One of the issues that differentiates Covenant theology from Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology is that of the place of law in the life of the Christian. By declaring that the moral law is still essential to Christian living, Covenant theologians are often looked upon as being legalistic. The Puritans, especially, have been accused of being too works-oriented. These misconceptions usually come about because of ignorance or misrepresentations of the Covenantal, Puritan position. Seventeenth-century Puritan Thomas Watson wrote a very clear and concise statement on the right understanding of the law in the second volume of his Body of Practical Divinity.
Watson begins by naming the differences between the law and the gospel. First, “the law requires that we worship God as our Creator; the gospel, that we worship Him in and through Christ.” Secondly, the law requires obedience but gives no strength to obey. The gospel gives us the strength to obey God’s law.
The question then arises, “Of what use is the moral law to us?” Watson answers that it allows us to see our sin and our need for Christ. He quotes Galatians 3:24, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.”
Is this moral law still in force for believers? Watson tells us that the law has been abolished in certain ways. The first (and it is the ignorance of this fact that causes others to view Covenantalists as legalists) is that law has been abolished in respect of justification. Watson stresses (as did all the Puritans) that obedience to the moral law does not justify anybody. The second way in which the law has been abolished for believes is in respect to its curse. Christians are no longer under the curse of the law because Christ became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
This leads to the question of how was Christ made a curse for us. As a surety, Christ was made a curse. The curse was placed upon His manhood, thus taking away the curse to do the elect. However, though the law is not our savior, Watson says, it is our guide. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid.” (Romans 3:31). Watson warns against antinomianism, which teaches that the moral law is completely abrogated to believers, because it leads to a sinful life. He says, “They who will not have the law to rule them, shall never have the gospel to save them.” If a person was to reject one thing that God says (the law), why are we to believe that they would accept the other (the gospel)?
Then follows some rules that Watson gives concerning the Ten Commandments.
Rule 1. The commands and prohibitions of the moral law reach the heart.
Rule 2. In the commandments, more is intended than is spoken.
(1) Where any duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden.
(2) Where any sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded.
Rule 3. For any sin forbidden, the occasion for that sin is also forbidden. For example, if adultery is forbidden, then ogling is also forbidden.
Rule 4. Where one relation is named, another relation is included. If a child is commanded to honor his parents, then the parents are commanded to love the child.
Rule 5. Where greater sins are forbidden, lesser sins are forbidden. If idolatry is forbidden, then so is superstition.
Rule 6. The law of God is entire. The duties to God go hand in hand with our duties to our fellow man.
Rule 7. We are also forbidden to being accessory to the sins of others.
(1) By imposing sinful laws on others, or forcing them to sin.
(2) By not hindering others from sinning when we have the chance to do so.
(3) By counseling, abetting, or provoking others to sin.
(4) By consenting to another’s sin.
(5) By our sinful example.
Rule 8. Though we are unable to fulfill the law perfectly by our own strength, God has provided encouragement to fulfill what we can.
(1) God has promised to work in us to obey and to love Him.
(2) God for Christ’s sake will accept our less-than-perfect works.
(3) Though our works be imperfect, God will accept us in Christ because of his perfect obedience.
I hope this summary has clearly explained the role of the law in a Christian’s life. If this whets your appetite for more on this sort of topic, then read the whole book. All of my quotes and paraphrases and whatnot are taken from it. Here it is: Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, The Banner of Truth Trust. If you’re going to read that, then you should probably also read Watson’s Body of Divinity and The Lord’s Prayer, both of which are also published by the Banner of Truth. The Ten Commandments belongs in between those two in order. It was all originally one volume, but was split into three separate volumes later on. Soli Deo gloria.