Being right about right and wrong
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully. (1 Timothy 1:8, ESV)
This Christmas someone gave me a copy of The Select Letters of John Newton. This marvellous little book reprints letters of this converted slave trader of the eighteenth century on a variety of subjects, and I’m loving it.
One letter is entitled “The right use of the law”. By “law”, Newton means the Old Testament legal code. Taking as his cue the apostle Paul’s intriguing comment that the law needs to be used lawfully, Newton points out two ways in which we can use God’s law unlawfully.
First, we use the law wrongly if we view it as a pathway to putting ourselves right with God. This is to try to by-pass the cross of Christ; if a right standing with God could come by the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Second, we also abuse the law if we say that Christ’s achievement releases us from any obligations to it. God is God, and we are His creatures; “he must have an unrivalled claim to our reverence, love, trust, service and submission.”
What, then, is the right use of the law? Newton gives four such uses.
First, we read the law to bring conviction of sin. For the law shows us God’s standards. As we see how far short we fall, we begin to see how we need to flee to Christ for our forgiveness, and for life.
Second, the law shows us the glory of God. We see what a truly law-full life looks like in the person of our Lord Jesus. It is beautiful and wonderful to see!
Third, we should consult the law as a rule of life. God’s grace in our lives will dispose us to obedience, but, as Newton puts it, “we are much at a loss as to particulars.” So we are sent the law to learn how to live lives worthy of God.
Fourth, the law helps us not to get proud as believers. God’s work in us means we have been changed from what we were, and what many still are, around us. We might be tempted to look down on others - until we measure ourselves by God’s standards!
In the same chapter, Newton also points out that the ceremonial / sacrificial aspects of God’s law - the routines and sacrifices of the Old Testament - point to the gospel of Christ, which entirely replaces them. The ceremonial law was essential to membership of the people of God - just as believing the gospel is for us. And the sacrifices of the old system all point to the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice the Lord Jesus made on the cross.
I hope this inadequate summary of one chapter will encourage you to read Newton for yourself, and enjoy him as much as I am. But, more than that, to make right use of the law of God.
Happy new year!
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