This is the fourth part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

Measuring tapeDespite Paul’s warn­ings that the law arouses sin, many will point to the law as a prime mover in sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, essen­tial to con­vict­ing us about our remain­ing sin and mea­sur­ing our growth in holi­ness. In doing so, they will attempt to draw a dis­tinc­tion between being “under the law” and fol­low­ing the law. For example:

This con­vict­ing use of the law is also crit­i­cal for the believer’s sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, for it serves to pre­vent the res­ur­rec­tion of self-righteousness — that ungodly self-righteousness which is always prone to reassert itself even in the holi­est of saints. The believer con­tin­ues to live under the law as a life­long penitent.

This chas­ten­ing work of the law does not imply that the believer’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is ever dimin­ished or annulled. From the moment of regen­er­a­tion, his state before God is fixed and irrev­o­ca­ble. He is a new cre­ation in Christ Jesus (). He can never revert to a state of con­dem­na­tion nor lose his son­ship. Nev­er­the­less, the law exposes the ongo­ing poverty of his sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion on a daily basis. He learns that there is a law in his mem­bers such that when he would do good, evil is present with him (). He must repeat­edly con­demn him­self, deplore his wretched­ness, and cry daily for fresh appli­ca­tions of the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses from all sin (; ).[1]

Is that really what the Chris­t­ian walk should be, one of  repeated per­sonal con­dem­na­tion? If there is “now no con­dem­na­tion for those in Christ Jesus” (), does that now mean the believer must sup­ply his own self-condemnation? What a dis­mal, rot­ten and piti­ful exis­tence that author describes! What a hor­rid depic­tion of a Chris­t­ian life!

Indeed, that descrip­tion does reflect a law that “doth bind the believer”[2] (as the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith states) and not a free­dom in which believ­ers have been set free ().[3] And the author (per­haps unwit­tingly) makes an excel­lent argu­ment for the man of being a believer by advo­cat­ing that Chris­tians should be mis­er­able about their sin as they per­form their daily “Protes­tant penance.”

It is the Spirit that sanc­ti­fies, not the law in a fleshly exer­cise of behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Des­per­a­tion and more sin­ful­ness are the results of a focus on law for sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion instead of avail­ing one’s self of the Holy Spirit and behold­ing with awe the per­son and work of Jesus Christ.

There’s yet another dan­ger that comes from a sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion the­ol­ogy that focuses on law. A heavy dose of moral­is­tic preach­ing from the pul­pit at the expense of the gospel can and does lead to the pro­duc­tion of a gen­er­a­tion of non-evangelized Phar­isees. Pas­tors and par­ents, we can­not pre­sume that there is a sav­ing knowl­edge of the gospel among young peo­ple, no mat­ter whether they were born to Chris­t­ian par­ents or not.

A law-focused pul­pit and a gospel-presuming pul­pit are a toxic mix.

We might also ask about the phrase “poverty of our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion.” By what means do we mea­sure our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and how poor we have pro­gressed? Those who advo­cate the third use of the law would use the law to mea­sure our progress. Yet that is the very same law that Paul tells us arouses sin.

There­fore, Paul does not tell us to use the law as the mea­sur­ing stick of our sanctification.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 5: We Serve In The Spirit

[1] Joel R. Beeke, “The Place of the Third Use of the Law in Reformed The­ol­ogy” (Con­cor­dia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, 2005), 5–6.

[2] West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith, XIX/v.

[3] Beeke con­cludes his paper with the argu­ment that bind­ing users under the law actu­ally pro­duces free­dom. Per­haps an anal­ogy would be that keep­ing train­ing wheels on bicy­cles actu­ally pro­duces Lance Armstrong.


17 There­fore, if any­one is in Christ, he is a new cre­ation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (ESV)

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. (ESV)

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (ESV)

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fel­low­ship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:9

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fel­low­ship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:9

If we con­fess our sins, he is faith­ful and just to for­give us our sins and to cleanse us from all unright­eous­ness. (ESV)

8:1 There is there­fore now no con­dem­na­tion for those who are in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

5:1 For free­dom Christ has set us free; stand firm there­fore, and do not sub­mit again to a yoke of slav­ery. (ESV)

7:1 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speak­ing to those who know the law—that the law is bind­ing on a per­son only as long as he lives? For a mar­ried woman is bound by law to her hus­band while he lives, but if her hus­band dies she is released from the law of mar­riage. Accord­ingly, she will be called an adul­ter­ess if she lives with another man while her hus­band is alive. But if her hus­band dies, she is free from that law, and if she mar­ries another man she is not an adulteress.

Like­wise, my broth­ers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were liv­ing in the flesh, our sin­ful pas­sions, aroused by the law, were at work in our mem­bers to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, hav­ing died to that which held us cap­tive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the writ­ten code.

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, pro­duced in me all kinds of cov­etous­ness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the com­mand­ment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very com­mand­ment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the com­mand­ment is holy and right­eous and good.

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, pro­duc­ing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the com­mand­ment might become sin­ful beyond mea­sure. 14 For we know that the law is spir­i­tual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not under­stand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that noth­ing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the abil­ity to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my mem­bers another law wag­ing war against the law of my mind and mak­ing me cap­tive to the law of sin that dwells in my mem­bers. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV)