Alan Jacobs, in his delightful little book entitled The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), challenges the notion that reading good literature improves a person’s character. He quotes the eighteenth-century scientist G.C. Lichtenberg who wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if a [donkey] looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out” (53).
A few centuries earlier John Calvin said something similar about God’s Law. “The Law is like a mirror in which we behold our impotence; secondly our iniquity, which proceeds from it; and lastly, the consequences of both, our obnoxiousness to the curse; just as a mirror represents to it the spots on our face” (Institutes II.vii.7). This is indeed the first function of the Law: it exposes our guilt and condemns us. It brings to light how wicked and corrupt our minds, wills, and affections, truly are, and how short we fall from reaching God’s holy standards. The Apostle Paul wrote that “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known [how sinful I am]” (Romans 7:7b).
As a second function, God’s Law restrains sin in the world, curbing what would otherwise be unsubdued wickedness and injustice. Through this use of the Law God protects His people from being completely overcome by their enemies, and keeps the world from spiraling down into utter chaos. In other words the Law serves, “to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly raging lusts of the flesh” (Calvin, Institutes, II.vii.10).
The third use of the Law functions as a faithful guide for the Christian life. It shows Christians how they ought to live in union with Christ (Rom. 6:1-23). The Psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The answer: “By guarding it according to your word” (Ps. 119:9). He also writes “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). God’s commands not only expose our sins, they also teach us how to live the Christian life and please our heavenly Father. Therefore, we must recognize the important role of God’s Law in our lives as Christian believers.
Believing the Gospel does not abrogate the Law’s place and function in our lives. We do not receive Christ and all his benefits of redemption only to then live as we please. On the contrary, as we abide in Christ by the exercising of God-given faith, enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we seek to conform our lives to God’s commands. This is not a quest to go back to the law to finish the work of our salvation. This is not an attempt to be “perfected in the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). No, it the grateful response of God’s redeemed people–– a people who want (however imperfectly it may be) to glorify God with their lives. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Paul’s letters were filled not only with indicatives (e.g. “Christ died for you” – Rom. 5:8), but also with imperatives (e.g. “Therefore, walk in a manner worthy” – Eph. 4:1). The preaching and teaching in our churches should reflect these two biblical emphases.
In light of God’s great salvation, Paul writes: “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:31-32). These imperatives are not meant to be obeyed so that a person can merit salvation. No! Paul had already made crystal clear in Ephesians 1-3 that salvation is a sovereign work of the triune God, accomplished through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ alone, and applied by the Holy Spirit. Rather, this mostly “law” section (chapters 4-6) was set forth in order to teach us how to live as kingdom disciples. United to Christ we are called to a life of progressive sanctification or growing holiness in the Lord (c.f. I Peter 1:13-16). We do not obey in order to be saved. Christ has accomplished our redemption in full! There is nothing we can add to what Christ has already done. We obey because we already are saved, and thus eager to please our Father through a life of thankful and growing obedience.