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When Did the Law Turn Sour?


In our day, whenever Gospel and law or grace and law appear together in the same breath, law always takes a beating. Law condemns, but grace redeems. Now to see law viewed as some kind of culprit is an astonishing development, because in the Old Testament Torah is viewed as very good news indeed. The longest of the psalms, Psalm 119, is nothing but a celebration of Torah.

And it’s not just Torah that gets the kudos, for the good news umbrella covers all the commands God gave in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 4:5-8, for example, Moses nearly  pops his buttons for excitement over the good news of the law:

5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (NRSV)

Two passages in the New Testament document the dramatic change in attitudes toward the law. The first is Acts 15, the story of the first General Conference, called over the issue of whether or not Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to become Christians. At the conference, Peter unburdened his soul with astonishing frankness about the burden of God-given laws:  “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10, NIV).  He is talking about God-given laws!

The second passage is Romans 7, a tortured chapter that reveals Paul’s inner struggle over law. In 7:12 he affirms that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. (NRSV). But then the anguish emerges. “I do not understand what I do,” he exclaims. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do I agree that the law is good” (7:15-16, NIV).  “In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (7:22-23, NIV).

In near despair, he cries out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24, NRSV). For Paul, the resolution of his terror comes in the first verse of chapter 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1, NRSV).

Grace at last and Paul is at peace with God.

Two factors may help us understand why the good news of the law has turned sour in the New Testament. The first involves the Jewish reaction to the Babylonian exile which began with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The prophets were blunt: disobedience had triggered the exile. When God’s people finally awoke to that fact, they thought they could take steps to make sure it couldn’t happen again. They built a fence about the law, as the rabbis called it, adding an additional layer of commands to protect them from breaking the decalogue itself. So, with reference to the Sabbath command, for example, they made a list of 39 categories of work. When the disciples walked through the grain field on Sabbath, plucking grain as they went, they broke four of these major categories: reaping, threshing, winnowing, and preparing a meal (William Barclay, Matthew, vol. 2, Daily Study Bible [Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1958], 24). 

The problem with such an approach is that while one can lose the kingdom through disobedience, one cannot gain it back by mere obedience. Any and all attempts to thus “earn” salvation are doomed to failure, leading either to arrogance or despair or both. And here is where the second factor comes into play, namely, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  In six striking comparisons, Jesus moves from external behavior to inner thoughts. These comparisons make it painfully clear that even if we are able to obey externally, internal obedience is quite another matter. One can refrain from killing, but what about anger? One can refrain from adultery, but what about lustful thoughts?

By thus calling God’s people to a higher standard, Jesus himself may have triggered the deep ambivalence toward law that surfaces in Acts 15 and Romans 7. But Scripture gives us a great truth that can turn our ambivalence to joy: Grace before law.  It is subtly reflected in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But it is explicitly stated by Paul in Romans 5.

If the traditional relationship between law and grace depicts law as an instrument of condemnation with grace as the redeemer. Paul suggests that we can turn that relationship around: “Grace before law” points to the fact that God saves us before we have even attempted to obey. That makes obedience not a painful duty, but an act of joyful gratitude.

Note the three-fold echo of that truth in Romans 5:6-10, cited here from the NRSV:  1) “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (5:7); 2) “while we still were sinners Christ died for us (5:); 3) “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” (5:10).  We were weak, sinners, enemies when Christ died for us. And in the knowledge of that grace obedience springs from gratitude.

The Old Testament version of this truth is at once more vivid and more subtle. God delivered Israel from Egypt before they had done anything to merit deliverance. Grace came first. Then God took them to Sinai to hear the “good news” of the law.

In short, God’s intention in giving us the law is to graciously point us toward a more abundant life. If we try to earn a place in the kingdom through obedience, however, the experience of Romans 7 will be our sorry state. But if we accept God’s gracious gift of salvation, obedience can flow from gratitude.

G. K. Chesterton, in his delightful little biography of Francis of Assisi, almost perfectly captures the mood of the believer when grace becomes before law:

“If ever that rarer sort of romantic love, which was the truth that sustained the Troubadours, falls out of fashion and is treated as fiction, we may see some such misunderstanding as that of the modern world about asceticism. For it seems conceivable that some barbarians might try to destroy chivalry in love, as the barbarians ruling in Berlin destroyed chivalry in war. If that were ever so, we should have the same sort of unintelligent sneers and unimaginative questions. Men will ask what selfish sort of woman it must have been who ruthlessly exacted tribute in the form of flowers, or what an avaricious creature she can have been to demand solid gold in the form of a ring; just as they ask what cruel kind of God can have demanded sacrifice and self-denial. They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant [95-96] by love; and will not understand that it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.”– G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughten, 1923, 1964), 95-96

“It was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.”  Amen

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