Saturday, April 5, 2008

Law and the Christian

Some Christians believe that grace is antithetical to law. They assert that just as the Spirit is contrary to the flesh, so love and grace are contrary to the law. Christians need not be concerned with the Ten Commandments (Decalogue), they say, because they are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14). Furthermore, since Christians do not offer sacrifices at the Temple, nor do they observe dietary food laws (except the law of overeating), they can assume the Decalogue has no place in the life of the Christian because the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). Finally, the assertion is that the only purpose of the law is to convict of sin and lead us to the knowledge of our need for a Savior (Gal 3:24). And, any text, especially Psalm 119, is not applicable to us in the New Covenant era:

29 Keep me from deceitful ways;
be gracious to me through your law.

30 I have chosen the way of truth;
I have set my heart on your laws.

31 I hold fast to your statutes, O LORD;
do not let me be put to shame.

32 I run in the path of your commands,
for you have set my heart free.

According to this view, Psalm 119, and any other Old Testament account exclaiming the goodness of God's law is abrogated in the New Testament era because it is "pre-Christ." In other words, Christ has fulfilled the law for us (Matt 5:17) and removed its condemning power from us (Col 2:14: "canceled the written code"). We are to remember that the law was only given with the sole purpose of leading us to Christ to show us our sin...

Romans 7:7 "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet."

Interestingly, even Romans 7:6, the verse right before this one says, "But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code." The conclusion is that therefore Christians are to live their lives under the power of the Holy Spirit, and not use the Decalogue as a guide for life.

As one can see, there is some strength to this argument, since it fits a logically driven, theological construction, and--most importantly--there are numerous passages of Scripture that seem to lend support the argument.

However, Martin Luther first used the term antinomian (against law) toward his friend, Johannes Agricola, who taught that Christians are not obligated to obey the Decalogue because they are under grace. Martin would have nothing of it, and Agricola and he parted ways.

Many Christians today believe this form of antinomianism, believing that the law is a dangerous thing which only convicts of sin. The law has no life-giving power, at least not anymore. It may have at one time, but that was "pre-Christ," or before the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost.

On the other hand, one might consider the point of the whole law: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18; cf Luke 10:27-28).

John Murray writes, "We are not saved by obedience to the law, but we are saved unto it," (booklet, The Sanctity of the Moral Law). To see that this axiom has warrant, we need only look at Romans 13:8-10:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery,"
"Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

From the context, it is clear that Paul is talking about the Decalogue. He subsumes the entire code in his thought with the phrase, "and whatever other commandment there may be." Paul also tells us that "love fulfills the law." If love fulfills the law, then love must have an object. If it has an object, then love cannot be an abstract, self-instructing, self-directing principle that fulfills itself. No, love fulfills the law. It has an object, and that object is the law of God (Romans 13:10). Furthermore, the law of God, being an extenuation of the character of God, demands obedience not unto itself, but unto God himself. We do not merely obey the law; rather, we obey God out of love and thankfulness for the love he has given us in Jesus Christ. It is his precious death, and his glorious resurrection and giving of the Spirit and his grace and even our own faith, that calls us unto him in loving submission and obedience to his law.

That the Ten Commandments are to be a rule and guide for the life of the Christian can be seen in the injunction from Romans 13 (Other passages are Matthew 5-7 and James 2:8-12). We are not "under" the Decalogue. In the words of a good friend of mine (Norman Shepherd), "We don't obey the 4th commandment in order to provide a fine piece of real estate and retirement for our parents on the east end of the Mediterranean. Nor do we obey the 4th commandment on the 7th day of the week. But we obey the commandments out of love toward our heavenly Father." This is why Paul can tell children in Ephesians 6:1,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise), "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land."
Paul shortens the commandment, and removes it from it's original, historic context given from Sinai to the Jews who planned on living long in the land of Israel. The promise given to children who obeyed their parents was long life, with a promise to parents of being provided for in old age as they settled down near the Mediterranean. While Paul's use of the command is removed from its Judaic, and Mosaic context, it nevertheless contains the righteous requirement of the law commanded to the children of God holds fast to people under the auspices of the New Covenant. This idea is found in Romans 8:1-4. It says,
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Where it says that "the righteous requirements of the law," we are to "walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:5). It seems clear that the Decalogue is used in principle here as a guide for the Christian. While the Decalogue cannot be used in our lives the way it was originally written because of the change in historical and cultural context, it does offer the guiding principles that should be obeyed by us.


Jonathan Erdman said...

But Chris, you never dealt with all of those fantastic passages you first listed. Romans 7 says we are released from the Law, as you noted above. Do you think Paul just got that one wrong? Or that he just didn't know what he was talking about?

I don't know....because Paul reinforces the same kind of thinking when he writes to the Galatians, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." 5:18

Keep in mind, I'm not an antinomian. I think antinomianism in its various strands has missed the point in a similar way that Calvin/Luther and their croonies also missed the point.

chris van allsburg said...


Yes, I have to deal with those passages that seem to indicate the position I took for granted, but I wanted to do that on a different post, cuz it was too long already. I will do that some time this week. thanks for your comments.