Can the Law Enable and Empower Believers to Follow Its Dictates?

That was the essence of a discussion I had on Twitter recently. I posted:

The Law does not nor cannot enable or empower believers to follow it. Only the Spirit working grace into the soul brings this about.

The following question was posed to me in response:

…when Jesus said, Lazarus come forth, was it law or gospel?

I presume the question was asked because it seems to contain within it both a command to be obeyed (Law) and life-giving power (gospel) in the same act. Jesus approached Lazarus’ tomb and issued his command and Lazarus clearly obeyed Jesus’ command. The command brought life.

But is it correct to see in this an instance of the Law bringing life?

The instance here is one of the creative act of God. There is not the obligatory response that the (Moral) Law calls for. The corollary to what occurs in this passage is the effectual call/irresistible grace in our regeneration. Like Lazarus, we were dead and God raises us to life. In the strict sense, we are not given a choice to obey this command of Christ – God raises us. It is entirely gracious of him to do so. This act is pointing to the very essence of the gospel – that through Christ, God raises the dead. Dead men do not have a choice in the matter – they are dead. Lazarus was simply a recipient of God’s unmerited favor. The raising of Lazarus is gospel through and through.

At issue though is a confusion between God’s creative command and revealed moral law/command. These are two different things. God’s creative command brings about what it declares (act/action) whereas his revealed moral law displays (no act/action) what ought to come to pass.

Which brings us to the essence of the issue. The Moral Law cannot accomplish anything, it is not its nature. To declare to someone, particularly a believer, “Do not covet” does not stop necessarily a person from coveting. There is no power in the command. It may be supposed that this is neglecting the operation of the Spirit, but this is does not escape us from the nature of the Law.

WCF 19.6 clarifies the nature of the law for believers. Below is my highlighting of what this law ‘does’:

it [is] of great use to them; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God.. their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.

In sum, this law informs, directs and binds, discovers sin, restrains by forbidding sin, shows (1) what our sins deserve, and (2) what our obedience will receive. Such language shows why the Law is called a guide. It is like the guardrails, the yellow lines, the roadway upon which we go – they display the way to go, we perceive what will happen should we deviate off course, and understand what will happen should we stay the course. They are a help to us, but they do not give us the power to move down that path.

This brings us back to Lazarus in that, unlike Christ with Lazarus, there is no power given to these commands. They simply guide. They help us in that they clarify for us God’s moral law (due to our sinful flesh hindering us from comprehending perfectly God’s holy law upon our consciences), but it is the Spirit who empowers us to follow them – to “walk accordingly”.

How the Spirit empowers us is fundamental here. We are strengthened by grace (not law). But how precisely are we strengthened by grace? Grace is not primarily an energy but a status. Grace is what is given to those who not only do not deserve it, but who have actually demerited the favor of the one giving the favor. Grace is the status of being in favor with one whom, though you have defied, they have recognized your fault yet willingly place their favor upon you. It is first and foremost a status before you receive any actual benefit from that status. The Spirit strengthens us with grace by revealing to us our [gracious] status with God. Not only so, but he reveals further the manner in which that status came about and the ongoing nature of that status.

This empowers us because, when the Law comes and reveals to us (or shows or guides) the way in which we ought to go, at first glance must always be met with defeat. We have no strength against the law. Even as believers, as regards our works, we are woefully deficient. As the WCF declares:

16.4. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.


16.5. …but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.


16.6. …he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

The Spirit takes this Gospel and quite literally makes our hearts willing to hear this message of grace. The Spirit empowers us by applying this Gospel (status) to our hearts – by bringing us to believe (having faith in) what, contrary to all appearances of what the Law declares, the gospel actually declares to be true. This is our power, that “there is therefore now no condemnation” and even more so, that we now possess the righteousness of God. This liberates us from the fear of punishment, from the fear of the dread of the Law. Yes, we must face the temporal consequences of our sins, but we are no longer subject to the Law’s damning declaration.

This leads us, once on the other side of the gospel, to look at the law not as a task-master over us but as our guide, revealing the way in which we should go. The law has no fangs for the believer. This is how the Psalmist could write Psalm 119 (a passage usually given in defense of the Law empowering believers to obey its dictates). The whole Psalm presupposes one who has wrestled with his sin and received the forgiveness/righteousness of God.

This leads often to the declaration that Sanctification is diving deeper into our Justification. I do not find this to be an unjustified statement. Surely there is more to Sanctification than our Justification, but our Sanctification only progresses as we pour more deeply over how our Justification is applied to our lives.


2 thoughts on “Can the Law Enable and Empower Believers to Follow Its Dictates?

  1. “The law guides, directs, commands, all things that are against the interest and rule of sin. It judgeth and condemneth both the things that promote it and the persons that do them; it frightens and terrifies the consciences of those who are under its dominion. But if you shall say unto it, “What then shall we do? this tyrant, this enemy, is too hard for us. What aid and assistance against it will you afford unto us? what power will you communicate unto its destruction?” Here the law is utterly silent, or says that nothing of this nature is committed unto it of God: nay, the strength it hath it gives unto sin for the condemnation of the sinner: “The strength of sin is the law.” But the gospel, or the grace of it, is the means and instrument of God for the communication of internal spiritual strength unto believers. By it do they receive supplies of the Spirit or aids of grace for the subduing of sin and the destruction of its dominion…” (John Owen, A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace)

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