Amid the flurry of posts about justification, sanctification, and antinomianism, attention to the Shorter Catechism has been missing. When you look there, you receive a very different impression of the law and good works than the obedience boys, Mark Jones and Rick Phillips, give.
At the birds-eye-view level, the Catechism teaches twice that God requires something from us. The first comes with the introduction to the Decalogue:
Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.
For neo-nomians or the antinomianphobes, this looks encouraging. (It also seems to make the theonomists and neo-Calvinists’ hearts swell since it would seem to encourage efforts to implement God’s revealed will in all walks of every square inch.) See, God requires obedience from us and teaching the import of law and good works is only going along with what God requires.
But then comes the kicker. After discussing the requirements and prohibitions of each and every commandment — this is the catechetical speed bump that poses a barrier to covenant children ever learning the sacraments — the catechism soberly reminds where these requirements end: the wrath and curse of God.
Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word and deed.
Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?
A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.
This depressing experience with the law is why some of us lean on the grace side of things. Sure, the law is good and important and it reveals God’s holiness and our own standard for holiness. But any attempt to keep it post-fall will result in God’s wrath and curse (which is also kind of a downer for thinking about implementing God’s revealed will in politics, the cinema, or plumbing).
But then the catechism goes on to talk about the remedy to our misery:
Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.
I have always found it remarkable that these Puritans did not include the law or good works in this answer. This doesn’t mean that they did not affirm the third use of the law. Nor does this answer say that “faith and repentance are necessary for salvation” (even though that’s basically what Paul told a certain jailer). But for the basic problem of sin and its consequences, the remedy for the human predicament (we are talking salvation, here) is faith, repentance, and attending the means of grace. In other words, to escape God’s wrath and curse, our obedience — in terms of obeying the law — is not going to count for
much anything. Instead, what we need to do is trust in Christ, grieve over and turn from our sins, and continue to sit under the Christian ministry to have our faith strengthened and to prevent self-righteousness.