Larger Catechism, #93

The Larger Catechism

Question 93

 93. Q. What is the moral law?

A. The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body,[399] and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man:[400] promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.[401]


Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[399] Deuteronomy 5:1-3, 31, 33. And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day…. But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it…. Ye shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess. Luke 10:26-27. He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. 1 Thessalonians 5:23. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [400] Luke 1:75. In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. Acts 24:16. And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. [401] Romans 10:5. For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. Galatians 3:10. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. Galatians 3:12. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.


Though the Bible does not use the specific label “moral law,” yet we can find the label’s concept in the Bible. The moral law refers to all the laws, rules, statutes, etc. God has revealed. For that reason, Q. 98 can ask, “Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?” Strewn throughout the Bible is God’s moral law and its comprehensive summary is found in the Ten Commandments.

Some are suspicious when theologians use labels not found in the Bible. We must also be careful not to impose foreign concepts on to the Bible. Yet, just because the specific label cannot be found does not mean it should automatically be suspect. Its definition or meaning should be critically evaluated according to the Bible’s teaching. The word “Trinity” cannot be found in the Bible but its meaning can.


The Will of God

We have developed what man is to believe concerning God in questions 1-90. Now we can study man’s duty to God. The LC states, “The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind…” The moral law is God’s will to mankind. As Vos stated, the moral law “is not a human discovery.” That is, these are not the ideal constructs of man discovered through intense moral and mental reflections. The moral law ideally fits man and man is fit for the law (before the fall) yet it is not something he discovered. God revealed it to man; it was not constructed by man. One writer, presumably a liberal pastor, authored a book entitled The Ten Commandments: The Master Key to Life.[1] In that book, the author sought to commend the Ten Commandments by arguing that Moses was a highly educated man and that he delved deeply on the mysteries of the human condition. Besides, Moses was also a great prophet and inspired by God: “He set down and described the human soul and the way it works. He described it in this writing which we break into ten clauses and call the Ten Commandments…within these Commandments he concealed the laws of psychology for those who were ready for them.”[2] The author could not be further from the truth. Its relevance and binding character come to us not because Moses was educated, or the commandments reveal the “laws of psychology” but because they are the declaration of the will of God to humanity. The Ten Commandments declare God’s will and not man’s brilliant insights and reflections.

Furthermore, the moral law is “not a force or principle inherent in the universe” (Vos). Since man did not “discover” it, he also cannot tap into it as if it were inherent in the universe. If it were inherent in the universe, then no confusion over it could be found.

The point of these denials stems from the Biblical teaching that the moral law came from God and that He revealed it to us. This is what God declares to humanity as His will for us. Humanity is not at liberty to accept it or not — it is required that we obey; rebellion will be punished. If the law came through discovery or was inherent in the universe, then its binding nature could be questioned. Just because we discovered it or realized that it was inherent to the universe does not mean we are obligated to obey it. We could simply accept them much like the way we accept some laws of physics.

Because it is God’s declared will, God binds all of humanity to it: “directing and binding every one…” God’s will directs everyone of us (whether obeyed or not) and He has bound all of us. Leaders, princes, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, sophisticated and the simple, etc. are bound by God to obey. Some powerful people tend to believe they are “above” the moral law and that only mere poor destitute mortals are bound to it. Yet God binds every one of us to obey. On judgment day, it will become clear how extensive God’s will is/was.

In Deut. 5, we read, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them.” It was revealed to them and therefore binding. Yet in Rom. 2:14-16, we find a similar law written in all the hearts: “they are a law to themselves…the work of the law is written on their hearts.” God will judge both the Jews and Gentiles on judgment day and on the Jews, He will use what He revealed while those without the law show the works of the law in their hearts.


Personal, Perfect, and Perpetual

The LC states that God’s moral law direct and binds every one “to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body…” Once we understand this, we will better understand why the Westminster divines exposited the Ten Commandments as they did.

Personal” obedience means that each individual is bound to obey the moral law. No one is exempt. Each person must obey everything God demands of His moral law. In the minds of some, they believe, given their difficult backgrounds, their peculiar plight, their “unique” circumstances, etc. they feel that they can exempt themselves from some of the demands of the moral law. “I don’t have to be as kind or loving, etc. because no one ever loved me or cared for me.” “Taking advantage of someone is permissible for me because everyone in my life took advantage of me.” God still requires their personal obedience; the demand did not diminish because of their circumstances.

Furthermore, nobody else can obey for us (by proxy). Even Christ’s active obedience does not release us from personal obedience. God’s moral law binds us personally. In Christ, “Obedience, indeed, is not to be performed by us with the same view with which he [Christ] performed it.”[3]

Perfect” obedience explains itself. That is, each individual must perfectly obey all of God’s moral law. Paul cites Deut. 27:26 in Gal. 3:10, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” The assumption in that verse is that obedience must be complete and perfect and not half-hearted or disingenuous. Adam could not have eaten half of the forbidden fruit and declare that he still obeyed God’s law nor could he have squeezed the juice from it (presumably possible) and object by saying, “I didn’t eat it; I drank it.”

Is it not true that sometime we fool ourselves into believing that going through the motions is sufficient? I love my neighbor only in deed but not in word or affections. We can think of numerous examples. How many of us would be content with a plumber who pretty much fixed our leak but it was not “perfect” or complete. It still drips but it doesn’t drip like it used to! Even we demand more. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)

Perpetual” entails that our obedience to God’s moral law does not stop. “I will never forget thy precepts.” (Ps. 119:93) The Psalmist also says, “Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.” (Ps. 145:2) A young man may think he is not compelled to be as morally scrupulous as an older person. He believes he will be more diligent and compliant when he is older (and has more time). The exact opposite might be argued by an elderly man. He is too old to really obey thoroughly. He can speak his mind, be cruel, etc. because he has earned the right to do it. In both cases, the individual assumed seasonal obedience and not perpetual.

To the three descriptions are added the following: “in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body…” Our personal, perfect and perpetual obedience must not be viewed superficially. Our “frame and disposition” refer to our motives, heart, attitude, etc. The whole person, body and soul, must act in complete conformity to God’s moral law. That is why we are told that the one who hates his brother is a murderer (1Jn. 3:15; cf. Mt. 5:21ff.). The heart sin makes us liable. Jesus charges us with adultery in our hearts when we lust after a woman (Mt. 5:27-30).


All Those Duties

The personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience required of us pertains to both tables of the law: “and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man.” The moral law includes our obligations to God and to man. Paul endeavored to do that (“And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.” Acts 24:16) We cannot pretend to love God and hate our neighbors. Some love to lead a quiet life in solitude separated from humanity but he “oweth” his neighbor love and duties of righteousness. Other people are humane and see no need to talk about God, or to obey and worship Him. As long as they are moral, it should be sufficient (not that they are truly “moral”). Yet the moral law requires their obligations to God as well. A truly moral person is the godly person who worships and obeys God as he loves his neighbors.


Life and Death

The moral law has sanctions: “promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.” This has not changed since the Fall. Everyone is still obligated to obey perfectly and personally. If not they will perish. We cannot fulfill what is required but Christ has taken upon Himself the judgment of sin and His righteousness is accounted to us and thus the legal requirements are met. We must personally obey but that obedience does not earn the promised life. The moral law no longer serves as a covenant of works but as a rule of life for believers.


[1] Emmet Fox, The Ten Commandments: The Master Key to Life (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1953). I found this in a used bookstore and was curious about his explanation.

[2] Fox, The Ten Commandments: The Master Key to Life, 34, 35.

[3] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 300.

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