Themes in Puritan Theology: God’s Law

Editor's Note: To read previous posts in this series, follow the links at the bottom of this post.


We have previously considered the doctrines of justification and sanctification in our salvation from and to the law in Jesus Christ. This post will focus more specifically on the “rule of obedience” God gave to man in “the moral law.” Such “is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments,” which themselves are abbreviated (Matt 22:37-40) in the duty “to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbor as ourselves” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 40-42). Let’s consider the general Puritan understanding of the moral law and its place in the Christian life.

First, the term “moral law” implies the threefold division of the law or its moral, ceremonial, and civil aspects. The roots of this division extended back through medieval (e.g. Aquinas) to patristic (e.g. Augustine) theology. For example, Aquinas made a distinction between the moral aspect related to universal and “naturally known principles . . . both in speculative and in practical matters,” the ceremonial concerning “universal principle about Divine worship,” and the judicial related to “general precepts of that justice which is to be observed among men” (Summa Theologica; I-II, Q. 99, Art. 4).

The Westminster Confession, in line with and developing from this medieval understanding and its Reformed clarification (especially in Calvin), speaks of these three aspects of the law: the moral as a “perfect rule of righteousness” before and after the fall; the ceremonial related in part to moral duties and “worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits” and so now “abrogated;” and the judicial given to Israel as a “body politic” coming to an end with Israel as a nation apart from the “general equity” (implied moral principles) in terms of remaining obligations (19:2-4). The moral law alone, in connection with associated principles garnered from the ceremonial and judicial, does “forever bind all” believers and unbelievers alike; which, in the Gospel, Christ does not “dissolve” but strengthens “this obligation” (19:5).

Second, God gave man the moral law before and after the fall and not just in the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Covenant. The Confession identifies that, before the fall, Adam and Eve had “the law of God written in their hearts” (4:2; Rom 2:14-15) and such as a “covenant of works” binding them to perfect obedience with death “threatened . . .  upon the breach of it” (19:1). This indicates that the moral law was given before the Ten Commandments and then remained “a perfect rule of righteousness” after the fall and to be eventually “delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables” (19:2; Exod 34:1, Deut 10:4).

Still, apart from yet in conjunction with the Ten Commandments, man continued to have the law of God written on his heart. As Puritan Thomas Goodwin notes, men in Adam had the law of God as an “inward principle. . . written in their hearts,” and now, after the fall, “written”  as “a shadow of that full and perfect, exact copy of the whole and holy law” (The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 7, ed. James Nichol, 1863, Kindle edition). In this way, all men have the law of God of their hearts, albeit suppressed by their sinful opposition to it (Rom 1:18, 25).

Third, the moral law as a “rule of obedience” refers to the third use of the law. The Puritans in general, in line with the Reformers (even Luther with his strong law-gospel distinction), emphasized the three uses of the law. The law is that which restrains sin, shows us our failure driving us to Christ as the perfect fulfillment of  the law, and acts as a normative guide for the Christian life. The latter they held in opposition to Antinomianism, which affirmed the first two uses but denied the third in terms of its obligatory nature upon Christians freed from the law under the grace of the gospel. As Samuel Bolton notes, “If Christians are bound not to sin, then they are bound to keep the law” (The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, 1645, Kindle edition).

Fourth, possessing the moral law as “rule of obedience” means that it can no longer be a covenant. In general, the Puritans affirmed that Christians are freed from the curse of the law but not from the demands of it. For example, Edward Fisher attests in The Marrow of Modern Divinity (as Evangelista) that regarding the law as a “covenant of works, [Christians] are wholly and altogether delivered and set free from it” and its “commanding and condemning power.” Indeed, prior to faith, “you were wholly under the covenant of works, as Adam left both you and all his posterity after his fall; so now, since you have believed, you are wholly under the covenant of grace.” Yet for those is Christ, “evangelical grace directs a man” to  “obedience” to “the ten commandments” as “the rule.” (The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 1645; in The Fig Classic Series on Post-Reformation Theology, 2012, Kindle edition).

Summing all of this up, God has written his law on the hearts of Adam and his posterity as a covenant of works to be perfectly obeyed for eternal life. After the fall, man is incapable of such obedience to the law as more fully expressed in the Ten Commandments. In grace and in Christ, such has been perfectly fulfilled for believers delivered from their sin and accepted as totally righteous in their justification. Yet, the moral law remains a rule of life for all professing believers in their sanctification necessarily--though not meritoriously--in their ongoing salvation. In this way, we must take seriously the injunction by the writer of Hebrews, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

Previous Posts in This Series:

  1. Scripture
  2. God Is
  3. Trinity
  4. God’s Decrees
  5. Creation and Providence
  6. Covenants
  7. Christology

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius of Acornshire.


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