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Dispensationalism and The Law Before Sinai

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 This article first appeared in the July 1, 1967 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.43, #18) and was written by Rev. Robert C. Harbach.

Dispensationalism and The Law Before Sinai

Just as Dispensationalism teaches that the Church never existed before Pentecost, so it maintains that the law never was given until Sinai. As taught in the foot­note of the Scofield Reference Bible at Exodus 19:3 and Genesis 12:1, the dispensational theory has it that prior to Sinai the people of Jehovah were under free grace, but when the law was proposed for the first time at Sinai, Israel rashly accepted it, and so passed up grace for law.

But what really was the O.T. attitude toward the law, and how does that attitude compare to the N.T. one? Take David’s words, “I delight to do Thy will, O my God; yea, Thy law is within my heart (Ps. 40:8).” Much farther went David; “The law of Thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver...O how love I Thy law! it is my meditation all the day... Great peace have they which love Thy law, and nothing shall offend them (Ps. 119:72, 97, 165).” That is the O.T. attitude to the law. What is the N.T. view of it? one of opposition? Let the N.T. David, Paul, answer: “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just and good...The law is spiritual...I delight in the law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:12, 14, 22).”

Dispensationalism has a wrong view of the law be­cause it holds four basic errors in regard to it. First, it teaches that the law was never given until revealed at Sinai. Second, the law was given exclusively to the earthly nation of Israel. Third, believers are dead to the law in every sense and not under it in any sense. Giving any place to the law is to lose the liberty where­with Christ hath made us free. Fourth, there is antith­esis of law to grace, so that the two are in opposi­tion to one another. These errors of Dispensationalism are widely held as evidences of the soundest biblical doctrine, but actually they cannot possibly stand the test of Scripture.

John Calvin exposed certain of these errors. He said, “Some unskilful men, being unable to discern this distinction (i.e., that the law is condemnatory, but not when Christ is found in it—rch), rashly explode Moses altogether, and discard the two tables of the law; because they consider it improper for Christians to adhere to a doctrine which contains the administra­tion of death. Far from us be this profane opinion; for Moses has abundantly taught us, that the law, which in sinners can only produce death, ought to have a better and more excellent use in the saints. For just before his death he thus addressed the people: ‘Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe, to do all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life (Deut. 32:46f).’ But if no one can deny that the law exhibits a perfect model of righteousness, either we ought to have no rule for an upright and just life, or it is criminal for us to deviate from it. For there are not many rules of life, but one, which is perpetually and immutably the same. Wherefore, when David represents the life of a righteous man as spent in continual meditations on the law (Ps. 1:2), we must not refer it to one period of time only, because it is very suitable for all ages, even to the end of the world (Calvin’s Institutes, Vol. I, 390, Allen Translation, 1936).”

In a thoroughly Scriptural theological symbol we read: “Q. 92. What did God at first reveal unto men as the rule of his obedience? A. The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the estate of innocence, and to all mankind in him, beside a special command, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law. Q. 93. What is the moral law? A. The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding everyone to per­sonal, perfect and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man, promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it. Q. 94. Is there any use of the moral law to man since the fall? A. Although no man since the fall can attain to right­eousness and life by the moral law, yet there is great use thereof, as well common to all men, as peculiar either to the unregenerate, or the regenerate. Q. 95. Of what use is the moral law to all men? A. The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and their duty, binding them to walk accordingly; to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts and lives, to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery, and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the per­fection of his obedience.” (Westminster Larger Cat­echism)

We believe that Adam had the law of God as his model, was himself a model of righteousness (cf. Eccl. 7:29 with Eph. 4:24), and that therefore the law existed before man sinned. This may be deduced from Scripture. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them (Gal. 3:10).” The law mentioned is certainly prior to the curse. That law must have been in effect before man sinned, when he could and did continue, in his state of perfect rectitude, to do all required by it. If in his original righteousness he was not under the law (yet how can one speak of righteousness without a standard of law?), where would be the sense or point in this requirement to continue, or in the threatened penalty, the curse, when man had already violated the law, and so made it impossible to do all the things in the law? Man, then, from the beginning was under the law in his original righteousness, and the curse was denounced against all failure to render perfect obedi­ence.

Another text referring to man in his primitive state we have in Rom. 7:10, where we are told that the law was ordained “unto life.” That is the only period in history when the law was given unto life and man actually lived in the life adapted to the law and accord­ing to the law adapted to his nature. Since the fall of man, and his incurring a sinful nature, the law is “unto death” until he is justified by faith in Christ. In Adam the first, the law was unto life only in the original state of rectitude. Now since the fall, in Adam the first, the law is no longer unto life, but unto death. Only the Last Adam is the life-giving Spirit. If the law was not given to Adam, then his sin immediately upon committing it would have been a dead issue. “For without the law sin is dead (Rom. 7:8).” But sin certainly was not dead in connection with fallen Adam and the history of his children as outlined in the Book of Genesis. They therefore had and knew the law of God. This is implied in the declaration, “Where no law is, there is no transgression (Rom. 5:4).” If those living in the patriarchal period were not under the law, as Dispensationalism contends, then there was no rule of conduct to guide their lives. If there was such a rule, but no law of God as yet, what was that rule? But we read, “Where no law is, there is no transgression.” Then Adam and Eve were both under the law, for both had transgression (Rom. 5:14; I Tim. 2:14).

We are further informed that “sin is not imputed where there is no law (Rom. 5:13).” This, too, is as plain as possible. Still, the eminent N.T. exegete, R.C.H. Lenski, takes the position that from Adam to Moses there was no law, nor anything in the nature of law. It was only with Moses that there was anything that had the quality of law. Prior to his day, history was devoid of law; nothing like law then existed. There simply was no law between Adam and Moses. (Inter­pretation of Romans, Wartburg Press, p. 362ff). As you see, Lenski is very firm and insistent in maintaining this contention, which is very acceptable to Dispen­sationalists. W.R. Newell, who is very dispensational, in his Romans Verse by Verse, holds the same idea. Just the opposite to this thinking is the more preferable view of Robert Haldane in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans. He writes, “Admitting, in the last clause of the verse (Rom. 5:13), that sin could not be imputed without law, he proves that sin was in the world by the undeniable fact that there was death; and if this proves that there was sin, then it inevitably follows that there must have been law!” He goes on, “Many are greatly in error in the interpretation of this expression... It means that sin does not exist where there is no law. The conclusion, therefore, is that as sin is not reckoned where there is no law, and as sin was reckoned, or as it existed, before the law of Moses, therefore there was law before the law of Moses. The passage may thus be paraphrased: ‘For sin existed among men from Adam to Moses, as well as afterwards. Yet there is no sin where there is no law. There were, then, both sin and law before the giving of the law of Moses.’...” Haldane added, “the human race have always been under law, and have universally been transgressors.”

If those of the pre-Mosaic dispensation were not under the law of God, then God could not have imputed sin to Adam and Eve, as He did (Gen. 3:16-20, 21, 24). Nor could He have charged Cain with murder, if there were no law prohibiting murder. Nor could Noah have had any patriarchal authority to curse Canaan, if there were no law requiring honor to parents. Neither could Abimelech have been warned against adultery if there were no command prohibiting it. (Gen. 20:6). In the time of Moses the law read, "And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire (Lev. 21:9).” But back in the time of Judah the same law must have been known, for he blindly suggested its enforcement in a case involving himself (Gen. 38:24). If Noah was a preacher of righteousness (II Pet. 2:5), then he must have been under the law. For righteous­ness is an element of the law. The flood itself was proof positive that God imputed the sins of the ante­diluvians to them, and executed the penalty of the law against them. Nothing is clearer than the fact that Israel, before Sinai was reached, had God’s command­ments and laws. Abraham kept the commandments, statutes and laws of Jehovah (Gen. 26:5). Before Sinai there was “one law” for all men (Ex. 12:49). It was “the Lord’s law (Ex. 13:9),” which included the Sabbatic law before the fourth commandment was given (Ex. 16:4, 28, 29).

Last modified on 13 November 2017
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Harbach, Robert

Rev. Robert C. Harbach (1914-1996) was born in Riverdale, MD on July 27, 1914. He graduated from the Protestant Reformed Seminary in 1955 and was ordained in October of that year.  He served congregations in Lynden, Washington (1955-1963), Kalamazoo, Michigan (1963-1974), and as Home Missionary (1974-1979).  He retired from the active ministry in 1979.  He passed to glory on December 14, 1996.

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