Chapter 13: New Testament Ethics

By now it should be obvious that the issue of Sabbatarianism raises the broader issue of Christian existence and New Testament ethics. Is the Christian subject to law? And if so, in what sense? The Reformation answered this question by saying that the law has three uses:

  1. It has a social use since it exercises a restraining influence on society.
  2. It has a pedagogic use since it points out sin and drives the sinner to Christ.
  3. It has a guiding use since it acts as a rule of life for those who have been justified.

Luther laid greater stress on the second use of the law, while Calvin placed greater emphasis on the third use of the law. Some have suggested that Luther did not believe in the third use of the law. Although the expression third use of the law does not appear in Luther, (1) it is not difficult to find statements in which he speaks of the law as providing instruction in good works for the guidance of justified believers.

The Reformed branch of Protestantism, however, traditionally placed greater emphasis on the third use of the law. While the Lutheran tradition has tended to permit any form of worship except that which God has forbidden, the Reformed tradition has tended to permit only that form of worship which God has enjoined. Puritanism was the outgrowth of Reformed theology, The Puritans searched the Bible for directives on liturgy, church government and the entire spectrum of Christian existence. They expounded the Ten Commandments in great detail and applied them with rigor, believing that they were the rule of life par excellence. The Puritans became the greatest exponents of Sabbatarianism in the history of the church.

Although mainline Puritanism was Sunday Sabbatarian, it is no accident that seventh-day Sabbatarian movements have developed on Puritan soil. Seventh-day Sabbatarians see themselves as carrying the theological premises of Puritanism to their logical end. If the Ten Commandments must be applied with exactness and rigor as the rule of life for Christians, why not keep the Sabbath which Jesus, the apostles and the primitive Jerusalem church also kept? Orthodox Puritans and their descendants have tried to argue that Jesus or the apostles changed the day of worship and commanded the church to observe a new day. But they are without biblical support and consequently fall into the hands of their more consistent seventh-day Sabbatarian opponents.

What shall we say about this "third use of the law", as it was called in Reformation theology? First, we will examine some of its positive aspects:

  1. There is no doubt that the third use of the law is theologically valid. The timeless ethical principles enjoined in the Old Testament are radicalized in the New Testament. (The Sermon on the Mount is an illustration of this.) The New Testament is strewn with imperatives -- commands, prohibitions, warnings and exhortations. Law is the "ought," and there is no absence of "oughts" in the New Testament. The spiritual man is said to delight in the law of God and to submit to it (Romans 7:22, 8:7). It is the wicked who are called anomos -- which literally means "without law" or "lawless" (Matthew 7:23, 24:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Timothy 1:9; 1 John 3:4; etc.). Faith in the Lordship of Christ implies willingness to accept His authority and to submit to His word as absolute law.

    The mainstream of the Christian church has always rejected the thesis that reborn believers, who are guided by the Spirit, need no law to guide and correct them. No antinomian has ever become an honored exponent of the Christian faith. The proposition that the believer is released from the law of God as a rule of life has rightly been condemned as heresy by all sound Christian teachers.

  2. The doctrine of the law's third use preserves the strong moral imperative reflected in the Old and New Testaments. It affirms that the gospel must not allow us to tolerate sin or to be slack in reaching the highest ethical ideal.

    The Reformers were keenly aware of their opponents’ charge that the evangelical doctrine was permissive. The Augsburg Confession and Melanchthon's Apology reveal that the Lutherans were anxious to emphasize that the gospel leads to a life of good works and respect for the law of God. It was in the context of opposing the antinomians that Melanchthon first coined expression "the third use of the law".

    But it was Calvin's Geneva which was to demonstrate to the entire world that the Reformation gospel would produce a community zealous in obeying the law of God. And wherever Reformed Protestantism has gone, it has reflected Geneva's stern moral imperative. Sanctification was the forte of the Puritans. Whatever their faults, they were a terror to antinomianism. Although the zenith of Puritanism has passed, its influence is not spent. The Banner of Truth and Trust, the Arthur Pink disciples, many of the Westminster

    Confession adherents and the Seventh-day Adventists are leading exponents of the law's third use.

    No one really understands Sabbatarianism unless he realizes that this is the way one group of Christians declare that they take the law of God seriously. At its best Sabbatarianism is a confession that faith does not annul the law but establishes (Romans 3:31). Does not the substitutionary atonement teach us that God met the just demands of the law and thereby invested it with awesome honor? Sabbatarianism is the way one segment of the church confesses that, in view of Calvary, sin is not to be taken lightly and antinomianism is not to be tolerated. Thus, the church has sometimes benefited from the prophetic witness of the Sabbatarians.

  3. The doctrine of the law's third use preserves the strong juridical element in biblical theology. A theology not vitally related to law is like a body without backbone. It tends to be mystical or sentimental. It does not do justice to the biblical portrait of the God of righteousness, of covenant, of wrath and of undeviating justice. The men of the Bible are not only comfortable using legal imagery in recounting the acts of God, but next to history itself, they seem to prefer legal terminology more than anything else. In presenting the meaning of the atonement St. Paul finds no better way to express his theology than in legal categories. "Redemption", "propitiation", "reconciliation", "forgiveness", "justification" and "adoption" are all law-related concepts. So are "witness" (testify), "judge, "accuse", "truth", "condemn", "Paraclete" and other words in the writings of John.

    In the history of theology it is those who have subscribed to the third use of the law who have done justice to the juridical imagery of the Bible, and especially to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. On the other hand, those who are lax on third use of the law tend to reduce Salvation to a subjective process which praises sanctification with justification.

"The Third Use" Misused

Having acknowledged the strengths in the Reformation's doctrine of the third use the law, we wish to examine the way it n and has been misused. The theological validity of a thesis does not necessarily imply that a Bible writer formed the same categories of thought. For example, the distinction between moral and ceremonial law may be useful, but this must not be imposed upon texts of Scripture not concerned with making that distinction. The same thing can be said about the third use of the law. Commentaries on Galatians which stand in the Reformed tradition often end by trying to protect Paul from misunderstanding. They impose nineteenth-century third-use-of-the-law thinking on the book of Galatians. But Paul is allowed to speak for himself in Galatians, he does not rescue the tarnished reputation of the law by a dissertation on its third use. The law is simply a paidagogos, a guardian for minors until the coming of Christ. There is no suggestion in Galatians that God's people need this paidagogos after Christ and justification have come. The problem in interpreting Galatians arises when the commentator thinks of the law as a principle or standard, knows intuitively that the standard which demands right conduct is not abolished, and so he reads this into Galatians. But when Paul speaks negatively of the law in Galatians, he means that infantile, rule-book system of ethics which the Mosaic administration imposed on Israel until the coming of Christ.

Because of the ambiguity which exists at this point, there is real danger that the reformed doctrine of the third use of the law will return the believer to what Paul calls being "under the law". Under the guise of respect for the law of God as a rule of life, we would again be burdened with an infantile, rulebook system of ethics from which the gospel was supposed to deliver us.

The Puritans, Arthur Pink, John Murray, Philip Hughes, the Banner of Truth Trust people and Seventh-day Adventists plausibly argue that only the ceremonial aspects of Moses' law have passed away, while the moral aspects are retained. (2) Thus, the law of Moses, shorn of Jewish ceremonies, becomes the Christian's rule of life.

Fine scholars such as Philip Hughes declare that the same law written on tables of stone is now written on the Christian's heart and exhibited in his life, not, of course, as a means of salvation, but as an evidence of salvation. (3) Does Hughes really mean that the letter of the Mosaic laws is imposed on the Christian's conscience?

No one should object to the proposition that the timeless ethical principles found in Moses are carried over into New Testament ethics. But in the Reformed-Puritan tradition, New Testament ethics is too readily confined to a Mosaic code of regulations. Thus, Puritanism developed into a kind of Christian Judaism. Such a rigorous rule-book system of ethics is not a reflection of the Christian existence portrayed in the New Testament.

The Starting Point of New Testament Ethics

One of the most striking things about Paul's letters is that he almost never defines right and wrong with a written law. He does not confront Peter at Antioch by saying, "You have violated Section 4, Clause B of the law". He does not charge Peter with breaking either the Ten Commandments or the 613 commandments. In fact, it was fear of breaking the old written code before the Jerusalem Christians which motivated Peter to end his table fellowship with the Gentiles. It would have been very difficult to convict Peter of any wrongdoing on the basis of the written code. But Paul explains the basis of his charge in these words:

"They [Peter and his brethren] were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:14).

The starting point of Paul's ethics was not a written code. It was God's act of righteousness in the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle does not begin his letters with an exposition of Christian duty based on a Puritanical application of the Ten Commandments. He begins with a clear statement of what has been given us in the gospel.(4) Romans 12:1 is typical of all his Epistles: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God---which is your spiritual worship".

Since God has forgiven us, we ought to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13). Since He was generous, we ought to reflect His generosity (2 Corinthians 8:9). We ought not to be selfishly ambitious, because Christ humbled Himself to the death of the cross (Philippians 2:3-8). Since God has graciously included us in the death of Christ, we ought to put to death all sinful deeds (Colossians 3:3-5).

This is an ethic of grateful celebration. It is the believer's way of expressing gratitude for a salvation which is a gift from start to finish. It is an ethic of faith and love because it is based on faith in what God has done for us in Christ and it expresses itself in behaving toward others as God has behaved toward us (Galatians 5:6). It is an ethic of forgiveness because it lives by God's mercy and cannot help but reflect God's mercy to others. The forgiven man becomes a forgiving man. It is an ethic of freedom because there is no regulatory rule book to live by, only the twofold demand of Christ's covenantal love:

"Trust in Me" and "Love each other as I have loved you" (see John 13-15).

But one says: "Surely no one should be left to define love for himself, so that eventually every evil may be permitted in the name of love. Must not love be objectively and concretely defined?" Yes, of course it needs to be objectively defined. But this cannot be adequately done by a written code, not even by the Ten Commandments. The commandments are an expression of elementary morality simplified and reduced to a bare minimum. But love is most fully defined by the cross of Christ (John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 John 3:1, 4:10). This is no subjective definition of love, but one which is historically concrete and thoroughly objective.

In his Epistles Paul reasons from the gospel--the historical act of redemption--to deduce the nature of Christian duty and the content of Christian behavior. He touches an entire range of relationships and practical duties---duties of husbands and wives, parents and children, rulers and subjects, masters and servants, pastors and church members, strong and weak members of the church, the rich and the poor, the unruly and the immoral, the married and the unmarried, quarrelsome church members and false teachers. Such things and many more are considered as the apostle refracts the implications of the gospel into all these areas of human existence.

Yet we are not meant to construct an elaborate written code of right and wrong from Paul or from any other New Testament writer. The apostle says that the believer is not "under the law" (i.e., not subject to a rule-book religion) but is led by the Spirit. The Spirit directs the believer by helping him to apply the gospel in the concrete reality of daily life. There are so many ambiguous situations in real life that no written code, however elaborate, could adequately tell us what is right and wrong. The New Testament writers apply the gospel in sufficient areas to provide some guidelines. They give us a framework in which we too can reason from the gospel to determine our Christian duty in every situation.

Those things which are obviously sinful are clearly identified and condemned in the New Testament, so that we are not asked to chart a course through unnavigated waters. But those who want right and wrong to be minutely defined wish to be like infants under Moses rather than e adults under the gospel of Christ.

When a child learns to play the piano, he disciplined by many elementary rules. But when he becomes a mature pianist, he transcends many of these early restrictions. In fact, he must do this to become a creative musician who can express his own personality in his renditions.

To live in the gospel maturity of New Testament freedom not only allows greater spontaneity and creativity in Christian experience, but it also demands greater responsibility. This is why many childishly prefer to have all their duties defined by a religious system. But to live as Paul envisages to be open to the gospel and the application of that gospel in the rough and tumble daily existence. Because life is not precisely regimented for the mature gospel believer, he must pray without ceasing as exercises his conscience to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14). He must seek for a constant inward renewing so that he "will be able to test and approve what God's will is" (Romans 12:2). Rather than accept the responsibility which such freedom brings, many would prefer the security of rule-book ethics. They want the security of religion that carefully defines what is permissible and what is prohibited. With the passage of time, the list of taboos grows. Breaking the cultic taboos of a particular group is often regarded as worse than committing a sin against faith and love.

The fact is that we do not always have a chapter and verse to tell us how we should conduct a worship service, structure a governing board or relate to a company which wants to dump its waste in our neighborhood. The person who tries to settle a matter by simply relying on a proof-text may not be exhibiting his spirituality at all. Many atrocious actions have apparently had the sanction of a proof-text. Henry VIII found a proof-text in support of annulling his first marriage. Augustine found proof-text to force dissenters to attend church. The desire for a proof-text to settle vexing questions may easily become a substitute for creatively considering the implications of the gospel under the leading of the Holy Spirit. A letter-of-the-law ethic may all too easily be smuggled in under the banner of sola Scriptura.

No biblical proof-text outlaws slavery. While Paul taught the gospel, he appeared to tolerate the institution of slavery as a fact of life. But in later history the Spirit led men to reason from the gospel to the condemnation of slavery. In this they went beyond the explicit teachings of the apostle. Yet they drew their conclusions from his gospel. It was not a written law in either the Old or New Testament which convinced Wilberforce that slavery was wrong. In fact, many churchmen who used the Bible as a rule book were arch-defenders of slavery.

Neither the Bible in general nor duty in particular can be understood apart from the Bible's living center, which is Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. We must be careful to make Him the starting point in all our thinking.

The New Testament gospel, therefore, must not only interpret the Old Testament in general but Christian duty in particular. The New Testament interprets the law of God with prophetic freedom just as it interprets the prophets with prophetic freedom. This does not mean that everyone is invited to interpret the law as he likes. The Spirit, given to the believer (and the whole church), is the Spirit who is clothed in the word of the gospel. He never comes to us apart from the gospel. The Spirit leads us by constantly bringing the gospel to mind and by teaching us to apply it when circumstances impel us to ask, "What should I do?" Apart from the gospel, no one can interpret the law of God correctly. Yet to those who live by the gospel, the promise is fulfilled, "Your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it'" (Isaiah 30:21).


(1) It was Melanchthon who first coined the term "third used the law." The Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577) Devotes an entire section to "The Third Use of the Law" and makes it an article of Lutheran orthodoxy.

(2) There is of course some disagreement over what parts of the law are ceremonial. The only significant difference between John Murray and Seventh-day Adventists at this point is that the latter would place a few more stipulations in the "moral" category.

(3) See Philip Edgcumbe Hughes. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 90.

(4) Romans 1-2 is no exception, since this passage is not an exposition of Christian existence. Romans 1-2 convicts all men of sin, not by a detailed exposition of a written code, but by an appeal to the general revelation of law known even to the heathen.

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