The use of the law

From John Wesley’s sermon “The Original Nature, Property, and Use of the Law“:

The law says, “Thou shalt not kill;” and hereby, (as our Lord teaches,) forbids not only outward acts, but every unkind word or thought. Now, the more I look into this perfect law, the more I feel how far I come short of it; and the more I feel this, the more I feel my need of his blood to atone for all my sin, and of his Spirit to purify my heart, and make me “perfect and entire, lacking nothing.”

The question comes up quite often in Christian circles these days: Why are you being so legalistic? Paul wrestled with the same issue from another angle. In what way does the law of the Old Testament bind the Christian?

This is a question that has led to lots of different answers over the years. John Wesley saw the law as convicting us of sin, as leading us to Christ, and as guiding us toward sanctification. So he argued that the Jewish understanding of law was voided by Christ, but he still saw the law as necessary and good and perfect. For Wesley, a holy person would follow the law not out of legalism, but because a heart that perfectly loves God and neighbor would do as the law directs.

Without the law, then, the Wesleyan understanding of the Christian life collapses.


8 thoughts on “The use of the law

  1. I used to view Jesus’ words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” as a play on our emotions, as if to say, “If you really love me, you’ll buy me that car I’ve been wanting.” I’ve since come to believe that Jesus is simply stating a fact. If our heart is truly his, obedience to his law will be our joy. A natural byproduct of genuine love.

    1. If I wanted to get really serious about understanding why St. Paul would include “head covering” in his writings……I would study what and why it was relative in that culture at that time. I would want to know who wore what and why? Long hair? Short hair? Hats or bald?
      You might want to start your study here.

  2. I find that we want to dispense with the law as “necessary” except when it affects our pocketbook; then, we become scrupulous…we want our interests to “balance” in the end, even when it comes to church law…

  3. ” Jewish understanding of law was voided by Christ,”
    Did Wesley teach all the Jewish understanding of all the laws given by God where voided by Christ or just some of them?

    Where do you find Wesley’s writing that support that statement?

    1. The sermon title I’m about to mangle: Sermon 34 The Origin, Nature, Property and Use of the Law.

      He saw the moral law as voided as it had to do with securing salvation, but not voided in the sense that it is perfect, good, and just. A holy person obeys the law and is empowered by grace to do so, but following the law does not save us.

      He also observed the somewhat controversial distinction between ceremonial, civil, and moral laws within the overall law.

  4. The Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Methodist church’s abridged version, the Articles of Religion, say this:

    “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testaments everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” (Article VI)

    As a lifelong Anglican, who later edited out certain aspects of the Thirty-Nine he found less helpful (usually ones that lent themselves to Calvinistic interpretations), it is telling that this is one that he left in.

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