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I expect most of us have experienced it: we’re driving down a road above the posted speed limit, and suddenly we notice a police car up ahead on the side of the road. We immediately slow down to the speed limit, only to discover as we pass the police car that it is empty. The mere presence of the law embodied in that unoccupied police car restrained our lawlessness—at least for a moment.
In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers identified three “uses” of the law of God: the civil use (a leash that restrains our corruption), the pedagogical use (a mirror that reveals our sinfulness and points us to Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners), and the normative use (a straightedge that guides us in how to please God). The church sometimes thinks of the restraining function of the law as limited to the unregenerate, who need the threat of punishment or the fear of shame to hinder them from being as evil as they might be if left to their own fallen hearts. Yet it is vital to recognize that God’s law also inhibits indwelling sin in those who have been born again, and that this function of the law is one of the ways God enables His people to be the city on a hill He has saved us to be.
Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6 speaks directly to this oft-neglected purpose of God’s commandments for the believer in Jesus. After acknowledging that genuine Christians are “not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned,” the confession asserts that the normative and pedagogical uses of the law are continually operative in the life of the saint. The Westminster divines then affirm that the law also serves as a dam to prevent a flood of ungodliness from bursting forth from the Christian: “It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions.” How does the law of God bridle the believer?
First, the law directly forbids sin. Before conversion, we did not care that the law of God prohibited sin. Now that we are indwelt by God’s Spirit, the mere fact that our heavenly Father tells us not to do something barricades us from lawlessness, for we do not want to displease Him. It affects us deeply that disobedience is transgression of our Father’s will (James 2:11), and with the psalmist we long to obey God’s law, which holds us back from wickedness: “I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word” (Ps. 119:101).
Second, the threatenings of the law remind us what our sins deserve, though they are covered by the blood and righteousness of Jesus. Realizing afresh the punishment due to us, but received by Jesus in our place, moves us to shun sin, as we see in the prayer of Ezra: “After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved . . . shall we break your commandments again . . . ?” (Ezra 9:13–14). Similarly, though we are not condemned for our sins, we are still disciplined by our heavenly Father—and the threat of consequences from His fatherly hand is a strong deterrent to unrighteousness (Ps. 89:30–33; 1 Cor. 11:32; Heb. 12:5–11).
Finally, in the words of the Westminster Confession, the promises of the law “show us God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings we may expect upon the performance thereof; although not due to them by the law, as a covenant of works” (19.6). The Holy Spirit uses the great rewards promised to those who walk in the commandments of God to encourage us toward holiness (Pss. 19:11; 34:12–16; Eph. 6:2; 1 Peter 3:8–12). Paul makes this motivation explicit in 2 Corinthians 7:1: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
Because saving faith responds to God’s Word by “yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come” (WCF 14.2), the law of God effectually restrains the Christian’s remaining corruption. Or to use Calvin’s language, the law is “like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still” (Institutes, 2.7.12). To be sure, the law’s restraining effect is not the only or even the most important force in the life of the believer—the constraining love of Christ is the sweetest motivation of all (2 Cor. 5:14). Like a halter, however, God’s law does truly keep us away from evil paths and in the paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.
The law also restrains us for the sake of the world. How so? First, as the law restrains our ungodliness, we are made saltier salt and brighter light (Matt. 5:13–14). Our presence among the lost thus often powerfully restrains their depravity. Second, the recognition that our sin needs to be and is being restrained by the law is a humbling reality. This humility changes the way we relate to the lost. Rather than approaching them with the spirit of the Pharisee, we engage with the heart of the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Knowing that it is only by the grace of God (even through His law) that our sin has been subdued, our witness is gentle and gracious.
The next time you see that empty police car, remember the restraining power of the law of God in your life, and shine forth the lowly grace of Christ Jesus to all you meet.