The Right Understanding of the Law
by Thomas Watson
'Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.' Exod 20: 3.
Before I come to the commandments, I shall answer questions, and lay down rules respecting the moral law.
What is the difference between the moral laud and the gospel?
(1) The law requires that we worship God as our Creator; the gospel, that we worship him in and through Christ. God in Christ is propitious; out of him we may see God's power, justice, and holiness: in him we see his mercy displayed.
(2) The moral law requires obedience, but gives no strength (as Pharaoh required brick, but gave no straw), but the gospel gives strength; it bestows faith on the elect; it sweetens the law; it makes us serve God with delight.
Of what use is the moral law to us?
It is a glass to show us our sins, that, seeing our pollution and misery, we may be forced to flee to Christ to satisfy for former guilt, and to save from future wrath. 'The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ. Gal 3: 24.
But is the moral law still in force to believers; is it not abolished to them?
In some sense it is abolished to believers.
(1) In respect of justification. They are not justified by their obedience to the moral law. Believers are to make great use of the moral law, but they must trust only to Christ's righteousness for justification; as Noah's dove made use of her wings to fly, but trusted to the ark for safety. If the moral law could justify, what need was there of Christ's dying?
(2) The moral law is abolished to believers, in respect of its curse. They are freed from its curse and condemnatory power. 'Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.' Gal 3: Is.
How was Christ made a curse for us?
Considered as the Son of God, he was not made a curse, but as our pledge and surety, he was made a curse for us. Heb 7: 22. This curse was not upon his Godhead, but upon his manhood. It was the wrath of God lying upon him; and thus he took away from believers the curse of the law, by being made a curse for them. But though the moral law be thus far abolished, it remains as a perpetual rule to believers. Though it be not their Saviour, it is their guide. Though it be not foedus, a covenant of life; yet it is norma, a rule of life. Every Christian is bound to conform to it; and to write, as exactly as he can, after this copy. 'Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid.' Rom 3: 31. Though a Christian is not under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its commanding power. To love God, to reverence and obey him, is a law which always binds and will bind in heaven. This I urge against the Antinomians, who say the moral law is abrogated to believers; which, as it contradicts Scripture, so it is a key to open the door to all licentiousness. They who will not have the law to rule them, shall never have the gospel to save them.
Having answered these questions, I shall in the next place, lay down some general rules for the right understanding of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. These may serve to give us some light into the sense and meaning of the commandments.
Rule I. The commands and prohibitions of the moral law reach the heart.
(1) The commands of the moral law reach the heart. The commandments require not only outward actions, but inward affections; they require not only the outward act of obedience, but the inward affection of love. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart.' Deut 6: 5.
(2) The threats and prohibitions of the moral law reach the heart. The law of God forbids not only the act of sin, but the desire and inclination; not only does it forbid adultery, but lusting (Matt 5: 28): not only stealing, but coveting (Rom 7: 7). Lex humana ligat manum, lex divina comprimit animam 'Man's law binds the hands only, God's law binds the heart.'
Rule 2. In the commandments there is a synecdoche, more is intended than is spoken. (1) Where any duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden. When we are commanded to keep the Sabbath-day holy, we are forbidden to break the Sabbath. When we are commanded to live in a calling, 'Six days shalt thou labour,' we are forbidden to live idly, and out of a calling.
(2) Where any sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded. When we are forbidden to take God's name in vain, the contrary duty, that we should reverence his name, is commanded. 'That thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord Thy God.' Deut 28: 58. Where we are forbidden to wrong our neighbour, there the contrary duty, that we should do him all the good we can, by vindicating his name and supplying his wants, is included.
Rule 3. Where any sin is forbidden in the commandment, the occasion of it is also forbidden. Where murder is forbidden, envy and rash anger are forbidden, which may occasion it. Where adultery is forbidden, all that may lead to it is forbidden, as wanton glances of the eye, or coming into the company of a harlot. 'Come not nigh the door of her house.' Prov 5: 8. He who would be free from the plague, must not come near the infected house. Under the law the Nazarite was forbidden to drink wine; nor might he eat grapes of which the wine was made.
Rule 4. In relato subintelligitur correlatum. Where one relation is named in the commandment, there another relation is included. Where the child is named, the father is included. Where the duty of children to parents is mentioned, the duty of parents to children is also included. Where the child is commanded to honour the parent, it is implied that the parent is also commanded to instruct, to love, and to provide for the child.
Rule 5. Where greater sins are forbidden, lesser sins are also forbidden. Though no sin in its own nature is little, yet one may be comparatively less than another. Where idolatry is forbidden, superstition is forbidden, or bringing any innovation into God's worship, which he has not appointed. As the sons of Aaron were forbidden to worship an idol, so to sacrifice to God with strange fire. Lev 10: 1. Mixture in sacred things, is like a dash in wine, which though it gives a colour, yet does but debase and adulterate it. It is highly provoking to God to bring any superstitious ceremony into his worship which he has not prescribed; it is to tax God's wisdom, as if he were not wise enough to appoint the manner how he will be served.
Rule 6. The law of God is entire. Lex est copulativa [The law is all connected]. The first and second tables are knit together; piety to God, and equity to our neighbour. These two tables which God has joined together, must not be put asunder. Try a moral man by the duties of the first table, piety to God, and there you will find him negligent; try a hypocrite by the duties of the second table, equity to his neighbour, and there you will find him tardy. If he who is strict in the second table neglects the first, or he who is zealous in the first, neglects the second, his heart is not right with God. The Pharisees were the highest pretenders to keeping the first table with zeal and holiness; but Christ detects their hypocrisy: 'Ye have omitted judgment, mercy and faith.' Matt 23: 23. They were bad in the second table; they omitted judgment, or being just in their dealings; mercy in relieving the poor; and faith, or faithfulness in their promises and contracts with men. God wrote both the tables, and our obedience must set a seal to both.
Rule 7. God's law forbids not only the acting of sin in our own persons, but being accessory to, or having any hand in, the sins of others.
How and in what sense may we be said to
partake of, and have a hand in the sins of others?
(1) By decreeing unrighteous decrees, and imposing on others that which is unlawful. Jeroboam made the people of Israel to sin; he was accessory to their idolatry by setting up golden calves. Though David did not in his own person kill Uriah, yet because he wrote a letter to Joab, to set Uriah in the forefront of the battle, and it was done by his command, he was accessory to Uriah's death, and the murder of him was laid by the prophet to his charge. 'Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword.' 2 Sam 12: 9.
(2) We become accessory to the sins of others by not hindering them when it is in our power. Qui non prohibit cum potest, jubet [The failure to prevent something, when it lies within your power, amounts to ordering it]. If a master of a family see his servant break the Sabbath, or hear him swear, and does not use the power he has to suppress him, he becomes accessory to his sin. Eli, for not punishing his sons when they made the offering of the Lord to be abhorred, made himself guilty. 1 Sam 3: 13, 14. He that suffers an offender to pass unpunished, makes himself an offender.
(3) By counselling, abetting, or provoking others to sin. Ahithophel made himself guilty of the fact by giving counsel to Absalom to go in and defile his father's concubines. 2 Sam 16: 21. He who shall tempt or solicit another to be drunk, though he himself be sober, yet being the occasion of another's sin, he is accessory to it. 'Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him.' Hab 2: 15.
(4) By consenting to another's sin. Saul did not cast one stone at Stephen, yet the Scripture says, 'Saul was consenting unto his death.' Acts 8: 1. Thus he had a hand in it. If several combined to murder a man, and should tell another of their intent, and he should give his consent to it, he would be guilty; for though his hand was not in the murder, his heart was in it; though he did not act it, yet he approved it, and so it became his sin.
(5) By example. Vivitur exemplis [We live by example]. Examples are powerful and cogent. Setting a bad example occasions another to sin, and so a person becomes accessory. If the father swears, and the child by his example, learns to swear, the father is accessory to the child's sin; he taught him by his example. As there are hereditary diseases, so there are hereditary sins.
Rule 8. The last rule about the commandments is, that though we cannot, by our own strength, fulfil all these commandments, yet doing quod posse, what we are able, the Lord has provided encouragement for us. There is a threefold encouragement.
(1) That though we have not ability to obey any one command, yet God has in the new covenant, promised to work that in us which he requires. 'I will cause you to walk in my statutes.' Ezek 36: 27. God commands us to love him. Ah, how weak is our love! It is like the herb that is yet only in the first degree; but God has promised to circumcise our hearts, that we may love him. Deut 30: 6. He that commands us, will enable us. God commands us to turn from sin, but alas! we have not power to turn; therefore he has promised to turn us, to put his Spirit within us, and to turn the heart of stone into flesh. Ezek 36: 26. There is nothing in the command, but the same is in the promise. Therefore, Christian, be not discouraged, though thou hast no strength of thy own, God will give thee strength. The iron has no power to move, but when drawn by the loadstone it can move. 'Thou hast wrought all our works in us.' Isa 26: 12.
(2) Though we cannot exactly fulfil the moral law, yet God for Christ's sake will mitigate the rigour of the law, and accept of something less than he requires. God in the law requires exact obedience, yet will accept of sincere obedience; he will abate something of the degree, if there be truth in the inward parts. He will see the faith, and pass by the failing. The gospel remits the severity of the moral law.
(3) Wherein our personal obedience comes short, God will be pleased to accept us in our Surety. 'He has made us accepted in the Beloved.' Eph 1: 6. Though our obedience be imperfect, yet, through Christ our Surety, God looks upon it as perfect. That very service which God's law might condemn, his mercy is pleased to crown, by virtue of the blood of our Mediator. Having given you these rules about the commandments, I shall come next to the commandments themselves.
Chapter V (The First Commandment)