PART 6. The Law Is Not Incompatible with Grace!

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

The next part of our query will prove at once to vindicate the law…

…and overthrow the many erroneous opinions that are in conflict with it. Our proposition is that there was no end or use for which the law was given which was incompatible with grace and which was not serviceable to the advancement of the covenant of grace. This I hope to make good, and then it will be seen how the Gospel is in the law; also that the law is not that which some men make it out to be, that is, opposite to the Gospel and to grace; for I shall show that it may run along with grace, and be serviceable to the advancement of grace.

In the prosecution of this matter we shall follow this method:

(1) We shall first explain the chief and principal ends for which the law was promulgated or given;
(2) We shall explain how those ends are consistent with grace and serviceable to the advancement of the covenant of grace; and therefore that they may continue under grace;
(3) We shall answer such objections as may be raised against this doctrine;
(4) We shall sum up the matter in few words and make a brief application.

Seven Purposes For Which The Law Was Given

There are two main ends to be observed, one was political, the other theological or divine. The political use is hinted at by the apostle in 1 Tim. 1. 8-9: ‘Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for man-slayers’, etc; that is, it was made for them in such fashion that, if it were not their rule, it should be their punishment. Such is the political use of the law.

Its second great purpose was divine, or theological; and this is two-fold, as seen in those who are not justified, and as seen in those who are justified. In those who are not justified, the law first reveals their sin to them, humbles them for sin, and so drives them to Christ. In those who are justified it acts first of all as a doctrine to drive them to duty, next as a glass to reveal their defects so that they may be kept humble and may fly to Christ, next as a restrainer and corrector of sin, and then again as a reprover of sin (2 Tim. 3. 16).

The principal and chief ends for which the law was promulgated:

(1) To restrain transgression; to set bounds and banks to the cursed nature of fallen man, not only by revealing sin, but also the wrath of God against sin: ‘tribulation and anguish to every soul of man that doeth evil’ (Rom. 2. 8-9). We read in Gal. 3. 19 that ‘the law was added because of transgressions’. This Scripture Jerome and Chrysostom understand to refer to the restraining of transgressions. The law may restrain sinners, though it cannot renew sinners; it may hold in and bridle sin, though it cannot heal and cure it. Before God gave the law, sin had a more perfect reign. By reason of the darkness of men’s understandings, and the security of their hearts (Rom. 5. 13-14), death reigned, and so sin, from Adam to Moses, as the apostle shows. Therefore God might give them the law to show them, not only that they sinned in such courses as they walked in, but to show them also that heavy wrath of God which they drew upon themselves by their sin, the effect of which might be to restrain them in their course of sin, and to hinder sin so that it could not now have so complete and uncontrolled a dominion and reign in the soul. Though it continued to reign – for restraining grace does not conquer sin, though it suppresses and keeps it down – yet it could not have full dominion. The sinners would be in fear, and that would serve to restrain them in their ways of sin, though not to renew them.

If God had not given a severe and terrible law against sin, such is the vileness of men’s spirits, they would have acted all villainy. The Devil would not only have reigned, but raged in all the sons of men. And therefore, as we do with wild beasts, wolves, lions, and others, binding them in chains that they may be kept from doing the mischief which their inclinations carry them to, so the law chains up the wickedness of the hearts of men, that they dare not fulfil those lustful inclinations which are found in their hearts.

Blessed be God that there is this fear upon the spirits of wicked men; otherwise we could not well live in the world. One man would be a devil to another. Every man would be a Cain to his brother, an Amnon to his sister, an Absalom to his father, a Saul to himself, a Judas to his master; for what one man does, all men would do, were it not for a restraint upon their spirits. Naturally, sin is oblivious to sense and shame too. There would be no stay, no bank, no bounds to sin, without the law. Therefore we have cause to bless God that he has given a law to restrain transgression, that if men will not be so good as they should be, yet, being restrained, they become not so bad as they would be. Were it not for this, and for the awe that God has cast upon the spirits of wicked men by means of it, there would be no safety.

The fields, the streets, your houses, your beds, would have been filled with blood, uncleanness, murder, rapes, incests, adulteries, and all manner of mischief. If there were no law, saying, Thou shalt do no murder’, men would make every rising of passion a stab. If there were no law saying, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, men would think theft, deception, cheating, and oppression good policy, and the best life would be ‘ex rapto vivere’ (living by robbery), living by other men’s sweat. If there were no law saying, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, men would defile their neighbour’s bed, and commit all manner of wickedness.

For these reasons God has given a law to set bounds and banks to defend us against the incursions and breaches that sin would make upon us. He that sets bounds and banks to the raging sea, which otherwise would overflow the land, also sets bounds and banks to men’s sins and sinful affections. It is no less wonder that the deluge of lust and corruption in men does not break forth to the overflowing of all banks, than that the sea does not break forth upon us, but He that sets bounds to the one, also binds and restrains the other. This, then, is one purpose God has in giving the law.

(2) Secondly, the law was given to uncover and reveal transgression, and this, I conceive, is the true meaning of the apostle’s words in Gal. 3. 19: The law was added because of transgressions’, that is, chiefly, that the law might be ‘instar speculi’ (like a glass) to reveal and discover sin. Therefore says the apostle: ‘Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet’ (Rom. 7. 7). The apostle seems to say the same thing in Rom. 5. 20: The law entered that the offence might abound’, that is, that sin might appear exceedingly sinful. And this is another end God had in giving the law, to open, to reveal, to convince the soul of sin. And this was with reference to the promise of grace and mercy.

It was for this reason God gave the law after the promise, to reveal sin and to awaken the conscience, and to drive men out of themselves, and bring them over to Christ. Before He gave the law, men were secure and careless. They did not esteem the promise and the salvation which the promise offered. They did not see the necessity for it. Therefore God gave the law to discover sin, and by that to reveal our need of the promise, that in this way the promise and grace might be advanced. In giving the law, God did but pursue the purpose of mercy He had in giving the promise, by taking a course to make His Gospel worthy of all acceptation, that when we were convinced of sin, we might look out for and prize a Saviour; when we were stung by the fiery serpent, we might look up to the brazen serpent – in all this, I say, God was but pursuing the design of His own grace.

(3) Thirdly, the law was given to humble men for sin, and this is a fruit of the former, as we have it in Rom. 3. 19-20:, Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God’, that is, sensible of their own guilt. We were no less guilty before, but now by the law men are made sensible of their own guilt, for, says the apostle, By the law is the knowledge of sin’. It is also written, Where there is no law, there is no transgression’ (Rom. 4. 15), that is to say, no transgression appears where there is no law to discover it, or no transgression is charged upon the conscience where there is no law to discover sin. This seems to be excellently set out in Rom. 5. 13-14:, Until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses’, etc. The meaning is, there was no less sin, or guilt and death, before the law than after; sin reigned, and death reigned over all the sons of men, and it reigned the more because it reigned in the dark; there was no law given by which sin was discovered and revealed to them, and to help to charge sin upon them. And so the apostle says, ‘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. Therefore God renewed the law, promulgating it from Sinai, to discover and impute sin to men, to charge them with sin. I will explain the matter by means of a similitude.

Suppose a debtor to owe a great sum of money to a creditor, and the creditor out of mere mercy promises to forgive him all the debt, yet afterwards sends forth officers to arrest and lay hold of him; it would be concluded that the man was acting contrary to himself and had repented of his former promises, when actually he had not changed at all and had repented of nothing, his only desire being that his mercy might be the more conspicuous and evident in the thoughts of the debtor; therefore he allows him to be brought to these extremities that he may become the more thankful. The case is the same between God and us. We are deeply indebted to God. To Abraham, and to us in him, God made a promise of mercy, but men were careless and secure, and though they were guilty of sin, and therefore liable to death, yet, being without a law to evidence sin and death to their consciences, they could not see the greatness of the mercy which granted them a pardon. Thereupon God published by Moses a severe and terrible law, to reveal sin, to accuse men of sin, and to condemn men for sin. Not that God intended that the sentence should take hold of the sinner, for then God would be acting contrary to Himself, but in order that thereby guilt might be made evident, men’s mouths stopped, and that they might fall down and acknowledge the greatness and riches of free grace and mercy. Thus it was in Job, as is shown fully in Job 33. 16-31. And again: ‘The Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe’ (Gal. 3. 22).

(4) The law was given for a direction of life, a rule of walking to believers. This I showed at large formerly: that though the law as a burden to the conscience is removed, yet it is not removed for purposes of obedience. If it were needful, I might pursue this matter further, to strengthen believers. The moral law is certainly perpetual and immutable. It 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 great benefits. This is a truth which is as clear as the light, and, surely, to be free from obedience is to be servants unto sin, as already showed.

(5) The law was given, not only as a director of duties, but as a glass to reveal the imperfections in our performance of duties, that so we might be kept humble and vile in our own eyes, and that we might live more out of ourselves and more in Christ. It was given so that we might fly to Christ upon all occasions, as a defiled man flees to the fountain to be washed and cleansed, for in Christ there is mercy to cover, and grace to cure all our infirmities.

(6) The law was also given as a reprover and corrector for sin, even to the saints; I say, to discipline them, and to reprove them for sin. ‘All Scripture… is profitable for doctrine and reproof (2 Tim. 3. 16), and this part of Scripture especially for these ends, to be ‘instar verberis’ (like a scourge), to correct and chastise wantonness, and correct a believer for sin. As says Calvin: ‘The law by teaching, warning, admonishing, correcting, prepares us for every good work. ‘

(7) The law was given to be a spur to quicken us to duties. The flesh is sluggish, and the law is ‘instar stimuli’ (of the nature of a spur or goad) to quicken us in the ways of obedience. Thus much, then, for the ends for which the law was given.

Five Reasons Why the Law Is Not Incompatible With Grace

I am next to show that there was no end for which the law was given which was incompatible with grace and which might not be serviceable to the covenant of grace; therefore the law may remain in force to be serviceable under grace.

1. The law was given to restrain transgressions, and it is of the same use now. It restrains wicked men from sin, though it has no power to renew and thus change them. Fear may restrain, though it cannot renew men. Fear may suppress sin, though faith alone conquers and overcomes sin. The law may chain up the wolf, but it is the Gospel that changes the wolfish nature; the one stops the streams, the other heals the fountain; the one restrains the practices, the other renews the principles. And who does not see that this is the ordinary fruit of the law of God now? It was the speech of a holy man that Cain, in our days, has not killed his brother Abel; that our Amnon has not defiled his sister Tamar, that our Reuben has not gone up to his father’s couch; that our Absalom has not conspired the death of his father. It is because God restrains them. For this reason was the law added, and for this purpose it continues, to restrain wicked men, to set bounds and banks to the rage of men’s lustful hearts.

2. Secondly, the law was given to discover and reveal transgressions, and this is not inconsistent with grace; nay, it serves to advance it, and it still continues for this end, even to discover and reveal transgressions in believers, to make sin and misery appear, and by that means to awaken the conscience to fly to Christ. Hence the apostle says: ‘Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made’ (Gal. 3. 19). Some take ‘seed’ here to mean the saints of God, and make this the meaning, that so long as there are any to be brought to Christ, so long will there be the use of the law to reveal sin both in the unregenerate, that they may fly to Christ, and in the renewed, that they may learn to direct all their faith, hope, and expectation on Christ still. Whether this interpretation holds good or not, yet this is firm truth, that the law remains with us for this purpose, to reveal sin to us., Where no law is, there is no transgression’ (Rom. 4. 15), that is, no sin is discovered; where there is no law to perform this work, sin does not appear. But ‘the law entered that the offence might abound’ (Rom. 5. 20), not only to bring sin to light, but to make it appear exceedingly sinful. The words of the apostle put this beyond all question, I had not known sin but by the law’ (Rom. 7. 7). The law was the revealer of sin to him. He says in verse 13: ‘But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. ‘

It is clear, therefore, that the law still retains this use; it discovers sin in us. T had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet (Rom. 7. 7); and similarly with all sins. This it does, after grace has come, as well as before grace; that which was sin before is sin now; grace does not alter the nature of sin, though it does set the believer free from the fruits and condemnation of it.

3. Thirdly, the law was added to humble us for sin. This also agrees with grace, and its usefulness in this respect still remains, though some would deny it. Sin is the great reason for humiliation, and that which is a glass to discover sin, must needs upon the discovery of it, humble the soul for it. In respect of this, read Rom. 3. 19-20 and Gal. 3. 22. In this regard it may be said that the law is not against the promises of God (Gal. 3. 21), ‘but the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe’. The apostle says that the law is not against the promises. The affirmative interrogations which he employs are the strongest negations. And he shows why the law is not against the promise, because it is subservient to the promise.

‘The law serves the cause of the Gospel’, says Chamier, because, convicting men of their works of condemnation, it prepares them to seek the grace which is found in the Gospel.‘

The law concludes men under sin; it humbles them, convinces them of sin, that so the promise might be given. Hence it is said in Gal. 3. 24: ‘Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.’ He speaks of the same law as is mentioned earlier in the chapter, which seems (by verse 22) to be the moral law. And how is this the schoolmaster, but by lashing us, humbling us for sin, and driving us to Christ? Or if it is argued that it was the ceremonial law which is meant by the schoolmaster, yet the moral law was the rod. The master does little without the rod, nor the ceremonial law without the moral law. It is the moral law which drives men to the ceremonial law, which was in former days Christ in figure, as it does now drive us to Christ in truth.

Thus the law remains, an instrument in the hand of the Spirit, to discover sin to us, and to humble us for it, that so we might come over to Christ. If the avenger of blood had not followed the murderer, he would never have gone to the city of refuge, and if God does not humble us we would never go to Christ. An offer of Christ and of pardon before men are humbled is unavailing. Men do by this as those did who were invited to the supper; they made light of it. Just so, men make light of a pardon, and of the blood of Christ. But when once God has discovered sin to them; when the law has come to them, as it came to Paul, with an accusing, convincing, humbling, killing power. Oh then, Christ is precious, the promise is precious, the blood of Christ is precious. I conceive that this was the main end for which God gave the law after the promise, to cause sinners to value the promise. Men would not have known the sweetness of Christ if they had not first tasted of the bitterness of sin.

4. Fourthly, the law was given for a direction of life, and so it does still remain and serve, as I have already fully proved. Though we are sons, and are willing to obey, yet we must learn how to direct this willing disposition. I say, though we are sons and are guided by the Spirit, and though in our love to God we are ready for all service, yet we need the Word of God to be a light unto our feet and a lantern to our paths. God has made us sons and he has given us an inheritance; and now He gives us a rule to walk by, that we may express our thankfulness to Him for His rich mercy. Our obedience is not the cause and ground of His act of adoption, but the expression of our thankfulness and of the duty we owe to God who has adopted us. God therefore did not give the rule, and afterwards the promise; but first the promise, and then the rule, to show that our obedience was not the ground of our acceptance, but a declaration of our gratitude to the God who has accepted us. Thus it remains our rule of walking, yet in Christ. It must be our rule in Christ; we must obey by the strength of Christ. Obedience begins from Christ, not that we work for an interest in Christ, but we get such an interest that we may work.

The law, say some of our divines, was given with evangelical purposes, that is, with purposes subservient to the Gospel. And I say it must be obeyed from evangelical principles, principles rooted in Christ. The law shows us what is good, but gives us no power to do it. It is ‘lex spiritualis’ (a spiritual law), holy, just and good; but it is not ‘lex spiritus’ (the law of the spirit); this is alone in Christ, as the apostle speaks in Rom. 8. 2: ‘The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’. The law shows us what is holy, but cannot make us holy, as long as it is a rule outside of us. It cannot make us holy, for that necessitates a rule within us.

The law is a principle within us first, and then a pattern without us. We are not made holy by imitation, but by implantation. But that principle found within sends us to the law as to the rule without, after which we are to conform our lives without. When the law is once our principle, it then becomes our pattern.

5. Fifthly, the law was given us as a glass to reveal our imperfections in duty, and for this purpose the law remains with us. Through it we perceive the imperfections of our duties, our graces, and our obedience. By this means we are kept close to Christ and kept humble. The law takes us away from reliance on ourselves and casts us upon Christ and the promises.

Thus have we seen God’s purposes and ends in introducing the law; we have also seen how these ends are not only consistent with grace, but also serviceable to the advancement of the work of grace.