Not Under the Law

The Westminster Standards teach that Christians are obligated to obey the Ten Commandments. The fact that the Larger and Shorter Catechisms include a detailed exposition of the Ten Commandments indicates this. Moreover, chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of faith says that the law delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, is the moral law and continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness, informing and binding true believers to walk accordingly. The Ten Commandments are for Christians in the New Testament.

There are biblical reasons, of course, for this traditional Reformed position. Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, and that whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17, 19). Paul says that the gospel, far from overthrowing it, upholds the law (Rom. 3:31). He also cites the commandments as binding upon the New Testament church (Eph. 6:2; Rom. 13:8-10).

There are, however, other texts in the New Testament that seem to contradict the Reformed position. These verses must not be ignored or neglected, but embraced and rightly handled. The puritan Anthony Burgess said that the “perpetuall fault among the Antinomians” is that “they onely pitch upon those places, where Christ and his grace is spoken of; but not of those Texts, where duties are commanded, especially those places of Scripture, where the Law of God is wonderfully commended, for the many reall benefits that come by it.”  In other words, the Antinomians majored on the verses that seemed to support their position and minored on the ones that created trouble for them. Of course, they aren’t the only ones who have fallen prey to this problem, as we are all susceptible to it regarding any theological issue. And the way to fix this problem, as Burgess says, is to “look to all the places of Scripture.”

In his book against Antinomianism, Burgess is careful to follow his own advice, addressing the verses that seem to teach the abrogation or limited duration of the moral law. In the remainder of this article, we will look at what he says about one of those verses, Romans 6:14: “you are not under law but under grace.”

Burgess says that the common interpretation of the phrase “under law” is that it refers to being under the condemnation or curse of the law. A Christian is not under law in the sense that he is not under the curse of the law. This may well have been the majority understanding among the divines at the Westminster Assembly because they used Romans 6:14 as a proof text to support their statement that “true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned (WCF 19.6).”

Burgess, however, dissents from the majority position.He doesn’t think that this interpretation fits with the context of Romans 6 and 7.Paul is not discussing justification but sanctification. He is not talking about the condemning power of the law or its counterpart of “grace for pardoning and free justification.” Rather, he is talking about the dominion of sin, how the law works all manner of evil in every unregenerate man, and its counterpart of grace to walk in newness of life. Burgess thus sides with Theodore Beza and thinks that “under law” is akin to “under sinne.” He writes: “Now then this is the Apostles argument, Let not sin reign in you, for now you are not under the Law stirring up sin, and provoking it in you, but under grace; not justifying or pardoning, as properly and immediately meant here (though they were under that also) but sanctifying and healing.”

According to Burgess, Paul is not saying that Christians don’t have to obey the Ten Commandments because they are under grace; he is saying that Christians are not unregenerate, under the reign of sin, and provoked to sin all the more by the law. They are delivered from the dominion of sin and enabled to be obedient from the heart because of the saving, sanctifying grace of God. In the words of the Apostle John, Christians do not find God’s commandments burdensome because everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:3-4). Romans 6:14, therefore, does not contradict the Reformed position that Christians today are obligated to obey the Ten Commandments.

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.

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