THE NATURE, SPIRITUALITY, AND USE OF THE LAW.
ROM. vii. 9.
For I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.
IT is a most true maxim of Scripture, that “The whole need not a physician, but those who are sick." The church of Christ has been justly compared to an hospital, to which none but the sick repair; no wonder then that the gay and healthy shun it. But, whether we know it or not, our souls are sadly and dangerously diseased; and the worst symptom of all is, we know it not.
It may not be pleasant to a person to be told of any thing amiss in his health, his family, or his affairs; yet he is a true friend who gives the information, and he is a wise man who thankfully receives it. With this view John the Baptist was sent before Christ; by preaching repentance to prepare the way for him; and the disciples of John gladly received the Saviour. Without the knowledge of ourselves, as sinners, we cannot understand the gospel, nor prize Jesus. And this is the true key to what would otherwise be unaccountable—the general neglect of the great salvation. When our Lord himself and his inspired Apostles, with every possible advantage preached the gospel, few believed the heavenly report; almost all, with one consent, began to make excuse; one going to his farm, and another to his merchandize. Now, as men are all alive to worldly pleasure and profit, it is evident, that their neglect arises from ignorance of their true state; and this is from their ignorance of the law of God, which is the only certain rule and standard by which to measure ourselves.
Hence St. Paul, designing in this Epistle to treat fully concerning the great point of justification, or being made righteous before God, takes care, in the first place, to prove that all men in the world are sinners—the Gentiles against the law of nature, and the Jews against the written law, or ten commandments. He well knew the importance of this method, by his own experience ; for he says in the text, " he was alive without the law once," &c., that is, when he was unconverted, and a proud pharisee, he had high swelling thoughts of himself ; thought all was well between God and him ; he did not see himself dead in law, being justly condemned by it for his sin ; but he was all alive in his own opinion : and his mistake arose from ignorance of the law. He was “without the law;" not without the letter of it; he could have said it by heart: but he did not know its spiritual meaning, and high requirements. But when the commandment came, especially the tenth commandment; when it came in the light and energy of the Holy Spirit, to his mind and conscience; when he saw that it reached to the thoughts, principles, views, and desires of the heart, as well as to his words and actions; requiring perfect purity, and condemning for a single sin, even in thought—then, saith he, then "sin revived, and I died." Then he saw thousands of things to be sins, which he never thought such before; and he found sin had full power and life in him; sin revived in his conscience; he saw it in all its dreadful terror, as justly exposing him to the wrath of God; and he fell under a sense of death and condemnation, as a man, condemned by God's law, and deserving to die eternally.
Now that we may rightly understand the law, and that it may be "our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ," let us,
First, Take a view of the holy law, by which is the knowledge of sin; and,
Secondly, Consider the proper effect of a work of the law on the heart.
I. Let us take a view of the holy law Of God; for hereby is the knowledge of sin.
Remember, my friends, that God, who is the maker of the world, is also the governor of it. God prefaces his law with these words, I am Jehovah, the self-existing Being, the source of all being, on whom all beings depend : and he adds, I am thy God, to remind the Jews of their relation to him : for they were his professed worshippers, as we also are. He adds, Who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of bondage. Here are the obligations to him on account of their wonderful deliverance; so the redemption of sinners by Jesus Christ, lays them under infinite obligations to holy obedience. Man is a rational being, and accountable to God for his conduct. Brutes are led by instinct, but it is fit that man should be led by proper motives, willingly to obey his Maker's will. Now, from the first, God gave a law to man. It was not indeed written. There was no occasion for it. Men lived almost a thousand years, and could easily teach their children what God at first taught Adam. At length, however, God saw fit to give his law from Mount Sinai, in dreadful thunders; and also to write it on two tables of stone.
You will observe, that the law of God is summed up in one word, namely, Love; and that this love has two objects: Love to God, for what he is in himself, and for the blessings be gives us; and Love to man for God's sake.
The love we owe to God is to be expressed in four ways; and these are set forth in the first four commandments.
The first commandment is, Thou shalt have no other gods but me. This requires us to know and confess the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the only living God, and our God in opposition to all idolatry ; it requires us also to love and adore him, as the author of our being, and the source of our happiness ; and this commandment is broken, not only by worshipping other gods, but by setting our idols in our hearts, by excessive self-love, or love of creatures, relations, money, or gratifications of the flesh, so that, according to this, there are many Atheists, living without God in the world, and many idolaters, worshipping the creature.
The second commandment forbids all worship of images ; and requires us to worship God in the way he has appointed ; but, alas ! how many wholly neglect and despise his worship! How many worship God with various superstitions and inventions of men ! How many others forget that God is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and truth What levity and folly do many mix with their pretended devotions ; but in vain do we thus mock God, and play the hypocrite, drawing nigh to him with the lips, when our hearts are far from him. The reason added to this commandment, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, &c. shews how extremely displeasing to him it is to neglect his worship, or worship him in an improper manner, and that he will resent this sin not only to the persons who commit it but to their posterity.
The third commandment forbids the taking the Lord's name in vain. But, O! how awful is the common practice of cursing and swearing! We may truly say, "because of swearing the land mourneth;” the breath of some men is nothing but blasphemy ; "their throat is an open sepulchre ;" the stench of their profaneness is infinitely worse than that of a stinking carcase ; and many, who do not use the most horrid oaths, will cry out-O Lord! O God! O Christ! God bless us! Lord have mercy! &c. &c. But however common this practice is, let all men know, that God declares, "he will not hold them guiltless that take his name in vain." O consider what a great God we have to do with ; and let his name never be mentioned without a serious pause, allowing us time to think who he is, and that he is greatly to be feared.
The fourth commandment respects the religious observation of the Lord's Day, or christian Sabbath. We can never enough admire the goodness of God in the appointment of it. Persons should prepare for it, by having every thing in readiness as much as possible, that no part of it, especially the morning, which is the best part of it, should be lost. All unnecessary works are to be laid aside: no journeys, no visits, no settling accounts, writing letters, nor paying and receiving wages. The whole day, from morning to night, should be spent in acts of religious worship, public and private, except, so much as must be employed in works of necessity and mercy.
O! how awfully is this holy day profaned by idleness, by needless journeys and visits, by wilfully staying away from public worship, or by persons going to church merely to meet with neighbours for worldly business; or to shew their new clothes ; by going to public houses, by reading newspapers, or by mere worldly vain discourse and amusement!
Now the breach of this commandment, and of the three former, evidently proceeds from want of love to God. If we loved him as the best of beings, we should love his day, revere his name, and prize his worship. And have we not broken all these commandments? Have we not reason to cry, in the words of the Liturgy, "Lord have mercy upon us, (for having broken these laws) and incline our hearts to keep them in time to come."
Proceed we now to the second table of the law. The six last commandments respect our love to our neighbour. The sum of all is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."
The fifth commandment respects our nearest neighbour—our relations, our parents. These have the care and expense of education; we can never repay their kindness. We should honour them by obedience to their directions, and treating them with the greatest respect ; and that not only in childhood, but in youth and riper years, we should study to preserve their reputation ; to alleviate their infirmities; and if necessary, to support them in old age.
This command also includes all relative duties, whether to superiors, inferiors, or equals; it includes the duty that servants owe to their masters, and subjects to their governors; it forbids mere eye service; wasting the property of superiors; or being unfaithful in what they commit to our trust.
The sixth commandment directs us how to show our love to our neighbour, by a regard to his life and health ; and it forbids not only actual murder, but anger, hatred, malice, and other murderous tempers; for "whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer," 1 John iii. 15. " Whosoever saith to his brother, Raca (thou vile fellow), or thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire," so our Lord declares, Matt. v. 22. All unjust wars, fighting, quarrelling, ill usage, or provocations, which may hurt the health and life of another, are forbidden. Many aged parents are murdered by the base conduct of their children; many wives are murdered by the drunkenness, idleness, and abuse of their husbands; and many poor children are murdered by the neglect and wickedness of parents. Self- murder is also hereby forbidden, no man having a right over his own life any more than over that of his neighbour. But the worst of all, is soul murder. Parents who neglect to instruct their children, and who are examples of vice to them, drunkards, whoremongers, and adulterers, who allure others to sin with them ; all these are soul-murderers.
The seventh commandment respects the love of our neighbour, with regard to purity of heart, word, and deed: it forbids not only actual adultery of married persons, but all fornication, lasciviousness, and wantonness. Every lustful thought, word, or look, makes a person an adulterer in God's sight; for so Christ himself explains this commandment, Matt. v. 28, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." All private uncleanness, known only to God and conscience, and practised, perhaps by those who pass for chaste and virtuous people, is forbidden. Immodest dress tends to the breaking of this law; as also do lewd books, novels, plays, songs, and pictures. In a word, this commandment requires the most perfect purity in heart, speech, and behaviour, and an endeavour to promote the same in others.
The eighth commandment directs us how to shew our love to our neighbour, by a regard to his property. It forbids taking to our own use what belongs to another. Covetousness has led men to invent a thousand ways to cheat and defraud. Those who deceive in selling by false weights and measures; those who run in debt, without the prospect of paying again; those who oppress the poor; servants who neglect their business, or waste their master's property; are all thieves in God's esteem. This command extends much further than human laws can reach ; and requires that we should treat our neighbour, with respect to his property, as we could wish to be treated by him.
The ninth commandment respects our love to our neighbour, in his reputation or good name. Not only taking a false oath before a magistrate, but all lying, slandering, and evil speaking, is forbidden. And, O! how is the world tilled with this! And what is the greater part of common conversation but a wanton breach of this law? It requires us to be as tender of another man's character, and reputation as of our own, and to avoid all such remarks, reports, censures, and ridicule, as we should be unwilling to receive from others.
The last commandment enjoins the love of our neighbour, by requiring us to be content with our condition; forbidding us to envy or grieve at the good of our neighbour, or wish to deprive him of' it, that we may enjoy it. Yea, it goes much further, and forbids the most secret wish of the heart to obtain any thing that God forbids; and this is particularly the commandment that St. Paul speakes of in the text—" I had not known lust, saith he, ver. 7. except the law had said thou shalt not covet." When this commandment came with power to his mind, he saw that the secret workings, and first motions of inordinate affections, were sins. Before he saw this, he thought all was well, for he was free from gross and outward offences; he was what the world calls a good liver : but this, commandment shewed him the sins of his heart. He found the “law" was spiritual—reaching to the thoughts and desires of the heart; and thus, "sin, by the commandment, became exceeding sinful." Having taken this brief view of the law, we may proceed,
Secondly, To consider the proper effect of a work of the law upon the heart. "Sin revived, and I died."
The law is “the ministration of condemnation, and of death," 2 Cor. iii. 7-9. If a person could keep it perfectly, it would entitle him to life; for it was originally “ordained to life," but "I found it," saith St. Paul, "to be unto death." The reason is, because we cannot, through the weakness of our fallen nature, keep it perfectly; and if we fail in one point, we are guilty of all. Therefore it is written, Gal. iii. 10, " As many as are of the works of the law (that is, who trust to the works of the law for salvation) are under the curse; for cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them."
Now this is the sad condition of us all, till we believe in Christ for righteousness. It is to no purpose for any one to plead—I have not sinned so and so. Hast thou sinned at all? Hast thou sinned once? Then thou art guilty, and the law condemns thee to eternal death. The law makes no allowances, no abatements; it does not say a word about sincere obedience, or doing as well as we can. No, the law says, Do all things that are commanded. Do them perfectly. Continue all thy life to do them; and then thou mayest be justified by thy works; but, if thou fail in one instance, thou comest under the curse ; for "whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all," James ii. 10. Now, my friends, which of us can say we have kept all these laws?
A person may say it is true I have sinned; but I am very sorry for my sins, and will amend my life; will not this relieve me from the curse? No. The law has made no provision for repentance, reformation, or pardon. The style of the law is not, Repent and live; or Reform and live. But, keep the whole law perfectly and continually, and live: transgress it, and die. It is true that the gospel brings relief for the sinner, because it reveals Christ and his righteousness; but the law knows nothing of mercy. It is not intended to give life, but to kill, and destroy all hopes of life by obedience, and to force the sinner to fly to Christ. So St. Paul speaks, Rom. iii. 9, “Now we know, that whatsoever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." This, then, cuts off all hopes of salvation by works; for the Apostle adds," Therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin." This is its use. It can go no further. It is by the gospel we have the knowledge of righteousness.
We should be very careful to distinguish between the law and the gospel, for many mistakes arise from mingling them together.
"According to the law, salvation is by works; according to the gospel, it is by grace."
"The law says, Do this and be saved; but the gospel says, Believe this, and thou shalt be saved."
“The law threatens to punish the sinner for the first offence; but the gospel offers him pardon for many offences."
"The law sentences him to death; the gospel offers him justification to life."
"By the law, he is a guilty sinner; by the gospel he may be made a glorious saint"
“If he die under the guilt of the broken law, hell will be his everlasting portion ; if he die a partaker of the grace of the gospel, heaven will be his eternal inheritance."
And now, my dear friends, having laid before you the nature of the law, let me beg you most seriously to consider what has been said, and that with regard to yourselves. What do you know of God's law, by your own experience? Have you not seen that it is exceedingly broad; that it requires you to love God with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself? And have you done this? Alas! your conscience smites you, and your own mouth must condemn you. How often have you said, “We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done." Probably you have often joined in the church service, and said, after the reading of the commandments, " Lord have mercy upon us," that is, forgive our disobedience to them, "and write all these thy laws in our hearts we beseech thee." Did you mean what you said? If not you lie before God: If you did you plead guilty; you have confessed you are a breaker of the law, and under its curse.
And have you considered, what “a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God? O, how would your heart melt within you, if you duly considered what it is to be under his curse, and to bear his wrath to all eternity. If you can hear the curses of this law, and not be alarmed for your safety, your heart is hard indeed. May God have mercy upon you, and take away the heart of stone!
Perhaps you are saying, Must I despair then? No; God forbid! You must despair of obtaining salvation by your works, your sorrow for sin, or your future amendment. And this will make the gospel welcome to you. The law has done its office, if it drives you to Christ. It is preached for this very purpose, and "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness." The gospel reveals a free, full and everlasting salvation. It publishes to the convinced sinner, pardon and life, as the free gift of God; for Christ has obeyed the precepts of the law in our stead. He has also borne the punishment in our room. “He hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." What a blessing have you already received, if God, by his good Spirit, has convinced you of sin! This is the dawn of a glorious day. He will also convince you of righteousness, and show you, that it may be yours. Cast yourselves down at the footstool of mercy. Confess your sins. Acknowledge your guilt. Own your helplessness. Cry for pardon. Fly to Jesus, who waits to be gracious, and all shall yet be well. He hath wounded that be may heal; he hath killed, that he may make alive. You now will be glad of the physician, for you feel your sickness; and he waits to be gracious. You are weary and heavy laden, and he will give you rest.
"Go, you that rest upon the law,
And madly seek salvation there,
Look to the flames that Moses saw,
And shrink, and tremble, and despair.”
But I'll retire beneath the cross;
Saviour, at thy dear feet I lie!
And the keen sword that Justice draws,
Flaming and red, shall pass me by."