Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Help and Hindrance of Law

If a law restrains evil, it is a good thing.  If the law against murder is enforced, it will limit, to a greater or lesser extent, the occurrence of murder.  The point of laws is to restrain evil, unless its the law that forces payment of taxes or other such laws, which facilitate government.  Not every law is good, but the assumption is that the concept of law itself is based on good intentions.  When God gave a written law on Mount Sinai, it was to prevent the Israelites from idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, deceit, other such things, and to compel them to honor the Sabbath, honor father and mother, have a standard of cleanliness, and other such things.  The law represents a certain standard.  It is a line that must not be crossed, and there is a punishment for crossing the line.  That is how the law operates.  It punishes anything below the line; it does not require anything above the line.  And societies have operated by law for several thousands of years.

We know that the Old Testament is a system of laws.  We know that that's how the Israelites operated.  But we also know that Christ introduced something new.  Most Christians are not fully aware of what Christ introduced.  We have a vague idea that freedom is associated with the New Testament.  But most Christians do not clearly understand the fundamental difference between the Old Testament and its system of laws and the New Testament and its system of freedom.  First, let me prove that Christians are free from the OT law, since not everyone is convinced of that.  There are many verses I could share; I will share just a couple.  Jesus makes it plain that He is doing something new when He declares all foods clean, flatly contradicting the OT kosher laws.

And He said to them, "Are you also as lacking in understanding?  Don't you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him?  For it doesn't go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated." (As a result, He made all foods clean.)  Mark 7:18-19 (HCSB)

He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:14 (HCSB)

Jesus came and erased the OT law, but does that mean that there is no Christian law?  The Christian law is very different from the OT law.  It is a law in a completely different sense.  It is an internal law, not an external law.  An external law is the speed limit.  An external law is the Ten Commandments.  An external law is the regulations of the sacrificial system.  An external law is specific, because it must tell you specifically what to do and what not to do.  An internal law is something that is held in the heart.  If the internal law is written down, its not written down with specifics, unless its specific examples to illustrate the point.  An internal law is what we might call an 'ideal'.

"Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days" - the LORD's declaration.  "I will place My law within them and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be My people.  Jeremiah 31:33 (HCSB)

What is the law written on the heart?  It is a much higher ideal.  Whereas a traditional law is a certain standard, and it doesn't require anything more than the standard, the law that is written on the heart is an infinitely high standard.  No matter how well a person is doing, he can do better.  With a law, lets say the law "Do not covet", once the law is met - a person does not covet - there is nothing else required.  But now, consider all that is required of this standard:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  -Jesus in Matthew 5:48 (HCSB)

When is the standard of the higher ideal met?  At what point does "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" not require anything more?  Our heavenly Father is infinitely perfect, so to be perfect as He is perfect requires infinite perfection from us.  It is an ideal, not a law.  It is not a law in the traditional sense of law - a law written on paper.  It is a law written on the heart.  It is a much higher ideal, which drives us to a much higher level of righteousness.  The Israelite under the OT law only had to not covet, not murder, not lie, and other such things.  Once he met the standard of the law, he did not have to do anything more.  The Christian is commanded to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.  There is no written law for the Christian.  Why would that be?  A written law, such as the Israelite had, would be a hindrance to the higher ideal.  Anytime there is the presence of a law, whoever the law applies to will look at that law as his standard of good conduct.  If the OT law were still in effect for Christians, Christians would do what the law requires, as best they could, and do no more.  Even if the higher ideal were present, the old law would be a distraction.  The law, which had been a help in that it restrained evil, would then be a hindrance in that it restrains good.  To prevent the OT law from restraining the good, which is a result of the higher ideal, the OT law had to be abolished.  It was abolished at the cross.  In its place was put something much much better.

I already made mention of the higher ideal, that is, the teaching of Jesus Christ.  I summed it up with the words "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect", but there are many other words of Jesus that confirm this higher ideal.  His commands, which are open-ended like "love your neighbor as yourself", are endless.  We are endlessly in a debt of love towards one another, as Paul writes.  Then we ask this question, how are we to obey the higher ideal?  If the Israelites are constantly falling short of the OT law, how are Christians going to live up to a higher standard?  In the external Christ gives us the commands/teaching.  Internally He gives us the Holy Spirit.  He purified us by His blood to make us acceptable vessel for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the power which enables us to live up to the higher standard.  That is very much the new thing that Jesus did on the cross.  That is the new thing of Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit is the law written on the heart.

One thing we should notice about Christ is that He really cares about the progress a person is making.  If a person is righteous but they are heading in the wrong direction, that person is rebuked by Christ (see church in Ephesus, Revelation 2:1-7).  If a person is sinful but they are heading in the right direction, that person is justified before God (see the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, Luke 18:9-14).  The trajectory that a person is on makes a very big difference.  If a person is righteous, but they are heading in a downward trajectory, that is worse than the sinner who is on an upward trajectory.  The lost sheep is celebrated when he is found more than the 99 that were never lost... the lost coin the same, and the prodigal son.

Now if trajectory is really important, then the law is not enough to save a person.  The law does not have the ability to sustain a person on an upward trajectory.  The higher ideal does, but the law does not.  The law can restrain evil, but it cannot lead to heaven.  If a person never murders because of the law, it makes him less evil than he might have been, but it does not make him a son of God.  He has met a certain standard, but there he is, simply not a murderer.  He is stagnant at the level he is at; he is not progressing any higher, not becoming any more righteous.  In fact, since he trusts in the law and bases his life upon it, he will refuse to be any more righteous, because he has already met the requirement of the law.  In effect, the law restrains the evil of the sinful nature (he does not murder), but it also restrains the good of the divine nature (he does nothing any more righteous than not murdering).  In order for the divine nature - the Holy Spirit - to produce good works it must be free from the law.  That is why the New Testament talks about freedom.  That is why James mentions the "perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25).  If a person lives by the divine nature, he has zero need for a law.  He does not have to be told not to murder, because murder is the furthest thing from his mind; it is contrary to his nature.  For the person that is born of the Holy Spirit, who has that divine nature, a law does not, and cannot, make him any more righteous.  Instead it becomes a hindrance.  This is why Christ's law is not a law.  It is a higher ideal; it is commands that require discernment to obey: commands like "love one another".  He does not say how we are to love one another, He simply says to do it.  We are left to answer the question of how, and it is the Holy Spirit that answers the question for us, or to be more precise, gives us the wisdom to know the answer in each unique situation.  This is why the apostles say that the law of Christ is to love.  It is such an open-ended statement, it cannot be considered a law, not in the traditional sense of a law.  It is a higher ideal, a perfect ideal, which has no end in meeting its requirement.  Its the only kind of law that can continuously keep us on the upward trajectory.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come, He answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable; no one will say, 'Look here!' or 'There!' For you see, the kingdom of God is among you."  Luke 17:20-21  (HCSB)

The kingdom has been coming to the earth; it has been forcefully advancing since the days of John the Baptist.  Today, though its not obvious to most people, the kingdom of God is bursting forth all over the world.  Its bursting forth inside of people.  Now is the time.  Fan the flame of the Holy Spirit.  Give full expression to your faith.  Now is the time!


About Me

Unimpressive in person. But always praying that these letters I write will be weighty and forceful. I serve the Almighty as a servant of Christ. I strive to conquer hearts and minds with the word of God. I am nothing, but the Holy Spirit living inside me is omnipotent. By Him I can run and not grow weary, or walk and not be faint. All glory and honor be to God and to Jesus the Christ.