The Necessity of the Strict Preaching of the Law in Church

Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

From the time of the Reformation the truly Reformed church has been serious about preaching the law of God. Reformed churches have a tradition of reading the law of God each Lord's Day in the worship service. This practice, however, has often been opposed. It has been abandoned by most Protestant churches. There are two great errors that arise repeatedly in the church. There is the error of antinomianism, which is the false teaching that salvation by grace alone excludes all necessity of law-keeping by the redeemed Christian. Though not all the advocates of this position would oppose all reference to the law in the life of the Christian, they would certainly not want any great emphasis on the law in the preaching. Other advocates of this position would insist that at least the "thou shalt nots" of the law do not need to be preached in the church. 

The second error that comes up again and again in the church is that of legalism. This is the teaching that we are after all saved in part at least by the keeping of the law. Also this position has its variants in the church. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were legalists. They insisted on meticulous keeping of the law. They added to the law as given in the Bible many of their own refinements. They were hypocrites. They boasted in their outward observance of the law. But in fact in their hearts they hated God and had little or no love for their neighbor. Jesus condemns them for neglecting the weightier matters of the law. 

Prevalent among many so-called evangelicals is the notion that there is an inherent conflict between preaching the gospel and emphasizing the importance of keeping the law. God abhors both antinominianism and legalism. Both errors must be condemned. Proper preaching of the law has by the grace and Spirit of God in the Christian's heart a sanctifying effect on his whole life. 

There is perfect harmony between true preaching of the gospel of grace, and strict preaching on the law of God. We want to show this in this article. Roman Catholicism continues to teach that our salvation is in part by the works of the law. In doing this it denies the cross of Christ. Many modern day Protestants imagine that they will get to heaven finally because of their own goodness. There could not be anything more contrary to the gospel of grace. This is the pharisaism hated by the Lord so profoundly. The gospel of salvation by grace alone has been almost entirely lost in much of the modern-day church. 

But the condemnation of salvation by works is not the same as teaching that the Christian need not be serious about keeping the law. The law of God is the rule of gratitude for the redeemed Christian. He does not keep the law to earn in any way his own salvation, but rather to show his thankfulness to God for God's gracious and wonderful salvation. The law of God must be strictly preached in the church because we need a rule for a life of gratitude. We need God's own absolutely perfect rule. Goodness before God is not determined by the vain imagination of man but by the perfect law of God. We need to be serious about keeping the law of God. Jesus says, "If ye love me keep my commandments."

One of the greatest statements regarding the necessity of strict preaching of the law is given in the Heidelberg Catechism. It is the practice of our church to preach regularly following the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide. The Reformed confessions, both those from the continental Reformers (the Three Forms of Unity) and those from the British Isles (The Westminister Confession and Catechisms), stress the importance of teaching serious observance of the law. These confessions state the official Reformed church position regarding the place of the law in the life of the Christian.

Modernism has little use for serious preaching on the law. Modernist preachers, according to their claims, want to be only positive. They refuse to condemn sin which is so abhorrent to God. They speak only of the love of God and seldom if ever of the justice and wrath of God. The prevailing teaching in the modern church is that God loves all men no matter how they live. This is construed to be based on God's grace for all and a death of Christ for all men. So modern churches tolerate almost all sorts of sin. After all, God will forgive our imperfections. They are not that serious. No one is perfect. In the end God will overlook the sins of virtually all men and all will be saved, with perhaps the exception of some of the most grossly wicked in our society.

I consider Lord's Day 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism to be one of the most outstanding of all the Lord's Days of this very beautiful and powerful confession of the Reformed faith. Lord's Day 44 is first of all a discussion of the meaning of the tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not covet." The Heidelberg Catechism shows how the tenth commandment is unique in that it speaks of matters of the heart. The tenth commandment reveals the perfect and holy requirement of the whole of the law of God. 

Let me quote the whole significant and powerful discussion of Lord's Day 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism especially for those who have never read it or do not have access to a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Q. 113What doth the tenth commandment require of us? 

A.That even the smallest inclination or thought, contrary to any of God's commandments, never arise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.

Q. 114But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?

A.No: but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

Q. 115Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?

A.First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come.

There is no better passage of Scripture to turn to for the biblical basis of this instruction than the teaching of our Lord Himself in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17-19 our Lord says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

There are many preachers of our day who will in the great day of the Lord's judgment be condemned as least in the kingdom of heaven because of their failure faithfully to teach and preach the law of God in the church. These will be condemned to eternal fires because they refused to warn wicked, impenitent sinners about disobedience to God's holy law and exhort and admonish Christians to be serious about keeping the law of God.

In the passage (Matt. 5) quoted above, Jesus teaches the difference between His abolishing and fulfilling the law. Jesus did indeed on the cross fulfill the law of God. This is the gospel, the good news of our salvation. When we ourselves were wholly incapable of keeping the law of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through His perfect obedience and sacrifice on the cross, fully satisfied the rigorous demands of God's holy law. He alone of all men perfectly kept the law of God. Our Lord kept the law of God perfectly in behalf of all of His people, all those given to Him by His heavenly Father. By doing this He fulfilled all righteousness on their behalf. 

Jesus, through His once and for all atoning work, laid the foundation of our salvation. There is no other foundation. Nothing can be or need be added to the perfect righteousness of the cross. It is the only ground of our righteousness before God. It is the only hope of our salvation. Our glorying is not in our law-keeping but in the perfect obedience and righteousness of Christ.

However, our Lord Jesus emphasizes very strongly in the Sermon on the Mount that in His fulfilling the law at the cross He did not abolish it. That is, He did not do away with the law so that it no longer stands. It is not true at all that Christians redeemed at the cross need not be concerned about the law of God. The law of God will stand as the rule of gratitude for the life of the Christian until heaven and earth pass away, until all things be fulfilled. Not one jot or one tittle shall pass away from the law until the end of the world. So absolutely perfect is the requirement of the law of God for Christian living also today. 

That Jesus Himself taught the strict observance of the law is brought out in the instruction He gave after the passage of Matthew 5 quoted above. There He teaches us that it is not good enough that we only do not kill. We may also not hate our brother. Hatred is the heart sin that is the root of murder and is by God condemned as murder. There will be many going to hell because of impenitent hatred in their hearts for their neighbor, even though they never actually in an outward way killed their neighbor. 

It is not good enough that we do not fall into the gross sin of open adultery and fornication. Jesus says that whosoever looks after a woman with lust in his heart commits adultery with her in his heart. Who among men has never had an unclean and unholy thought in his heart? Without forgiveness at the cross of Jesus Christ for these sins of our hearts, we stand condemned before God.

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the tenth commandment, when it commands us not to covet, requires spiritual perfection. Coveting is after all not something observable in one's outward conduct. Only God, who sees and knows the heart, can judge concerning its covetousness. Paul says in Romans 7: 7, "I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." It was especially after he considered the demand of God's law that we must not covet, and after he had considered himself, his own heart, that the apostle Paul cried out: "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil that I would not, that I do.... O wretched man that I am!" (Rom. 7:19, 24). Because of God's commandment against coveting, Paul realized that he was according to his sinful nature carnal and sold under sin. Yet he confesses that the law of God is good.

Coveting in its broadest sense refers to evil desire of every sort. In Exodus God speaks of coveting our neighbor's house, man servant, maid servant, ox, and ass. This is the condemnation of all evil desire for the goods God has given to our neighbor. It condemns materialism in all its forms. It condemns the love of money which is, according to the Bible, the root of all evil. It condemns greed, jealousy, hatred, selfishness, and pride with respect to earthly possessions. All these are forms of covetousness. The commandment in Exodus speaks of coveting the neighbor's wife, which is adultery and leads to the great evils of divorce and remarriage condemned by the Bible.

The Heidelberg Catechism states that the tenth commandments requires "that even the smallest inclination or thought, contrary to any of God's commandments, never arise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness." This is the perfection required in God's holy and perfect law. This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). The inspired apostle Peter in the same manner says, "But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, be ye holy; for I am holy" (I Pet. 1:15 and 16).

The law of God reveals the fearful, absolute, and infinite perfection of God Himself. Man cannot dwell with this holy God except he also be holy as God is. We are not yet perfect unless we with our whole heart constantly, every moment of our life, delight in all righteousness.

There is no law of man that can ever demand such perfection. Only the law of God can and does require such perfection. Many, even professing Christians, go through life imagining that mere outward observance of the law is sufficient. They do not see the need of condemning the evil thoughts and desires of their heart and mind and the urgency of waging a constant spiritual warfare against these. This was exactly the hypocrisy of the Pharisees so severely condemned by the Lord.

The Heidelberg Catechism then asks the important question whether there is any man who can keep this perfect law of God perfectly. The emphatic answer to this question is that even the most holy men have in this life but a small beginning of this new obedience. 

Every honest Christian, when he places his heart and mind and not only his outward conduct under the all searching light of the law of God, knows that he stands condemned before God's law. Even as a Christian he is far from perfect. He agrees with the Heidelberg Catechism that even the most holy men have but a small beginning of the new obedience. It is true that there is a vast difference in holiness between one Christian and another. But who would dare to be so bold as to classify himself as one of the most holy men on earth? In fact, anyone who imagines that he has even for a day or an hour or a moment kept all the perfect demands of God's law is a liar and the truth is not in him (see I John 1:9, 10). The true child of God grieves deeply over his continuing sinfulness.

The Heidelberg Catechism however is not pessimistic or morbid regarding the Christian life. It goes on to say that the Christian, by the grace and Spirit of God, begins to live not only according to some but according to all of the commandments of God. Take note, however, of the fact that this beginning to live according to the commandments of God is only by the grace and Spirit of God. We have no strength in ourselves to do so. All our strength to keep the law of God is of Christ alone—Christ who not only fully satisfied the righteous demands of the law on the cross (justification), but who also by His Holy Spirit works in our hearts (sanctification). Christ by His Spirit gives us the will and the desire to live by God's law. He gives us the intense longing to be perfect as God is perfect. 

We begin to keep the law according to the principle of Christ in us. This work of Christ is His wonderful work of regeneration, according to which He has created in us a new heart. This principle is a sincere resolution in our life to keep not only some but all of the commandments of God. We cannot be satisfied with merely keeping some of God's commandments, and then congratulate ourselves, so to speak, at the end of the day for doing so well. We must keep all the commandments of God, neglecting none of them. The law of God is a perfect whole. To break one commandment is to break the whole of the perfect law of God. We must keep also the tenth commandment of God's law in all its perfect demands or we have not kept the law of God.

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches in Lord's Day 44 the whole perspective of Christian living in the light of the perfect law of God. We believe that this perspective is that of genuine Christian living. Such a perspective is little known in modern-day Christianity. The strict preaching of the law of God in church is an aid to sincere and true godliness and to the true fear of God in our lives. God gave His law to His redeemed people for that purpose.

The strict preaching of the law teaches us that we are still far from perfection. By the strict preaching of the law we learn more and more our sinful nature. True growth in Christ involves first of all knowing more and more our sinful nature. This is absolutely necessary to keep us from the pride and hypocrisy of the Pharisees hated by the Lord. Notice that the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of our sinful nature. Our sin is far more serious than merely a matter of a few evil deeds we do every day, or a matter of a slight imperfection. We have a corrupt and sinful nature. Christ has given us a new heart by the wonder work of regeneration. But as long as we are in this life we still have a corrupt and sinful nature. 

From this sinful nature proceed all kinds of evil thoughts and desires. We must abhor these thoughts and desires. We must flee from all things in life that stir up such evil thoughts and desires. We may not be satisfied with mere outward Christianity. We must fight against every evil inclination of our mind and heart. We hate and abhor all sin, not only in the world around us but also in our own sinful nature. 

The strict preaching of the law teaches us our constant need of the cross of Christ Jesus. The perfect sacrifice of Christ once accomplished on the cross is the only ground of our righteousness before God. Our law works cannot contribute anything to this righteousness. But the cross of Christ is also the power of our new life, our life of gratitude to God, which is a life lived by the law of God. 

When the perfect law of God teaches us how sinful we still are, we are driven daily to the cross to seek the forgiving mercy of Christ. This is real and daily Christian living. This is genuine Christianity. Without this there is only pharisaical hypocrisy. We need the cross of Christ every day. We must earnestly seek that cross each day for forgiveness. There is nothing like the real knowledge of our continual sinfulness that drives the true child of God to fall on his knees before the cross of Christ. At the cross we receive daily also the strength that we need to fight against and overcome our sin.

When the law of God sets before us the absolute perfection of God and we realize our own imperfection, as Christians we begin more and more to long for what the catechism speaks of as the perfection proposed to us in the life to come. This is a true longing for heaven. 

What causes you to long for heaven, dear reader? Many of us have quite an enjoyable life on earth. We have our nice cars and our beautiful and comfortable homes. We enjoy our children and grandchildren and just love to watch them as they are growing up. We have exciting vacations planned long ahead of time. Why should we long to go to heaven? We are having too much fun here. The answer of the Word of God, I believe, is that we long for heaven because we are grieved about our continuing sinfulness. Nothing more than that causes us to long earnestly for heaven. We are deeply grieved about our own continuing sinfulness and long to be delivered from the body of this sin (Rom. 7:25). We long to be made perfect as God our heavenly Father is perfect. This will finally take place only when Jesus comes again to take us to heaven.

Christ Jesus has obtained absolute heavenly perfection for us. In heaven we will dwell in the presence of God and His Son Jesus Christ in sinless perfection. This will be our great joy and glory in heaven. 

We close with the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:21: "For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself."