By Rev. Carl J. Haak
As Reformed believers we gladly and humbly confess that our God is sovereign in His will of predestination! From eternity He has chosen in His decree of unconditional election those He will save. He has also willed eternally in His decree of reprobation those who will be condemned in their sins, and has done so in strictest justice and unrivaled sovereignty. Therefore, when a sinner is actually saved, it is the mighty, irresistible, and never-failing love and grace of God at work in his heart bringing him to his Savior Jesus Christ (see Deut. 32:39, 40; Matt. 11:25, 26; Rom. 9:11ff.).
Gladly and humbly the Reformed faith leads us to confess: “Salvation is of the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).
As we take up the subject of God’s law and man’s will, we arrive at the test of the genuineness of our confession of the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation. We will learn whether our confession of God’s sovereignty is merely academic and theoretical, or truly personal and experiential. Sovereign grace is not simply a concept that believers receive from Holy Scripture, but the actual experience worked in them by the Holy Spirit. And the experience of the Spirit’s work of sovereign salvation will always be found in this, that the believer is brought into willing and heartfelt submission to God’s will as revealed in His law.
Sovereign grace shows its power and its reality in the believer’s life when it brings him willingly into submission and conformity to the law of God. The workings of God’s elective and saving grace are surely known in those in whom the Spirit works. What will that experience be? Scripture is plain in its answer. It will not be a temporary shiver and shake at a revival camp, a momentary emotional feeling of well-being in a “connecting service,” a passing urge for self improvement; but the experience of sovereign grace will be the subjection of a rebellious, hateful, self-loving sinner and the bending of his knee in reverent and loving submission before God’s law, so that he now asks: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). The evidence of the mighty grace of God is that one is given to say with the psalmist: “O how love I Thy law” (Ps. 119:97).
This is the teaching of our Reformed confessions. What, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is the experience of one brought to the comfort of belonging to Jesus Christ? This: they receive a principle of new obedience so that “with sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (Lord’s Day 44, Q&A 114). The Canons of Dordt, the touchstone of orthodoxy for the truth of sovereign, particular grace, teach that those saved by grace have received, by the efficacy of the Spirit, “new qualities into the will.” Being now made alive spiritually, the will of the saved sinner is rendered “good, obedient, and pliable … that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruit of good actions” (Head 3&4, Article 11).
The creeds are echoing Scripture. This was the experience of the Gadarene demoniac of Mark 5. Previously the demoniac had lived under the dominion of sin in all the horror of rebellion against the commandments of God. But when the sovereign Lord brought him to Himself, what was his experience? He sat at Jesus’ feet in his right mind and made request: “Lord, I would be with thee” (Mark 5:18). David, in Psalm 119, repeatedly states that the result of God’s sovereign and effectual work in him will be that he will have respect unto all the commandments of God (see Ps. 119:32, 36, 37, 133). The Scriptures make plain that saving grace brings a new, principled obedience (seated in the renewed will) to God’s law (see Ps. 110:3).
Note well, obedience to the law is not the condition to receiving grace. How can “unmerited favor” be merited? Rather, the result and evidence of sovereign grace will be the willing and joyful submission from the heart to God’s most holy law. Grace does not leave a person lawless. Grace sovereignly brings the elect sinner under the rule of the Master as expressed in His law.
The Question We Face
As we examine the relationship between God’s sovereign grace, God’s law, and man’s will we are confronted with probing and personal questions. It is exactly in examining our stance toward the law of God in its fundamental requirement of the love of God that we learn whether or not the power of grace is present within us. Has the grace of God taught your heart and brought your spirit into willing obedience to the law of God, so that you now live out of the love of God? Do you desire to walk in His law, be it imperfectly, and to do His commandments? Is it your desire to be seen as one who lives out of the principle of the love of God and of the neighbor?
Expanding upon the question, we ask: Have you seen God personally in His law? Has He stood before you in His law as the holy God in such a way that He has shattered your own pride, so that you respond with Peter: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”? Do you take the words of the apostle as your own experience: I am, before this holy and just God revealed in His law, a wretched man”? As the holiness of God shines from His law, do you cry with Isaiah: “I am undone”?
But there is more. Have you also seen by the same grace of God that the requirements of the law of God were perfectly fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus Christ, the Head of the elect, as He is set forth in the gospel? Do you believe that the demands of God’s offended law have been satisfied for you in the obedience of another, the Lord Jesus Christ? And do you thrill in hearing the message of the everlasting gospel that “God without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 23, Q&A 23)?
Still more, the question is: Are you then resolved by grace to obey God’s commands and to live no longer according to your foolish will, but His holy will? Is it your chief desire that God make you a holy person in thought, word, and deed?
The answer to these questions reveals the presence or the absence of saving, elective grace within a person’s life. The fundamental experience of the recipient of saving grace is the knowledge of one’s damnable sins and sinfulness as exposed by the law of God, a trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ revealed in the gospel, and now, by the same sovereign grace, the desire to live according to all the commandments of God.
By considering the law of God and our relationship to it we are delivered from a mere abstract confession of sovereign grace and are led to understand what the experience of salvation by grace is. It is nothing less than being made conformable to the law of God in a life of new obedience.
The Law of God as the Expression of God’s Will
God’s law is the expression of His will. To put it more completely, the commandments of God reveal what pleases God and thus expresses His will for what man is to be in his thoughts, deeds, words, and being. Because the law is the expression of God’s will, the law is good. Psalm 19 celebrates this aspect of God’s law: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7). The law is good because it shows how God’s creatures shall live in fellowship with God and enjoy His favor.
Already we see that the conflict that fallen sinners have with God’s law is as inevitable as it is explosive. Man is estranged from God and thus an anarchist with respect to the law of God. There is deep resentment and hatred in the being of fallen man towards God’s good law “because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). By nature we imagine the law of God to be against our best interests. We believe the law to be cruelly restrictive, And we dread the pronouncements of the law upon the actions our fallen nature loves.
Paul frankly confesses this in Romans 7. Without faulting the law of God, the apostle nevertheless says that it provokes our fallen nature. Paul, as a renewed child of God, found that the law not only pointed out his sinful deeds, but also incited the native enmity in him against God into acts of sin. He confesses in behalf of all who have received abundance of grace that when the “thou shalt not” of the law came to him, the passions of sin were stirred within him so that he now wanted to do what was being forbidden exactly because God had forbidden it (see Rom. 7:5). It is like the boy living in a northern climate being warned by his parents during an especially severe blast of cold weather not to lick the metal flagpole. The boy had never, at least to that moment, imagined doing such a thing, but now he finds the prospect of doing it almost irresistible.
Paul goes on to ask whether there is some defect in the law of God that it so excites our nature into rebellion (Rom. 7:7). The answer is an emphatic NO! “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). The problem is not with the law, as human nature would insist. Always the cry of man is: “Remove the law, and the problem of evil is solved.” But the problem is more basic. The law is the expression of God’s will, and man’s will by nature is fully set against the will of God, hates what God loves, and expresses its loathing of the holy God by raging against the expression of God’s holiness seen in the law. The solution is not found in removing or tampering with the law, so that its uncompromising insistence on God’s holiness is blunted — something faith finds abhorrent. But the answer is found in a marvelous change made by grace, in which the enmity of the sinner against God Himself is removed and, as a result, his will delights in God’s will as revealed in His law.
God’s law, then, proceeds from God’s unquestionable right as God to legislate a man’s conduct, the thoughts he is to entertain, and the purpose he is to serve. God’s law declares that man is not autonomous, self-governing, or independent. Rather, in His law God stands before man and says: “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (I Pet. 1:16). Nor does the sovereign and holy God negotiate His law with man in light of the fact that the fallen sinner now finds himself so deeply entrenched against His law. God maintains His law as the only good and declares that, so long as He remains God, His law remains as the only standard by which men may live.
This means that disobedience to God’s law is hatred for God. In each commandment God is telling us something about Himself. The law of God demands what it does because of who God is, and thus how man is to live in response to the truth of God’s own being. The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary code determined by caprice and formulated as a response to what man was doing. This is true of all human laws. They are fitted according to the needs of the moment and based upon the fickle judgments of men. All of God’s commandments are based on a perfection of God’s being. The heart of every transgression of the law of God is anarchy against God. It is a challenging of the Godhead Himself.
Even a brief look at the commandments will show how each is a distinct revelation of God’s own being. In the first commandment God declares that He is the One, Independent, Self-sufficient, and all-glorious Being called God, and thus He is to be worshiped as God alone. In the second commandment we are confronted with the truth that God is infinitely glorious, beyond our comprehension, and therefore we can only worship Him in the way He teaches us or we will trample His majesty in our foolish imaginations. In the third commandment God proclaims that He is holy and that we can only speak of Him in awe and reverence. In the fourth commandment God says that He enjoys the rest of His completed and perfect works and calls us to join Him in that rest in a special day. And so it is with the second table of the law, the ones that call us to love our neighbor. They too rest upon the pillars of His Being. In commandments 5-10 God says to us: all authority is mine, I am the source of life, I am pure and faithful, I own all, I am true, and I try the thoughts and the intents of the heart.
The law of God simply instructs us as to what we must be in the light of who God is. In all of the commandments God is requiring that our entire existence (our mind, will, desires, inclinations) be directed out of one purpose, namely, to love the Lord our God with our entire being.
God Maintains His Law
It follows that the law of God is irrevocable. It remains and will ever be the standard by which men are judged. For God’s law to be repealed, God Himself must first pass away, something that is both absurd and abhorrent to a believer. Exactly because the law is the expression of the righteousness of God it cannot and will not be revoked. Even in heaven the same will and law of God will be present, only then the believer will be perfectly conformed to it and will walk in glorious liberty. This also applies to the eternal punishment of hell. The fires of hell burn forever because God’s law forever remains in force.
God’s maintaining His law over fallen man is a frightening thing. From Romans 1:18 ff. we learn that even though man sets the heart of the law at naught by denying God and worshiping the creature, God nevertheless maintains His law by executing the judgment due to those who have violated His will. This judgment assumes the terrible form of giving men and women over to the vile affections they have chosen, so that “they receive in themselves that recompense which was meet” (v. 27). God’s law warns of the inexpressible agonies that must be reaped in a person’s life if God’s holy will is despised. And God maintains the integrity of His law by giving men over to the very judgments they have chosen by setting His law at naught.
This is an aspect of God’s law that is particularly loathsome to fallen man. The depraved world not only insists that they may revoke God’s law, but they add that no evil shall come as a result of doing so. They boast that no fire from heaven consumes them. In fact, by living in rebellion against God’s law they imagine that the Eden of self-fulfillment, filled with every good and pleasant thing, will be theirs. “Our problem,” says the rebellious sinner, “is God’s law, and our utopia will be found in shaking ourselves free from its constraints and thus being set free to determine our own destiny.”
But God upholds His law over against man and in justice makes man suffer the consequences of his rebellion. This is seen not only in all manner of horrendous sufferings (broken marriages and homes, incurable diseases, etc.), but also in the darkening of their own minds so that man becomes worse than a beast (see Eph. 4:17-18).
God’s Law and the Cross
Understanding these truths of the law of God, we can understand the nature of the redemption Christ has made for the elect upon the cross. At the cross, God did not throw aside His law and its demands upon the sinner. The cross of Christ was the display of God’s perfect justice in upholding His law and at the same time justifying elect sinners who stood guilty before His law.
Here is the essential difference between the biblical and Reformed teaching of the cross and that of the Arminian teaching of the cross. The difference does not lie only in the extent of the atonement (those for whom Jesus died), but even more importantly, in the nature of Christ’s atonement (what Christ actually did upon the cross for those for whom He died). When we see the truth of God’s holy law and the fact that its penalty must be inflicted due to the very nature of the God whose law it is, then we can understand that the nature of Christ’s suffering on the cross was to bear vicariously the penalty owed to God’s elect, who have broken His law and whose rebellion cannot go unpunished. Christ’s death was substitutionary wrath-bearing. By substitutionary we mean that He died in the place of the elect, and by wrath-bearing we mean that by His death He endured the penalty for the elect’s law-breaking and thus removed their guilt forever.
Those chosen of the Father and given to the Son must have the punishment that the law requires for their transgression removed if they are to be saved. This punishment they could never endure. In order to secure their redemption, Jesus Christ came into the world and took on Himself the human nature to be their legal representative or substitute. Upon the cross the penalty for the elect’s law-breaking was inflicted upon Him. This is the teaching of Galatians 3:10-13. God pronounces His everlasting curse upon those who break His law: “Cursed is everyone who continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” It was exactly this curse that Christ came to endure in place of those given Him of the Father. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree.” On the cross Jesus bore the everlasting curse due to the elect for their transgressions of God’s law. Through what He did they are made righteous before God and freed from all guilt and condemnation (Rom. 8:1). They are saved, not because of what they themselves have done or will do, but solely on the ground of Christ’s redeeming work. Christ’s redeeming work was definite in its design and intent. It was intended to render complete satisfaction for the elect and for no one else. Christ did not simply die to make it possible for God to pardon sinners. Nor does Christ leave it up to dead sinners to choose whether or not His redemption will be effective for them. To the contrary, all for whom Christ sacrificed Himself will be saved infallibly because He died for them.
The Arminian error holds that Christ’s saving work was designed to make it possible that all men be saved on the condition that they believe. Further, it teaches that Christ’s death in itself did not actually secure or guarantee the salvation of anyone, but only made salvation possible for whosoever will receive Christ as their Savior by an act of their own will. This corruption of the truth of the cross sees no need for the satisfaction of God’s justice. It does not believe that the breaking of God’s law is something that must be punished. It does not believe that the penalty for transgressing the law of God must be inflicted and can never be ignored. Pardon, according to the Arminian view, is that God is willing to overlook man’s lawbreaking and its just deserts if only man will give to God a decision, arising from his own will, to receive Jesus as Savior. Denying the need for God to uphold His law, and making man’s faith to be a work that merits God’s amnesty, the Arminian concept guts the cross of its power and virtue.
The basic error of the Arminian lies in the failure to understand the very nature of God and His law. Those who have broken God’s law cannot be granted amnesty. That is, pardon for sin is not that God simply forgets our infractions of His law. Christ is not on the cross as some sort of example of what God will do to the sinner if he does not repent. Forgiveness is not that God chooses not to punish the breaking of His law on the condition that the sinner will receive Christ into his heart. Rather, the cross declares God to be “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In the words of the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper: Rather than that our sins should go unpunished, He hath punished the same in the bitter and shameful death of the cross. The atonement of Christ secured the salvation of the elect exactly and surely because Christ bore for them the wrath they deserved for breaking God’s law. The cross does not declare that God set His law aside, but it is the beautiful display that He upholds His law and in mercy shows the way whereby He might pardon the guilty (Matt. 1:21; Luke 19:10; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:3,4; I Tim. 1:15; Titus 2:14; I Pet. 3:18).
Man’s Will as Seen in the Light of God’s Law
The law of God exposes man’s fallen will as being rebellious and lawless.
By nature our will is the will of a rebel. It expresses itself in the words of Pharaoh: “Who is the lord that I should obey Him?” Or, in the words of the servants whose lord had gone to a far country: “We will not have this man to rule over us.” And again in the words of Romans 8:7: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”
The idea of subjection is willing compliance, a bending of the knee and saying, “Thy will be done.” Our depraved nature is not subject to the law of God. We will not comply with it and reverently bow before it. The will of man is actively rebellious. It is not passive. It is deliberate and intentional in its enmity against God. Our fall into sin did not deprive us of reason and turn man into a raving lunatic. Remaining rational and moral, the will of man is now fully set in him to do evil (Eccl. 8:11). That is, the will of man, apart from grace, is calculating, cunning, crafty, and deceitful against God’s law. Man knows God’s law without even coming into contact with its written form, as we read in Romans 2:14, 15, and yet in his heart he resists that law. The apostle says that unbelievers do “by nature the things contained in the law” (Rom. 2:14). So to speak, man has a respect for the conduct that would be required by the law. Men show themselves to have a certain regard for external decency in society and, for a while, for marriage and the sanctity of human life. They understand the requirements of God’s law and they know that obedience to God’s law is of benefit. For a while they may even comply with the law in an outward sense.
But they will not keep that law for its purpose of honoring and loving God. They show a regard for the law, but this proceeds only out of self-serving motives. When it comes to the heart of the law, namely the love of God as being the sole motive for all things, this they emphatically reject. The light of the law of God shows that man’s will has only contempt for God.
Fallen man is also exposed in God’s law as lawless. His will is given over to the enjoyment and delight of that which is unseemly, of that which is contrary to God. Knowing the judgments of God, judgments that fall upon those who set themselves against God’s law, they not only do them, says the apostle, but they have joy in them (Rom. 2:32). Man is lawless; he revels in all that God’s will identifies as vile.
This aspect of man’s will is exposed in II Thessalonians 2:1-8. There the apostle is speaking of the coming of the Antichrist and of the spirit that will prepare his way. That day, says the apostle, is not going to come unless there be a falling away first, an apostasy, a divorcing of the truth within the nominal church. This apostasy within the church serves the purpose of preparing the way for the blatant form of lawlessness that will characterize the days of the Antichrist. The Antichrist will be “the man of sin,” literally, “the lawless one.”
Paul goes on in verse 7 to say: “For the mystery of iniquity (again the word is lawlessness) doth already work, only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” The Word of God is teaching that sin follows a certain downward course. God has placed certain external restraints on men to impede the premature development of sin in society. These restraints are the enforcement of God’s law to a degree by society, something society does for her own benefit. Man knows that certain undesirable consequences await him if he commits all that is in his heart. But more and more these restraints shall be removed. What once made men afraid to perform perverse deeds of wickedness will no longer be considered an impediment. This leads to the day of the Antichrist, the lawless one, who will be able to give to men the freedom to live in contempt of the law of God.
The day of Antichrist is the day when man’s depraved will stands naked under the sun in all of its awful delight in the evil God’s law condemns. It is the day when lawlessness will be legalized. Every violation of the law will not only be allowed, but the consequences that God has fixed against those sins will apparently be overcome. The Antichrist will be able to provide for every man to follow the lawless pursuits of his own heart. It is exactly when man stands in his lawlessness before God in its most vile expressions that God shall come in judgment.
The Wonderful Work of Grace in Conforming our Will to God’s Law
In the light of all that the law reveals about man’s fallen will, it must be plain that the salvation of the sinner is a work of powerful grace. If there are a people who humble themselves before God’s law, acknowledge their sin in the face of that law, trust in Christ who has obeyed the law for them and taken away their guilt, and now desire to live in obedience to that law, such a people can be accounted for only as the product of God’s conquering grace. If it is true that the law reveals the state of man’s heart as a rebel against God who is heaping up for himself more and more judgment, then if there is a people of God who would, according to the inward man, desire to walk in the law of God, this can only be due to the grace of God — a mighty grace of God that has overcome and conquered the vile and hardened sinner and brought him trembling to the feet of the Savior.
Salvation cannot be understood in terms of negotiation between God and man. Salvation is not accomplished by the surrender of man’s will to God, but by God’s conquering of the rebellious hearted, and implanting in man’s will new spiritual qualities that make him good and obedient. It is not so, as commonly portrayed, that God does not want to have an empty heaven, is desperate somehow to get men to look His way, and is willing to compromise on whatever issue is of importance to them. But salvation is God remaining all that He is, holy and true, righteous and merciful. It is God conquering the heart, God subduing the will, and God bringing us into conformity to the law.
Oh, how mighty is the work of salvation by God’s grace! God has taken the rebellious and made them loving sons and daughters! God has removed the dominion of contempt for Him in our hearts and replaced it with the principle of the life of Christ that adores and worships Him.
Salvation stands squarely on the foundation of divine justice satisfied. Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the law for us, both in its demands for the punishment of those who have defied the law, and in its demands for the offering of unblemished and unceasing love for God. And now we say, “I love the law of God, for I see that the law of God is right and true.”
The contemplation of God’s will as represented in His law gives us to know the full depth of God’s grace. By renewing grace we look into the law as it expresses God’s will and we have a deeper horror of the sin from which we must be delivered. We see that our sin is that we strive with God. We are opposed to our Maker and to His perfections. We would not have God be who He is. We want Him to be like ourselves. And we weep over the blasphemy that our sin brings before God.
But by that same grace, and looking again into the law, we receive a deeper and a clearer knowledge of the preciousness of our Savior Jesus Christ and the perfect obedience He gave to God in our place. The terrors of God’s offended law cannot reach us, for He took them all upon Himself. And He offered willingly unto God a perfect love and obedience that God now, by grace, reckons as our own.
And now, by virtue of God’s regenerating grace, we look once more into the law, and we respond with the apostle Paul:
“Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). We say from the heart: “Give me to will Thy will. Give me to desire and to walk according to Thy law, so that I might always be wellpleasing to Thee.” To everyone saved by grace, the law of God is not viewed as a straitjacket restricting true happiness, but as love’s perfect guide of thankfulness. The law becomes delight, the commandments are not grievous but enlightening, and the precepts of God give joy in the soul. Grace makes the sinner love the law of God and delight to be in harmony with the will of God revealed in the law.
Here is the marvel of God’s grace. It takes rebel sinners and turns them into willing and obedient sons and daughters who love His law. A life lived in new, principled obedience to God’s law shows the power and reality of sovereign grace. It shows that the grace of God creates a people in whom the law is written upon their hearts and who therefore confess, “I delight to do thy will, O my God” (Ps. 40:8).
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