Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Usefulness of God’s Law
Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Romans 7:12NKJ
Question 94 of the Larger Catechism, asks, "Is there any use of the moral law to man since the fall?" It gives the answer, "Although no man, since the fall, can attain to righteousness and life by the moral law; yet there is great use thereof, as well common to all men, as peculiar either to the unregenerate, or the regenerate." Last time we looked at how God's moral law makes every man accountable to God. This week we consider how the moral law is still useful for all mankind.
What happened when man fell in the Garden? We know that Adam was our representative head. He and his wife Eve were created perfectly holy, righteous, and sinless. Because they were without sin, we know that at their cores they must have loved God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength; what Jesus called the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:38). Likewise, they must have perfectly loved one another as they loved themselves, for this is the second great commandment. Yet, we know that Adam and Eve were not confirmed in their obedience and that they were liable to falling into sin. This arrangement of being righteous and yet needing to continue in that righteousness by their own strength, which, we should add, had been amply supplied to them by God, has been called by theologians the Covenant of Works. A covenant is a contract or agreement that binds two or more parties to perform certain stipulated actions. Often the terms of a covenant will include potential rewards for obedience as well as punishments for disobedience. The Covenant of Works between God and man was communicated to Adam in the Garden in these words: "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:16-17). Thus, the Covenant of Works promised life by obedience and threatened death for disobedience. Furthermore, "life" and "death" would have been understood by all parties in their fullest and necessary extent to beings created with physical bodies and immortal souls, being made in the image and likeness of God.
As noted above, the basis of the Covenant of Works was the moral law of God. Adam, and in him all his posterity, could attain to righteousness and life by obedience to that law. If he sinned they would all fall into sin and death. Adam failed. He broke the Covenant of Works. He broke it not only for himself but for all humanity. The Covenant of Works was the stipulated way in which mankind was to relate to God. The penalty was death in all its fullness: physical, spiritual, and everlasting. That penalty was meted out to Adam and Eve the day they broke the Covenant. They were spiritually dead from that day on. Death took hold of their bodies from that day on. The Covenant of Works, having been broken by Adam for all mankind, was no longer an active Covenant. It was and is over. It has been failed. All that is left is for the curse of the Covenant to fully come upon all those who are under it. Since the Fall, it simply is not possible for anyone to be justified by their works seeing that they begin life already condemned by their works! It would be like going to take your driver's test, filling out the form, and as you put on your seatbelt the officer sitting next to you, having read your form, stamps it "Failed," and hands it back to you. You take it with a smile, start the car, and begin to drive through the course! Such a response would be an exercise in utter futility. So also is trying to be saved through the Covenant of Works; it is not possible. That covenant is over for all of Adam's seed. Although we cannot go into it here, strictly speaking, Jesus, who was the "last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45), and therefore not under the curse of the first, did not save the elect through the Covenant of Works, though He did fulfill both its demands and its penalties, but He saved them through the Covenant of Grace, which God made with Him (see Larger Catechism Question 31) as their representative head.
Since we find ourselves condemned under the Covenant of Works, the basis of which is the moral law of God, it would be an exercise in utter futility to seek to be justified on the basis of this law. However, this fact does not mean that there is now no use of the moral law to mankind. Since it was not God's will to simply enact the full penalty of the Covenant of Works upon mankind immediately, and since it was God's will to offer salvation through a second covenant, the Covenant of Grace, there is, as the Catechism declares "great use" of the moral law universally for all men, and particularly to the regenerate as well as to the unregenerate. Lord willing we will look at those uses as explained in the next three questions of the Larger Catechism.