PART 4. THE MORAL LAW… A RULE OF OBEDIENCE: Boundaries? Yes! Christian Freedom? Absolutely!

Taken and adapted from, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom
Written by Samuel Bolton


“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

–John 8:36

Question: Are Christians freed from the moral law as a rule of obedience?

Our text (John 8: 36) is the main basis whereon this doctrine of Christian freedom is built.

But many have endeavored to build their own superstructures, hay and stubble, upon it, which the foundation will never bear. Indeed, there are so many opinions which plead patronage from this doctrine that I conceive it is my great work to vindicate so excellent a doctrine as this is – true Christian freedom – from those false, and I may say licentious, doctrines which are fastened and fathered upon it. I must show you that neither this doctrine, nor yet this text, will afford countenance to, or contribute any strength to the positions and opinions which some would seem to deduce from it and build upon it.

The work is great, for I am to deal with the greatest knots in the practical part of divinity, and men’s judgments are various. Scripture is pleaded on all hands. The more difficult the work, the more need of your prayers, that the Father of lights would go before us, and by His own light lead and guide us into the ways of all truth. In this confidence we shall venture to launch into these deeps, and begin the examination and trial of those doctrines which are deduced from, and would seem to be built upon, this text. The first doctrine, and the main one, that they would seem to build upon this text is, that believers are freed from the law. And this shall be the first question we will examine.

In answer to this query as it is propounded, we must confess that we are not without some places of Scripture which declare the law to be abrogated, nor without some again that speak of it as yet in force. We will give you a taste of some of them; and shall begin with those that seem to speak of the abrogation of the law.

Jeremiah 31. 31-33: ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they break, although I was a husband unto them, saith the Lord: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.’

Romans 7. 1-3: ‘Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law), how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which hath a husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he lives; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.’

That the apostle here speaks of the moral law is evident from the seventh verse; and that believers are freed from it, see the sixth verse and others. See also Rom. 6. 14: ‘For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace’; Gal. 3. 19, The law was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come’; Gal. 4.4-5, ‘God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons’; Rom. 8. 2, ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death’; Gal. 5.18, ‘But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law’; Rom. 10.4, ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth’; 1 Tim. 1. 8-10, the law is good if a man use it lawfully, knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man’, etc.

There seems therefore to be a great deal of strength in the Scripture to prove the abrogation of the law, that we are dead to the law, freed from the law, no more under the law.

These Scriptures we shall have to deal with afterwards. For the present, I only quote them, to let it be seen with what strength the Scriptures seem to hold out for the first opinion, that is, for the abrogation of the law.

On the other hand, there are some Scriptures which seem to hold up the law, and which say that the law is still in force: I say, some which seem to support the obligation, as the others the abrogation, of it. Thus there is Rom. 3. 31: ‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.’ This seems contrary to the former; the verses previously given seem to speak of the abrogation, this of the establishment, the obligation, of the law. So also Matt. 5. 17-18: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets; I am not come to destroy but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.’ Upon these varieties of texts, men have grounded their varieties of opinions for the abrogation of, or the obligation of, the law. There is no question but the Scripture speaks truth in both; they are the words of truth; and though they seem here to be as the accusers of Christ, never a one speaking like the other, yet if we are able to find out the meaning, we shall find them like Nathan and Bathsheba, both speaking the same things.

In order to find out the truth under these seeming contraries, and for the purpose of answering the query, lest we should beat the air and spend ourselves to no purpose, it will be necessary to make two inquiries:  First. What is meant by the word ‘law’?  Second. In what sense is the word used in Scripture? When this has been done there will be a way opened for the clearing of the truth and for the answering of the queries.

The Scriptural Uses of the Word Law

  1. What is meant by the word ‘law’? I answer: the word which is frequently used for ‘the law’ in the Old Testament is Torah’. This is derived from another word which signifies ‘to throw darts’, and comes to signify ‘to teach, to instruct, to admonish’; hence it is used for any doctrine or instruction which teaches, informs, or directs us: as, for example, in Proverbs 13. 14: ‘The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.’ Here ‘law’ is taken in a large sense for any doctrine or direction which proceeds from the wise; so, too, in Proverbs 3. 1 and 4.2. In the New Testament the word ‘law’ is derived from another word which signifies ‘to distribute’, because the law distributes, or renders to God and man their dues. In brief, this word ‘law’, in its natural signification both in the Old and New Testaments, signifies any doctrine, instruction, law, ordinance, or statute, divine or human, which teaches, directs, commands, or binds men to any duty which they owe to God or man. So much, then, for the first matter.
  2. In what senses is this word ‘law’ used in Scripture? I shall not trouble the reader with all the uses of the word, but shall confine myself to the chief of the m:
    1.  It is sometimes taken for the Scriptures of the Old Testament, the books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets. So the Jews understood it in John 12. 34: ‘We have heard out of the law that Christ abides forever’. So also in John 15. 25: This cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause’ (Ps. 35. 19). Similarly, we have 1 Cor. 14. 21: ‘In the law it is written’, where the apostle is repeating the words of Isaiah 28. 11, and he says they are written in the law.
    2. The term ‘law’ is sometimes used as meaning the whole Word of God, its promises and precepts, as in Ps. 19. 7: the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul’. Conversion is the fruit of the promise. Neither justification nor sanctification is the fruit of the law alone. The law commands but gives no grace, so that here the psalmist includes the promise of grace in his use of ‘law’; or else conversion, as he speaks of it here, does not mean regeneration.
    3. ‘Law’ is sometimes taken for the five books of Moses, as in Gal. 3. 21: ‘If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law’. Likewise, in John 1.45: ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law… did write’. Similarly in Luke 24.44: ‘All things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses’, meaning the five books of Moses; see also Gal. 4. 2 1.
    4. ‘Law’ is used for the pedagogy of Moses, as in John 5. 46: ‘Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. ‘See also Josh. 1. 7-8.
    5. Sometimes ‘law’ is used for the moral law alone, the Decalogue, as in Rom. 7. 7, 14 and 21.
    6. Sometimes ‘law’ refers to the ceremonial law, as in Luke 16. 16.
    7. Sometimes ‘law’ refers to all the laws, moral, ceremonial, and judicial, as in John 1. 17: The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’: ‘grace’ in opposition to the moral law, ‘truth’ in opposition to the ceremonial law which was but a shadow. Thus Chrysostom comments on this passage: ‘The ceremonial law was given right up to the time of the coming of the seed promised to Abraham.’

Among all these different usages, the controversy lies in the last-mentioned, where the word, law’ signifies the moral, judicial, and ceremonial law. In respect of two of these varieties of law, we find considerable agreement; the main difficulty concerns the moral law.

The ceremonial law was an appendix to the first table of the moral law. It was an ordinance containing precepts of worship for the Jews when they were in their infancy, and was intended to keep them under hope, to preserve them from will-worship, and to be a wall of separation between them and the Gentiles. This law, all agree, is abrogated both in truth and in fact.

As for the judicial law, which was an appendix to the second table, it was an ordinance containing precepts concerning the government of the people in things civil, and it served three purposes: it gave the people a rule of common and public equity, it distinguished them from other peoples, and it gave them a type of the government of Christ. That part of the judicial law which was typical of Christ’s government has ceased, but that part which is of common and general equity remains still in force. It is a common maxim: those judgments which are common and natural are moral and perpetual.

However, in respect of the ceremonial and the judicial law we find few dissenters. All the controversy arises from the third part, the moral law. And so we come to speak of the moral law which is scattered throughout the whole Bible, and summed up in the Decalogue. For substance, it contains such things as are good and holy, and agreeable to the will of God, being the image of the divine will, a beam of His holiness, the sum of which is love to God and love to man.

It is one of the great disputes in these days, whether this moral law is abrogated, or, in the words of the query, whether believers are freed from the moral law. All agree that we are freed from the curses and maledictions, from the indictments and accusations, from the compellings and irritations, and other particulars which we named before. But the question is, to put it in plain terms: Are believers freed from obedience to the moral law, that is, from the moral law as a rule of obedience?

Some there are who positively or peremptorily affirm that we are freed from the law as a rule, and are not, since Christ came, tied to the obedience of it. Others say that it still remains in force as a rule of obedience, though abolished in other respects, as Beza says: ‘Christ fulfilled the law for us, but not in order to render it of no value to us.’ We are still under the conduct and commands of the law, say these Christians, though not under its curses and penalties.

Again, others say that we are freed from the law, as given by Moses, and are only tied to the obedience of it, as it is given in Christ: and though, they say, we are subject to those commands and that law which Moses gave, yet not as he gave it, but as Christ renews it, and as it comes out of His hand and from His authority: ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another’ (John 13. 34). It is a commandment, for Christ is both a Savior and a Lord; and it is a new one, not that it did not exist before, but because now renewed, and because we have it immediately from the hands of Christ.

I shall not much quarrel with this. Acknowledge the moral law as a rule of obedience and Christian walking, and there will be no falling out, whether you take it as promulgated by Moses, or as handed to you and renewed by Christ.

Indeed, the law, as it is considered as a rule, can no more be abolished or changed than the nature of good and evil can be abolished and changed.

The substance of the law is the sum of doctrine concerning piety towards God, charity towards our neighbors, temperance and sobriety towards ourselves. And for the substance of it, it is moral and eternal, and cannot be abrogated. We grant that the circumstances under which the moral law was originally given were temporary and changeable, and we have now nothing to do with the promulgator, Moses, nor with the place where it was given, Mount Sinai, nor with the time when it was given, fifty days after the people came out of Egypt, nor yet as it was written in tables of stone, delivered with thunderings and lightnings. We look not to Sinai, the hill of bondage, but to Zion, the mountain of grace. We take the law as the image of the will of God which we desire to obey, but from which we do not expect life and favor, neither do we fear death and rigor. This, I conceive, is the concurrent opinion of all divines. For believers, the law is abrogated in respect of its power to justify or condemn; but it remains full of force to direct us in our lives. It condemns sin in the faithful, though it cannot condemn the faithful for sin. Says Zanchius: The observance of the law is necessary for a Christian man, and it is not possible to separate such observance from faith.’ And as Calvin says: ‘Let us put far from us the ungodly notion that the law is not to be our rule, for it is our changeless rule of life.’ The moral law, by its teaching, admonishing, chiding, and reproving, prepares us for every good work. The law is void in respect of its power to condemn us, but it still has power to direct us; we are not under its curse, but yet under its commands.

Again, the moral law is perpetual and immutable. This is an everlasting truth…

…that the creature is bound to worship and obey his Creator, and so much the more bound as he has received the greater benefits. If we claim to be free from obedience, we make ourselves the servants of sin. But these matters I shall speak more largely upon in the discourse that follows.

Therefore, against that opinion which holds forth the abrogation of the law, and says that we are freed from obedience to it, I shall state and endeavor to make good two propositions which will serve fully to answer the query, and to refute the false notions. The propositions are these:

  1. That the law, for the substance of it (for we speak not of the circumstances and accessories of it), remains as a rule of walking to the people of God.
  2. That there was no end or use for which the law was originally given but is consistent with grace, and serviceable to the advancement of the covenant of grace.

If these two propositions are made good, the doctrines of the abrogation of the law and of freedom from the law will both fall to the ground.