Theology Thursday - Second Helvetic Confession on the Law

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful (and drab) characters and institutions. Some are orthodox, but decidedly outside the Baptist orbit. Others are completely heretical. Regardless of heresy or orthodoxy, we hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

From the Second Helvetic Confession

The Will of God is Explained for Us in the Law of God

We teach that the will of God is explained for us in the law of God, what he wills or does not will us to do, what is good and just, or what is evil and unjust. Therefore, we confess that the law is good and holy.

The Law of Nature

And this law was at one time written in the hearts of men by the finger of God (Rom. 2:15), and is called the law of nature (the law of Moses is in two Tables), and at another it was inscribed by his finger on the two Tables of Moses, and eloquently expounded in the books of Moses (Ex. 20:1 ff.; Deut. 5:6 ff.). For the sake of clarity we distinguish the moral law which is contained in the Decalogue or two Tables and expounded in the books of Moses, the ceremonial law which determines the ceremonies and worship of God, and the judicial law which is concerned with political and domestic matters.

The Law Is Complete and Perfect

We believe that the whole will of God and all necessary precepts for every sphere of life are taught in this law. For otherwise the Lord would not have forbidden us to add or to take away anything from this law; neither would he have commanded us to walk in a straight path before this law, and not to turn aside from it by turning to the right or to the left (Deut. 4:2; 12:32).

Why the Law Was Given

We teach that this law was not given to men that they might be justified by keeping it, but that rather from what it teaches we may know (our) weakness, sin and condemnation, and, despairing of our strength, might be converted to Christ in faith. For the apostle openly declares: “The law brings wrath,” and, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 4:15; 3:20), and, “If a law had been given which could justify or make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture (that is, the law) has concluded all under sin, that the promise which was of the faith of Jesus might be given to those who believe … Therefore, the law was our schoolmaster unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal.3:21 ff.).

The Flesh Does not Fulfil the Law

For no flesh could or can satisfy the law of God and fulfil it, because of the weakness in our flesh which adheres and remains in us until our last breath. For the apostle says again: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Rom. 8:3). Therefore, Christ is the perfecting of the law and our fulfilment of it (Rom. 10:4), who, in order to take away the curse of the law, was make a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Thus he imparts to us through faith his fulfilment of the law, and his righteousness and obedience are imputed to us.

How Far the Law Is Abrogated

The law of God is therefore abrogated to the extent that it no longer condemns us, nor works wrath in us. For we are under grace and not under the law. Moreover, Christ has fulfilled all the figures of the law. Hence, with the coming of the body, the shadows ceased, so that in Christ we now have the truth and all fulness. But yet we do not on that account contemptuously reject the law. For we remember the words of the Lord when he said: “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them” (Matt. 5:17). We know that in the law is delivered to us the patterns of virtues and vices. We know that the written law when explained by the Gospel is useful to the Church, and that therefore its reading is not to be banished from the Church. For although Moses’ face was covered with a veil, yet the apostle says that the veil has been taken away and abolished by Christ. 

The Sects

We condemn everything that heretics old and new have taught against the law. 

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TylerR's picture

Editor

This statement makes so much sense to me that I am at a loss as to why some dispensationalists deny Jesus' active obedience:

For no flesh could or can satisfy the law of God and fulfil it, because of the weakness in our flesh which adheres and remains in us until our last breath. For the apostle says again: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Rom. 8:3). Therefore, Christ is the perfecting of the law and our fulfilment of it (Rom. 10:4), who, in order to take away the curse of the law, was make a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Thus he imparts to us through faith his fulfilment of the law, and his righteousness and obedience are imputed to us.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

The law of God is therefore abrogated to the extent that it no longer condemns us, nor works wrath in us. For we are under grace and not under the law.

I think dispensationalists can agree with this statement!

Moreover, Christ has fulfilled all the figures of the law. Hence, with the coming of the body, the shadows ceased, so that in Christ we now have the truth and all fulness. But yet we do not on that account contemptuously reject the law. For we remember the words of the Lord when he said: “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them” (Matt. 5:17).

This is the problem. I think some dispensationalists do contemptuously reject the law. 

We know that in the law is delivered to us the patterns of virtues and vices. We know that the written law when explained by the Gospel is useful to the Church, and that therefore its reading is not to be banished from the Church. For although Moses’ face was covered with a veil, yet the apostle says that the veil has been taken away and abolished by Christ. 

This statement is a masterpiece of ambiguity. It says the law is useful for the Christian, but doesn't really say how! It seems to suggest a secondary usage ("patterns of virtues and vices"); that is, a principlizing approach using Christ as the new context for interpretation. 

I am convinced there is not nearly as much real difference between dispensationalists and the Reformed position when it comes down to brass tacks:

  • Alva McClain's big point was that the law has ceased to function as a rule of life. This confession agrees ("under grace").
  • His other point was that the law must be interpreted in the context of Christ's grace and His finished work. This confession agrees.

Well . . . ?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

IMO, simple summaries of the relation of the law to the Christian can only be so useful.  This one has some usefulness, but has its gaps and "rounded off" concepts.  Things are more complex in BOTH directions (we are less bound and perhaps more bound). I can  understand the above approach, but it does not fully satisfy the many statements in Scripture about the Law.

For example, I would argue that, of the two tablets, the commandment to rest on the Sabbath is not part of the moral law. I do not believe it is wrong to mow the lawn on any day.  I think Paul makes it quite clear that every day is alike [Romans 14:5].  

When Jesus said:

 “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17),

Jesus was using a Hebrew idiom, IMO.  To fulfill means to properly interpret and apply, according to this view.  Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern writes:

It is true that Yeshua kept the Torah perfectly and fulfilled predictions of the Prophets, but that is not the point here. Yeshua did not come to abolish but "to make full" (plerusai) the meaning of what the Torah and the ethical demands of the Prophets require. Thus he came to complete our understanding of the Torah and the Prophets, so that we can try more effectively to be and do what they say to be and do. Verses 18-20 enunciate three ways in which the Torah and the Prophets remain necessary, applicable and in force. The remainder of Chapter 5 gives six specific cases in which Yeshua explains the fuller spiritual meaning of points in the Jewish Law. In fact, this verse states the theme and agenda of the entire Sermon on Ihe Mount, in which Yeshua completes, makes fuller, the understanding of his talmidim [disciples] concerning the Torah and the Prophets, so that they can more fully express what being Gods people is all about.
 

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Editor

I need to take a closer look at the Sermon on the Mount. I've been meaning to for a while. I breezed through it a few weeks back, and now I basically take it as Jesus' inspired commentary on the real application of the law - how it was supposed to have been taken. I see a massive continuity with the OT prophets and Jesus' message there. In other words, this is why I am so skeptical about the classical dispensational discontinuity between Covenants. I just don't see it. There are some obvious discontinuities (Old vs. New Covenant is a pretty big one!), but the impetus for sanctification and obedience has always been the same.  

Thanks!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

JBL's picture

A passage of scripture that augments the discussion of why the law was given is Romans 5:13-14.

The key ideas here are that:

1)    Sin can exist without the law being given. (Romans 5:13)
2)    The consequence of sin is death. (Romans 5:14, Romans 6:23)
3)    Once the law is given, sin can be imputed or assigned. (Romans 5:13)

Imputation allows for the assignment of guilt, but also allows a recording and reckoning of the sinfulness.  Before the law, man died, but did not fully understand how sinful he was (to what degree), and in what manner he had trespassed (what crime was committed).

The law was sent for sin to abound (Romans 5:20), not so much that people sinned more with the law, but could realize to what extent and to what manner they had sinned.

The law does continue to serve to remind us of how sinful our flesh still is.  The flesh has not been redeemed from the law, and is still under the law since it still dies (Romans 8:24-25).  Paul encourages Christians not to obey its lusts (Romans 6:12).

John B. Lee

JBL's picture

Ed brought up the idea of obeying the Sabbath rest as not being part of God's moral law.  I think part of the idea of not classifying it as a moral law is because we find very little biblical imperative for Gentile nations or NT believers to observe the Sabbath.

It is clear that Sabbath observance is part of the covenantal relationship that God implemented with Israel in Exodus 19-31.  A covenantal relationship is a unique one, and has unique conditions that are not applicable to those outside the covenant (in this case, the Gentile nations and the church).

What is sticky here is that Sabbath observance is found in the decalogue, and many Christians have taken the Ten Commandments and held them up as an entire monolith, applicable to every person who has ever lived.  I wonder if this is a correct treatment of this portion of scripture.

We recently taught the Ten Commandments to our church youth, and it's hard to know what to say about the fourth.  The idea of Sunday being the new "Christian Sabbath" has very little support in Scripture, and we certainly don't follow the pattern of Saturday being the day of rest.  It seems a much less forced reading of scripture to explain that this commandment is one that has exclusive covenantal applicability to Israel.  But if that is the case, it seems like a readjustment of how we teach the Ten Commandments is in order.

The two questions I would submit to this forum are 

1) Do you feel that we can scripturally teach that Sabbath observance is not one that the church is obligated to obey?

2) If it is not, in what ways have you changed the way you group or teach the Ten Commandments to children?

 

John B. Lee

TylerR's picture

Editor

I would say the Sabbath is not a law which is applicable for today, but it may be a very valid principle to implement. I'm groping my way toward a tentative approach to the law and the Christian, and posted some initial thoughts here.

This is where Ryrie's approach, for example, breaks down. He wrote that if an OT law is mentioned as binding in the NT, then it applies. Well, perhaps the Sabbath isn't mentioned as a command, so it doesn't apply. But, the NT doesn't explicitly tell you to not sleep with your sister, either. Is that command abolished, too?

This is why I think you have to filter each law through a New Covenant grid and consider a whole host of factors. In other words, I believe it is a case by case basis on which law is binding on the believer, and what context this obligation takes in light of Christ's perfect and finished work and the inauguration of the New Covenant.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

JBL's picture

Tyler,

Thanks for your response.  I think I know the direction you're recommending, and I appreciate the thought you've put into it on your blog.  

What I am considering now, is how can we teach your principal of filtering OT Law through the NT covenant to children, and if we do, does it change how the Ten Commandments have been historically presented (binding to all, applicable to all)?  Furthermore, how do we bring this to a level that is understandable to the average eight year old?

John B. Lee

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