The Ten Commandments by Thomas Watson
3. THE LAW AND SIN
3.1 Man's Inability to keep the Moral Law
Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to
keep the commandments of God, but does daily break them, in thought,
word, and deed.
'In many things we offend all.' James iii 2. Man in his
primitive state of innocence, was endowed with ability to keep the
whole moral law. He had rectitude of mind, sanctity of will, and
perfection of power. He had the copy of God's law written on his
heart; no sooner did God command but he obeyed. As the key is suited
to all the wards in the lock, and can open them, so Adam had a power
suited to all God's commands, and could obey them. Adam's obedience
ran parallel with the moral law, as a well made dial goes exactly
with the sun. Man in innocence was like a well tuned organ, he was
sweetly in tune to the will of God; he was adorned with holiness as
the angels, but not confirmed in holiness as the angels. He was
holy, but mutable; he fell from his purity, and we with him. Sin cut
the lock of original righteousness where our strength lay; it
brought a languor and faintness into our souls; and has so weakened
us, that we shall never recover our full strength till we put on
immortality. What I am now to demonstrate, is, that we cannot yield
perfect obedience to the moral law.
I. The case of an unregenerate man is such, that he cannot
perfectly obey all God's commands. He may as well touch the stars,
or span the ocean, as yield exact obedience to the law. A person
unregenerate cannot act spiritually, he cannot pray in the Holy
Ghost, he cannot live by faith, he cannot do duty out of love to
duty; and if he cannot do duty spiritually, much less perfectly.
Now, that a natural man cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral
law, is evident. (1) Because he is spiritually dead. Eph ii 1. How
can he, being dead, keep the commandments of God perfectly? A dead
man is not fit for action. A sinner has the symptoms of death upon
him. He has no sense; he has no sense of the evil of sin, of God's
holiness and veracity; therefore he is said to be without feeling.
Eph iv 19. He has no strength. Rom v 6. What strength has a dead
man? A natural man has no strength to deny himself, or to resist
temptation; he is dead; and can a dead man fulfil the moral law? (2)
A natural man cannot perfectly keep all God's commandments, because
he is born in sin, and lives in sin. Psa l 5. 'He drinketh
iniquity like water.' Job xv 16. All the imaginations of his
thoughts are evil, and only evil. Gen vi 5. The least evil thought
is a breach of the royal law; and if there be defection, there
cannot be perfection. As a natural man has no power to keep the
moral law, so he has no will. He is not only dead, but worse than
dead. A dead man does no hurt, but there is a life of resistance
against God that accompanies the death of sin. A natural man not
only cannot keep the law through weakness, but he breaks it through
wilfulness. 'We will do whatsoever goes out of our own mouth, to
burn incense unto the queen of heaven.' Jer xlv 17.
II. As the unregenerate cannot keep the moral law perfectly, so
neither can the regenerate. 'There is not a just man upon earth,
that does good and sinneth not;' nay, that 'sins not in doing good.'
Eccl vii 20. There is that in the best actions of a righteous man
that is damnable, if God should weigh him in the balance of justice.
Alas! how are his duties fly-blown! He cannot pray without
wandering, nor believe without doubting. 'To will is present with
me, but how to perform I find not.' In the Greek it is, 'How to do
it thoroughly I find not.' Rom vii 18. Paul, though a saint of the
first magnitude, was better at willing than at performing. Mary
asked where they had laid Christ; for she had a mind to have carried
him away, but she wanted strength: so the regenerate have a will to
obey God's law perfectly, but they want strength; their obedience is
weak and sickly. The mark they are to shoot at, is perfection of
holiness; but though they take a right aim, yet do what they can,
they come short of the mark. 'The good that I would, I do not.' Rom
vii 19. A Christian, while serving God, like a ferry man that plies
the oar, and rows hard, is hindered, for a gust of wind carries him
back again: so says Paul, 'The good I would, I do not,' I am driven
back by temptation. Now, if there be any failure in a man's
obedience, he cannot be a perfect commentary upon God's law. The
Virgin Mary's obedience was not perfect; she needed Christ's blood
to wash her tears. Aaron was to make atonement for the altar, to
show that the most holy offering has defilement in it, and needs
atonement to be made for it. Exod xxix 37.
If a man has no power to keep the whole moral law, why does God
require it of him? Is this justice?
Though man has lost his power of obeying, God has not lost his
right of commanding. If a master entrusts a servant with money to
lay out, and the servant spends it dissolutely, may not the master
justly demand it? God gave us power to keep the moral law, which by
tampering with sin, we lost; but may not God still call for perfect
obedience, or, in case of default, justly punish us?
Why does God permit such an inability in man to keep the law?
He does it: (1) To humble us. Man is a self-exalting creature;
and if he has but anything of worth, he is ready to be puffed up;
but when he comes to see his deficiencies and failings, and how far
short he comes of the holiness and perfection which God's law
requires, it pulls down the plumes of his pride, and lays them in
the dust; he weeps over his inability; he blushes over his leprous
spots; he says with Job, 'I abhor myself in dust and ashes.' (2) God
lets this inability be upon us, that we may have recourse to Christ
to obtain pardon for our defects, and to sprinkle our best duties
with his blood. When a man sees that he owes perfect obedience to
the law, but has nothing to pay, it makes him flee to Christ to be
his friend, and answer for him all the demands of the law, and set
him free in the court of justice.
Here is matter of humiliation for our fall in Adam. In
the state of innocence we were perfectly holy; our minds were
crowned with knowledge, and our wills, as a queen, swayed the
sceptre of liberty; but now we may say, 'The crown is fallen from
our head.' Lam v 16. We have lost that power which was inherent in
us. When we look back to our primitive glory, when we shone as
earthly angels, we may take up Job's words, 'Oh that I were as in
months past!' chap xxix 2. 0 that it were with us as at first, when
there was no stain upon our virgin nature, when there was a perfect
harmony between God's law and man's will! But, alas! how is the
scene altered, our strength is gone from us; we tread awry at every
step: we come below every precept; our dwarfishness will not reach
the sublimity of God's law; we fail in our obedience; and while we
fail, we forfeit. This should put us in deep mourning, and spring a
leak of sorrow in all our souls.
Of confutation. (1) It confutes the Armenians, who cry
up the power of the will. They hold they have a will to save
themselves. But by nature, we not only want strength, but we want
will to that which is good. Rom v 6. The will is not only full of
weakness, but obstinacy. 'Israel would none of me.' Psa lxxxi 11. The
will hangs forth a flag of defiance against God. Such as speak of
the sovereign power of the will, forget 'It is God that worketh in
you both to will and to do.' Phil ii 13. If the power be in the will
of man, then what need is there for God to work in us to will? If
the air can enlighten itself, what need is there for the sun to
shine? Such as talk of the power of nature, and their ability to
save themselves, disparage Christ's merits. I may say (as Gal v 4),
'Christ has become of no effect to them.' They who advance the power
of their will in matters of salvation, without the medicinal grace
of Christ, do absolutely put themselves under the covenant of works.
I would ask, 'Can they perfectly keep the moral law?' Malum oritur
ex quolibet defectu [Evil is manifested in any blemish at all]. If
there be but the least defect in their obedience, they are lost. For
one sinful thought the law of God curses them, and the justice of
God condemns them. Confounded be their pride, who cry up the power
of nature, as if, by their own inherent abilities, they could rear
up a building, the top whereof should reach to heaven.
(2) It confutes that sort of people who brag of perfection; and
who, according to that principle, can keep all God's commandments
perfectly. I would ask such whether at no time a vain thought has
come into their minds? If there has, then they are not perfect. The
Virgin Mary was not perfect. Though her womb was pure (being
overshadowed by the Holy Ghost), yet her soul was not perfect.
Christ tacitly supposes a failing in her. Luke ii 49. And are they
more perfect than the blessed Virgin was? Such as hold perfection,
need not confess sin. David confessed sin, and Paul confessed sin.
Psa xxxii 5; Rom vii 25. But they are got beyond David and Paul; they
are perfect, they never transgress; and where there is no
transgression, what need for confession? Again, if they are perfect,
they need not ask pardon. They can pay God's justice what they owe;
therefore, why pray, 'Forgive us our debts'? Oh, that the devil
should rock men so fast asleep, as to make them dream of perfection!
Do they plead, 'Let us therefore as many as be perfect be thus
minded'? Phil iii 15. Perfection there, is meant of sincerity. God is
best able to interpret his own word. He calls sincerity perfection.
'A perfect and an upright man.' Job i 8. But who is exactly
perfect? A man full of diseases may as well say he is healthful, as
a man full of sins say he is perfect.
For encouragement to regenerate persons. Though you
fail in your obedience, and cannot keep the moral law exactly, yet
be not discouraged.
What comfort may be given to a regenerate person under the
failures and imperfections of his obedience?
That a believer is not under the covenant of works, but under
the covenant of grace. The covenant of works requires perfect,
personal, perpetual obedience; but in the covenant of grace, God
will make some abatements; he will accept less than he required in
the covenant of works. (1) In the covenant of works God required
perfection of degrees; in the covenant of grace he accepts
perfection of parts. There he required perfect working, here he
accepts sincere believing. In the covenant of works, God required us
to live without sin; in the covenant of grace he accepts of our
combat with sin. (2) Though a Christian cannot, in his own person,
perform all God's commandments; yet Christ, as his Surety, and in
his stead, has fulfilled the law for him: and God accepts of
Christ's obedience, which is perfect, to satisfy for that obedience
which is imperfect. Christ being made a curse for believers, all the
curses of the law have their sting pulled out. (3) Though a
Christian cannot keep the commands of God to satisfaction, yet he
may to approbation.
How is that?
(1) He gives his full assent and consent to the law of God.
'The law is holy and just:' there was assent in the judgement. Rom
vii 12. 'I consent unto the law;' there was consent in the will. Rom
(2) A Christian mourns that he cannot keep the commandments
fully. When he fails he weeps; he is not angry with the law because
it is so strict but he is angry with himself because he is so
(3) He takes a sweet complacent delight in the law. 'I delight
in the law of God after the inward man.' Rom vii 22. Greek: 'I take
pleasure in it.' 'O! how love I thy law.' Psa cxix 97. Though a
Christian cannot keep God's law, yet he loves his law; though he
cannot serve God perfectly, yet he serves him willingly.
(4) It is his cordial desire to walk in all God's commands. 'O
that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes.' Psa cxix 5. Though
his strength fails, yet his pulse beats.
(5) He really endeavours to obey God's law perfectly; and
wherein he comes short he runs to Christ's blood to supply his
defects. This cordial desire, and real endeavour, God esteems as
perfect obedience. 'If there be a willing mind, it is accepted.' 2
Cor viii 12. 'Let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice.' Cant ii
14. Though the prayers of the righteous are mixed with sin, yet God
sees they would pray better. He picks out the weeds from the
flowers; he sees the faith and bears with the failing. The saints'
obedience, though short of legal perfection, yet having sincerity in
it, and Christ's merits mixed with it, finds gracious acceptance.
When the Lord sees endeavours after perfect obedience, he takes it
well at our hands; as a father who receives a letter from his child,
though there be blots in it, and false spellings, takes all in good
part. Oh! what blotting are there in our holy things; but God is
pleased to take all in good part. He says, 'It is my child, and he
would do better if he could; I will accept it.'