My single point is that we need to distinguish law. Since obeying the law of God without distinction can mean walking out of step with the truth of Gospel (Gal 2:14). So to say “obey the law of God” without distinguishing law might make us like Cephas before Paul. Everyone should obey the law of God! But we should not obey temporary and changeable laws but only those unchanging, eternal principles of law that derive from the Being of God. Most reformers saw these encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. They do seem to show how to love God and neighbour, which Jesus himself defined as the substance of that law (Matt 22:37–40).
Every Christian must uphold and maintain the law of God.
Then again: I don’t sacrifice animals or go outside the camp if I touch something dead. So it is evident that we must distinguish law or fall into deadly legalism.
Richard Hooker does just that in his first book of Ecclesiastical Polity. He knows that his work will not be popular. He writes: “This book might have been more popular and more accessible to the masses if it had merely extolled the force of laws and the necessity of good laws, and had railed against the evils of those who attack them.”
Had he simply said, “you have to obey God’s law,” people may have approved. Yet in so doing, he would engage in unhelpful rhetoric. He explains: “However, this kind of rhetoric is more liable to stir up passions than to build up understanding of the issues in question.”
He is right. The reformers lived by “we distinguish” because the lack of distinctions can kill. Are we justified by faith or by faith working through love? Is faith working through love evidence of genuine faith?
The small things matter.
And unhelpfully simplifying matters, as noted, might be rhetorically powerful but they can be deadly. In the early church, many found Arius rhetorically powerful. He convinced a lot through his simple slogans too. But he was a heretic.
So let’s distinguish law according to the reformed and Augustinian tradition because these two traditions rightly understand God’s revelation.
We have to distinguish law because the letter kills (2 Cor 2:6) and beshadowed law is deadly (Col 2:17). The mosaic ceremonies legislated shadows (Heb 8:5) which cannot purify a conscience (Heb 9:9).
Confusing and conflating law then can lead to spiritual death.
It is not as if the Bible avoids such distinctions! Scripture too frequently distinguishes types of law:
the law of the burnt offering (Lev 6:9), the law of Moses (1 Kgs 2:3), the law of the temple (Ezek 43:12), the law of the Medes and Persians (Dan 6:12), the law of the Jews (Acts 25:8), the law of works (Rom 3:27), the law of faith (Rom 3:27), the law of marriage (Rom 7:2), the law of my mind (Rom 7:22), the law of sin (Rom 7:22), the law of Christ (Gal 6:2), the law of liberty (James 1:25), and more besides.
The point is that distinguishing law makes sense of reality. It also protects people from dead and deadly sin since the law kills but the Spirit makes alive (2 Cor 3:6).
One distinction involves eternal law and natural law. Eternal law, which is identical to the Being of God or his decree, extends to creation in the form of natural law. Consider the words of Richard Hooker who interprets Romans 2:14 along virtually universal early reformed lines by saying:
The Apostle Paul says that the pagans are a ‘law to themselves’ (Rom. 2:14), meaning that God illuminates all men with the light of reason so that they can know truth from falsehood and good from evil. By reasoning together they learn what the will of God is, without any supernatural revelation, and thus when they seem to be making their own laws, they are in fact merely discovering His (72, Laws 1.8.3).
He is not unique here. The Westminster Assembly will later echo his language during the discussion up to and as well as in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The point is that God’s law can be discerned by natural reason, so that all people can be held accountable to God. Both the law written on our hearts and divine law written on tablets on stone testify to the same law, namely, that prior and supreme eternal law which is identical to God’s nature or his eternal decree.