Yesterday via Twitter, we asked our followers to answer the following theological question: “True or False, the role of God’s law is fundamentally the same for Christians and non-Christians.” We got a lot of responses—thank you!—and the results are in: 75% said “True” and 25% said “False.”
Everyone seemed to agree on two basic points: 1) God’s law, epitomized in the Ten Commandments and summarized in the double-command to love God and neighbor, is good. 2) God’s good law should be preached to both non-Christians and Christians. This is an encouraging starting point because, historically speaking, it is those who argue that the law should not be preached to Christians who have worn the label “Antinomians.”
But if there was broad agreement that God’s law should be preached to both Christians and non-Christians, there was disagreement whether the function of the law is the same for the Christian and the non-Christian. So here’s the question: What does the law do and who is it for?
In the history of theology the discussion about the “uses” or “usefulness” of the law typically centers on Galatians 3:19 and 1 Timothy 1:8-9. Paul, in Galatians, asks the basic question: “Why then the law?” His answer is revealing: “It was added because of transgressions.” 1 Timothy says something similar: “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.” So, according to Paul, the law has its place and purpose because of sin and for the sinful.
This, of course, does not mean that the law should not be preached to Christians. That was the mistake of John Agricola and all antinomians. You can only do away with the law if you can fully and finally banish sin and death. The Christian, remember, is simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously right and sinner”), and the ministry of the Word is therefore always the proclamation of God’s two words, law and gospel. But what Galatians 3:19 and 1 Timothy 1:8-9 do suggest is that “the law,” as Oswald Bayer puts it, “should not be preached to Christians insofar as they are justified… it should be preached to them insofar as they are sinners and still belong to the old world” (Living By Faith, 67). The law, as 1 Tim 1:9 says explicitly, is for the “sinner” because the function of the law, as Paul details it in Romans, is to reveal sin (Rom 3:20) and convict and kill the sinner (Rom 3:19; 7.11).
So the same law should be preached to Christians and non-Christians for the same reason: God’s good law accuses sinners, exposing and ultimately putting to death the old creature so that God’s second word, the gospel, can speak into the darkness of death and create new life. Because Christians and non-Christians are both sinful, all people need to hear the law. Because Christians and non-Christians are both sinful, all people need to hear the gospel.