“ Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.’” —Malachi 3:16–17 ESV
There is a world of difference between an unregenerate man hoping to merit salvation by fulfilling the demands of God’s Moral Law and a regenerate man desiring to please his heavenly Father by obeying God’s Moral Law. The difference is not in the substance of The Law but in how God uses his law to relate to the two men by covenant. To the first man, God relates as a holy and righteous judge, who, true to his holy essence, is infinitely offended with sin and must condemn it in his creature. To the second man, God relates as the man appears in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who perfectly fulfilled God’s Moral Law. To the second man, God is a loving Father who is fully reconciled because of the perfect obedience and righteousness of Jesus, his Mediator.
The natural man is under God’s Moral Law as a Covenant of Works. This Covenant was given to Adam before The Fall but enjoins all his natural descendants. Under this contract, God says, “Do this, and you will live” (Lev 18:5; Eze 20:11; Mat 19:17; Rom 10: 5; Gal 3:12). The natural man has no mediator to arbitrate his crimes before God. He must stand on his own righteousness. But a spiritual man, being regenerated, is under God’s Moral Law in Christ as a way of life, under a Covenant of Grace. Under this new and everlasting contract, sinners who were once dead in trespasses and sins are regarded by God as resurrected in newness of life and standing in the righteousness of Christ. God says to them, “Live! Now walk this way!” Paul neatly confesses this truth in these words: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom 8:1).
Luther expresses the different uses of God’s Moral Law in this manner: Before faith in Christ, God uses His Law as a stick to beat sinners to come to Christ. After faith in Christ, God gives His Law to his sons as a walking stick in their pilgrimage to heaven.
The condemning power of the Moral Law is effectual only in the unregenerate man under God’s Covenant of Works. Reminiscent of Paul’s writing concerning the law of the husband in Romans 7:1–2, John Colquhoun writes the following:
The law in its federal form condemns every sinner under it to death in all its dreadful extent. Spiritual, temporal, and eternal death is the awful penalty of the law in that form. “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But as the law is divested of its promise of life to believers that it cannot justify them for their obedience, so it is denuded of its threatening of death to them, and it cannot condemn them for their disobedience. In consequence of communion with Christ in his righteousness, by which the law’s demands of infinite satisfaction for sin is completely answered, they are dead to it as a covenant of works, and it is dead to them. It has no more power to frown upon them or condemn them than a dead husband has to frown upon his deceased spouse.
God’s Moral Law was first given to us in our nature at the creation of the first man, Adam. It is a perfect law, so it need never change (God being well pleased with his law-abiding creature, man). But the first man freely disobeyed God’s commandment and died. The regenerate man is resurrected in Christ and renewed in righteousness by the Spirit of God. He is renewed after his death in Adam, and so has that same Moral Law once again written not in a dead, stony heart but in a new heart of flesh. This heart is free to respond to God. The Moral Law’s perfection is a strong argument for its continued usefulness to the Christian (Psa 19: 7). Although all of the Ten Commandments are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, no single commandment can be repealed without breaking the Law as a whole (Jam 2:10). The very hope of righteousness as promised to Israel in the New Covenant (c.f., Jer 31:31-34; 1 Cor 11:25) is sufficient grounds against repealing any of the Law’s commandments, as some modern theologies propose should be done.
John Calvin, who, with Luther, understood the terrors of conscience resulting from the requirement of complete and perfect obedience to God’s Moral Law, wrote the following commentary on Malachi 3:17:
God in his mercy would approve of the obedience of the godly, though in itself unworthy to come to his presence. How necessary this indulgence is to us, they who are really and truly acquainted with the fear of God, fully know… Hence their only refuge is what the Prophet here teaches us, that God spares them.
William Perkins, the father of English Puritanism, notes that our heavenly Father looks more to the heart, that is, to the intention and endeavor of the believer’s will, than to his actual performance in any act of righteousness:
If men endeavor to please God in all things, God will not judge their doings by the rigor of his law, but will accept their little and weak endeavor to do that which they can do by His grace, as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law. But here remember, I put this caveat, that this endeavor must be in and by the whole man: the very mind, conscience, will, and affections doing that which they can in their kinds. And thus, this endeavor, which is a fruit of the Spirit, shall be distinguished from civil righteousness, which may be in heathen men. The truth of this conclusion appears by that which the prophet Malachi says, that God will spare them who fear Him, as a father spares His child. He accepts the thing done as well done, if the child shows his good will to please his Father and to do what he can.
Anyone who posts a crayon drawing from his two-year-old to the kitchen refrigerator knows the interest and pride a parent has in accepting his child’s scratchings as art. This is precisely our heavenly Father’s sentiment in Malachi 3:17.
A couple of thoughts can be gleaned from the above truths:
First, since God is so gracious to accept us despite our many shortcomings, we believers should never consider him to be a hard taskmaster, as if he required (as under a covenant of works) perfection in our every thought, word, and deed. Our confession states that “true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned.” Those who believe in the Lord Jesus have passed from death to life and will never be condemned. We are now free to serve in liberty as the sons of God. No wonder Jesus invites us to follow him and to take his yoke; under God’s Covenant of Grace, his yoke truly is easy.
Second, if God is so very gracious to accept our service to him despite our many faults, we who know God’s mercy should likewise extend mercy to others who fail to live up to our convictions and standards. We, above all men, should be most tender and quick to forgive those who sin against us. In doing so, we really and genuinely please our heavenly Father and proclaim the glories of the Covenant of Grace in Jesus Christ, our Savior, and Lord.
Finally, any confusing or conflating of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace is sure to occult the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this case, the church will either become Pharisaical in its legalism, or so burdened with guilt as to lose all assurance, joy, and strength in serving the Lord. If you are not sure of their differences, a good summary of the covenants is available in our Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 7, “Of God’s Covenant With Man”.
Pastor Lou Veiga