alien righteousness

The Gospel Gives What the Law Commands

From Michael Horton’s book, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, pgs. 191-194.

The Irony in all of this is that the very law that promised life upon obedience brought death (Romans 7:10). The regime of law could never bring about the obedience it required. This is absolutely counterintuitive.  In every religion, and for the average person we meet on the street, the purpose of religion is to make people better.  Every person carries around within himself or herself the tarnished recognition of the covenant of works, the law written on the conscience.  The gospel, by contrast, comes as news from outside of us, brought to us by a messenger.  It is not natural to us, but utterly foreign.  Law cannot bring life. Religion is the house of bondage.  Yet the gospel brings good news about what someone else has done for us.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Romans 8:1-4

God himself did what the law itself could never do. The law commands, but only God can save.

This is not just good news for the newly converted, but for the mature believer. As John Murray says, “The law cannot do any more in sanctification than it did in justification.” It is no more the office of the law (even according to its third use) to empower us for holiness than to raise us from the dead and put us right before God in the first place.  The only source of life and power in the Christian life is the same as it was at the very first: the good news that God has done what the law (and our obedience) could never do.  Thus, we always respond to the law (in its third use) as those who have been saved and are being saved and will be saved according God’s promise, within a covenant of grace. Because we are in Christ, God’s law, as the expression of his righteous verdict upon our lives, concurs with the gospel in delivering the judgment, “Not guilty.”  And now, acknowledging us to be right before God, that same law charts our course, revealing God’s unchanging will in which he delights more than sacrifice.  Forgiveness is great, but obedience is greater.  A guilt offering is necessary for the remission of sins, but a thank offering is something that God treasures above all else.  It is in view of God’s mercies (the indicative) that we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1-2).

So the good news is that if you are in Christ, you are a new creature.  The indicative (i.e., the good news of what God has done—”mercies of God”) drives the imperatives (i.e., the law in its third use).  You have no inherited forgiveness and justification by grace only to have your sanctification determined by a covenant of law.  The irony is preserved: the law covenant leads to condemnation, while the promise covenant leads to the very obedience that the law requires but could never elicit. On the other hand, if you are living in open rebellion against the promises of God and does not delight in his law inwardly, then the inheritance does not belong to you even if you have been incorporated visibly into the covenant community. The gospel is greater than we ever imagined, and the judgment is severe for those who reject the realities it brings into our lives.

An illustration will help us to bring these threads together. Imagine a new sailboat with all of the latest gadgets.  Equipped with satellite technology, the sailboat can plot the course to your destination.  It can even signal alarm when you veer from its coordinates.  Relying on the impressive great, you venture out into the open waters under full sail until eventually the winds die down and you come to a dead calm. The radio warns that a squall is suddenly approaching out of the east. A number of fellow sailors offer advice on their radios, but despite all of the information offered by the guidance system itself and the helpful advice of colleagues, you realize that you cannot return to safety without any wind. So there you sit, with all of your finest technology, unable to move toward the harbor.

The Christian life is often like this.  We glide out of our harbor under full sail, thrilled with delight in knowing our sins are forgiven and that we are right with God. A new love for our Redeemer fills us with gratitude, and we are eager to follow the course he has set for us in his Word. Yes as we pass into the open sears, we encounter spiritual stress. God’s law, we find, provides the direction but not the power, and a panoply of spiritual technologies are technologies are available to substitute. We think that by reading this book or going to that conference of following this plan of spiritual victory or these steps for overcoming sin in our life, we can get the boat going in the right direction again.

These guides are usually neither law (i.e., God’s directives) nor gospel (i.e., God’s promises and acts in Christ), but helpful advice from fellow sailors. In a sense, the advice they offer is more law than gospel, since it imposes expectations and demands as conditions for success.  Yet the more advice you get, the deeper your sense that you are simply dead in the water spiritually.  Exhausted, you either give up and promise never to sail again or you realize that what you really need is a fresh gust of wind in your sails. That wind is always Christ in his saving office. What you really need is to be told all over again about who God is and what he has done to save you, and about the new world that awaits you because of his faithfulness to unfaithful sailors. This alone will fill your sails so that you can get safely back to the harbor when the gales blow hard.

Our whole life as Christians is a process of sailing confidently into the open seas, dying down in exhaustion, and having our sails filled against with God’s precious promises. We are never at any moment simply under full sail or dead in the water, but move back and forth through the Christian life. This is the movement that we find in Romans 6-8, from the triumphant indicative (Rom. 6:1-11), to the moral imperatives (6:12-14), back to the indicative (6:15-7:6), to the exhausting struggle with in (7:7-24), back again to the triumphant indicative, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25) and the future hope awaiting us for which even now we have the Spirit as a down payment (8:1-39).

This the crucial point in all of this is that even in its third use (guiding rather than condemning), the law can do only what the law does. We must not think that the law drives us to Christ in the beginning (second use) and then Christ drives us back to the law for our acceptance before God in sanctification (third use). Rather, the law continues to provide us with the soundest guidance available, but apart from Christ and the indicative announcement of what he has done for us and in us, it can only lead us to either despair or self-righteousness. No less than when we first believed, we must always attribute to the gospel the power that fills our sails with gratitude, and to the law the proper course that such gratitude takes. At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

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