was essentially based on the Old Testament equation, "do this and live" (cf. Gal 3:12). Their formula was "if obedience, then blessing." They may not have intended to set works above grace, but that is the effect of such teaching. It is not the language of grace, but rather the conditional terms of the Mosaic covenant. It is a view that prompted Watson to ask,

what are the great arguments or incentives to obedience? . . . Obedience makes us precious to God, his favorites . . . Would we have a blessing in our estates? . . . To obey is the best way to thrive in our estates (Deut. 28:1, 3, 5).165

It is not our obedience that makes us precious to God, but because we have been "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6). On this crucial point we must be very clear. Obedience is certainly an essential part of saving faith. And there are blessings promised to the believer. But we retrogress from New to Old when we impose the formula, "if obedience, then blessing" - especially since the traditional use of the word "blessing" most often assumes temporal benefit. It is as though God is somehow obligated to reward us with material prosperity if we discharge some Old Testament duty such as tithing, or keeping the Sabbath. It is a formula often employed by many of today's "God wants you successful" preachers. But it is a seriously flawed scheme that is totally without New Testament warrant.

Every true believer is already endowed with "every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). For his own wise and gracious purposes, however, God may see fit to assign a life of abject poverty, unrelenting pain, or the severest temporal need to the most committed and obedient saint. Must we conclude - according to the "if obedience then blessing" formula - that such a saint is either being punished by God, or that he or she remains in deprivation because of a failure to perform some "work"? On the contrary, the New Testament saints did not measure their standing before God in proportion to their temporal blessings, but rather "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41).

It is sad that Watson's section on "love" (pp. 6-12) presents the sum of the Decalogue as "love to God and neighbor," yet never mentions the "New Commandment" to "love one another." At best, he only briefly alludes to love as it springs from the work of Christ.166 He seems quite insensitive to the New Testament emphasis on love in such passages as 1 John 3:18 and 4:9-11.

Watson defines the expression "all these words" in the preface to the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-2) as "moral law," or "the rule of life and manners." He adds, "Though the moral law be not a Christ to justify us, it is a rule to instruct us."167 In other words, we need Christ for justification, but not for instruction - for that we must return to the Decalogue. As we have repeatedly shown, however, the New Testament consistently sends us to the person and work of Jesus Christ, not only for justification, but as the starting point for instruction in all areas of our Christian life.

The Law as a Hedge

Watson also regards the law "as a hedge to keep us within the bounds of sobriety and piety."168 But was it not Israel for whom the law served as a "hedge" until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:25; 4:2)? Do those who have now become God's "sons" still need to be restrained by the law? To make such a suggestion defies the very essence of the gospel. In Christ, the believer has become a "new creation" (Gal. 6:15), who is "not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).

The Puritan "hedge" system implies that if you do not restrain believers with enough rules there is no telling kind of trouble they will get into. But did Paul ever deal with believers as if they were little children in need of imposed restraints? On the contrary, he had confidence that God was at work in them (Phil. 1:6). He does express fear for the Galatians because they observed days and had placed themselves under beggarly elements (4:10-11). But even with their serious problems, he writes, "I have confidence in you through the Lord, that you will adopt no other view" (5:10). To the Thessalonian saints he writes, "we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that you both do and will do the things which we command you" (2 Thess. 3:4). In the same way, his approach to Philemon was, "Having confidence in your obedience I wrote to you, knowing that you will also do more than I say" (v. 21). It is clear that,

In Paul's letters . . . the presumption is that Christians will grow and develop in faith and character. They should become more able to make correct moral decisions, they must learn to discern what is important and what is not, and they are expected to develop in character as Christians.169

The New Testament basis for duty is "the law of Christ," which is love. Believers are expected to do the right thing because they have the Spirit of Christ, not because they have been restrained by the seat belt of Mosaic law. It is the work of love, not of the law to sanctify us. And yet, Watson writes,

We say not that he [the believer] is under the curse of the law, but [its] commands. We say not that the moral law is a Christ, but it is a star to lead to Christ. We say not that it saves, but sanctifies.170

Such teaching may have a ring of piety, but in the final analysis it is a dangerous notion. Just how is it that a believer gains justification and escape from the curse of sin apart from the law, yet must yield to its enslaving power to achieve sanctification?

A Self-Imposed Enigma: Not Under Law Yet Under Law

This tension of the Christian being unable to obey the law sufficiently to gain salvation, yet required to obey it as a rule of life, is explained by Watson in the following way:

In a true gospel-sense, we may so obey the moral law as to find acceptance. This gospel obedience consists in a real endeavor to observe the whole moral law. "I have done thy commandments" (Ps. 119:166); not, I have done all I should do, but I have done all I am able to do; and wherein my obedience comes short, I look up to the perfect righteousness and obedience of Christ, and hope for pardon through his blood. This is to obey the moral law evangelically; which, though it be not to satisfaction, yet it is to acceptation . . . though we cannot, by our own strength, fulfill all these commandments, yet doing quoad pose, what we are able, the Lord has provided encouragement for us . . . Though we cannot exactly fulfill the moral law, yet God for Christ's sake will mitigate the rigor of the law, and accept of something less than he requires. God in the law requires exact obedience, yet will accept of sincere obedience; he will abate something of the degree, if there be truth in the inward parts. He will see the faith, and pass by the failing. The gospel remits the severity of the moral law.171

To allege that the gospel abates the severity of the law has absolutely no New Testament foundation. It would appear that Watson was driven to reduce the demand of the law under the gospel in order to maintain its place as a rule of life for believers. Paul knew nothing of such a compromise. He taught that all who relied upon, but did not totally obey the law could expect nothing but its curse (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26).

The tension inherent in Watson's teaching is self-imposed. There is no need to reduce the rigor of the law when its proper role is understood in light of the redemptive work of Christ. By marriage to Christ, we have been released from the law in order that we may "serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom 7:6). The New ethic arising out of Christ's redemptive event provides all of the instruction and motivation necessary to render positive acts of obedience to God. But it also provides the means for freedom from negative acts of disobedience. Only as we understand what it means to be no longer under law but under grace can we begin to live as those for whom sin is no longer a master (Rom. 6:14). When the law is left in its Old Covenant context there is no need to compromise its demands, for the terms of that covenant have been fully met, not by us, but by our representative, Jesus Christ. Only as we view ourselves "in him" can we do full justice to the severity of the law, yet claim freedom from its "yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

Does the gospel, therefore, leave believers in a "lawless" condition? Absolutely not! We are not only justified by our faith in Christ, but we must also "live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20). We have been set free from the law's "yoke of slavery" that we may freely and happily take on the "yoke" of Christ (Matt. 11:29-30). In many ways, as Ernest Kevan admits, "grace is more commanding than law"!172 If this is so, should we not turn from the "weak and miserable principles" (Gal. 4:9) of the Old Covenant to concentrate more fully on the implications of Christ's "New Commandment" of love?

Built-in Frustration

Watson's ethical system can only bring frustration. The believer is asked to learn the

hard lesson to live above the law, yet walk according to the law . . . to walk in the law in respect of duty, but to live above it in respect of comfort.173

To be truly "in Christ" is to enjoy an all-sufficient relationship from which we are to derive our hope, our comfort, our duty - our everything! He is our Husband, our Bread of Life, our Vine, our Prophet, our Priest and our King. If we focus on anyone or anything other than Christ, we run the risk of missing everything that is really important. Does Christ's "New Commandment" to love as he loved us leave us with so little to do that we must look to the Mosaic statutes for something to keep us busy? Why then, do most writers on Christian ethics have so little to say about the infinite demands of Christ's "New Commandment" of love? Why is it Exodus 20 rather than John 13 that provides the foundation for their ethical instruction?

Sermon on the Mount

Some may respond to the last question by observing that Our Lord himself drew ethical teaching from the Decalogue in his Sermon on the Mount, and that in Matthew 5 he cites some of the Ten Commandments along with other Old Testament commands (v. 21-48). Is this not an endorsement of the law's ethical profitableness?

To teach that Jesus is here perpetuating something he would later shed his blood to abolish is ludicrous (Eph. 2:14-16). What Matthew 5 does establish is that unlike all others who impose the law on men, he alone could speak as one with "authority" (Matt. 7:28-29). After all, it was the finger of Jesus that engraved the stone tablets and gave them to Moses in the first place! A little more attention to the overall context would reveal that Jesus actually directed men to find their ethical starting place in his own sayings (Matt. 7:24,26). If there is any lesson here, it is that Moses must be approached through Christ. In terms of an authoritative law-giver, it is now Christ alone who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68; Acts 3:22). All scripture is "useful for teaching" (2 Tim. 3:16). We cannot discard Moses as irrelevant, therefore, but his "glory" must be understood as something that would eventually fade in the greater glory of Christ (2 Cor. 3:7-11).

Romans 8:4

The New Testament certainly expects to see the "righteousness of the law" come to expression in the believer's life. But that raises an important question. Exactly what does Paul mean by the "righteousness of the law"? Notice that he does not say that the goal of redemption in Christ is that the law might be fulfilled in us, but rather the "righteousness of the law. His point is that the law has always testified to a better righteousness, to something beyond itself. "The law is therefore not so significant as the fundamental principles which it embodies."174

The ethical views examined so far have primarily focused on the Ten Commandments. When asked "which is the greatest commandment in the law" (Matt. 22:36), however, Jesus ignored the Decalogue and cited instead two broad commandments found elsewhere in the Old Testament - commands concerning love toward God and neighbor (Lev. 10:18; Deut. 6:5). The "whole law, " according to Jesus, hangs on these two commandments. He also taught that everything in the Law and the Prophets is encompassed in the principle, "whatever you would have that men should do to you, do even so to them" (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31). Any righteousness expected of us, therefore, can be summed up in the single command to love, for "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10).

What is the legal basis for believers to be clothed with the "righteousness of the law," yet at the same time be held "no longer under the supervision of the law" (Gal. 3:25)? Again, it is not the terms of the Old Covenant imposed after Israel's exodus from bondage in Egypt, but the terms of the New Covenant sealed with Christ's blood on the Hill of Golgotha. To be able to love God and neighbor in a way that attains to the "righteousness of the law" has been made possible by the loving act of God in sending his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (John 3:16). That singular redemptive event provides not only the legal basis, but also the enabling grace and the perfect example: "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

This, then, is how believers can actually exhibit a righteousness that "exceeds" that of the scrupulous Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 7:20). The law, in and of itself, was a miserable failure in achieving righteousness in sinners. In fact, rather than to make holy, it actually stirred up sin (Rom. 8:3; 7:8)! Only when there is release from the law through redemption and marriage to Christ can the "righteousness of the law" be fulfilled in regenerate sinners who then walk no longer "according to the flesh," but in the Spirit (Rom. 6:14,18; 8:4; Gal. 5:16,18).

England, God's "New Israel"

Watson saw England as "Israel," or God's chosen nation. This provided him with justification for the use of the sword in "standing for Christ":

In former times the nobles of Polonia, when the gospel was read, laid their hands upon their swords, signifying that they were ready to defend the faith, and hazard their lives for the gospel.175

When discussing the blessing of being "delivered from places of idolatry," he rejoices in,

the goodness of God to our nation [England], in bringing us out of mystic Egypt, delivering us from popery . . . Oh! what cause we have to bless God for delivering us from popery! It was a mercy to be delivered from the Spanish invasion and the powder treason; but it is far greater to be delivered from the popish religion, which would have made God give us a bill of divorce.176

He conceives of God as being married to England (just as God was a husband to Israel), and that the wrong state-religion would cause God to "divorce" Watson's homeland! "Pray," he goes on to say,

that the true Protestant religion may still flourish among us . . . O pray that the Lord will continue the invisible token of his presence among us, his ordinances, that England may be called Jehovah-shammah, "the Lord is there."177

This geo-political understanding of Christ's kingdom stems from Watson's deep-seated Old Covenant orientation. His view of the duties of both men and nations is defined by a Mosaic model rather than by a relationship to Christ. Sadly, although he has many challenging things to say, there is virtually no Christ-orientation in his ethical system. On the one hand, he asks, "if the moral law could justify, what need was there of Christ's dying?"178 On the other hand, he states that the Old Covenant moral law is able to "sanctify." Using his own logic we must ask, "If the law is able to sanctify, what need is there of the Holy Spirit?" His system leaves us in an awkward (and impossible) situation. We need Christ to justify us, but he alone cannot sanctify us. We need the law to sanctify us, but it cannot justify us. It is a study in incongruity.


164. Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, London: Banner of Truth, 1965, p. 3.

165. Watson, pp. 4-5.

166. Watson, pp. 9, 11.

167. Watson, p. 12.

168. Watson, p. 13.

169. Bruce Kaye, Law Morality and the Bible, Downers Grove: IVP, 1978, p. 89.

170. Watson, p. 13.

171. Watson, pp. 16, 47.

172. Ernest Kevan, The Law of God in Christian Experience, London: Keswick Conference, 1955, p. 66.

173. Bolton, pp. 219-220.

174. Kaye, p. 79.

175. Watson, p. 18.

176. Watson, p. 26-27.

177. Watson, pp. 28-29.

178.Watson, p. 44.

This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 43-49.