God’s Law: Absolute, Universal, and Eternal

Paragraphs 1 and 2
Chapter XIX
Second London Confession

A Positive Command with Absolute Implications

Paragraph one of chapter XIX of the Second London Confession sets forth the clarity and certainty with which God established the moral order of His creation through the creature made in His image. First, God wrote in Adam’s heart a “law of universal obedience.” This cordially established moral disposition was to be manifested in the obedience to a “particular precept” of abstaining from eating of one tree in the exuberant garden in which the creature was placed. By establishing a standard in terms of a positive ordinance, “He bound him, and all his posterity to personal entire exact and perpetual obedience.” This requirement of perpetual obedience given to Adam was for the entire race of humans at the time, Adam and his wife Eve. Adam’s obedience and Adam’s disobedience would be ours. 

The Law of the Heart

The requirement had clear consequences attached to it: life, eternal life without fear of its being interrupted or broken was consequent upon obedience, “life upon the fulfilling;” death, eternal death under the righteous frown and wrath of the Creator was consequent upon disobedience, “the breach of it.” God “indued him with power and ability to keep it.” Nothing was lacking in the moral faculties by which he could discern the moral character of the command. He had every natural faculty requisite for the actions of a moral creature. Nor was his heart a mere tabula rasa but sensed the goodness of the Creator and the loveliness of obedient fellowship with Him. His heart was good, though mutable, and would give rise to good fruit until corrupted by a single act of disobedience. Andrew Fuller stated the case beautifully in his personal “Confession of Faith.”

I believe, from the same authority [the Bible], that God created man in the image of his own glorious moral character, a proper subject of his moral government, with dispositions exactly suited to the law he was under, and capacity equally to obey it to the utmost, against all temptations to the contrary. I believe if Adam, or any holy being, had had the making of a law for himself, he would have made just such an one as God’s law is; for it would be the greatest of hardships to a holy being not to be allowed to love God with all his heart.

The Righteous Law of Love

Though the particular test was perpetual obedience to a positive ordinance, its root was an eternal standard of righteousness. The Psalmist wrote, “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is truth … The righteousness of your testimonies is everlasting…. Every one of your righteous ordinances is everlasting…. All your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:142, 144, 160, 172). When God made a creature in His own image, He necessarily placed within Him a standard of righteousness. This righteousness was not changeable but was a reflection of God’s own internal character. Since the greatest of all commandments, and a summary of what is called “the first table” is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength,” we know that love for the Creator was the dominant affection of Adam in his unfallen state. 

Since God’s love first of all is directed toward Himself in an eternal return of love between the three persons of the Trinity (John 17:24; 1 John 4:7, 8, 11,) the righteous impulse of Adam’s heart was to love God. The relation between righteousness and love is seen in John’s discussion in 1 John 3, summarized in “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God nor is he who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).The love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit at conversion is the sanctifying principle fundamental both to regeneration and progressive sanctification. This “love of God” means the love that is characteristic of God’s own internal nature has been restored to us and serves as the foundation for all those spiritual connections that produce hope (Romans 5:3–5; cf. 1 John 3:1–4 for love and purity as opposed to lawlessness). 

Thus, if the “law of universal obedience” written in the heart of Adam consisted of love to God, then any positive command given by God would be a delight to Adam, for his demonstration of love to God would be the joyful and punctilious doing of His commands. When Adam was given, therefore, the “particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” he knew only that love meant following the will of his Creator. It is probable that at this stage he did not know the difference between a moral precept and a positive precept, but knew only that the divinely revealed will was in itself good. 

The eating of fruit was not immoral in itself as indicated by the complete freedom given to have “every tree which has fruit-yielding seed” to be food. Genesis 2:9 reads, “Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This language throughout leads one to see that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had all the same traits in its appeal and in its food value, and that nothing intrinsic to eating it would be immoral or destructive. The prohibition, therefore, related solely to the will and wisdom of the Creator and would, due to the positive nature of the command, be a test of Adam’s full commitment—affections, mind, understanding, will—to find his complete joy in unbroken fellowship with his Creator. The issue here was the Lawgiver, not the specific dimension of the rule itself. This draws us to investigate the nature of the temptation from Satan that resulted in disobedience.


Satan’s Subtle Scheme

Satan did not find his avenue to disobedience for Adam and Eve through any perverse affections in the two representatives of humanity, but by means of a deceitful appeal to the affections. The temptation focused on three issues—the character of the Lawgiver, the rationale for the Law, and the particular object of the command. 

The engagement that Eve had with the serpent involved a critical evaluation of the meaning of God’s words in light of her sense of God’s goodness and her desire to complete the journey to be like Him, immutably holy. The path to disobedience in this case was through giving a new understanding to inform her affections. “You shall not surely die” was an appeal to look upon God as merciful, and kind, and so attached to the well-being of His creature that He would not inflict death upon the harmless act of eating fruit, something that they did every day. Second, the reason they would not die is that the fruit would give them a knowledge like God’s knowledge, the very goal they had through this time of probation. What could be more desirable than to be like the transcendently lovely Creator? Third, the fruit itself had all the qualities of goodness invested in it by the Creator/Lawgiver. So the perverse construal, to disobey would really be to obey.

A critical engagement with a superior intellect altered the understanding of Eve, and consequently involved Adam, so that the positive command was seen as merely provisional, not absolute. Paul wrote the Corinthians about false apostles who preached another Jesus, “I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). We have observed, however, that all positive commands arise from the first table of the commandments summarized as “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; cf. Leviticus 19:18). Thus, what Satan made to appear inconsequential to Eve, actually violated the greatest of the commandments in substituting the wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and demonic, for that that is first of all pure, then peaceable (James 3:15, 17).


Righteousness Never Changes

In breaking the positive command, Eve broke the unchangeable, everlasting standard of righteousness. Since Adam viewed her as a “helper suitable for him,” he followed her lead. Though we are not forbidden to eat fruit, we still must love God unreservedly in heart mind, soul, and strength. In emphasizing this, the confession states, “the same law that was first written in the heart of man, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall.” The confession points to Romans 2:14, 15 as making this point: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.”

 In fact, this itself will be a ground of accusation, (or excuse) when God judges the secrets of the heart by the gospel. To judge by the gospel engages the law in its clearest manifestation of unalterable righteousness. The gospel is the work of God that challenges any attempt to relativize the eternal and immutable righteousness set forth in God’s law, whether in the heart, or distinctly revealed on Mount Sinai, and given to the hand of Moses. This is a further application of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 that all human sin and even radical perversity is acted out in defiance of a law obvious to the conscience of all men. They hate it, they seek to deny it, they sear their consciences against it, but still it witnesses against them—“They are without excuse, for although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God; … who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, … and even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, … who knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.” 

This testimony also is behind Paul’s argument in Romans 5 when he notes in a parenthetical way, “For until the law, sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (Romans 5:13, 14). The assumption upon which Paul argues is that, though the Mosaic law had not been written, delineating on stone tablets the specific propositions of the moral law, the original law of the heart against which Adam sinned was still operative, even though it was not present in the form of a positive command as it had been for Adam.


“The Same Law … was Delivered by God upon Mount Sinai”

In order for this law not to be smothered in the corruption of depraved and rebellious consciences, God revealed that eternal standard of righteousness in a series of short and clearly stated propositions. This revelation came to Moses, the leader of a developing nation that was to provide the context from which the Redeemer would come. In order to suit a people for Himself, the original standard of righteousness by which the creature/Creator relation was defined had to be reinstated and its violation had to be satisfied with the threatened death. After the giving of the law, Moses bound the people to its provisions by stating, “This day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Therefore you shall obey the voice of the Lord your God, and observe his commandments and his statutes which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27: 9, 10). 

They were to embody as a nation/society purity in their worship of the Lord and transparent sincerity in their regard for their neighbor and in their sexual purity. That they had been given such a solemn responsibility and so exalted a calling and yet violated this call and the explicit commandments showed that they in particular and humanity as a whole needed redemption from sin. In addition, they needed new hearts in which the law of God was no longer smothered (Ezekiel 36:26, 27; Jeremiah 31:33). With new hearts, repentance and faith arise and the Lord declares “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). David experienced this personally when he requested, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2). This cry arose from an awareness that sin primarily is a violation of the authority and prerogative of God, an assault upon his law and disregard for his holiness (51:3, 4). This cry also arose from a renewed awareness that the heart is te source of violations of God’s law: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (51:10). 

Regeneration, repentance, faith/trust/submission, justification, and sanctification (removal of the corrupting influences that plague our thoughts and actions) all happen in relation to the original law planted in the heart. Righteousness is the key in all of these parts of God’s redemption of sinners. That it might stand as an unalterable, unassailable, clearly enunciated proclamation of the righteousness that governs all of these saving transactions, the law “was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai in Ten Commandments and written in two tables.” Though it was delivered as one of the elements that established the covenant between Israel and God, its relevance was not limited to that specific covenantal relationship. Since Israel was to serve as a vehicle for prophecies, types, instances of judgment, praise and worship in accord with revealed truth, and the human genealogy of the coming Savior, there was a mixture of things that would pass away and things that must necessarily remain. For example, prophetic ceremonies when fulfilled would pass away. Offices which only could find perfection in the Redeemer would pass away when he came. The revelation of righteousness, however, under which he himself died and that constitutes the righteousness he accomplished for our justification, would not, could not pass away, but would be magnified. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary we establish the law” (Romans 3:31).


“Ten Commandments Written in Two Tables”

The two tables reflect “our duty towards God, and … our duty to man.” Our relation to angels, both fallen and elect, is not dealt with in the Ten Commandments, but its implications in that area are spelled out in other places in Scripture (1 Corinthians 10:18–22; Ephesians 6:12–16; Colossians 1:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:3–17; Hebrews 1:5–14; Revelation 19:9, 10; 22:8, 9). Specifically, the commandments revealed at Sinai deal with the creature’s relationship with God in the first table and with our fellow image-bearers in the second table. 

Every Law is Absolute

A violation of any of the commandments means that eternal life is lost (Galatians 3:10–12: James 2:8–13). Already under the sentence of death and corrupted in heart through our connection with Adam, we add transgression upon transgression in aggravation of our condemnation and in elevation of the grace of our justification (Romans 5: 16, 17). James said that partiality breaks the second table entirely for partiality dishonors a co-equal image-bearer. “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” So Paul reasoned from Deuteronomy 27:26 that any violation of the law put the transgressor under the divine curse—“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10).

Absolute distributed According to Degrees

The First Table

Given the absoluteness of righteousness as distributed in all parts of the law, we see also that there is a descending intensity of heinousness in the violation in each table. If the summary of the first table is to love God with all our heart mind soul and strength, then the division into four, perhaps five, specific commands implies partitive elements of obedience beginning with the most fundamental and important and then including applications of that first and fundamental principle. 

In the first commandment, we find God’s proclamation of His uniqueness, His solitary claim to deity, His ontological exclusivity as God. All the so-called gods of the Egyptians He has shown to be shams, imagined imposters, deifications of things that He created. They have no power, no eyes with which to see, no mouths with which the speak, no arms by which their power may be shown, indeed no minds by which to purpose, plan, and execute. The Lord had shown their emptiness in His bringing His people “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The first commandment, therefore, lays the groundwork for all that follows. No supposed deity is to be set alongside or anywhere near Him in their minds or their hearts. He is Jehovah, their God, and other than Him there are no gods. The Lord claimed exclusivity of being and, thus, of loyalty and worship. 

For this reason, the writer of Hebrews states, “For he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). There is no possibility of knowledge of God or of any degree of obedience to any of His commands if we reject the fundamental principle, and ontological truth, that a God who is to be known and worshipped actually does exist. Those who “do not like to retain God in their knowledge” will be given over to debased minds and cannot make any progress toward a reverent and saving knowledge of God until they consent to His existence and the worthiness of knowing Him.

Such an announcement of exclusivity of existence and worthiness involves other elements of fitting worship that must be stated. They are not to worship Him by means of any physical image arising from their imagination and craft. If there are symbols that can be expressive of the nature of pure worship, God Himself will provide them in due time. They, however, are to dismiss any attempt to liken God to any created thing, for their allegiance will quickly turn to superstition and idolatry and God’s holy jealousy will be provoked. True worship does not involve finding a physical object before which to bow, but consists of loving God and obeying His commandments (Exodus 20:4–6). 

The third commandment presents another aspect of true knowledge of God and His unique being and consummate holiness: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Our credibility is not to be secured at the price of God’s name. An empty, flippant invocation of the name of God—as a profane manner of expressing amazement or anger or outrage—or speaking of holy things in a mundane way is forbidden. In our conception of the name of God, the mouth is to be used to sing praises and give benediction for divine revelation and redemption. We avoid using God’s name in a common way but employ it only in ways that indicate gratitude, praise, awe, and dependence. 

The fourth commandment sets apart a day for rest, worship, and for remembering the great power and work of God. It recalls Genesis 2:2, 3 as a time to look back at God’s completion of creation. Everything that exists that is not Him, He made. The day set forth a regular time for worship in recognition of the majesty and excellence of God revealed in creation. Added to this is His gracious intervention on their behalf, rescuing them from bondage. They are to recognize with regularity as a people that all of their joy spiritually and present sustenance physically depends on Him. 

Creatures must have a regular rhythm in which the prescribed manner of approach to God is maintained. As God ceased from His labor, noting that it was very good, so we cease from ours to reflect on the wisdom, power, intelligence, beauty, and transcendent excellence manifest in the order and magnitude of creation. The creature’s mutability and dependence means that he must labor to sustain his life; he has six days to do this. The creature’s mutability and dependence means that he must recognize and worship the one who is immutable and upon whose power and goodness all created life depends. The rhythm of worship and the necessity of recognizing the greatness of God and our dependence on Him will never cease. 

To partition our lives in terms of a regular time of praise to the giver and sustainer of life is a moral duty. The action is built on such an intrinsic worthiness of the object that performing the action engages the most sublime aspects of the creature’s being in a manner fitting both to the object of worship and the worshipper. While such obeisance should permeate our being all day, every day, God set aside a particular time in which we join Him in a deep satisfaction and enjoyment of a completed work of His. 

The day on which this is done would be changed only in light of another work from which God rested. This work must be a purposeful manifestation of even greater power, greater wisdom, greater beauty, greater excellence, and greater purpose. It must result in an expansion of the creature’s knowledge of the fulness of God’s holy character and the nature of our dependence on him. While redemption from Egypt foreshadowed it, redemption through Christ accomplished the reality. The day of resurrection, the day sealing redemption’s certainty, was immediately set aside as the time commemorating the final rest of God and the eventual Sabbath rest for His people (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:19–23; 26–29; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:7; Hebrews 4:1–11; 8:6; 9:15; Revelation 1:10).

The Second Table

The fifth commandment appears to be a transition from the absolute authority of God and the ultimate allegiance of all to Him into our relationship with our fellow humans. We all initially come into this world through parents, our learning of right and wrong and ideas of respect for authority come initially from them. We find our first point of relation to God through them as well as our first contact with “neighbors.” It is important, therefore, both for love of God and love of neighbor that we honor our “father and mother.” So important was this dually applied commandment that the longevity of the people in the land was promised if obeyed.

The sixth commandment parallels the first. While the first establishes the absoluteness of God in respect to existence and, therefore, the sole object of worship, the sixth establishes the absolute value of our fellow man as a creature whose life is not at our disposal. The greatest of sins against God is to doubt His existence or His uniqueness; the greatest violation of our neighbor’s existence is the taking of his life due to schemes of our own (Romans 13:8–10). When Noah, his family, and the animals emerged from the ark, God gave Noah the proposition, “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” He also gave a strict prohibition of taking the life of another human except as a punishment for murder. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God he made Man.” Instead of taking life, human life was to be replenished on the earth: “Be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:3–7). In love to neighbor, the preservation of the image bearer in recognition of the necessity and dignity of his existence holds the place of priority.

The commandments following enumerate descending ways in which we nip away at his life in a sinful violation of his integrity. Next to the sin of taking our neighbor’s life is the taking of his or her spouse. The first human relationship was between husband and wife (Genesis 2:24) so related that they become one flesh. Adultery is second only to murder as a sin against neighbor. Though their life is preserved, the union of two lives in holy matrimony has been violated. This is the reason that Paul gives such intense attention to violations of sexual purity and the designed place of sexuality in human relations (Romans 1:24–29; 13:13, 14; 1 Corinthians 5:1, 9–11; 6:13–20; 7:3–9; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3–7; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4: 3–8; Hebrews 13:4).

Stealing his possessions also is a way of pecking away at his life. To rob persons of that which represents the investment of their time in the provision for their earthly needs and pleasures gouges out a part of their life and transfers it to oneself. 

To give a false testimony about one’s neighbor and hurt his reputation is an assault on his life, robbing him of time invested in achieving the judgment from others of trustworthy character. This can be regained through demonstration of the falsity of charges, but a life taken cannot be restored. 

Foundational of all violations against our neighbor’s life, his wife, his possessions, and his character is a jealous, envious, possessive, and resentful spirit. These attitudes are also sinful even if never put into actual practice. This final commandment, “You shall not covet,” was the one that killed the self-righteousness of Saul of Tarsus (Romans 7:7–12). In addition, one could make a case that the entire Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 is an extended exposition of the pervasive relevance of the tenth commandment, and how it extends its implication throughout the entire decalogue.

Holiness in heart when expressed as a true response to the law of God reveals a life of rich worship, deeply embraced righteousness, and sacrificial self-giving. To honor the law with sincerity and truth, is to embrace the gospel of Christ who is made unto us wisdom from God—righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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