God’s eternal Moral Law represents His personal holiness and is the standard for all righteousness. It is written on the consciences of all men, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and further summarized in the two greatest commandments to love God and love neighbor. But sinful man rejects God’s Law because he rejects God Himself. And, sadly, in recent church history, many Christians have misunderstood the Law and have rejected it, as well.
Therefore, Matthias Loy’s hymn, The Law of God is Good and Wise (1863), is a great reminder and help to us today to rightly understand, respect, cherish, and use the Law of God. This hymn is a great help to the pilgrim in his march toward the Celestial City because it clearly walks through the glory of the Law, the three practical uses of the Law, and our refuge from the curse of the Law.
The Law of God is good and wise
And sets His will before our eyes,
Shows us the way of righteousness,
And dooms to death when we transgress.
The first stanza teaches that the Law reveals the glory of God. That is, it reveals to us God’s character and righteousness. The Law of God is good and wise because God Himself is good and wise. It shows us what pleases God and what behavior He desires from man.
But as the last line of the stanza hints to us, the glory (literally, “weight”) of the Law is that is reveals the glory (“weight”) of God. The Law “dooms to death” because, as God’s standard, it demands the moral perfection of God “who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). If the Law of God did not do this, it would reveal that God is a mere trifle to be crossed without consequence.
Its light of holiness imparts
The knowledge of our sinful hearts
That we may see our lost estate
and seek deliv’rance ere too late.
Because the Law of God reveals the utter moral perfection of God, it shows us our utter moral poverty before Him. This is the first practical use of the law—which the second stanza introduces. The law of God acts as a mirror to show us our own sinfulness. Paul says that when the Law came it revealed his sin. And then his sin “killed” him:
“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (Romans 7:7-9).
But once sin, revealed by the Law, killed Paul, it drove Him to “seek deliv’rance ere too late.” Romans 7:24-25: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The Law imparts the knowledge of our sinful hearts and that is a weary burden we cannot bear, but Jesus Christ says “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
To those who help in Christ have found
And would in works of love abound
It shows what deeds are His delight
And should be done as good and right.
When outside of faith in Christ, we can do nothing but sin (Romans 14:23). But in Christ, we are made into new creatures and our works can please God. So, the natural question arises: “What works are pleasing to God?” Because God’s Law is a reflection of God’s holy character, it teaches us what things are pleasing to Him. This is the second practical use of the Law (though classically it has been referred to as the third use)—covered in the third verse. The Law is a map to lead us in righteousness. This is not a map to justification, but a map for sanctification.
This use of the Law is only useful to those who help in Christ have found, i.e. those who are regenerated unto new life. This use of the Law can be extremely damaging if misunderstood or neglected. When the Law is misunderstood to save us or gain favor with God when we obey, there can be no pious assurance of salvation or joy in Christ. But when the Law is misunderstood to be of no use today, there can only be confusion and vile practices (James 3:16).
Where legalism makes one sad and weary, antinomianism makes one confused and weary.
When men the offered help disdain
And wilfully in sin remain,
Its terror in their ear resounds
And keeps their wickedness in bounds.
The fourth stanza refers to Law’s effect even on those who disdain the Law and willfully remain in their sin. Though the Law cannot be followed rightly outside of Christ, it does perform a beneficial job. The Law restrains the unregenerate from evil. This is a third practical use of the Law (classically, the second use). The Law acts as a muzzle; it restrains evil in society.
It carries out this work in two ways. First, the Law is written on men’s consciences (Romans 2:12-16). This is why our society generally dislikes murder, rape, and theft. Secondly, when rulers are righteous ministers of God (Romans 13:4), they will make godly laws that curb evil in society.
The law is good; but since the fall
Its holiness condemns us all;
It dooms us for our sin to die
and has no pow’r to justify.
To Jesus we for refuge flee,
who from the curse has set us free,
and humbly worship at his throne,
saved by His grace through faith alone.
The last two stanzas can be taken together because they contrast the condemning nature of the Law and the redeeming nature of the Gospel.
The Law’s power is in its ability to declare our works either good or bad. In our sinfulness, its holiness condemns us all and it dooms us for our sin to die. The Law cannot and will not declare us righteous because it must do so on the basis of our works. The reason the Law has no pow’r to justify is because we cannot fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law, nor can we satisfy the just penalty of our breaking the Law.
The power of Christ is in his ability to declare sinners forgiven. We must for refuge flee to Jesus Christ who from the curse has set us free. The Law’s curse dooms us for our sin to die but in Jesus Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Jesus Christ can declare us righteous despite all of our vileness because he does so not on the basis of our works. He declares us righteous on the basis of His perfect life, His gruesome death, and His glorious resurrection on our behalf. For if we flee to Jesus by faith alone, Jesus’ death satisfies the wrathful penalty of our breaking the Law and God credits our sin to Christ’s account; and Jesus’ life fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law on our behalf and God credits Christ’s righteousness to our account. And it is all by grace alone.
It is to this Christ who men must come to have all their sins forgiven and the curse of the Law lifted off their souls. We are saved by His grace through faith alone. Our law keeping will in no way be satisfactory to God outside of Jesus Christ. But in Christ, God counts us as righteous as His Son. Praise Christ!
“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.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:10-14).