toledo church of god

Law of God
Richard A. Wiedenheft

Psalm 119 is full of praise for the law of God. Here is a brief sample:

Oh, how I love your law!” (v. 97a).

Your statutes are wonderful . . .” (v. 127a).

If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (v. 92).

Many Christians shudder at such talk, especially those who’ve known the heavy burden of legalism and have come to rejoice in the blessed righteousness of faith based on accepting the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Many consider law to be something of the old covenant, something that is outdated by grace and by the teachings of Jesus, something that’s replaced by the law of love toward God and love toward neighbor. They consider law to be something that kills, something that’s legalistic, something that’s a heavy burden Christians don’t have to bear.

The fact is that the sentiments of the psalmist are repeated in the New Testament by none other than the apostle Paul. He wrote to the Romans:

We uphold the law” (3:31b).

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (7:12).

We know that the law is spiritual . . .” (v. 14a).

The law is good” (v. 16).

I delight in God’s law” (v. 22).

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law . . .” (v. 25a)

How can this be? The apostle of grace writing so positively about the law when he had so many apparently negative things to say about it!?

Perhaps it is appropriate to take another look at the law of God — in both the Old and New Testaments — to see its relevance for Christians who have been saved by grace, to see if it applies to Christians who are clothed with white robes of the righteousness of Jesus, who are redeemed by the blood of Jesus plus nothing! See Romans 5:1, 2, 9, 17; 8:4; Ephesians 2:6, 8; Galatians 3:8; Revelation 7:14.

The Ten Commandments — at Sinai and Before

When we consider the law of God, we can’t help but think of the Ten Commandments, spoken by the voice of God and written with His own finger on tables of stone. They formed a constitution of sorts for the nation of Israel and served as the foundation for all the statutes and judgments subsequently given to that nation. They were an integral part of God’s relationship with Israel under the old covenant. The following points are noteworthy:

1. When the Israelites got to Mt. Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments, they were already a redeemed people (Exodus 20:2).

They had already been called by God to leave Egypt and become His people. They had already exercised faith and been delivered by the blood of the Passover lamb, had marched out of the slavery of Egypt by the leading of God, and had been “baptized” by walking through the parted waters of the sea. The Israelites weren’t released from the oppression of Egypt because they obeyed the Ten Commandments or any other code of law. There is a powerful lesson in this for Christians. No law, including the Ten, can serve as a means of salvation. No law can keep someone in a saved condition. Salvation is the gift of God through grace. It is received through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ and maintained by continued faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.

2. The commandments reflect the very nature and glory of God.

To be sure, the Ten Commandments, as written in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, reflect the culture of the people to whom they were originally given. The prologue refers to their having been slaves in Egypt, and the commandments reference oxen, donkeys, manservants, maidservants, and gates — not items we live with day by day. It is also true that most of the Ten are negative, beginning with “Thou shalt not. . . .” But of paramount importance is the fact that the underlying precept of each commandment reflects the very nature of God. These principles of the Ten Commandments can’t be changed any more than the very nature of God can be changed!

For example:

God is the ultimate power and intelligence in the universe. Everything that is has been created by Him. It naturally follows that it is absurd and wrong for humans to worship anything or anybody else, because everything was created by Him. To have anything or anybody as a god denies the reality of who God is. And because God is all-knowing and all-powerful, it is wrong to take His name in vain — to invoke His name in any way that demeans Him (commandments 1, 2, and 3).

The Decalogue forbids murder because God is about creating life, not destroying it. He is the one who gives life, and He alone has the authority to take it. For a human to intentionally and maliciously terminate another human life is to usurp God’s authority and to disrespect and dishonor Him.

In refraining from coveting and stealing, we respect the property of others, because it isn’t really theirs. It all belongs to God, who has given it to people as He wills, whether they recognize that fact or not. When we steal, we are denouncing God’s sovereignty and telling Him He doesn’t know what He’s doing.

In not committing adultery, we honor our word, our commitments, our covenant of marriage, just as God is true to His word and His commitments. If we are not true to our promises, we fall short of the example God sets for us by always keeping His word.

The principles and precepts inherent in the Ten Commandments reflect the very nature and glory of the Creator of the universe. They can no more be changed or terminated than the very nature of God can be changed.

3. The Ten Commandments reflect God’s priorities for humanity.

The order of the Ten Commandments is not haphazard; rather, it indicates what human priorities should be. The first three commandments and the fourth (in some aspects) have to do with our relationship with God. God should be most important in our lives. The fourth (in some aspects), fifth, and sixth commandments have to do with marriage and family. Our family should be second in importance to God. Then come commandments that have to do with our relationship with other people (don’t lie, don’t murder, don’t steal). Finally, we have the commandment that deals primarily with things: Don’t covet what other people possess (not that we view one’s spouse as a possession). The priorities of our lives should be similarly arranged: God first, family second, others third, and things last.

Ten Commandments Before Moses

Given that the Ten Commandments reflect the very nature and glory of God, we should not be surprised that they were very much a part of His will for His people before Mt. Sinai. Indeed, the book of Genesis indicates that the principles contained in the Ten Commandments were accepted as the will of God before Sinai, and that breaking them was considered sin!

When Cain killed Abel, he sinned and was punished by God (Genesis 4:5-13). Jacob knew that stealing was wrong (30:33). Joseph knew that having an affair with Potiphar’s wife would have been a “great wickedness and sin against God” (39:9); the Philistine king Abimelech knew it as well (26:10). Jacob ordered his family to get rid of idols (35:1-4). The seventh day was sanctified at Creation (2:2, 3), and the Israelites were reminded of it before they got to Mt. Sinai (Exodus 16). Coveting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is what got Adam and Eve in trouble in the very beginning (Genesis 3:6).

In other words, when God gave the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, there were no surprises! There was nothing in them that was new to the Israelites. To be sure, they hadn’t always followed these laws, and they may not have taught or obeyed them consistently during the decades of slavery in Egypt. But the principles of the Decalogue were well known to God’s people prior to Mt. Sinai, though they were probably not encoded as Ten Commandments before then. Still, the lack of a codification doesn’t mean that the commandments didn’t exist, and the giving of a code at Mt. Sinai doesn’t mean they were new in any way.

Hitting Our Weakness

Certainly, God carefully and deliberately chose the principles He spoke from Mt. Sinai. He knew the nature of the human beings He had created. He knew their weaknesses and where they were likely to go astray, and the commandments were there to say, “No! Don’t do that! You’ll hurt yourself if you do!”

People want to control their own destiny, to rely on physical, tangible things for their security. As evidence, note the myriad gods worshipped by people throughout the ages — including, in our own time, money, wealth, and physical possessions. The first and second commandments pertain to this weak spot: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. . . .” It’s human nature to resist authority — to oppose our parents, to lust after other women or other men for emotional security or sexual pleasure, to desire things that others possess, to protect ourselves by lying. It’s human nature to want all our time for ourselves. After all, we need it to take care of ourselves with work or pleasure. Perhaps time is the most difficult thing of all to give up to God. It takes a great deal of faith to trust Him to sustain us for seven days, even though we work for only six.

So God knew exactly what He was doing: laying down the law in key areas of our carnal, human desires and, in so doing, protecting people and society at large from the suffering that results from doing what comes naturally. In fact, it has been said that we don’t keep the commandments; they keep us! That is, they keep us from much of the pain that results from giving our fleshly desires free rein.

Pointing to a Savior

At the same time God was, through the Ten Commandments, showing people how to avoid much individual and societal pain, He was also demonstrating to human beings how far we’ve fallen from the holiness of God, how guilty we are of sin, how desperately we need His forgiveness, His grace, His justification. The law condemns us to death and brings us to our knees. Like the publican in the temple, we must cry out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).

The law puts us in the same position as the apostle Paul, who considered himself chief of sinners and confessed his helplessness relative to sin.

But I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:23-25).

To the Galatians, Paul wrote that the law was a tutor bringing us to Christ (3:24). It is clear from the context that he was referring to the entire codified old covenant legal system, which was added some 430 years after God’s initial promises to Abraham. We are no longer under this legal system, but incorporated into it were many eternal spiritual principles that reflect the nature of God and His will for human behavior. This includes such basics as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:19); “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (19:17a); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The old covenant legal system served as a schoolmaster to teach the people about their sinfulness, about their inability to be like God, about how much they needed His help. It was there to bring them to their knees to beg for mercy as David did after he was confronted by Nathan for his adultery and murder:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51:1, 2).

The law of God, including the Ten Commandments, as well as the teachings of Jesus — all of which reflect the holiness and glory of God and His will for His people — can do the same for us as they did for David. They confront us with our sinfulness and bring us to our knees before God and the Cross, where we can only throw ourselves on His mercy and ask for Him to accept the sacrifice of Jesus to pay for our guilt.

Now That We Are Saved

But now that we’ve accepted the sacrifice of Jesus and been reconciled to God through grace, now that we are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6) and have become God’s sons and daughters, we are compelled to ask, “How does our Father want us to live? What does He want us to do?” The answer to these questions takes us right back to the Word of God — all of it from Genesis to Revelation, including the instructions and precepts of the old covenant and, more importantly, the teachings of Jesus. But as we consider all these principles, laws, and teachings, we do so as people who are not under the law but under grace.

Not Under the Law: What Does It Mean?

Paul states repeatedly in his writings that Christians are not under the law and that they are not saved by observing the law. Consider the following passages from Romans and Galatians:

A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28).

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (6:14).

Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain you goal by human effort? . . . does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2, 3, 5).

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” (4:21).

We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (2:13).

By observing the law no one will be justified” (2:16).

For if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (v. 21).

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse . . .” (3:10).

Clearly no one is justified before God by the law . . .” (v. 11).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us . . .” (v. 13).

Tell me, you who want to be under the law . . .” (4:21).

You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4).

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (5:18).

These and other statements in Paul’s writings make it clear that we are not under the law in two important ways:

1. We are not under the condemnation of the law for having broken it, because we have been saved from death (the penalty for sin) by the blood of Jesus Christ.

2. Our relationship with God is not denominated by or predicated on the law — any law. It is not based on the Ten Commandments! It is not based on “Love your neighbor as yourself,” nor on the moral teachings of Jesus. We are the redeemed people of God through accepting Jesus as our Savior.

Paul is emphatic. The law is not a means to salvation or to righteousness before God or to reconciliation with God. The law certainly serves to show us our sinfulness and to condemn us as sinners, but only faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, can bring us into the family of God. No law, not the Ten Commandments, not the old covenant, not the Sermon on the Mount — no law can serve as a means to bring us into a saving relationship with God. Grace alone and the righteousness that comes by faith can accomplish that.

Furthermore, we are not under any legal obligation to the law — to any law — to maintain our relationship with God. We come into a relationship with God through faith, and that relationship is continued by faith. However, James, as well as other New Testament writers, makes clear that genuine faith is always accompanied by a changed life, which brings us right back to Paul’s positive teaching about the law.

Positive Teaching

Paul held law in high esteem; he considered it valid, relevant, good — and worthy of obedience. He claimed to be, in his mind, a “slave to God’s law.” Consider the following from Romans:

We uphold the law” (3:31).

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" (7:12).

Law is spiritual” (v. 14).

The law is good” (v. 16).

I delight in God’s law” (v. 22).

I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law” (v. 25).

These statements seem to contradict Paul’s clear teaching that we are not under the law. But he offers a clear resolution to this apparent contradiction. Any and every law, including the Ten Commandments, are not the means by which we enter into or maintain a relationship with God. However, as a reflection of God’s nature and His will for His redeemed people, as a standard of conduct for those who have been saved by grace, law is relevant, applicable, and worthy.

An Analogy

Consider the following analogy: You enter into a lease agreement for the basement apartment of a house. The landlord lives upstairs. The lease agreement specifies that you will keep the grass mowed, shovel the snow, carry his garbage out with yours every Thursday morning, live quietly so as not to disturb him, etc. You hardly know the landlord as a person, and you don’t care much for mowing his grass or putting out his garbage. But you comply because you want to keep your living quarters.

After some time you get to know, appreciate, and respect the landlord personally. He gets to know and love you as a human being. After more time, the landlord reveals that he is your biological father through a short-lived marriage when he was very young. He tells you he has no other children, that you are his sole heir, and that he’s tearing up the lease agreement. If you are willing, you can continue to live with him and have access to the whole house. What a blessing! You accept.

You’re no longer under the lease agreement. But what about mowing the grass and shoveling the snow and taking out the garbage!? Can these duties be forgotten? On the contrary, they still need to be done, not because they’re written on a piece of paper but because they are still just as much a part of the will of your landlord — now your father! And now you do them and a whole lot more because of love and gratitude for your father — because you want to please him and be like him and because you know that someday the house will be yours. You begin to help your father in things that go way beyond what was spelled out in the lease.

The lease agreement is no longer relevant to your relationship with your father or to your right to continue living in the house. But the terms of the agreement that reflected the will of the landlord and that indicate what it takes to maintain a house, continue to be extremely relevant.

Likewise, the unchanging and eternal will of God that was written into the terms of His “lease agreement” with ancient Israel is relevant to redeemed believers in the twenty-first century, even though we are not under that lease.

But now we look at the law with entirely different eyes. Our motivation is changed. No longer do we obey merely because Exodus 20 or Leviticus 23 or Matthew 5 says so. Rather, we obey for the fundamental reason that it pleases our Redeemer and Father! Indeed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the will of God is written in our hearts; it is no longer just a code written in a book or on tables of stone. We are living in the time of the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah and written of in the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:15-18; Jeremiah 31:31-34). As Paul wrote:

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we might serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6).

Every day we rise to ask not, “What do I have to do today?” but “How can I please my Lord today?” In answering that question, we search the Scriptures — all the Scriptures, including the Ten Commandments and the old covenant and the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul and the other apostles.

Furthermore, we know from Jesus’ teachings that God is concerned with the intent of our hearts, not just our actions. It’s not just actual physical adultery that He considers sin; lusting in our minds is sinful. It’s not just actual murder that is wrong; hatred in our heart is sin (Matthew 5:21-26; 27-30).

To be sure, there are many elements of the old covenant that are no longer relevant — just as, returning to the lease analogy, there were terms of the written agreement that ceased to be relevant after the landlord tore it up. Perhaps the rent was due on the tenth of each month, and there was a penalty for late payments. Now there is no rent at all; it is all “paid in advance.” Perhaps the lease specified that the renter could have no pets. Now he has the landlord’s permission to get a cat, etc. By getting to know his newfound father on a personal level, the tenant learns his will in many areas. But basic principles reflected in the terms of the lease remain.

Similarly, the animal sacrifices and circumcision required under the old covenant are clearly unnecessary under the new. Letting slaves go free in the seventh year isn’t applicable. Shaving the head of a female captive before marrying her is obviated by much greater principles. Of course, not all Christians will agree on precisely which teachings of the old covenant are still relevant for those saved by grace. But all should be motivated by love for God, not by a sense of obligation to comply with the terms of the old “lease agreement.” Indeed, having been redeemed by the precious blood of God’s only Son, we have a far greater obligation to serve Him than anyone living under the old covenant ever had. This is what Paul means when he writes, “So then I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law . . .” (Romans 7:25).

Line Down the Center of the Road

Jesus uses the analogy of the road and a gate to explain the way to eternal life. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). He is the small gate and the narrow road! This figure of speech can be taken a step further to help us understand the relationship of the law to following Jesus.

Roads typically have several elements that we take for granted: pavement with a white line down the center, a shoulder, guardrail, and sometimes a ditch or fence. And then beyond the right-of-way lie the fields or houses or marshes or cliffs or mountains. There are a lot of exciting things along the side of the road — things that attract our attention, that fascinate us, and that we’d love to see up-close. But we know that if we drive our car off the road toward those attractions, we could be hurt or killed. Even if we survived leaving the road, we might never get back on.

To discourage us from leaving the safety of the road are the shoulder, perhaps with rumble strips, a guardrail, and a ditch. If we drift off the road, the roughness of the shoulder should bring us back to our senses. If that doesn’t work, perhaps the guardrail will guide us away from the terrible danger on the other side.

But generally when we drive, we don’t focus on the shoulder or the guardrail; rather, we focus on the center line, even though we are always aware of the shoulder and guardrail.

In this extended analogy, the road stands for Jesus and the righteousness of faith He offers through grace — the only way to eternal life. His examples and His teachings are like the center line on the road. That’s what we focus on as we seek to please God and do His will. The guardrail corresponds to the law — something that we don’t have to think about much. And if we’re successful in following the center line and staying on the road, we’ll never need the guardrail. But if we take our eyes off Jesus and His teachings and begin to wander from Him, the guardrail of the law comes into play and should jolt us awake. It cries out, so to speak, “Watch out!” If we look out into the fields and houses and forests off the road and find interesting things there that tempt us, the law says, “Danger! Stay on the road! Don’t go past here, or you could be seriously hurt. You might never get back on the road.”

Does the guardrail make a road? Absolutely not! Can someone successfully get to his destination without a guardrail? Theoretically, yes — if he is successful in staying on the road. Similarly, one can theoretically get to the destination of eternal life by focusing on Jesus and the teachings of Jesus without even being aware of the law! On the other hand, can someone get to his destination by following a guardrail by itself? Never! Similarly, no one will gain eternal life by following the law. It cannot give life; it does not make a way to salvation. Those who focus only on the law will not find the narrow gate that leads to life. Only Jesus can give eternal life!

However, while the guardrail is theoretically unnecessary, in practical terms it is a vital part of every road construction design. Similarly, the law plays an important role in God’s plan for humanity. It stems from the will and nature of God just as much as faith, grace, and the teachings of Jesus. It reveals what is good for human beings as individuals and for society as a whole. Just think about what kind of people you’d like to live next to. And while the law is theoretically unnecessary for those who are spiritual in Christ, the practical fact is that Christians are tempted to wander from the way of Jesus. When we fail to be loving, patient, kind, or merciful, we’re taking our eyes off center line of the road. When we lust, when we become preoccupied with physical things, with getting, with pleasure, we’re bumping along on the shoulder. And when we fornicate, steal, break the Sabbath, commit adultery, we’re crashing through the guardrail of the law that is there to warn us, in no uncertain terms, of the consequences of wandering from Him. In that regard, the law is vitally important to followers of Jesus, even though they may not be conscious of it day by day as they focus on following Him.

The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers — and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me . . . (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

Paul’s primary premise in this statement is that “the law is good — if one uses it properly.” Like the guardrail, it isn’t made (in the legal sense) for those who have been saved and who are conscientiously and carefully following the center line of Jesus Christ, though it can help them understand His nature and will. But all believers are tempted by the flesh, the world, and the Devil. And all, to one degree or another, give in to temptation and begin to wander off the road and head for the enticements on the other side of the guardrail. At that point, the law comes into play, directing tempted or sinning saints back to Jesus. It is not a method of salvation; it is not the road to eternal life. But it is a reflection of God’s will and a warning to all who wander from His will.

Is there a conflict between the road with its center line and the guardrail? No! Each serves its own purpose. Similarly, there is no conflict between the teachings of Jesus and the guardrail of the law that runs parallel to it.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles freely cite the laws of the Old Testament, the only Scriptures extant at that time. They quote from the law numerous times, repeating in word or in principle all of the Ten Commandments and numerous other laws from the Old Testament, even as they decried those who would seek to enter into or continue right standing with God by observing the law. They understood fully that the law was not a means to salvation. But as a reflection of the nature of God, as a standard for human conduct, as a source for understanding the will of God for His people, the law is vitally important.

Christians should be able to say wholeheartedly with the psalmist and the apostle Paul, “Oh, how I love your law! . . . Your statutes are wonderful . . . If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction . . . the law is good . . . I delight in God’s law . . . I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law.”

More brochures in this series...

                         Baptism   Financial Support of the Gospel   How should church be supported   Lord's Supper