The Moral Law


Our Scripture reading this morning is I John 2:1-6. 


[I. Introduction] The first chapter of John’s letter revealed a divine cycle that the apostle wishes his readers to enter. It is having fellowship with God (which may or may not be an ongoing experience for the believer), walking in the light,  and confessing our sins, not to a priest, but directly to God and, as sometimes necessary, to someone we have sinned against. The divine cycle is:


  • Fellowship with God and its enjoyment
  • Walking in the light
  • Confession of sin
  • Which restores fellowship and continues the good cycle.


In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 2, which we covered last time, we see that one of John’s burdens was that his readers “not sin.”


Sin is a serious matter. In the life of the lost it damns to hell. That’s how serious it is. In the life of the child of God it puts an end to fellowship with our Father. Therefore, John is impressing upon them, and upon us, that we must not sin.


Sin is a defying of God. It is an expression of rebellion against a Good Person. It is a revelation that we love something more than God. It has no place in the life of a follower of the Lord Jesus.


In verse 3 we read:   And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.


Who is the “him” in this verse? It could be either God the Father or the Lord Jesus Christ since both Persons are central in verses 1 and 2. Does how we understand “him” in verse 3 make any difference? None whatsoever! This is because both the Father and the Son are God and John has made clear that one cannot know the Father without knowing the Son (John 14:6 -10; I John 5:11-12)


A case can be made that the “him” in verse 3 is Jesus simply because a pronoun is used in verse 2 to refer to Jesus (“He is the propitiation for our sins…”). Perhaps a better case can be made that the “him” is the Father because this is the same theme that John has begun in chapter 1 – having fellowship with God is the practical result of knowing him. We need not be concerned whether it is the Son or the Father because the test that John gives applies to both. If we truly know the Son, we know the Father. If we truly know the Father, then we know the Son.


We may also ask, “What does John mean by “know” him? John is in the habit of using the word “know” in the sense of “intimate knowledge” or “experiential knowledge” (knowledge from direct experience) as opposed to just doctrinal knowledge (knowing things about someone). 


            just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

(John 10:15 ESV)


When Luke quotes Jesus, he also uses the word in this way.

            All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

(Luke 10:22 ESV)


Hence, when John writes about knowing God, he means intimately knowing him or truly knowing him. Not just knowing who he is in the vernacular sense. Everyone knows who God is, even those in rebellion.


John’s test is of whether we know God is “if we keep his commandments.” Now, what commandments might these be? May I just give a short answer? It would be the commandments that have come from God. That would be both the commandments that we find in the Scriptures that we commonly call the Old Testament, as well as those commandments that Jesus gave in the New Testament.


There is a great deal of confusion on the matter of the commandments, which the Bible simply calls the law. And, this confusion crosses all denominational lines. The Roman Catholics are confused by it.  The evidence of their confusion is how they borrow elements of the ceremonial law in the OT and apply them to the present era of the new covenant. At the same time they think that the law found in the OT Scriptures was imperfect. They directly contradict God who calls the law of the OT “perfect” (Psalm 19:7; James 1:25). Paul calls the OT law “holy, righteous, and good” Romans 7:12).


But, evangelicals are confused by it as well. In some evangelical literature you will read that we are no longer obligated to follow any of the laws found in the OT unless they have been repeated in the NT.


This morning I desire to clear up any confusion and make known, as clearly as I can, the function of God’s law. After all, John is telling us that the test of whether we know God is whether we keep his commandments! Therefore, we have to know what those commandments are!


[II.] The law was never meant to make us acceptable to God but, on the contrary, to show us our sinfulness and bring us to Christ. Evangelist Ray Comfort was interviewing people at random on the streets in Southern California. After asking them if they believed there was a heaven – most did – he asked them if they thought they were going there. Almost all said “yes.” Then he asked them why they thought that. The vast majority answered that they were basically good people and would then give examples of good things that they have done as evidence of that. This is the thinking of the average person. They are under the impression that, if they do good things, if they are moral, if they follow God’s laws, then they will be accepted by God.


The law was never intended to do this and neither can it make a person right before the eyes of God. The problem is not with the law. As the New Testament declares, the law is “holy, righteous and good.” The problem is with us. We are unholy, unrighteous and, contrary to what we think of ourselves, we are bad. We say bad things about people behind their back. That is called gossip. We violate God’s laws on sexual purity, if not outright, in our thoughts and in our hearts. We do not always speak the truth. To put it mildly, we are a mess!


Although some violate God’s laws to a greater extent than others, we all do it because we are corrupt. This is the biblical witness. Therefore, the law can never make us right before God. Paul sums this up in his letter to the Romans:


            For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

(Romans 3:20 ESV)


Rather, the law was meant to bring us to the end of ourselves and to our only hope, Jesus Christ.


Sociology professor Anthony Campolo recalls a deeply moving incident that happened in a Christian junior high camp where he served. One of the campers, a boy with spastic paralysis, was the object of heartless ridicule. When he would ask a question, the boys would deliberately answer in a halting, mimicking way. One night his cabin group chose him to lead the devotions before the entire camp. It was one more effort to have some "fun" at his expense. Unashamedly the spastic boy stood up, and in his strained, slurred manner -- each word coming with enormous effort -- he said simple, "Jesus loves me -- and I love Jesus!" That was all. Conviction fell upon those junior-highers. Many began to cry. Revival gripped the camp. Years afterward, Campolo still meets men in the ministry who came to Christ because of that testimony. 


What brought conviction to those junior high boys was the realization of their sins in the light of the simple and pure response of the handicapped boy. The law of God functions in that way. It is the light above the mirror that is so bright that we see all our imperfections and wrinkles that we did not see when the light was dim.


When we see what we are really like, we flee to our only hope, the Lord Jesus.


The first function of the law, then, is to show us our sinfulness and bring us to Christ.


[III.] Secondly, the law restrains evil in society when it is backed up by sanctions. It is the basis for a just and well ordered society.


Josie and I were pen pals for 4 ½ years before I decided to travel to the Philippines to meet her. In 1994 I flew to Manila and transferred to a flight to the second largest city in the PI, Cebu. On the flight over from the U.S., my seat-mate was a Filipina woman who was from Cebu. When she learned that I would be staying overnight in Cebu in order to catch another flight the next day, she offered to show me around the city. I checked into the hotel and she soon came by with some of her relatives in a car. We started driving around the city and I thought I would die that night because they either have no traffic laws there or they are unenforced. It was complete pandemonium! It is a very large city, so many of the streets are three and four lanes wide, but there are no lanes! Cars were zigzagging back and forth at 40 and 50 miles per hour, nearly crashing into each other, missing each other, which seemed like inches. Many intersections had no stop lights AND no stop signs. Cars, motorcycles, and trucks would barely even slow down and make it through the intersection, through cross-traffic, somehow, miraculously, without crashing.


There was no order. It was traffic evil. When we got to our fist stop, a bowling alley, my heart was pounding and I was glad to get out of the car!


Without law, God’s law, society becomes like those streets in Cebu: moral order collapses. Moral chaos ensues. Society becomes evil because evil is already in men’s hearts and it is restrained by civil government. This is what we see in the West today. God’s law has been rejected and moral chaos is the result.


As Christians, we have a duty to be involved in the election process and, not only vote, but work on behalf of candidates who will support and reinstitute laws that reflect God’s laws.


The second use of the law is so that we may live in peace when evil is restrained.


[III.] Now we come to two uses of the law that attend to John’s test and admonition in our passage. The first of these two, which we may call the third use of God’s law, is to provide a test whether we are what we think ourselves to be.  This is plainly stated in verses 3 and 4:  

            And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4    Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, [1]


There are some people who know they are not Christians. They make no claim to follow him. Then there are some who think they are Christians but are not. Maybe they were raised by a Christian parent and went to church when they were young. Maybe they said some kind of a prayer years ago. Maybe they attend church regularly even now. That is the kind of person John refers to in this passage. Someone who has a semblance of religion. Someone who believes the right things about Jesus. They believe the right things about Jesus, but they don’t believe Jesus. They don’t know Jesus.


Some will say, “I know Jesus,” but they do not really. They know truths about him – that he is the Son of God, that he died for the sins of the world, that he rose from the dead, and such. Because they believe these things they have the impression that they know him.


In verse 4 John says that whoever says they know him but do not keep his commandments is a liar. Usually, when using the word “liar” in English, we mean that a person knows that something is not true and they say that it is anyway. President Clinton said, “I did not have sex with that woman,” referring to Monica Lewinsky. But, he knew that he did. That was a lie. It was also perjury since he was under oath and that resulted in his impeachment. Less commonly, the looser meaning of “one who makes a false statement,” whether they know it to be false or not, is used.


That seems to be the sense here. The person who is saying, “I know him,” thinks that they do.  But they do not. So, they are a liar in the loose sense of the word.


Verse 3 provides the test. If we keep his commandments we can know that we know him. What commandments would those be? In order to answer that question we must see that the Scriptures reveal two kinds of law or two kinds of commandments. There is moral law which reflects the character of God Himself, It lives in perpetuity. There is also ceremonial law which was meant to communicate God’s gracious salvation to his people. The ceremonies pointed forward to Christ, such as animal sacrifices, or taught that God’s people must be holy, that is, different from the nations around them. As such, the ceremonial law was temporary. Whereas, the moral law is eternal.


A brief look at two passages will confirm this distinction.


            And Samuel said,

            “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,

                        as in obeying the voice of the LORD?

            Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,

                        and to listen than the fat of rams.

(1 Samuel 15:22 ESV)


            For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

(1 Corinthians 7:19 ESV)


The commandments that John refers to, the commandments that still must be followed today, are those belonging to the moral law.


[IV.] This brings us to the fourth and last purpose of God’s moral law. It is the guide for our life and the means to our sanctification. The word sanctification means to be set apart in our thought and conduct so that we are more like our Lord. It means to be changed for the better. We need changing, don’t we? I dropped off Genevieve early in the morning at daycare here where Josie was working in the nursery. As soon as I walked in I knew that one of the little ones needed changing. I knew which one it was because I walked right by him in his playpen. I don’t think he knew he needed changing, but we did. That is the way we are. Sometimes we don’t even know we need changing. The law helps us see how stinky we are.


The law does not have the power to sanctify. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But the Holy Spirit uses the law. As we read it and understand it he applies it to our hearts. He creates a love for it and a joyful desire to embrace it.


That is the great difference between those who have been born again and those who have not. Those whose hearts have not been transformed by the Spirit bristle against God’s law.


  • It seems burdensome to them.
  • They dislike it.
  • They don’t want to hear it.
  • They even hate it.


But once God breathes life into us we can say with David,


            Oh how I love your law!

                        It is my meditation all the day.

(Psalm 119:97 ESV)


John continues in verses 5 and 6: 

            but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

(1 John 2:5-6 ESV)


Here we see that keeping his word is the same as keeping his commandments. The Bible is his word and we keep it in the sense of living it out. If we are abiding in Christ then we will live in much the same way that he did.


The power to keep his word is not within us naturally. It must be the Spirit filling and moving within us that brings the desire and the power to live as he lived.


[V. Conclusion and application] We have touched upon a few matters today.


  • Doing good things, having morals, will not make us right in God’s sight. We are too far gone for that to happen. If you have been thinking that, give it up and receive the grace that God offers. Call upon Him in desperation and He will answer!
  • The law has four purposes. There are two that John brings forth in our passage:
  • Whether we keep the commandments is a test whether we truly know God. If we fail the test we can call upon Him and he will deliver us!
  • The law is our guide and leads us in sanctification. We need to be changed.


If you belong to him then commit this day to know his word. We must cooperate with the Spirit and the Spirit uses the law to bring about joyful change in his own.


Do not let a day go by without reading and meditating on his word. Let this day be the day that you make that commitment.



[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Jn 2:3–4). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.