Thursday, August 20, 2009

How to Love God's Law Without Being Legalistic

I didn't know what it meant to "love God's law" (Psalm 119:97) until two nights ago, when I read one of the articles I linked to in my previous post, John Warwick Montgomery's "The Third Use of the Law," an excerpt from his book The Suicide of Christian Theology.

"The third use of the Law" is a term I had encountered in the past, but hadn't bothered to look up, on the assumption that it was some bit of abstruse, Puritan-era theologizing. Boy, was I ever wrong! It turns out that "the third use of the Law" basically encompasses the whole question of how the Law of God applies to believers—or whether it applies at all.

The Reformers outlined three purposes—or uses—of the Law of God:
  1. To constrain evil;
  2. To convict sinners and bring them to repentance; and
  3. To guide believers in their Christian walk.
The first and second uses had been fairly obvious to me, but the third had never really occurred to me. And so I have struggled for two years to understand exactly how a believer is to walk in obedience to Christ—how does that manifest itself? How does it not devolve into works righteouesness?

(And I receive excellent instruction from my church on sanctification...the fault lay entirely in my overthinking things, or not being able to connect the biblical dots and seeing the rationle behind the Apostles' [not to mention Puritans'!] calls to holiness.)

But Dr. Montgomery lays it all out quite clearly—and briefly. He briefly surveys the swinging pendulum between "justification without sanctification" and "'sanctification' without justification" in the history of Protestantism; the rise of the social gospel and Christian existentialism; and the dead end of the latter movement. All this is presented as a motivation for what follows: a discussion the Reformation-era discernment of the three uses of the Law outlined above.

He then provides an extended quote from Chapter 6 of Horatius Bonar's God's Way of Holiness; and between that quote and his introduction to it, the scales fell from my eyes, by God's grace.

Essentially, the case comes down to this: above all, we are commanded as Christians to love: Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love our neighbour as ourself (Matthew 22:34-40). But—and here's the rub—how do we love? The answer is that God has graciously shown us the way to love—the way to fulfill this supreme of all commandments—through His Law as an expression of His will!

And not the letter of the Law—external obedience, though that is important—so much as the spirit of the Law—having it written upon our hearts, by the supreme grace of God (Jeremiah 31:33): hence, Jesus Christ's expounding of the Law (and especially the Ten Commandments) in His Sermon on the Mount.

No, we are no longer enslaved to the Law and no longer cursed by it—for Jesus Christ has borne the curse for us, on the Cross. But we are now at liberty to follow the Law out of love, by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

We are still sinners—simul justus et peccator—and still capable of disobeying God's Law, in which case the only remedy available to us is the same as that for non-believers: repentance and faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ as our sin-bearer and propitiation. But now, when we do obey God's Law, we should do so not out of fear or a sense of grudging compulsion, but out of love for God, gratitude to Him, and a desire to live out His command to love as He has graciously provided and decreed.

For now, I can only respond by quoting Paul (though admittedly from an entirely different context):

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

"For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?"
"Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?"

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
(Romans 11:33-36)

Soli Deo Gloria!


Stuart Wood said...


it is interesting that you extol an article by John Warwick Montgomery, who is an orthodox Lutheran, and publically condemn me as a "false teacher", a "wolf", when we believe the very same things and affirm the very same orthodox Lutheran confessions. Next time before maligning Christ and His truth and slandering one who is seeking the welfare of precious souls, you might want to give more sprititual thought and reflection to what has actually been said. If there is one thing that I have said on Pyro over the last two days that is false, then bear witness of it. My main agenda has only been to affirm that Christ died for OUR sins, the very words you use yourself in your supposed loving but truly hypocrital post.

Pastor Wood

Stefan said...

Pastor Wood:

Does John Warwick Montgomery go around calling all Christians who don't agree with him on every point of doctrine a heretic?

You have so much as implied that anyone who doesn't hold to the doctrine of unlimited atonement is accursed. In your article "Taking the Mask off Calvinism," you assert that Calvinists who hold to the doctrine of limited atonement are tools of Satan. In the course of questioning of commentors, your tactic of trying to get us to question our assurance of salvation caused one believer to struggle with that very question.

The thing is that I am not even so dogmatically wedded to the doctrine of limited atonement as to reject outright the opposite view. There are many believers whom I know and respect who hold to an unlimited atonement. I know the case has been made that Calvin held to an unlimited atonement, and there certainly are biblical verses that appear to support the doctrine. But it should be possible to debate this with grace and charity, and not by sowing division and discord among the body of Christ.

I do not believe that unlimited atonement itself is a "false teaching." What I hold to be a false teaching is:

(a) The claim that:

"The Gospel is proclaimed when I can declare to another human being (whom I may or may not know) that Christ died for his sins personally."

when nowhere in Scripture is such a proposition explicitly made. The closest is Paul's formulation, "Christ died for our sins." It is left for us to determine from the rest of Scripture what the extent of the "our" is.

(b) And the claim that anyone who holds a different view is a heretic and—as you imply in your article—a tool of Satan, thus writing off whole swathes of born again Christians as false believers.

Stuart Wood said...

Where do I ever "call all Christians who don't agree with [me] on every point of doctrine a heretic"? That is something that you are projecting on me, and from my perspective is just pure slander.

I agree with you that I have said that anyone asserting the false doctrine of limited atonement is at that point Satan's tool. This is actually true of all assertions of false doctrine, but especially a false doctrine that takes away the ability of a person to objectively set forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ to another human being personally. If you think that that is a negotiable Christian issue then that is your business. I do not agree. It was John MacArthur himself who once plainly told me (to my face) that if Jesus Christ did not died for the sins of each and every person in the world then you could never preach the Gospel. He was right then, and all of my dear friends at Grace Community Church would have agreed. Things have changed there, but I have not, and more importantly neither has God's Word.

As for the doctrine of Church Fellowship I can only encourage you to read that link I left on Pyro. I think you will see that it is the correct position that a Christian should have when it comes to false doctrine, and to the origianl point of Phil's post that day.

Pastor Wood

DJP said...

I'll say from the start that I'm not going to stay for what will be a discussion that will only end when Stefan ends it, or when Wood feels he's had the last word. But I'll say these:

1. Boy, Stuart, you really, really obsess on personalities, don't you? You're of Luther, we're very clear on that. And you (think you) have Mac Classic and Montgomery on your side. Woo hoo! So what?

2. HSAT, I've read reams of Montgomery, and he never obsesses on divisive Lutheran dogma to divide off his Christian brothers as you do.

3. You have had it absolutely flat-out proved to you that no one in Acts ever once preached the Gospel as you demand that it must always be preached, yet you did not repent. That is a mark of a false teacher.

4. You insist that those who do preach it as all evangelists in Acts preached it is preaching a false Gospel such as Paul described in Galatians 1 — making Paul condemn the very Gospel he is defending. That is a mark of a false teacher.

5. You are sickly obsessed on one thing that you use to separate yourself from genuine Christians, and use it to hammer them. You are like a Jehovah's Witness, demanding that his Christian opponent answer whether 1+1+1=3, insisting that that little trick disproves the Trinity, and never listening to the answer. That is a mark of a false teacher.

6. Your constant cry is "Look at me! Read me! Have you read me yet?" You are saying this to people who love Christ, preach Christ, worship Christ, follow Christ's words. It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that you feel Christ's words are insufficient. Sola Scriptura and Solo Christo are, at the least, not big with you. This is a mark of a false teacher.

There's more, but that's sufficient. Stefan is right to warn people from letting you rip them from Christ so you can wed them to Luther (and Wood) in a way that I hope Luther himself would never have condoned.

I'll add my voice to implore you: repent. Preach Christ. Preach the Word. He is sufficient, it is sufficient.

Stuart Wood said...

I'll only reply briefly to your supposed 4 marks of a false teacher set forth above.

1. The verses I gave you in Acts all prove an unlimited atonement. Not one of those verses could have been said or written if Christ had not died for all men. That is a fact, and a denial of it is what makes one a false teacher.

2. I insist that if one cannot tell another human being that Christ suffered and died for his sins personally he does not have the true Gospel, and is necessarily a false teacher. Three times (in a period of over an hour) I asked you if you could declare to me, a poor and miserable sinner, that Christ died for MY sins. That is not a trick question. That is a question that any minister of the true Gospel ought to be able to answer with a hearty "yes" and "amen". You could not do this, and yet you call me the false teacher.

3. This has been answered.

4. On both Pyro posts (8/19 and 8/21) I only posted a small comment that was faithful to the discussion with the idea that I would only write more if requested. If you care to reread the record, you will see that that is what I did. I am not out to seek my own publicity, but to rescue poor lost souls from what I know to be soul-damning error. If that is what you call the mark of a false teacher, then call me what you'd like.

The Lord will sort this out at the final judgment, and I will happily give answer to Him on that day.

Pastor Wood

Craig and Heather said...


I appreciate this post as the subject is another "puzzle piece" that I have been recently contemplating.

There seems to be an inordinate amount of blog space devoted to the idea that the Law points us to Christ Who points us back to the Law. And I nearly had a meltdown over it a few months ago because our lifestyle rarely resembles that which is prescribed by the authors of such writings.

God is so merciful to clearly answer the questions of His children who plead with Him to be able to see what is true.


Stefan said...


Yes, it's been a struggle for me as a believer to walk the path of sanctification, when I've had trouble even figuring out which path it is, and with the broad roads of antinomianism and legalism branching off on either side, waiting to receive their next hapless traveller. (Hmmm, maybe this is what the Lord God was referring to in Jeremiah 6:16!)

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone and not by works so that none may boast, yet every single writer in the New Testament (even Paul) exhorts his readers to a level of holiness on par with the Old Testament!

But how are we to be "be holy" without falling into the trap of legalistic rule-keeping, and a sort of ex post facto, retroactive justification by works, in order to prove to God that we are worthy of His salvation, and persevere in our salvation—as if the Doctrines of Grace meant nothing to us at all!?

So far, my response was to err on the side of Christian liberty, yet knowing that God was calling me to a standard of living that I was falling short of every day. After all, I had my theology right, and that's all that really matters! (I'm joking, of course.) But having all my theological i's dotted and t's crossed did become a kind of "justification by works" for me, until I realized that we are not justified by having right theology (of course—duh!): that our beliefs should inform our actions, and it is our actions that testify to our beliefs.

If you read through my last few posts, you'll see how I've been struggling and reasoning through this over the last few months.

Craig and Heather said...

I went back as far as your Sanctification post. It definitely appears that you and God have been wrestling through this subject.

It is so true that when we try to live out our belief in our own strength, it ends up a mess. God won't...can't...honor our man-centered efforts, regardless of how pure our motives seem to us.

I believe your conclusion about daily abiding in an attitude of repentance is spot on. Just sitting back and expecting God to puppetize us is obviously unbiblical. I've been there before, then recently become terribly prone to legalistic tendencies.

But true obedience comes from quietly and carefully listening for instructions rather than wildly racing off to "do" something for Jesus.

A worthwhile series of posts.


Bobby Grow said...

There is anothery way to be a, Calvinist. And it does not involve the "Federal" framing of justification/sanctification that you guys are struggling through . . . interested?

Stefan said...

Thank you, Bobby Grow, but if you reviewed my original post, you would notice two things:

(1) I never even used the terms "Calvinist," "Reformed," "federal," "headship," "Westminster," "Heidelberg," or other such Reformed shibboleths as a basis for understanding justification and sanctification.

(2) The primary extra-biblical source that got me thinking on all this is (as Stuart Wood pointed out) not a Calvinist at all, but a Lutheran.

Indeed, the reason I've been muddling my way through this is because I wasn't prepared to accept the cut-and-dried, pat answers of Westminster or any other systematic theology or confession of faith, but trying to reason my way through what the Scriptures actually say—not least the tension in Paul's own writing between justification through the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ on the one hand (e.g., Romans 3-8, Galatians), and sanctification on the other (e.g., Ephesians 5-6, Colossians 3).

When I found an old comment thread on iMonk (not exactly a rank-and-file Calvinist himself) touching on these kinds of matters, some searching on the Internet led me a theologically mixed bag of writers—Ryle (an evangelical Anglican), Montgomery (a Lutheran), and Frame (a Calvinist)—who were giving expression to similar ideas.

Bobby Grow said...

I was actually thinking more from the general context of your blog (the folks you have in your blogroll, who you associate with in the sphere, etc.).

Not only that but Calvin is the originator of the "Third Use of the Law," so while Montgomery might appropriate it, it is steeped within Calvinist development. Further, Lutherans, in many ways --- post Luther --- adopted the same scholastic conceptualisms that "Federal Calvinists" have (aside from their rift over christological concerns) . . . so in many ways, to listen to Montgomery is to listen to his Calvinist bretheren in this re.

But beyond that, your purpose is really honorable; all I was asking is if you wanted to hear about another style of Calvinism that doesn't frame justification as primarily forensic and/or juridical, but relationally and ontologically (i.e. the Scots Confession).

While I respect, completely what you're doing, Stefan; each of the folks you mention (Ryle, Montgomery, and Frame) come from the Scholastic tradition (conceptually). So you aren't really going to find the variance you're looking for; at best, you'll find different emphases in expressing the same basic understanding of the doctrine of God.

My intention, was and is not to be sarcastic --- although I can certainly understand why you might presume that about me --- but to genuinely offer you another alternative (theologically) speaking; that I believe is much better positioned to answer your questions --- from both a scriptural and history of interpretation standpoint.

In Christ

Craig and Heather said...


I was considering the title of your post and it caused me to think of the second half of Psalm 19.

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.
Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

David loved God's law because he loved the God whose law it is. He sees it's value in showing him where he is wrong and in warning him against sinful thoughts and actions. He describes it as a priceless treasure.

And I think it is interesting that as he prays here--he is recognizing his own inability to see his own faults (or keep God's Law) but is asking God to constrain him so that he won't be counted guilty of having transgressed.

Bobby Grow,

I'm not Calvinist (and don't really feel the need to become one) but my understanding of justification/sanctification probably most closely aligns with what I know of mainstream Calvinistic teaching on these things. I would be interested in what you have to say but will visit your site rather than take up space here.


Bobby Grow said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks. I'm pretty excited about "Evangelical Calvinism;" and hope you might find it appealing as well. If you have any questions, let me know.


Well, I've been banned from Frank's site; so, since I know you have some of his readers who visit here, I just wanted to clarify something (if that's okay).

He implied that I basically believe that there is no difference between Spong, Aquinas, Barth and Owen; this is just not true. I believe Spong is a heretic, w/o question (Aquinas a famous Roman Catholic theologian, Barth a neo-Reformed theologian, and Own an excellent Reformed theologian).

Anyway, sorry I had to clarify here; Frank won't let me do that at his site. And he is trying to cast me in a certain light, I fear . . . which does actually bother me.

Sorry, if you want to delete this comment, Stefan, I understand. If anyone wants further clarification, please email me. I have asked Frank for forgiveness for my fleshy tone.


Stefan said...


Thank you for clearing that up. I have checked out your site and interacted with you in the past.

Regarding the Scots Confession, it is a very eloquent document, and notable in that it predates Westminster by a hundred years.

It still suffers from the same the same key issue as Calvin and all the other magisterial reformers right down to Westminster, though: its view of baptism (chapter 21)! ;)


Funny you should mention Psalm 19...I wrote a short study of it a couple of years ago, here.

Bobby Grow said...


Thanks. And I remember our interaction in the past . . . I think it was on my "Expose on the Pyromaniacs," I think I'm done interacting with those characters ;-) (I only get into trouble).

I'm a Credo Baptist, myself; so we agree there, but I still like the interpretive tradition that the Scot's Confession comes from, and would be an advocate for certain key features.

Anyway, have a great day, Stefan!

God Bless

Stefan said...


You too. The SC certainly has a poetic quality to it that the WCF and LBCF lack, stylistically speaking.

This discussion has also prompted me to go back and look at the historic confessions of my own denomination (Mennonite Brethren = conservative evangelical anabaptist) and its predecessors.

Bobby Grow said...

Great Stefan!

My background is Conservative Baptist --- so part of the "Free Church."

There is a substantial distinction between the Westminster and Scottish conceptions though. There is a book by T. F. Torrance called Scottish Theology, wherein he unfolds these differences (the only problem is that this book costs $90). But at my blog "The Evangelical Calvinist," I am working at developing some of these differences for mass consumption (with the help of Dr. Myk Habets, at points). Feel free to join the discussion if anything catches your eye.

Craig and Heather said...

Off topic here Stefan I know.

I was reading your statement of faith. You say that your hermeneutic is covenantal. What does that mean?


Craig and Heather said...

I love Psalm 19.

After God lifted me out of a particularly suffocating bout with conviction, He "sent" me there and we ended up memorizing it as a family.

Your post was interesting. I had not noticed before the parallel between the Psalm and Romans. But there does appear to be a similar natural man->law abiding man->regenerated, God-loving man progression.

Now I need to go back and spend time re-reading Romans.

It is amazing how the "living" aspect of God's word means that there is always something new to learn regardless of how many times I look at a passage-or book. It never gets stale.


Stefan said...


I should probably revise that "covenantal hermeneutic" bit.

This is not a technical definition, but in a Christian context, a hermeneutic is basically a way of interpreting Scripture. It may simply refer to a certain way of reading the Bible (e.g., the "grammatico-historical" hermeneutic used by most conservative evangelicals), or it may refer to a framework for understanding redemptive history.

It has been easiest for me to think of redemptive history—and thus the layout of the Bible—in the classical Reformational conception of three covenants (often called "Covenant Theology"):

1. The "Covenant of Redemption" between God the Father and Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world;

2. The "Covenant of Works" between God and Adam (don't eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and live);

3. The "Covenant of Grace" between God and man through Jesus Christ, that is first intimated in Genesis 3:15. The covenant with Abraham, the Sinai Covenant, and the New Covenant are considered outworkings of the Covenant of Grace.

The problem with this should be a rather obvious one: the Bible itself doesn't explicitly present any such threefold covenantal framework! In fact, some early Baptists argued that Covenant Theology is just a high-falutin' rationalization for infant baptism; and it is much easier to think of the Bible in terms of two Covenants: the Old Covenant (the Sinai Covenant) and the New Covenant. This is where we get our titles "Old Testament" and "New Testament" from, "testamentum" being the Latin word for "covenant."

So in addition to Covenant Theology, there are two other hermeneutics that are prevalent in conservative evangelicalism, with all three being based on the underlying grammatico-historical hermeneutic of biblical interpretation:

* New Covenant Theology, which emphasizes the distinction between the Old and New Covenants;

* Dispensationalism, which analyzes redemptive history not into covenants, but into historic "dispensations" or stages.

What further complicates all this is eschatology. I am "historic premillennial," which means (in a nutshell) that I believe in a future literal millennial Kingdom (unlike Covenant Theologians), the suffering of the Church through the tribulation that will precede the millennium (unlike Dispensationalists), and a literal fulfilment of God's as-yet-unfulfilled promises in the Old Testament (unlike New Covenant Theologians).

(Historic premillennialism is a minority position today, but not without proponents [e.g., Spurgeon and Piper]; and was the eschatology of the early church, in which context it is often referrred to as "chiliasm.")

Therefore, I can't easily pigeonhole myself into any of the three prevailing hermeneutical systems; but beyond what I've already written, Covenant Theology has nuances in its understanding of redemptive history that emphasize God's grace and singularity of purpose in calling out and redeeming a people unto Himself throughout history—from the days of Genesis down to the present age—until that great day yet to come, when our Lord and Saviour returns in glory.

Craig and Heather said...

Thank you for answering my question. I know it is confusing for when both Heather and I use the same profile.

I find that every man made system falls apart at some point, so I can't pigeon hole myself into any of those categories either.

It does help me understand how you think so I can really hear what you are saying.

Thanks for taking the time to explain.


Stefan said...


Sorry for the mix-up, and thanks for the interaction! Yes, theological labels only get you so far.

I'm going to the midday service at my church, which is why I'm writing this comment at 10:15 in the morning, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Praying for your wife and family today.


Stefan said...



In Christ,