Christians are fond of saying that we are not under the law but the gospel. While that is certainly true so far as it relates to salvation, we should never conclude that the law is without any purpose whatsoever.
The Confession continues, Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience.
First, let’s remind ourselves about the covenant of works and what it is. Simply put, the covenant of works was the covenant under which Adam was placed in the garden. In Genesis 1:26-31, God gives Adam obligations and blessings. Man is to have dominion over the animals and to populate the whole world with fellow worshipers.
This covenant of works is expanded upon in Genesis 2:16-17 when God tells Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil under the threat of the curse of death. Obligations, blessings, and curses are the mainstay of biblical covenants.
Did Adam keep the covenant of works? Clearly he did not. Enter the covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15. In cursing the serpent, God promised a future redeemer who would undo the curse brought about by breaking Adam breaking the covenant.
All of this is to say that Christians are not under a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. Christ is the one who works, and by his works, we are redeemed. He perfectly obeyed the law of God. And so, we receive grace and mercy in saving faith.
This has deep meaning for the Christian’s relationship to the law. If the law was given on Sinai, the distinctive of the Sinai covenant, then the Christian is not bound to the law as a condition of the new covenant.
Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
We turn to the law as a tool for recognizing our sin and putting a name on it. We learn to hate our sins by understanding the severity of the punishment the law placed on them. We are blessed with a “clearer sight” of our need for the grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ.
The Confession continues, It is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unallayed rigour thereof. The promises of it likewise show them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works; so as man's doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.
Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done.
As we do not receive the punishment of the specific laws of the the law, neither do we earn the blessings of the law for obedience. That is because the law is squarely placed under the old covenant (or, the Mosaic covenant). The church is under the law of Christ—love God and love neighbor.
Knowing the law of the old covenant gives us an appreciation for the perfect obedience of Christ. He never faltered from God’s righteous demands of his people. He is the true and perfect Israelite. Christ is the head of God’s new covenant people, or the church. The church is comprised of the redeemed of all nations, including Israel.
Often times we talk about “Israel” and “the church” as if by “the church” we really mean “all nations who are not Israel.” But that is not the case. There is one people of God, or one church. The church is all of the redeemed. There can still be promises in store for ethnic Israel (or Romans 11 means nothing) even if we recognize that Christ reorganized Israel to encompass all of the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. Read the Old Testament prophets, and you’ll soon recognize God’s plan for bringing the nations to Israel, Mt. Zion.
The above distinction is important for understanding the place of the law in the church’s life. Christ fulfilled the law for us. If you lose this fact, then you also lose the whole doctrine of justification. How are we justified? How do we know what sin is, and how was it applied to Christ on our behalf?
The church is not a “pause” in God’s plan. Did God mess up with Israel and so decided to bring in the gentiles instead? By no means.
Two important passages, closely related, conclude this post.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14).
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).
Whenever we talk about the relationship of the law to the church, or specifically, Israel and the church, we have to clarify and qualify a few things.
First, the church has not superseded Israel, in the sense that the church has replaced Israel. In the same way that Romans 11 only makes sense if there is a future redemption for ethnic Israelites, so it also only makes sense if believing Israelites are a recognizable group within ethnic Israel. "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" (Romans 9:6).
Second, the Scriptures only know one people of God. When Christ told Peter, "On this rock I will build my church," no one asked him, "What do you mean?" Christ was organizing the people of God under himself. In this sense, it is good and true to say that the church is Christian Israel. There are not two means of justification. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Third, there are a variety of forms of covenant theology. While some forms emphasize far too much continuity, to the point that the church has essentially replaced Israel, Baptist covenant theology recognizes that each of the covenants must be understood both in terms of God's overall plan of redemption and on its own terms. This means that the church can be understood as the people of God across all space and time, even recognizing a "church" within ancient Israel. Again, "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel." This also means, however, that the risen and ascended Christ is the head of the new covenant, which includes the redeemed from all nations, including Israel.
For more on Baptist covenant theology, check out the following:
Greg Nichols, "Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants"
Samual Renihan, "The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom"
Pascal Renault, "The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology"