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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




A great theme, which is viewed in various aspects and treated of in several connections in the Standards, is now reached. With some care an attempt will be made to bring the whole together, so as to reduce the various teachings to harmony as far as possible. The Catechisms have really nothing to say about Christian liberty, but so far as the law of God is concerned they contain very full expositions, especially in regard to the summary of the law found in the ten commandments. Indeed, the very complete exposition of the decalogue given in the Catechisms forms a real difficulty for a discussion like this, which can scarcely, without undue expansion, follow out all the particulars stated in the Catechisms. In this chapter the teaching of the Confession, which is full and definite upon the law of God, and of those passages in the Catechisms which bear directly upon the nature and use of the divine law, will be explained. Then, the fuller discussion of the law of God as the rule of the believer's conduct, and hence as the basis of Christian ethics, will be taken up under the discussion of the means of grace. This mode of procedure may relieve the subject of some of its difficulties, and make it possible to exhibit the twofold aspect of the law of God set forth in the Standards. The one of these relates to the law of God in connection with divine moral government, and the other refers to the same law viewed as the rule of duty for the Christian man. Then the remainder of the chapter will give a concise statement of what the Confession has to say about the liberty which the Christian enjoys, and in regard to the liberty of conscience which he possesses. This last is a subject of vast practical moment against Romanism and antinomianism.

I. The Law of God is the First Question.

1. The expression, law of God, itself needs some explanation, for it is used in a variety of senses. In general, the divine laws are either moral or positive in their nature. Those which are moral in their nature are founded upon eternal and immutable facts or relations. Here, again, there are two classes of moral laws. The one class is founded upon the divine nature viewed as morally perfect, and the other upon the fixed moral relations which subsist among men. To love and obey God is an example of the first class, and to refrain from stealing illustrates the second. The first class is absolutely immutable, and cannot be repealed even by God himself; the second class is of universal obligation, so long as the present relations subsist among men. Those which are positive in their nature obtain their authority, and find their obligation in the positive command of God. These may be of temporary obligation and intended to serve some special purpose. Many of the civil and judicial, and most of the ceremonial laws, of the Mosaic system illustrate this class of divine laws. But even here the moral and the positive are often so mixed that it is not easy to separate the two elements. Perhaps the best illustration of this class of laws is to be found in the prohibition given to our first parents not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

From the fact of moral law, either as founded in the divine nature, or upon the moral relations existing among men, it may be justly assumed that God has established a moral government which extends over all moral beings. From the same fact it may be further assumed that man has, by virtue of his creation, a moral nature, and is thus fitted to become the subject of moral government. With this moral nature, man, as a subject of the divine moral government, is under law to God, and is bound to render perfect obedience to the law under which he is placed, and which is also written upon his nature. If he obeys he will be rewarded, but if he disobeys he surely incurs penalty. It is the law of God as moral which is now prominently in view in this discussion, and the profound teaching of the Standards upon this subject deserves the most careful study.

2. Man's relation to the moral law and government of God is set forth in several aspects in the Standards, especially in the Confession. A paragraph is now devoted to the explanation of these different aspects.

(a.) The first view of this law and of man's relation to it appears in his original state prior to, and irrespective of, the covenant of works, as explained in a previous chapter. According to this view, each man as a moral agent would sustain direct moral relations to God, and would have to stand or fall for himself, and an obedience which was personal, entire, exact, and perpetual would be required of each. This is, of course, largely an ideal state for man, for only Adam, and he for a very short time, ever stood in this relation. The angels, as moral agents under moral government, best illustrate this relation. From their case we can reason by analogy to that of man, apart from the covenant relation, and under pure natural moral government. This fundamental relation the Standards assume rather than fully expound, so that nothing further need be said about it now.

(b.) The second aspect of the law of God and of man's relation to it is represented by the case of Adam in what may be called his covenant relation. This has already been explained at length, and need not be enlarged upon at this point. The Confession says that God gave Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience. This is the covenant or federal form of the law of God, and under it the representative status of Adam is assumed in its broadest outlines, as requiring perfect and perpetual obedience on the part of Adam and his posterity in him. Further, this covenant form of law promised life to all those to whom the covenant related upon the fulfilment of its conditions, and it threatened death for the breach of its terms or conditions. It is interesting to note the fact, that the scope of the covenant law here is broadly outlined, for it is not the eating of the forbidden fruit which is signalized here, but the whole obedience itself considered, which the covenant or federal law required. The Confession also adds in this connection that man had power and ability to keep this law. Notice, also, that it is not power and ability to eat or not eat of the fruit of the tree upon which the stress is laid, but upon the power and ability of Adam to render that perfect obedience which was required. This relation is what some writers very properly describe as moral government modified by the covenant of works, just as the former aspect of the law of God is termed moral government in its essential principles. According to the covenant form of the moral law and government of God, when the probationary term of obedience was completed, this obedience would have been accepted for the justification of Adam and of the race in him, so that thereby they would have been permanently established in holiness and in the favor of God as a reward for the obedience rendered.

(c.) A third aspect of the relation of man to the law of God emerges after the fall and the failure of the covenant of works. The law of God after the fall continues to be binding upon man. Upon the believer it is binding as the rale of his Christian service, and upon the unbeliever it is binding as the condition of life. This condition the unbeliever having failed to fulfil finds himself under the sentence of death. When it is said that the law of God is the rule of life for the believer, it does not mean that any man can attain nor that the believer does attain, to life and righteousness by keeping the moral law. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth, and for him that believeth the law of God is the perfect rule for life and conduct in holiness as much as ever. According to the Larger Catechism, the moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in the performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man. And the Confession adds that the moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard to the matter contained in it, but also in respect to the authority of God the creator who gave it. Christ in the gospel does not dissolve, but does much strengthen, this obligation.

Thus, it appears that the moral law is binding upon all moral agents, and that there are three distinct aspects under which the moral law is exhibited in the Standards. First, In a state of nature the moral law is binding, both as the condition and as the rule of life; under the covenant of works, where it was the condition of life for all those included in Adam in the covenant, and it would have been their rule of conduct afterwards; and under the covenant of grace, where it appears as the condition of life in the case of Christ, who fulfilled it for himself and those included in this covenant, and then as the rule of conduct for those who believe in Christ the mediator of the covenant of grace. In every case it will be observed that moral law holds those under it in the grasp of moral obligation, only that obligation appears in different relations. It need only be added that this moral law was first manifested in man's moral constitution, and then it was revealed at sundry times and in divers manners, but specially at Sinai. It is summed up in the ten commandments, and no part of this moral law has been, or can be, abrogated.

(d.) In addition to this form of the law of God, which is distinctively moral and which is permanent in its nature, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, certain ceremonial laws containing several typical ordinances. Thus, the Old Testament era is viewed as the childhood of the church, when, as a child in its minority, it is to be regarded as needing tutors and governors, and suitable special instruction. These ceremonial laws and typical ordinances have a twofold object, First, As ordinances of worship they pre-figure or typify Christ, and exhibit in various simple, significant ways the graces, actions, sufferings and benefits of the Redeemer. Secondly, They serve to minister instruction in various moral duties in all the activities of life, both towards God and towards man. In this way, both the condition of life and salvation in Christ, and the rule for the duties of a godly life, are pre-figured by those ceremonial and typical ordinances. The shadow points to the substance, the type to the antitype.

(e.) Once more, God also gave to his people Israel, as a body politic, that is, as a civil or national institute, sundry judicial laws. These are given at great length in the Mosaic economy. They were, so far as they did not involve strictly moral elements, positive in their nature, and not binding upon any other people, though many of these judicial laws have such marks of divine wisdom that they may well arrest the attention of modern legislators. But these laws, as well as the ceremonial laws mentioned in the previous paragraph, have expired. The former, save so far as general equity may require, passed away with the Jewish commonwealth, and the latter have been fulfilled or abrogated in the New Testament.

3. The uses of the law of God are next to be considered. This is a practical topic about which the Confession and the Larger Catechism have a good deal to say. The latter especially has a very complete statement upon the subject. The Standards uniformly teach that since the fall of man in Adam the law of God cannot be of any use to man as a condition of life and salvation. Sinful man cannot possibly use it for this purpose; and he need not so use it, for Christ has fulfilled it for him. The law condemns, but does not save, the sinner. Christ has come under the condemnation of the law, and hence he can save. The several uses of the law are now to be noted in order.

(a.) Its use for all men comes first. It is useful for all men to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of their duty to God and their fellowmen. It is also of use to all as an authoritative rule binding them to walk according to its precepts. It is, further, of use to every man as a lamp to discover the sinfulness of his nature, of his heart, and of his life, so that, examining himself thereby, he may be humbled under a deep sense and conviction of his sin, as well as have a hatred of sin produced in him. It is added that the law of God is of use to all men in showing them their inability to keep it, and their ruin under it.

(b.) The use of the law of God to the unregenerate calls for brief explanation. Its use to them is to awaken their consciences with true spiritual conviction of sin, and to stir them up to flee from the wrath to come. It is also helpful in showing them clearly their need of the redemption of Christ, and of his perfect satisfaction to all the demands of the law of God. The result of this is to drive them to Christ, even as his grace draws them. Thus the law becomes a schoolmaster to teach and lead sinners to come to Christ. Further, the law is of use to the unregenerate in showing to them that they are inexcusable if they abide under the curse of the law and away from Christ, who is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believeth. Moreover, the law serves to restrain the corruptions of their sinful natures by what it forbids, and by the threatenings which come upon them in this life for disobedience. Then, the promises which are attached to obedience serve to lead the sinner to think of the blessings which thus follow; and that, if he cannot by works secure these, he may be led to Christ, who made the obedience.

(c.) The use of the law of God to the regenerate comes up last for remark. This has been in part already described, but a few important things remain to be set down in a more definite way. Those who are regenerated and who believe in Christ are so freed from the law of God as a covenant of works that they are neither justified nor condemned thereby, yet in addition to the general uses of the law for all men, the regenerate find that the law has some special uses for them. It shows them how they are bound to Christ with strong bonds for his fulfilling the law, and enduring the curse of it in their stead, and for their good. The result of this is that they are provoked to thankfulness more and more, and prompted by the constraining love of Christ to conform their walk more and more according to the moral law, as the perfect rule of their conduct. To a certain extent, what was said at the close of the last paragraph from the Confession is of indirect value here.

With its usual cautious completeness the Confession adds that these several uses of the law, especially in the case of the regenerate, are not contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it. The reason or cause for this harmony consists in the fact that the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them subdues and enables them to do freely and cheerfully what the will of God revealed in the law requires to be done. They are made both willing and able to obey the moral law as a rule of life, having rested on Christ as the condition of life and salvation. It only remains to be added at this stage that the moral law is summed up in the ten commandments, which were delivered to Moses at Mount Sinai. Here is the substance of our duty to God and man, though it is also to be kept in mind that the Scriptures, as a whole, contain an expansion of the moral principles implied in the decalogue. The further treatment of the moral law from this point of view is deferred till the chapters upon the means of grace are reached.

II. Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience is now Reached.

This is a practical and perplexing subject, upon which the Confession alone speaks. It raises one of the important principles of Protestantism, for which the Reformation earnestly contended against the spiritual domination of Romanism. What the Confession teaches upon this subject will now be set down in order, and a few simple comments upon that teaching will be made. In the chapter of the Confession which deals with this general subject there are really two closely related topics which require some explanation. The one is Christian liberty, and the other is liberty of conscience.

1. Christian liberty may be first explained. In what does it consist ? To a certain extent the answer has been supplied in connection with the explanation made some time ago of the doctrine of justification, which rests upon the satisfaction or righteousness of Christ. Several points are to be noted here.

First, Christian liberty is that liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the gospel. It consists, first of all, in their being freed from the guilt of sin, and from the condemning wrath of God. This is almost a twofold way of stating a single important fact. That fact is that, by the terms of the gospel of the grace of God, those who believe in Christ have the guilt of their sin pardoned through his atoning blood, have the wrath of God turned away from them, since they are justified and accepted in the beloved, and have the curse of the violated moral law entirely removed from them through him who was made a curse for them. Their relation to God becomes a gracious one, in which they are no longer under guilt and condemnation, but are free from these things through the liberty which they have in Christ.

Secondly, This Christian liberty further consists in the fact that believers are, in a measure, being delivered from the power of this present world, which holds the unregenerate in subjection to its spirit and dictation. They are delivered from the bondage of Satan, who now no longer leads them captive at his will. In like manner they are set free from the dominion of sin, which now no longer rules in their mortal bodies that they should obey it in the lusts thereof. They also escape many of the afflictions of this life, and are sustained in the midst of those which they are called to endure. In addition, they are delivered from the sting of death, which holds the unregenerate in bondage. They no longer fear the grave, which has been robbed of its victory through him who has triumphed over death and the grave. And in the end, they are fully and finally delivered from everlasting damnation, and set free from the dread of the place of woe.

Thirdly, Christian liberty embraces the fact that believers have freedom of access to God through Jesus Christ. The unbeliever has not this precious privilege. It belongs to the believer as a part of his liberty in Christ, and it gives him freedom of access at all times to God in prayer, for he has an interest in the advocacy of Jesus Christ, by whom he has access with boldness at a throne of grace. In close connection with this, there is the additional fact that the obedience which the believer renders to God and his holy law is not produced by slavish fear, but prompted by a childlike love, and is the fruit of a willing mind. This is a very precious part of Christian liberty. The obedience which the believer renders is that of a son, not that of a servant; it is prompted by love, and not by fear. It is willingly and cheerfully given to him who has brought them into such a glorious liberty as that with which Christ makes his people free.

Fourthly, The Confession further points out that though, under the Old Testament, believers had a goodly measure of freedom, yet under the New Testament they have even a larger liberty. Their liberty is enlarged by the fact that they are free from the burdensome yoke of the ceremonial law, under which the Jewish church was placed. They have freer access and approach to God, with greater boldness at a throne of grace; and in fuller measure do they receive the communications of the free Spirit of God than believers under the law of Moses did ordinarily enjoy. The true believing Jew had liberty, but the true believer under the gospel has a still larger liberty.

2. Liberty of conscience is the other topic which remains for consideration. A number of points are to be noted here also.

First, The statement here made by the Confession is to the effect that God alone is Lord of the conscience, in accordance with the word of God. This being the case, the conscience of the Christian man is free from the doctrines and commandments of men, if these be contrary in any way to his word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship. It is well to note that it is matters of faith and worship that are here signalized; and in regard to these matters the Christian conscience is free from the commands of men, and bound only by God, as he has revealed his will touching these matters in his holy word. In such a case, to believe and obey the commands of men out of conscience is to betray true liberty of conscience. And, further, to require implicit faith in such commands, and an absolute obedience to mere human authority, unsupported by, or contrary to, the word of God, is to destroy both liberty of conscience and sound reason.

Secondly, Another aspect of the case is aimed against the antinomian heresy, as the previous one is against Romish authority. The statement is, that those who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the very end of Christian liberty, which is, being delivered out of the hands of their enemies, they might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of their lives.

Thirdly, The closing paragraph in the Confession raises some much-discussed questions. The limitations of Christian liberty are briefly indicated. Christian liberty is not absolute. It does set men free from the decrees of man, both in church and state, if these decrees are not in harmony with the word of God. But this liberty is limited on the one hand by the authority of God, and on the other by the rights and claims of our fellowmen. Absolute obedience is required to the former, and the claims of the latter cannot be ignored. Hence, Christian liberty does not mean that men may do just as they please. Hence, too, obedience to civil powers, as they are ordained by God, so long as men are not called to disobey God by that obedience, should be given. In like manner, when ecclesiastical authority is in harmony with the word of God it should be obeyed. And the well-being of a man's neighbor must also be considered. Here, in mere outline, are the fundamental principles of the relations of the church and state, and the divine warrant for their administration. Their fuller discussion will come up later on. The basis for church discipline also appears at this point, but it, too, will be treated at length in a subsequent chapter.

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