Bonar on why the gospel does not change the law


I’ve heard it said that the coming of Christ alters the law. As far as the Christian is concerned the law is now only what Christ or the Apostles teach in the New Testament. I can see the attraction of this view, it makes dealing with Old Testament law really easy because Christians don’t have to bother with it.

Horatius Bonar has an excellent section in chapter 6 of God’s Way of Holiness in which he argues why the gospel does not change the law:

…the gospel does not change the law itself, for it is holy, and just, and good; that grace does not abate the claims, nor relax the penalties of law. The law remains the same perfect code, with all its old breadth about it, and all its eternal claims. For what is the purport of the gospel, what is the significance of grace? Is it perfect obedience on our part to the perfect law? That would be neither gospel nor grace. Is it perfect obedience to a relaxed, a less strict law? That would be the ruin of law on the one hand, and the exaction of an obedience on the other, which no sinner could render. Is it imperfect obedience to an unrelaxed, unmodified law? That would be salvation by sin, not by righteousness. Or, lastly, is it imperfect obedience to a relaxed and imperfect law? That would be the destruction of all government, the dishonor of all law; it would be setting up “the throne of iniquity.” and “framing mischief by a law” (Psa 94:20). The demand of the law is perfection. Between everything and nothing the Bible gives us our choice. If we are to be saved by the law, it must be wholly by the law; if not wholly by the law. it must be wholly without the law.

If you are like me, you want to know how to apply the law. Bonar points to Christ and the Decalogue for the answer:

Should it be said that will and law are now embodied in Christ; and that it is to this model that we are to look, I ask: What do we see in Christ? The fulfiller of the law. He is the embodiment and perfection of law-fulfilling. We cannot look at Him without seeing the perfect law. God has given us these two things in these last days, the law and the living model; but was the living model meant to supersede the law? Was it not to illustrate and enforce it? We see the law now, not merely in the statute-book, but in the person of the King Himself. But is the statute-book thereby annihilated, and its statutes made void? Were Christ’s expositions of the law, in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, intended to overrule or abrogate the law itself? No; but to show its breadth and purity. And when He thus expounded the law, did He say to His disciples, “But you have nothing to do with this law; it is set aside for all that shall believe in my name”? Did He not liken to a wise man every one who should hear these sayings of His and do them (Matt 7:24); nay, did He not say, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill…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” (Matt 5:17-19). Now one would think that this should settle the question. For the Lord is speaking of the law and its commandments, lesser and greater, and He is speaking of it as binding on them who are heirs of the kingdom of heaven.

Should it be said that it is only exemption from obligation to the moral law or Ten Commandments that is pleaded for, and not the law or will of God in general, I answer, the Ten Commandments are the summary or synopsis of God’s will as to the regulation of man’s life; and every other part of the Bible is in harmony with this moral law.

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2 Responses to Bonar on why the gospel does not change the law

  1. andyinthepiewithalmonds says:

    I may be being dense here… but is this interpretation (‘the law and commandments, lesser and greater, (are) binding on the heirs of Heaven’) not taking us back to the fullest extent of the Mosaic law – banned shellfish, stoning, quarantined women and all? If stating that we need the blood of Christ on account of our failing to keep the whole law, should we therefore be repenting for not observing these things??
    Surely such matters are covered effectively by Paul (1 Corinthians 10:25-28; Romans 14:14 etc)??

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Andy, welcome to the blog and thanks for the question. I have re-read my citation and realise that I have quoted too little to make Bonar’s argument clear. He does not argue for lesser commandments being the full extent of the Mosaic law. I believe he thinks the Decalogue is hierarchical, greater commandments centred on God and lesser commandments centred on our treatment of other people, though this is not clear in the context. He certainly makes no mention of the law besides the Decalogue.

      In the chapter he establishes that the Decalogue stands and he goes onto argue against those who say that being in Christ is about love apart from the law, Bonar’s point being that the law tells us how to love.

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