corner graphic

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Moral Law

Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

may be contemplated under three aspects: first, as a branch of the Decalogue, for this, (See LAW OF MOSES); secondly, in a practical point of view, (See ETHICS); and, thirdly, in a metaphysical light, as a department of theology or theosophy, which is the only relation under which we here propose to treat it. Under the head MORAL SENSE, we suggest that a law emanating from a beneficent Creator for the government of responsible intelligences can be essentially no other than a transcript of his own benignant nature, hence the deep philosophy as well as cogent value of the Gospel axiom that love is the one essential requirement of the law (Matthew 22:36-40 : Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 4:21); and this applies no less to angelic than to human creatures, and extends through time and through eternity. It is proper to consider more distinctly these questions of the origin, universality, permanence, and sanction of the divine law.

1. Its Source. Some philosophers have been in the habit of representing either expressly or by implication the basis of morality as independent of, if not prior to and externally stringent upon the divine Being himself. They have used such expressions as "the eternal principles of right," "God was absolutely bound to do so and so," "he could not have done otherwise," etc.; and although these phrases are usually accompanied with some caveat of reverence or disclaimer of limiting the Almighty's perfection, they yet savor of fatalism, or at least of dualism, and do not attribute the moral system of the universe to its precise cause. That origin is no other than God himself, simply and purely. To his sovereign will everything that exists owes its being, with all the qualities that relate to it; and this grand postulate includes the Deity himself, with all the laws that he has promulged and now administers.

He is self-existent, the "I am," the "one that is, and was, and is to be;" and he is what he is and as he is merely because he pleases it himself. In the same absolutely autocratic yet unconstrained manner he has produced the substance, mechanism, organic forces, and mutual relations which we call laws of the material and spiritual creation; and they are all, therefore, intrinsically copies of his own nature. This view differs essentially from pantheism, which confounds the universe with God himself; and at the same time from atheism, which dissevers it from his being or control. That this is the true doctrine of Scripture may be easily and abundantly proved (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 45:6; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16-17, etc.). Both sides of this universal proposition the self-constitution of the Infinite, and the externality of the finite are necessarily and impenetrably mysteries to our mind; yet we can sufficiently comprehend them by a comparison with our own microsmic nature in which our wills are self-conditioned, and our bodies are extrinsic to our spirit to enable us to receive them as intelligible truth. There is, therefore, no essential difference between the "moral laws" of God and the so-called laws of nature: they are both neither more nor less than his own will as expressed in the material and spiritual departments of his dominion. Human nature, in so far as it is a just reflection of this will, is a correct transcript of these laws; and is generally recognised as such, wherever not perverted by the effects of free agency. This latter is but an extension of the externality of creation, adding merely and a very important increment it is the godlike productive power, to be exercised within a certain range ever subordinate to the divine agency. It is thus that God retains full jurisdiction, without incurring the responsibility of human conduct. The divine law, of course, continues its claims over the accountable creature, whether he acknowledge or submit to them or not; for it would be the height of absurdity to make his puny rebellion or insolent disregard operate their abrogation. The penalty may be suspended at the divine pleasure, but it is sure in the end to overtake every transgressor with a complete vindication.

2. Its Extent. This likewise is self-evident. As the "natural" laws of God are coextensive with the universe, so his "moral" laws are obligatory upon all his moral creatures, i.e., those endowed with a capacity for understanding the relations of right and wrong. Hence the enactments of the Decalogue have been essentially accepted in all ages and countries as the foundation of the civil code, and religious usages have generally conformed to the prescriptions of the first table (those relating to God and his worship, the family, etc.), not excepting even the seeming conventionality of a stated day of rest. But the two fundamental principles underlying these Mosaic statutes, so admirably summed up in the New Testament as fealty to God and equity to man, have never failed to be admitted. theoretically at least, as the only secure basis of social organization. How it is with other worlds, if such exist, we are not called upon to speculate; but this fact of the universality of the divine law on the globe is so emphatically attested by all history and legislation that we need dwell no further upon it.

3. Its Duration. It follows from the above views of the cause and character of moral law that it must forever remain essentially the same, and of permanent obligation on all its legitimate subjects throughout their being. It is a peculiar trait of the divine creations that while their form changes to suit the varied circumstances of diversified beauty and harmonious co-operation, their substance ever remains, imperishable except by the fiat which first called it into existence. Annihilation is not God's method; he never absolutely extinguishes any light of his own kindling. Man's works, as they are not real creations, pass away into a nonentity that leaves only their memory; but God builds for eternity. Especially is this true of the divine administration: amid all the variety of his different and successive dispensations the same fundamental principles, as we have seen, prevail; and even in the future world the obligations of supreme allegiance to God and mutual regard for each other will beatify the inhabitants of bliss by their spontaneous and full discharge, or torment the denizens of hell by their relentless and irksome grasp. The joy of conscious rectitude is the greatest bliss of which a rational soul is capable, and the remorse for an irremediable violation of clearly known duty we may well imagine to be the most poignant ingredient in the cup of endless damnation.

4. This brings us, lastly, to the penalty of moral law. Statutes without awards attached to their observance or neglect are valueless and ineffectual. The rewards and punishments of moral law are, as its nature implies, and as we have already seen, chiefly and properly of a moral character. Yet we see no impropriety in the current belief sanctioned by the figurative language of Scripture that the immunities and penalties experienced in the other world are likewise at least after the resurrection state (which by its renewed bodily organism furnishes at once the means and the pledge of corporeal enjoyments and sufferings) of a physical nature, suited to the new conditions of being then entered upon. Precisely what will be the form of either kind of award, beyond the presumed and indeed promised emotions from the genial or uncomfortable society and surroundings, we can only conjecture; but this much we may safely argue from the well-known consequences of obedience or transgression in this life, that they will be of the highest pungency of which the human spirit is susceptible; and we may infer from God's justice and impartiality-no less than from the express statements of the Bible (Proverbs 16:5; Ecclesiastes 12:14; John 5:29; Romans 2:6; Galatians 6:7) that they will be exactly meted out in accordance with the real merits or demerits of each individual. In this life we know that this retribution or compensation does not in all cases precisely occur virtue often lies oppressed, and vice stalks about triumphant; hence the greater presumption that in the coming world all this will be balanced (Luke 16:25), and a necessity indeed arises for such a state in order to the proper adjudication (Psalms 73). There remain under this head three points of much importance to be briefly discussed.

(1.) Each class of laws is in the main administered separately yet co- ordinately with the rest. Thus a violation of or a compliance with any physical law is invariably followed by its corresponding penalty or disadvantage, and this without regard to the religious character of the subject himself (Matthew 5:45); on the other hand, moral delinquency or exemplariness will ensure its appropriate need or degradation, whatever be the care or negligence of the actor in temporal concerns. A good child is as likely to be burned if it thrust its finger into the flame as a bad one, and a pious traveller is as liable as a wicked one to lose his life by venturing on board an insecure train or vessel. Yet the practice of virtue tends to habits of thrift, economy, and prudence, thus naturally promoting earthly welfare (1 Timothy 4:8), and a special divine blessing may also be expected upon the good man's affairs (Psalms 37:25). On the other hand, since great prosperity is inimical to piety, the Lord often afflicts his children with temporal reverses for their spiritual benefit (John 16:33). It thus appears that while physical laws regularly have their own course, and the physical effects duly follow, yet Providence specially watches over those who commit their ways to the divine keeping, and they are accordingly saved from many of the consequences which their own inadvertence might bring upon them. This, however, is not effected by miracle (except in a few anomalous cases), nor by extraordinary interference with the usual operation of law, but by those secret and delicate connections which pervade the whole economy of nature, and perhaps by an unseen touch of the divine hand directly upon the inscrutable springs of human intercourse. Indeed, as it is the same Being who administers both series of laws, we might reasonably expect that he would make them cooperate in harmony for the higher i.e., moral ends (Romans 8:28). (See PROVIDENCE).

(2.) The effects of transgression are not always confined to the individual offender. This is evidently true of the violation of physical laws, for the children, friends, and neighbors of the person erring are frequently involved in calamity consequent upon his blunders. How often does a mistake or a careless act spread conflagration, disaster, and even death, in a community. The same takes place to a certain extent with regard to the temporal results from a violation of moral laws, as in cases of inherited disease, murder, and crimes generally, in which the family or victims innocently suffer. Nor is this all: a continued course of immorality is sometimes propagated through successive generations, mostly, no doubt, by the force of vicious example and defective or erroneous training, but partly also perhaps by a certain congenital taint or bias to the same vices. With regard to social sins, these forms of retribution are especially illustrated for national wrongs and crimes are as certain to be visited by the appropriate penalty as personal ones. But the punishment that falls upon the nation is of course shared by its individual members in common, some of whom, however, and frequently those most guilty, escape in whole or in part by reason of their exalted position and peculiar advantages (2 Samuel 24:17), while in other instances the blow falls most heavily upon eminent individuals as representative characters (2 Samuel 21:1-9). Nor does the retribution always come upon the same generation or the same portion of the community that has sinned (Matthew 23:35). These are but specimens of that inequality in the penalty of wrong-doing that prevails in the present life (Jeremiah 31:29); but they do not extend to the other world. There the account will be strictly personal, and the settlement rigidly just. As we have already indicated, it is this final award that vindicates the sentence of the supreme Judge. The vicarious sufferings of the Redeemer as a ransom from this ultimate adjudication have been considered under the article MEDIATION (See MEDIATION) .

(3.) We thus finally reach the question of the alleged disproportion between human guilt and endless punishment. We do not seek, with many, to justify the everlasting doom of the wicked by magnifying their crime as having been committed against infinite authority, majesty, and forbearance, however much we may conceive these features as aggravating its enormity. We base our theodicy upon simpler and more palpable ground, namely, the continued and hopelessly incorrigible sinfulness of the condemned themselves. We may presume that none are cut off from probation till they have evinced a desperate moral condition (Luke 13:8); but whether this be so or not, it follows inevitably from the above line of reasoning, and from the character of the depraved heart bereft of the probationary aids to reform, that the impenitence, unbelief, and rebellion for which the sentence is at first pronounced will but harden and intensify as the ages of eternity advance. Unless the fable of purgatory be true and its absurdity is not less than its mendacity there can be no improvement in the fate of the finally lost, because there can be no amendment in their moral character. Their destiny is eternally fixed, not so much by the arbitrary decree of omnipotent vengeance as by their own determined resistance of sovereign law. Perdition is but another name for self-destruction (ἀπόλλυμαι , in the middle voice). See Pye-Smith, First Lines of Christian Theology, page 177 sq.; Miller, Christian Doctrine of Sin; Howarth, Abiding Obligation of the Moral Law; Watts, Uses of the Moral Law; Cobbin, View of Moral Law; Cudworth, Eternal and Immutable Morality; Cumberland Presb. Qu. Jan. 1873, art. 2; New-Englander, July 1872; Academy, September 1, 1873, page 328.


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Moral Law'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/m/moral-law.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Search for…
Enter query in the box:
 or 
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

 
Prev Entry
Moral Intuitions
Next Entry
Moral Obligation
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology