Larger Catechism, #96

The Larger Catechism

Question 96

96. Q. What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men?

A. The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come,[410] and to drive them to Christ;[411] or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable,[412] and under the curse thereof.[413]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[410] 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine. [411] Galatians 3:24. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. [412] Romans 1:20. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Romans 2:15. Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)



The moral law can expose the sinfulness of believers and unbelievers, the religious as well as the rebellious. Yet, when we approach the moral law superficially, we come away feeling quite righteous; when we see the law in its fuller light, then we feel exposed. For example, a lady believed she lived a very morally upright life since she didn’t murder, steal, commit adultery, etc. She even helped needy people as an attorney (something she did on the side). But struck with sickness, she started to read the Bible over and over again and confessed: “[A]lmost my entire life was based on a violation of the first commandment: ‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.” Obviously I was not worshipping statues of Baal and Molech in my living room, but I was idolizing money, power, prestige, my boss, my house, my car. Everything I idolized, God took from me. I was left with complete dependence on Him. And He turned me from a life of focusing on making lots of money as an attorney to saving lives in China.”[1]

Once we limit the first commandment to worshipping statues, then the law’s demand appear to be entirely easy. But how does one come to a deeper understanding of the law? Of course each person must exert some effort to study it and yet, it cannot and will not penetrate our hearts until the Spirit takes His Word and pierces our souls with it.


Unregenerate Men

The moral law can benefit unbelievers (that is, the unregenerate). They have not experienced new birth; they remain lost in their sins and therefore spiritual darkness pervades their hearts and minds — “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18). They remain ignorant of spiritual matters and God’s demands “due to their hardness of heart.” For that reason, God’s revealed moral law must be pressed home to them. This moral law can come to them as an intrusive unwelcomed light into the dark crevices of their hearts.


1. Flee God’s Wrath

The answer focuses first on the need for an awakened conscience: “The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come…” Their pervasive ignorance needs the light of God’s law. They slumber in carnal contentment not understanding the grave danger awaiting them. The law exposes their sins by declaring clearly what God requires of man (see 1Tim. 1:8-11).[2] It pertains to all the offenders. Remember, Paul would not have known about coveting had the law not forbad it.

With the declaration of God’s moral law, the person must also be warned of the coming wrath for their disobedience. Their conscience must come to terms with their disobedience as well as God’s displeasure. Some may feel guilty about their personal failures and yet not fear God’s righteous wrath. A truly awakened conscience sees his offence as being against God.

In 2Chron. 34, we see how something like this works. Though this incident occurred in Israel, we can easily see how it correlates with unbelievers once the Spirit pierces His Word into their hearts. Under Josiah’s rule, they find the Law. After hearing the words of the Law, he tore his clothes and declared, “For great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.” (2Chron. 34:31) God’s Law exposed and awakened their consciences; they feared God’s wrath.

The unbeliever needs God’s spiritual law so he can see his spiritual need.[3] His slumbering conscience needs to be disturbed because he labors under an harmful delusion. However, no mercy can come to him from the law because it can only declare God’s demands.


2. Drive them to Christ

The awakened conscience is “to drive them to Christ.” Vos rightly states, “Because the law itself provides no way of escape from God’s wrath, it serves to drive the sinner to Christ, who is the only way of escape.” They must look elsewhere; they must not look to the law for mercy or for comfort.

Gal. 3:24 says, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” The phrase “until Christ” (εἰς Χριστόν) has a temporal force (as opposed to the NIV rendering, “to lead us to Christ”).[4] The ESV conveys the point nicely. Unfortunately, we can see the point of the catechism better in the older translations.

The verse teaches that the law served a specific purpose in God’s redemptive history. The point can be seen in the following commentator’s explanation.

Paul is saying that the law both kept (or guarded) and disciplined the people of God until Christ, demonstrating both (1) the minority of the one under a pedagogue and (2) the temporary nature of such an arrangement. The law’s pedagogical function was to bring people to understand their sinfulness, their inability to do anything to rectify that condition, and to guide people to Christ, Abraham’s Seed and the personal fulfillment of God’s promise.[5]

James Boice followed a similar interpretation.[6] The theological point of the catechism may not seem apparent from the newer translation. However, as the law served in redemptive history to give way to Christ (“until Christ came”) by showing Israel’s sinfulness and inability, so the law serves the same purpose for all unbelievers. God’s moral law does not cease to expose one’s sins just because it played a redemptive historical purpose. It is still His Law and our sins continue to remain as sins against His law. Our introductory example serves to perfectly illustrate this point (see above). The law exposes and drives us to Christ. Yet, the Law itself does not per se drive us to Christ; without the Spirit, the Law only condemns and kills. The Spirit gives life and once He uses His sword (which is His Word), He can pierce into our dark souls to expose us of our sins through His Law.


3. Leave them Inexcusable

The catechism further adds that the moral law continues to be useful even if unbelievers refuse to listen to the law. It says, “upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable.” In Rom. 1:20 we learn that man will not be excused for his ignorance because God has made Himself known to him. His conscience (Rom. 2:15) always rings to remind him of what God demands.

In the event they heard God’s law and they continue on in their life of sin, then they will be without any excuse. Rather than heeding the warnings and threats, they have deliberately refused to hear its demand. On judgment day, they cannot plead ignorance, etc.

Is it not strange that many in the public square denounce Christians because of their moral teaching? The secularists reject what God’s law demands and proclaim their distaste and unbelief of it. They profess their unbelief and yet vigorously stifle any dissent. Rather than disagreeing with believers, they seek to silence what we believe. Why? They act this way because the biblical worldview is true. They are still created in the image of God and cannot escape God’s moral claim upon them. They exist in God’s world and cannot escape how He created them.


4. Under the Curse

As unbelievers reject God’s moral law, they remain under God’s curse for breaking His law (“and under the curse thereof”). Paul says in Gal. 3:10, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”” The Jews remained under the curse as long as they relied on God’s law. Because they broke it, they remained under its curse.

Any supposed improvement in our moral behavior cannot and does not undo all the previous infractions. A young man who murdered someone when he was 20 years old does not blot out that offense simply because he has been magnanimous and sacrificial to everyone else for the rest of his life. The curse of that one infraction remains with him until he dies — unless he finds forgiveness in Christ. Christ bore that curse for all who look in faith to him. Sinners bear that curse until the curse bearing Redeemer steps into their place. That only happens to those who have placed their face in Christ.

Some may protest by saying that we are not under the Jewish structure. They argue that Gal. 3:10 pertains only to the Jews.[7] But the same principle applies to all of us. Unbelievers have the moral law against which they have sinned (Rom. 2:14). That is Paul’s argument in Rom. 2. Paul argues in Rom. 3 that both Jews and Greeks are under sin (3:9) and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (3:24). Since we are all under sin, we live under the curse of our disobedience. God’s curse against Jewish and Gentile sinners remain irrespective of the redemptive shift.

[1] Marvin Olasky, “Complete Dependence” World (July 12, 2014), 29.

[2] 1Tim. 1: 8-11   “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

[3] This does not mean that the unbeliever does not have any knowledge of God’s moral law. They suppressed it and in their hardness of heart, became culpably ignorant.

[4] See commentaries by Schreiner, Betz, Bruce, and Longenecker. The KJV has, “to bring us unto Christ”; NASB, “to lead us to Christ.”

[5] Robert K. Rapa, “Galatians,” in Romans–Galatians (vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Revised Edition, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 601.

[6] James Montgomery Boice, Galatians (EBC 10; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), n.p.: “‘To Christ’ is not to be taken in a geographic sense as though the pedagogue was conducting the child to a teacher, as some have implied. The reference, as in the preceding verse, is temporal; it means ‘until we come of age at the time of the revelation of our full sonship through Christ’s coming.’” Richard Longenecker argues more persuasively for the temporal force of εἰς Χριστόν. See his commentary in the WBC series.

[7] NT scholars have correctly highlighted the redemptive historical thinking in Paul. The traditional understanding of law, sin and salvation has been challenged. Yet, the redemptive historical structure does not undermine the traditional understanding and formulation. It adds another layer and nuance to our confessional Reformed theology.

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