Thursday, 9 July 2015

Between the Covenants: God and The Law

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun” (Katharine Hepburn) 
"Break the rules, find your freedom, live your life" (Unknown)

There is a perception that rules are oppressive, regressive, and restrict ‘fun’. And indeed, there have been many rules put in place by tyrants and dictators that have been put in place to ‘legalise’ and enforce oppression of a powerless people. Think of the ‘treason laws’ of the medieval Kings, Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish laws, and Australia’s White Australia Policy. And it is possible that because of this history, people are reluctant to submit to rules that restrict their ‘freedom.’ But I believe that the rebellious nature of people this side of the fall, the ‘flesh’ demanding its own way that rebels against God, is what motivates much of this attitude. That was the serpent’s line to Eve, ‘God is trying to limit your fun and potential with His rules.’ She and Adam believed it, and we've inherited it.

There are degrees of this even within Christians, they may not articulate it as such, but the way their understanding of the doctrine of grace reveals their attitude towards the Law is telling. And to be fair, they have perhaps inherited either a Protestant  rebellion against a salvation by works, or rejecting the 1950’s style of fear-based-legalism that dominated the church. They perceive that the Law is a burdensome slave driver, and therefore the Christian should have no regard for it any more because we have been ‘set free’ from it. They often point to the words of the Apostles to the Gentiles in Acts 15:28: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…” But is this perception correct? In part 2 of Between the Covenants (see part 1 of Between the Covenants here), we will be seeking to answer the question: Is the Law given through Moses something burdensome and negative that we should seek to be free from?

Law as Torah, not Slavery

The Hebrew word for Law, is Torah which means teaching, or instruction. Thus, when Moses was given the Law, God was not demanding, but rather instructing his people on how they are to live as His covenant people, and inviting them to wholeness, or shalom. This is seen in how obedience of God’s Torah would lead to life and blessing, as Moses said; “keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good (Deut 10:13). That God made His instructions known is indeed an act of grace and kindness, and His rules were intended to help them live in the freedom of all they were created for as they said ‘no’ to sin, and ‘yes’ to righteousness. In fact, as Spurgeon said: “There is nothing in the law of God that will rob you of happiness; it only denies you that which would cost you sorrow.” So the Law is not about slavery. As John said “his commands are not burdensome” (1Jn 5:3). This is reflective of Deuteronomy 30:11; “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.”

Interestingly, Torah Resources explains that the 
“Hebrew word, torah, is derived from a root that was used in the realm of archery, yareh. Yareh means to shoot an arrow in order to hit a mark… Consequently, torah, one of the nouns derived from this root, is, therefore, the arrow aimed at the mark, the target is the truth about God and how one relates to Him. The torah is, therefore, in the strict sense instruction designed to teach us the truth about God.”

The Law makes God Known

It is important to remember that the Law given through Moses is a revelation of God Himself. This is why in Jeremiah 31:34, after God said He would write His law on His people’s hearts in the New Covenant, He said “No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me…” Also in Jeremiah 4:22 He said: “My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” And this isn't just an Old Testament thing. John wrote: “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him… (1Jn 2:4). And elsewhere, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1Jn 5:1-3).

Since, as discussed above, the Law is a revelation of God, if we say that the Law is not important we are saying that God is not important. And the extent of that importance is one measure of our sanctification. Thus, our relationship to the Law reflects our relationship with God, as Erickson explains, “When we relate to [the Law], whether positively or negatively, we are not relating to an impersonal document or set of regulations. Rather it is God himself whom we are obeying or disobeying” (820). Thus, to know the Law, is to know God.

A significant part of this revelation is the Holiness of God. Often throughout the Law God told His people to obey His commands so that they would “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” This ties into God’s righteousness, as Paul wrote, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known” (Rom 3:21). Implicit in this statement is that before the crucifixion of Jesus, it was the Law that revealed the righteousness of God. This does not mean that the Law no longer reveals the righteousness of God, but rather that the Gospel reflects it more fully. Thus, “The righteousness of God means, first of all, that the Law of God, being a true expression of his nature, is as perfect as he is” (Erickson 313). This is why the Psalmist could write: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart” (Ps 19:7-8). The reason the Law can do these things, is because God does these things in the lives of His people. The reason the Law is perfect, or tamiym (Strongs #8552, complete, sound, wholesome, unimpaired, having integrity, in accord with truth and fact), is because God is tamiym. 

What about the Jerusalem Council?

So, what about that Acts 15 passage mentioned above? Isn't that describing the Law as burdensome upon Gentile Christians? Didn't they decide Gentiles don't have to worry about the Law? 
Firstly, to make this conclusion would deny other passages that describe the law as good (discussed below) and a relevant part of the new covenant such as Jeremiah 31 (I will be dealing with Paul's words such as Romans 6:14 in a future post). Secondly, the context of that passage was a response to Judaisers teaching that one must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. And so the burden in view keeping the Law for salvation, not righteous living. This becomes clear from Peter’s words at the Jerusalem council: “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (15:10). And thirdly, the instruction to abstain from “things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (15:20), are actually based on the Mosaic Law. As reiterated by James, “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (15:21). So the Jerusalem council was about affirming Gentiles as belonging to the New Covenant people of God by faith apart from circumcision and obedience to the Law, just as it was for the Jews, and not about saying the Law is irrelevant for Gentiles.

What about beyond Sinai?

Does this mean that before the Law was given through Moses, that God’s righteousness and morality were unknown? We find something interesting in God’s words to Isaac: 
“And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge (mismarti), my commandments (miswotay), my statutes (huqqotay), and my laws (wetorotay) (Genesis 26:4-5). 
What makes this phrase particularly significant is how Moses uses a similar phrase with the same Hebrew words in Deuteronomy 11:1, "Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements (mismarti), his decrees (huqqotay), his laws (miswotay) and his commands (miswotay) always.” This means that prior to Moses, God’s Law was known and obeyed by His people, and therefore “…the Ten Commandments do not so much introduce new standards of behaviour as codify the relationship that God’s covenant people are supposed to have with him” (Carson, 63).

Paul explains that the Law is made known in the Gentiles conscience:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:14-16).
What Paul is talking about here is those who do not have the Law in the written format, will still be judged according to the Law’s righteous requirement because God has written it on their conscience.

The Blessings of the Law

Considering the universality of God’s Law, the Law is still a blessing for us today and not just Israel at Sinai. If the Law is a revelation of God’s moral character, then the law serves to define sin. As Paul wrote in Rom 7:7, “… I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” And John clarifies this further in 1John 3:4 “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” Thus without the Law, we would have no knowledge of sin, and no knowledge of our need for forgiveness and salvation. This is especially true since, as discussed above, both sin (miss the mark) and Torah, have etymological origins in archery. So, if the Law no longer exists then there is no more sin. And if there is no more sin, then what are we calling people to repent from and why would they need a saviour?

On the flip-side of this, and more importantly, the Law also serves to instruct God’s people in righteousness. Knowing Christ has atoned for our sins, we should come to the Law no longer primarily focusing on how it defines sin and feeling condemned by where we have fallen, but rather focusing on how it defines righteousness and empowered by the Holy Spirit, seeking to live out the righteousness we have inherited from Christ (2Cor 5:21). As Paul wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture [including the Law] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2Tim 3:16). Similarly, John Calvin positively considered the principal and proper purpose of the law to be “’to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it’ (Institutes 2.7.12)” (Beach-Verhey 474).

As I will explore more in depth in a future post, the Law can be burdensome, depending on how one relates to it. If we are relying on obedience to the Law for salvation, and God’s love and favour, it will become burdensome. But when viewed through the lens of the Gospel, it becomes a thing of delight. As Keller explains in his commentary on Galatians: 
“… the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defences and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin. This also creates a new dynamic for discipline and obedience… it makes the law of God a thing of beauty instead of burden. We can use it to delight and imitate the one who has saved us rather than to get his attention or procure his favour.”
This motive of delight and love is what John wrote about. When we come to know the goodness, beauty, love, and majesty of God and make them the foundation of our obedience we can avoid legalism, and burdensome slavery.

We do well to consider the Law not as an impersonal and burdensome list of do and do nots, but an invitation from a loving creator and Father to life and blessing. And considering this, along with the way the Law is a revelation of a holy, perfect, and loving God, it stands to reason that the Law is something that we should be paying attention to rather than rejecting. For, if “the Law is perfect, refreshing the soul”, why would we abandon it and why would God remove it?

In my next post, I will be exploring the topic of Jesus and the Law, namely what He said about it and how He fulfilled it, as the next step in gaining a more accurate perspective of how the Law relates to us as the New Covenant people of God.

Hymn: Teach me, O Lord, your way of truth, 

Teach me, O Lord, your way of truth, 
and from it I will not depart; 
that I may steadfastly obey, 
give me an understanding heart. 

In your commandments make me walk, 
for in your law my joy shall be; 
give me a heart that loves your will, 
from discontent and envy free. 

Your word sheds light upon my path; 
a shining light, it guides my feet; 
your righteous judgements to observe, 
my solemn vow I now repeat. 

Your wondrous testimonies, Lord, 
my soul will keep and greatly praise; 
your word, by faithful lips proclaimed, 
to simplest minds the truth conveys. 

I thirst for your commandments, Lord, 
and for your mercy press my claim; 
O look on me and show the grace 
displayed to all who love your name. 


Beach-Verhey, “Law, Uses of”, Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics. Baker: Grand Rapids (2011). 474

Carson, Don. The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story. Baker: Grand Rapids (2010).

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Baker: Grand Rapids (2009).

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