Home > 1689 London Baptist Confession, Bible Study, Decalogue, Ten Commandments > The Law: Seven Different New Testament Uses/Meanings

The Law: Seven Different New Testament Uses/Meanings


Continuing through the 1689 Exposition series, in chapter 19 on the Law of God, comes this lesson: a look at the different ways in which the word “law” is used in the New Testament.  Our English words can have various meanings depending on the context (as for example the word “set,” many different meanings); a look at New Testament scriptures shows seven different uses/meanings of “law.”

  1. To refer to all of the scriptures (which at that time was the OT). Here, consider John 10:34 —   Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? – Yet He quotes from a Psalm.  Also Romans 3:10-21:  quotations of numerous Old Testament scriptures, including several from the Psalms; then Paul refers back to these quotes:  Now we know that whatever the law says.  Both Christ and Paul in these texts are using the term law in its broadest sense, all of scripture.
  2. To refer to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, which are not all actual laws), as seen in wording of “the Law and the Prophets.” Examples here include Luke 24:44 and Romans 3:21.
  3. To refer to the time period of the Old Covenant, the whole Mosaic economy. Examples here include Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3 – note Galatians 3:17-24, and references to “the law” as that time period when the law was a guardian.
  4. Referring to the ceremonial / sacrificial law: Hebrews 10:1   “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come”
  5. As the penalty of the law – similar to how we refer to a fugitive, that “the law is after him,” or “his is running from the law.” Romans 6 includes this use of the law.  Per Romans 6:14 we are “not under law but under grace.”  But as 1 John says, sin is lawlessness.  Paul is not saying we are not “under law” in any sense, that we are lawless.  The context of Romans 6 is the penalty of the law.
  6. The word “law” as a rule, principle, or an axiom. Romans 7 contains multiple meanings of law, and in some of these verses “law” is an axiom.  Consider Romans 7:21-23:  in verse 21, “So I find it to be a law” (a principle or axiom), and again in verse 23, “but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind.”
  7. To refer to the moral law, the Decalogue. This is seen in passages which cite one or more of the moral laws, as in Romans 3:19-21:  Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  Other references to the law as the moral law:  Romans 7:22 (I delight in the law of God, in my inner being), also Romans 7:7-14 (reference to the commandment about not coveting), Romans 13:8-10, and Ephesians 6:1-4.
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  1. Randy Richard
    April 19, 2016 at 11:43 am

    THE THREEFOLD USE OF THE LAW
    by R.C. Sproul

    Every Christian wrestles with the question, how does the Old Testament law relate to my life? Is the Old Testament law irrelevant to Christians or is there some sense in which we are still bound by portions of it? As the heresy of antinomianism becomes ever more pervasive in our culture, the need to answer these questions grows increasingly urgent.

    The Reformation was founded on grace and not upon law. Yet the law of God was not repudiated by the Reformers. John Calvin, for example, wrote what has become known as the “Threefold Use of the Law” in order to show the importance of the law for the Christian life.1

    The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.”2 The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.

    A second purpose for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. Calvin says this purpose is “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”3 The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

    The third purpose of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God Himself delights in it. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.

    By studying or meditating on the law of God, we attend the school of righteousness. We learn what pleases God and what offends Him. The moral law that God reveals in Scripture is always binding upon us. Our redemption is from the curse of God’s law, not from our duty to obey it. We are justified, not because of our obedience to the law, but in order that we may become obedient to God’s law. To love Christ is to keep His commandments. To love God is to obey His law.

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