I am frequently amazed when I walk into unattended, understaffed, and poorly run businesses. In such cases I wonder how they stay in business. Often they do not. In today's global capitalism, other things being equal, there is a correlation between performance and prosperity. Employers demand performance from their employees and clients demand performance from the firms they use. Similarly, the magistrate not only requires that I avoid breaking the law but also that I positively obey it, and that requirement carries sanctions. When the authorities capture a criminal we rightly expect justice, not grace. Economics and civil life illustrate a fundamental principle of human existence. Paul refers to such principles as stoicheia or elemental principles (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8). The stoicheia are ruthless taskmasters requiring performance.
The relentless demands of the magistrate and marketplace are, however, only faint shadows of the perfect and personal performance required of us by God's law. From the very beginning of relations between God and humanity, even before the first sin, the Creator and law-giver demanded that we not only hear the law, but also that we perform it.
When God made a covenant of works with Adam, he required performance. The demands were unequivocal and the standard unforgiving: "You may eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The day you eat of it, you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). In this case, the formal "doing" required by the law was abstinence, but the material obedience was loving God and obeying his covenant.
Adam broke covenant, and after the Fall our ability to keep the law was lost, but the demands of law did not abate. God says, "Cursed is anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them" (Deut. 27:26 esv). Again, in Deuteronomy 28:58 God's law requires the people to "be careful to do all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 30:10 requires us to "obey" the law and to "keep his commandments." The older Reformed theologians regarded this language as a restatement of the covenant of works with Adam. Anyone who sought to present himself to God on the basis of law keeping (even Spirit-wrought sanctity) was under this standard. Like Adam, God's adopted son Israel also failed.
Jesus was just as emphatic about the demands of the law. In his dialogue with the self-righteous lawyer, he did not say, "Do your best," but rather, after the lawyer summarized the law, Jesus said, "do this and live" (Luke 10:25-28). According to Jesus, the law must be "accomplished" and "fulfilled" (Matt. 5:18), it must be "done." What the law requires must be performed (Matt. 5:19). He repeatedly described his own mission in terms of performance. "My food is that I should do the will of him who has sent me and that I might fulfill his work" (John 4:34). He became incarnate for the single purpose of performing that which he agreed to do from eternity (John 6:38-40; 17:3-6) and he testified to his performance of that law when he cried, "It is finished!" (John 19:30).
The apostles also understood that God's law requires performance. James notes three times that the law requires "doing," not just "hearing" (James 1:22-27; 4:11). Paul likewise wrote, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Rom. 2:13). This "doing" rather than just "hearing" is essential to understanding the perfect performance of his law which God expects of his image-bearers. The demand is not only for the absence of sin, but for positive performance of all requirements. This is how Paul interprets Deuteronomy 27:26 (in Gal. 3:10): "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything which is written in the book of the law.'" Paul knew that because, in Adam, all have fallen (Rom. 5:12) and are "dead in sins and trespasses" (Eph. 2:1) we are no longer capable of making this performance. This is why he says, it is "evident that no one is justified before God" by law keeping (Gal. 3:11). The law is "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12) and it demands perfect compliance, but none of Adam's children are able to meet that standard. Our inability to meet the standard does not, however, ease the standard.
This is exactly why Jesus did not simply appear in history as an adult and promptly die. Nor did Jesus obey the law only as preparation for his passion on the cross. Rather, we should say with the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 37) that he suffered "all the time he lived on earth," and that he accomplished all the obedience I owed (Q. 60). Christ was born "under the law" (Gal. 4:4), to redeem those under the stoicheia (Gal. 4:3), that is, those under the law.
The slogan "just as if I never sinned." says too little. Our justification requires not only that he take away our sins, but that he provide for us a perfect performance of the law in our place. The gospel is not just that we are forgiven, but that believers are reckoned as law keepers because of Christ's law keeping credited to us. Whoever trusts in Jesus and rests in his finished work alone is righteous before God. It is as if the Christian has performed all that the law requires.
Will this teaching lead to lawlessness? "Never!" (Rom. 6:1). "We are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). This is why we are Christians. We know the terrible and righteous demands of the law. It does not say "try," but "do." All thanks to Christ who has done for us.
R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California). He is author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).
Issue: "Covenant Confusion" July/August 2004 Vol. 13 No. 4 Page number(s): 32-33
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