The Origin, Properties, and Use of God’s Law

“Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” (Romans 7:12)

There are few subjects in religion as little understood as this one. The reader of Romans is usually told that by “the law” St. Paul means the Jewish law, and so he considers it irrelevant.

But a careful observer of the Apostle’s discourse will not be content with this superficial explanation of it. The more he considers these words, the more convinced he will be that St. Paul does not refer only to the ceremonial law of Moses in this chapter. Consider his theme. He begins the chapter, “Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law), that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?” What! the ceremonial law? Certainly not, rather the moral law. “For,” to give an example, “the woman which hath a husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: But if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress though she be married to another man.” From this example the Apostle concludes: “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law,” the whole Mosaic system, “by the body of Christ, that ye should” without any blame “be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead.”

The Apostle, proving that the Christian has set aside the Jewish dispensation, and that the moral law, though it can never pass away, now stands on a different foundation, now stops to consider an objection: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin?” Some might infer as much from a misunderstanding of those words, “the motions of sins [sinful passions], which were by the law.” “God forbid!” says the Apostle, that we should say so. The law is an enemy to sin, exposing it wherever it is. “I had not known sin, but by the law: For I had not known lust,” or evil desire, to be sin, “except the law had said, you shalt not covet” (7:7). After discussing this further in the four following verses, he offers this conclusion, with special regard to the moral law, from which the preceding example was taken: “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”

In order to explain these words, I will try to show, first, the origin of this law; second, the nature of it; third, its properties: that it is holy, and just, and good; and, fourth, its uses.

The Origin of the Moral Law

The moral law did not, as some have imagined, originate at the time of Moses. When God made man a living soul, with the power to choose good or evil, He gave the law to this free, intelligent creature; not written on tablets of stone, but engraved on his heart by the finger of God; written in his innermost spirit; intending that it might never be far off, never hard to understand, but always near, and always shining with clear light, even as the sun in the sky.

But man rebelled against God, and by breaking this glorious law, almost erased it from his heart; his understanding being darkened to the same extent that his soul was “alienated from the life of God.” Yet God, being reconciled to man through the Son, has, to some degree, re-written the law on the heart of His dark, sinful creature. “He showed you, O man, what is good, even to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

He showed this to our first parents and to all their children, by “that true light which enlightens every man that cometh into the world.” But eventually all flesh became corrupt, so He chose a people to whom He gave a more perfect knowledge of His law. He wrote its particulars on two tablets of stone; which he commanded the fathers to teach their children through all following generations.

It is in this way that the law of God is now shown to those who do not know God. They hear the things that were written for our instruction. But this is not enough; God alone reveals this by His Spirit. And He does this for all that truly believe, fulfilling that gracious promise: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. And this shall be the covenant that I will make; I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:31, etc.).

The Nature of the Law

Now let us consider the nature of that law which was originally given to man in paradise, and which God has so mercifully promised to write again in the hearts of all true believers.  The Apostle is not speaking of the ceremonial law when he says, “I had not known sin but by the law.” This is too obvious to require proof. Neither is it the ceremonial law which says, in the words immediately connected to these, “You shall not covet.” Therefore, the ceremonial law has no place in our present discussion.

Neither can the law mentioned in the text be the Mosaic dispensation. It is true that the word is sometimes used in this way; as when the Apostle says to the Galatians, “The covenant that was confirmed before [with Abraham, the father of the faithful], the law cannot disannul” (3:17). But the text we are discussing cannot mean the Mosaic dispensation, for the Apostle never affirms it to be a spiritual law; or that it is holy, just, and good. Neither is it true that God will write that law in the hearts of those He justifies. The law referred to here is none other than the moral law.

This law is an incorruptible picture of the High and Holy One that inhabits eternity. It is God, whom no man has seen in His essence, made visible to men and angels. It is the unveiled face of God; God revealed to His creatures as they are able to bear it; revealed to give life, and not to destroy it, that they may see God and live. It is the heart of God opened to man.

If we look at the law of God from another point of view, it is supreme, unchangeable reason; it is unalterable rightness; it is the everlasting appropriateness of all things. The law of God is a copy of the eternal mind, a transcript of the divine nature. It is the fairest offspring of the everlasting Father, the brightest light of His wisdom, the visible beauty of the Most High. It is the delight and wonder of cherubim and seraphim, and all the company of heaven, and the glory and joy of every wise believer, every well-instructed child of God.

The Properties of the Law

There are three properties of the law mentioned in the text: It is holy, just, and good.

First, the law is holy.  With this expression the Apostle does not appear to be speaking of its effects, but instead of its nature. St. James, speaking of the same thing by a different name, says, “The wisdom from above” (which is this law written in our hearts) “is first pure” (3:17). And, consequently, when it is written into our lives, as well as our souls, it is (as St. James terms it in 1:27) “pure religion and undefiled;” the pure, clean, unpolluted worship of God.

It is pure, chaste, clean, and holy in the highest degree. Otherwise it could not be the immediate offspring of God, who is, in essence, holiness. It is pure from all sin, clean and unspotted from any evil. It is a virgin, incapable of being defiled, of being mixted with that which is unclean or unholy. It has no fellowship with sin, for “what communion hath light with darkness?” As sin is by nature opposed to God, so His law is opposed to sin.

Therefore, the Apostle rejects that perverse idea that the law of God is either sin itself, or the cause of sin. God forbid that we should believe it is the cause of sin, simply because it is the discoverer of it; because it detects the hidden things of darkness, and drags them out into the light. It is true that, by this means (as the Apostle observes in Romans 7:13), “sin appears to be sin.” All its disguises are torn away, and it appears in its inherent ugliness. It is true, likewise, that “sin, by the commandment, becomes exceeding sinful.” Now, pitted against light and knowledge, being stripped even of the plea of ignorance, it loses its excuse, as well as disguise, and becomes far more repulsive both to God and man. Further, it is true that “sin works death by that which is good;” by that which is in itself pure and holy. When it is dragged out into the light, it rages all the more. When it is restrained, it bursts out with great violence. So the Apostle writes (speaking in the role of one who was convicted of sin, but not yet delivered from it), “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment” which detected and tried to restrain it, rejected the restraint, and all the more “wrought in me all manner of concupiscence” (v. 8); all kinds of foolish and harmful desires, which the commandment tried to restrain. Therefore, “when the commandment came, sin revived” (v. 9).  But this reveals no impurity in the commandment. Though it is abused, it cannot be defiled. This proves only that “the heart of man is desperately wicked.” It remains that “the law is holy”.

Second, it is just.  It prescribes exactly what is right, precisely what we ought to do, say, or think; concerning God, ourselves, and every creature. It is adapted, in every detail, to the nature of things, the nature of the whole universe, and every individual. It is suited to all the circumstances of each, and to all their mutual relations, including those that have existed from the beginning and those that began in any following period. It harmonizes with them perfectly and is never irrelevant to them. If the law is understood in that sense, we see that there is nothing arbitrary in the law of God. And yet all of it is totally dependent on His will; so that, “Thy will be done,” is the supreme, universal law, both in earth and heaven.

Some have asked, “But is the will of God the cause of His law? Is His will the origin of right and wrong?” It seems that this difficulty arises from considering God’s will to be distinct from God; otherwise, the problem vanishes. Certainly God is the cause of the law of God. But the will of God is God himself willing this or that. Consequently, to say that the will of God, or that God himself, is the cause of the law, is the same thing.

If the law, the rule of right and wrong, depends on the nature and proper state of things, and on their essential relations to each other, then it must come from God, because He designed those things, with all their relations. By His will, “for His pleasure” alone, they all “are and were created.”  And yet it may be granted that, in every case, God wills this or that (for example, that men should honor their parents), because it is right, agreeable to the proper state of things, and to the relation in which they stand.

The law then is right and just concerning all things. And it is good as well. This is obvious because of its source, the goodness of God. What other than tender love caused Him to give man the image of His own nature, and then reveal His will again to fallen man? Was it not love that moved Him to give His law after man’s understanding was darkened, and to send His prophets to declare that law to the blind, thoughtless children of men? Certainly it was His goodness that raised up Enoch and Noah to be preachers of righteousness; and caused Abraham, His friend, to bear witness to His truth. It was His goodness which gave a written law to Moses for the nation He had chosen. It was love which explained these living words through David and all the Prophets that followed; until, when the fullness of time had come, He sent His Son, “not to destroy the law, but to fulfill,” to confirm every point of it; until, having written it in the hearts of His children, and having put all His enemies under His feet, “He shall deliver up the kingdom to the Father, that God may be all in all.”

And this law, given and preserved by the goodness of God, is like the fountain from which it flows, full of goodness. It is gentle and kind; it is, as the Psalmist expresses it, “sweeter than honey and the honey-comb.”  It includes “whatsoever things are lovely or of good report. If there be any virtue, if there be any praise,” they are all contained here; where all the treasures of divine wisdom, knowledge, and love are hidden.

The Uses of the Law

The first use of it is to convict the world of sin. This is the special work of the Holy Spirit, who can work without any means at all, or by whatever means please Him. Therefore, there are some whose hearts have been broken without any visible cause, or by any outward means; and others (very rarely) have been awakened to a sense of the “wrath of God abiding on them,” by simply hearing that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” But the usual method by which the Spirit of God convicts sinners is by the law. It is this part of the word of God which is especially quick and powerful, full of life and energy, “and sharper than any two-edged sword.” This, in the hands of God and of those whom He has sent, pierces through a deceitful heart, and “divides asunder even the soul and the spirit.” By this a sinner is revealed to himself.  The law flashes conviction on every side. He feels he is no more than a sinner. He has nothing to pay. His “mouth is stopped,” and he stands “guilty before God.”

To kill the sinner is, then, the first use of the law; that is, to destroy the life and strength in which he trusts, and convince him that he is not only under the sentence of death, but actually dead to God, having no spiritual life, “dead in trespasses and sins.” The second use of it is to bring him to life, to Christ, so that he may live. It is true that in performing these functions it plays the part of a strict schoolmaster. It drives us by force, rather than drawing us by love. And yet love is the source of it all. It is love by which the law tears away our confidence in the flesh, which leaves us nothing on which to lean, and causes the sinner to cry out in the bitterness of his soul, or groan in the depth of his heart, “I give up every plea beside, ‘Lord, I am damned; except that You died.’”

The third use of the law is to keep us alive. It is the means by which the Holy Spirit prepares the believer to receive a larger share of the life of God.  I am afraid this great truth is little understood, not only by the world, but even by many who are real children of God by faith. Many of these blindly assume that when we come to Christ, we are done with the law; because, “Christ is the end of the law to every one that believeth.” And He is, “for righteousness,” that is, justification. The law does not justify men, but rather brings them to Christ. But when it has brought us to Him, it has still another purpose, which is to keep us with Him. For it is continually motivating all believers, the more they see of its height and depth, to urge one another to come closer to Christ and expect grace to do His will.

Agreeing then, that every believer is done with the Jewish ceremonial law; and seeing that the moral law is not a means of justification; for we are “justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus;” in another sense, we are not done with this law, for it is still of great use. First, it convicts us of the sin that yet remains in both our hearts and lives, keeping us close to Christ, so that His blood may continually cleanse us. Second, it leads us to draw strength from Him, by which He empowers us to do what His law commands.  Third, it confirms our hope of fulfilling its commands on a level we have not yet attained, the hope of receiving more and more grace until we actually possess the fullness of His promises.

How clearly this agrees with the experience of every true believer! While he cries out, “O what love have I unto your law! All the day long is my study in it;” he sees, in that divine mirror, more of his own sinfulness every day. He sees more and more clearly that he is still a sinner in all things, that neither his heart nor his ways are right before God; and that realization sends him to Christ. For example, the law says, “You shall not kill;” and by this command (as our Lord teaches), prohibits 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 fall short of it; and the more I feel this, the more I feel my need for His blood to atone for all of my sin, and for His Spirit to purify my heart and make me “perfect and entire, lacking nothing.”

So I cannot do without the law for one moment, any more than I can do without Christ; since I now need it just as much to keep me in Christ as I ever needed it to bring me to Him. Each of these is continually sending me to the other, the law to Christ, and Christ to the law. On the one hand, the height and depth of the law cause me to run to the love of God in Christ; on the other, the love of God in Christ makes the law precious to me, since I know that every part of it is a promise which my Lord will fulfill at the proper time.

Who are you then that “judgest the law, and speakest evil of the law,” including it with sin, Satan, and death, and sending them all to hell together? You have set yourself up in the judgment-seat of Christ and done away with the rule by which He will judge the world! Realize what advantage Satan has gained over you; and, in the future, never think or speak lightly of this blessed instrument of the grace of God. Instead, love and value it for the sake of Him from whom it came, and of Him to whom it leads. Let it be your glory and joy, next to the cross of Christ. Declare its praise and make it honorable before all men.

And if you are thoroughly convinced that it is the offspring of God, that it is the copy of His perfection, and that it is “holy, and just, and good,” especially to them that believe; then, instead of throwing it away, see that you cling to it more and more. Never let the law of mercy and truth, of love for God and man, of humility, meekness, and purity, leave you. “Bind it about your neck; write it on the table of your heart.” Keep close to the law, if you want to keep close to Christ. Let this continually lead you to His atoning blood, continually confirm your hope, until all the “righteousness of the law is fulfilled in you,” and you are “filled with all the fullness of God.”

And if your Lord has already fulfilled His word, if He has already “written His law in your heart,” then “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free.” You are not only free from Jewish ceremonies, from the guilt of sin, and the fear of hell; but, what is infinitely more, from the power of sin, from serving the devil, from offending God. Stand firm in this liberty. Stand firm in loving God with all your heart and serving Him with all your strength! This is perfect freedom; to walk blamelessly in all His commandments. “Be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” I do not mean Jewish bondage, nor bondage to the fear of hell. These I trust are far from you. But beware of becoming entangled again with the yoke of sin, of any inward or outward transgression of the law. Hate sin far more than death or hell; Hate sin far more than the punishment of it. Beware of the bondage of pride, of desire, or of anger; of every evil temper, or word, or action. “Look unto Jesus;” and, in order to do so, look more and more into the perfect law, “the law of liberty;” and “continue therein.” In this way you will, each day, “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


This excerpt from John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century by Stephen Gibson.