Thursday, January 17, 2013

The True Nature of the Law

Dear J-----, 

I read your email to R----- with interest, and would like to say a few words, which I hope you will consider with patience. I found your point of view to be lacking clarity in what I believe is the critical issue: the true nature of the law.

You have argued eloquently that obedience to the law is the missing element in much of what passes for Christianity, and you have said that the Church's failure to honor and obey the law stems from a perverse reading of the apostle Paul. I have a severe criticism of your position. You failed to mention that obedience to the law, by the very nature of the law, must be total and complete obedience - that is, perfection. There is a little word that has often been overlooked by many: that word is "all". God did not merely say "love the Lord your God", but "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength." The focus of this command is on how you must love God, and the point is: that manner must be total. If we haven't loved God with "all" our heart, soul and strength, then we have not obeyed this first and great commandment. Likewise with the second great commandment, as Jesus taught us, God does not merely say "love your neighbor", but "love your neighbor as you love yourself". Once again, the focus is on how you are to love your neighbor, so that if you haven't loved your neighbor in this total manner, you have not obeyed this commandment at all. Since all the law hangs on these two commands, failure to obey them is failure to the obey the law.

The law everywhere is about perfection and total obedience. It is not a loose collection of moral sayings that we can attend to as we wish, like at a cafeteria; it is a complete moral whole, and it demands perfect and total obedience. It everywhere commands us to observe "all" of it.

"If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee." (Ex. 15:26)

"And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD." (Ex. 19:8)

"And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words." (Ex. 24:7-8)

"Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God." (Num. 15:38-40)

"And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us." (Deut. 6:25)

"All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers." (Deut. 8:1)

"What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it." (Deut. 12:32)

"Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God." (Deut. 18:13)

This is the true nature of the law, and self-righteous people cannot bear such a law in their self-righteous systems. Therefore they ignore this truth about the law, and talk great swelling words about the law, without actually talking about the true law at all. This was the problem with the Pharisees in Jesus' day. They honored the law with their lips, but their hearts were far from God because they did not embrace the law as God had spoken it.

"Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore is the anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcases were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." (Is. 5:24-25)

It was because Israel despised the law of the Lord that God's anger was kindled and His hand was stretched out against them. He smote them by the Babylonians, but afterward was His anger turned away? Was His hand stretched out still? The Lord again smote Israel by the Romans in 70 AD, because His anger was not turned away; His hand was stretched out still. Why? Because they continued to "cast away the law of the Lord of hosts, and despise the word of the Holy One of Israel." The Pharisees would have been indignant to hear this: from their perspective, they were different than their predecessors; they were honoring and obeying the law. But what did Jesus say? "Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophecy of you, saying, 'This people draws near unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. But in vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." (Matt. 15:7-9) Notice the connection between their heart and their teaching. But what does this indictment mean? Does it mean that the Pharisees did not teach the various points of the law, but that they only taught their traditions? No. The Pharisees were scrupulous about teaching the various points of the law. To this question, the Sermon on the Mount gives us the answer.

Jesus came to save us from our sins by giving His life a ransom for many, but in order for people to receive His salvation they must have a correct understanding of the law. "Salvation is far from the wicked: for they seek not Thy statutes." (Ps. 119:155) Failure to understand the law means failure to embrace Christ as Savior. Therefore, one of the main things we see Jesus doing during His ministry is correcting the false views of the Pharisees. The Sermon on the Mount is where Christ challenges the Pharisaic view of the law. "It is time for Thee, O Lord, to work: for they have made void Thy law." (Ps. 119:126) The Pharisees had taught the people the law one way (a lie), and Jesus came teaching the law in truth. As you said, J-----, Christ did not come to do away with the law, but in His words, "to fulfill it." (Matt. 5:17) See how Christ magnifies the law and makes it honorable (Is. 42:21): "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:19) Anyone who talks about the law in a way other than this is not really talking about the law, they're just playing games. "For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:20) This would have come as a shock to His hearers. But what exactly does Jesus mean? How much greater must it be? What is the nature of the contrast between the righteousness that God requires and the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus goes on to explain.

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." (Matt. 5:21-22)

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." (Matt. 5:27-28)

Notice the Pharisees are teaching various commandments and not merely their own traditions. But Jesus is critical of their shallow interpretation of the commands of God. Their interpretations do not strike to the heart of the law, which is perfect love. Their standard is much lower than God's.

"And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell." (Matt. 5:29-30)

What teacher teaches like this nowadays? There are many who, like the Pharisees, talk a lot about obedience to the law, but do they teach the law as it was meant to be taught, as the Son of God has shown us? If teachers do not teach God's law like this they are just playing games. This saying of Jesus cannot be explained unless we understand that the law requires absolute moral perfection. Anything less than total obedience will send you to hell. If you want to obey the law and be saved, then you had better obey it. Nothing less than perfection will do.

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matt. 5:45-45)

"Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48)

Here Jesus puts the law in its proper focus. The law requires you to be perfect. It requires you to be perfect and holy right now, just like God is perfect and holy at all times. The law is therefore the test to see whether you are as good as God. The Pharisees never taught that, for no self-righteous person ever teaches that. But Jesus taught that the law requires perfection, and by perfection He meant the highest standard possible. He meant perfect like God. Anything less than this is not the law. Any teaching of the law less than this is false teaching. This was the main contrast between Christ and the Pharisees. It was this that made the Pharisees false teachers: not because they didn't teach the various points of the law, but because they didn't teach the true nature of the law in its wholeness. Why didn't they? Because when you teach the true nature of the law, you are forced to admit with Isaiah: "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." (Is. 6:5) The law shows you the moral perfection of God, and by showing it, shows you your sin (Rom. 3:20). When the law is taken as a whole, we realize that we have, not some righteousness, but no righteousness. "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away." (Is. 64:6) "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10) Righteousness equals perfection. We are not perfect, therefore we are not righteous. We are therefore the same as everybody else: unrighteous (Rom. 3:10, contrast Luke 18:11). The law exposes everyone to be a lawbreaker. This is what the self-righteous Pharisees could not admit in their pride, and therefore would not magnify the law. "And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him." (Luke 7:29-30)

This is where the apostle Paul is coming from. This is the revelation that he received, which radically transformed the way he saw religion and life. It was a transformation in the way that Pharisee understood the law and evaluated himself. "What I once thought gain, that I now count as dung." What did he once count gain? His own righteousness. What later became his gain? Christ, and the righteousness that comes through faith in Him: "And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." (Phil. 3:9) Paul saw that "if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." (Gal. 2:21) The Messiah's death spelled death to all human righteousness and obedience to the law. Any boasting in human righteousness or obedience to the law was a pretension, and worse, an affront to the glory of God. Paul saw that men sought their own glory in legal religion, and works-based righteousness was the nullifying of the Messiah and the moral majesty of God. It was a robbing of the glory which is due Him alone. While self-righteous men profess to honor God, they actually despise Him. In their very boasting of honoring Him they despise Him. Paul's world was turned completely upside down by Jesus.

"Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law." (Rom. 3:31) This is probably one of the most important sayings of Paul, and contains a deep truth. The question in Paul's mind is: "By believing in Christ in the way I have been speaking (Romans 3:21-30 = righteousness by faith apart from obedience to the law), does this make void the law, setting it aside, making it a mere nothing? Does faith in Christ make us antinomians?" By what follows, all suspicion of Paul being an antinomian ought to be dispelled. "God forbid" he emphatically declares. But Paul's reason for saying so is seldom understood. In what way does believing in Christ for our righteousness - as laid out in 3:21-30 - establish the law? Some interpreter will say: "Because by believing in Christ we are instructed and empowered to obey the law, and this Christian obedience to the law establishes it." But that is not Paul's point. He is not saying that by believing in Christ for our righteousness we are led into some other phenomenon which establishes the law, but that by believing in Christ for our righteousness we thereby establish the law - that it is the believing that does the establishing. We establish the law through faith. But how? Based upon what has already been said the answer should be clear. By believing in Christ we are magnifying the law and making it honorable. By believing in Christ we are taking the law seriously for what it says. By believing in Christ we are confessing our sin before God and declaring that He alone is righteous. By believing in Christ the law is at last fulfilling its purpose: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Gal. 3:24) When I believe in Christ for my justification, the law has been fulfilled. It's purpose is accomplished. It was given by God, not for righteousness and life, but for death (2 Cor. 3:6-9, Gal. 3:21). And when the law has accomplished its purpose, it has brought the sinner to the place of recognizing his utter destitution before the only Righteous one, and points him to the ransom-death of Jesus Christ, the only salvation for sinners.

Until a person has believed on Christ for justification, that person is ignoring and making void the law. That person may talk all the day long about the law, and how we ought to obey it, and even make a show of obedience, but until that person has seen the law for what it is in truth, and lose all hope of righteousness by it, turning to Christ by faith, that person is the true antinomian. The Pharisees were the true antinomians. Though that may come as a surprise (as it did then), Jesus boldly declared it. God's law must kill you, and then God's grace can make you alive through Christ. Paul uses these shocking words: "I through the law, am dead to the law, that I might live unto God." (Gal. 2:19) That's the purpose of the law: to make you die to it, so that you might live through the one who loved you and gave Himself for you. Otherwise Christ died for nothing.

So there is no place for anyone to accuse Paul of minimizing the law. He did just the opposite. In fact, the establishment of the law is the foundation of his message. Rather than cheapening the law like he did when he was a Pharisee, Paul, as a believer in Christ, magnified it to its rightful place. He saw the law clearer than any legalist ever has; he honored it more than any self-righteous person does; he embraced it for just what it is when he put his faith in Christ for His righteousness. Paul could ever-after sing Psalm 119 in truth. While millions of talking Pharisees drone on about how we need to obey the law and they never actually do it, always lowering the standard, Paul took Jesus' life teaching and bloody death to heart, and began preaching true Judaism: perfect law and righteousness through the suffering Servant. Paul became a true Jew. You could even say that he became a true Pharisee (set apart one). This way of righteousness through faith in Christ is the ancient path, the way of Abel, Noah and Abraham. If you want to see a true Jew, don't look for them based upon what they wear and eat. Look for them here: in the way of righteousness, as demonstrated in a man who once boasted of his own zeal, disdaining harlots and publicans, but who dramatically changed because of the Messiah, who wrote about the wonders of the law, the righteousness of God through faith, and who we observe after his encounter with Jesus eating with the sinners of the Gentiles.

So J-----, my questions to you are: do you keep the law? Perfectly as it requires? Do you lower the standard of the law, or teach it as Jesus did, as it is in truth?

Thank you for reading this patiently. I pray that God's people would come to realize that everything is found in Christ and nowhere else. His love is deeper and wider than we can comprehend. As Paul prayed, may we "know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that [we] might be filled with all the fulness of God." (Eph. 3:19) You just can't get more full than that.

In His righteousness,


Unknown said...

Eli, what should the Christian's relationship with the law be after they are converted? And what is the Christian's motivation for holy living?

Eli said...

Hi Chris, here's a post on that:


Anonymous said...

This really blessed me. Thank you so much.