The Law As Gospel?

The Law As Gospel?

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October 14, 2020

For most of us, the word “law” is not a happy word. I have never heard anyone say, “It’s the law” in a friendly tone of voice. But let’s explore the issue against the backdrop of a practical modern example, “required” seat belts, and I’ll start with some questions: When did you first start buckling up? What made you do it? Or maybe you are one of the few remaining renegades who insists on a life of unfettered freedom....

I don’t remember when or why I started buckling up. Typically I’m fairly obedient in practical matters—I only rebel when someone tells me I have to do something. Initially I buckled up faithfully when I was driving, but less faithfully when I was a passenger. But, since the winter of 1963, I wear a seat belt all the time, for in 1963 I was a passenger without one and popped my head through the windshield. I can still rub the scar on my forehead and feel it in the middle of my scalp. It’s a convincing argument in favor of seat belts.

But if seat belts are such a benefit, why doesn’t everyone wear them? Of course they restrict our freedoms and of course they’re uncomfortable. And yes, one can even cite examples of accidents where it was more dangerous to wear a seat belt than to be without. Still, the evidence in favor of seat belts is overwhelming.

So, our elected officials have decided to help us wear seat belts. The first efforts were gentle: buckles in the shape of hearts with a “loving” message: “Buckle up – we love you!”

Didn’t work. Here’s a harder line: “Buckle up! It’s the law.” Stronger words, but still not much muscle. Sometimes the hard rhetoric was softened just a bit: “Buckle up! It’s our law.”

But only when it turned expensive—“Click it or ticket!”—did the habit begin to catch on. When I checked the fines a few years ago, in Washington State, where I live, the fine was $101 for riding without a seat belt. Next door, in Oregon, it only cost $94. But in both states the authorities issue tickets with no qualms of conscience. Still, I am amazed at how often the report of a fatal accident includes the line: “The driver was not wearing a seat belt.”

Now let’s bring God into the picture. Should God be concerned about such things as seat belts? Why not, if God, like John, wants us to “prosper and be in health” (3 John 2)?

So, God sets about the task of helping us protect ourselves and others. In short, to make us be good. Well, make is a bit strong. Encourage? Entice? Coax?

You see the problem. Paul lays it out—his dilemma, ours, and God’s: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21).

But now let’s come to the role of law in education. After all, the umbrella concept for this quarter’s lessons is “education.” So does “law” help people think? In typical evangelical theology, law is an instrument of condemnation and points to the need of grace. But that doesn’t really help us see law as good news or to see law as a catalyst for exploratory thinking.

So let’s look at two Old Testament passages that paint a more balanced view of law. Both are from the book of Deuteronomy. In the first one (Deut. 4:5-8), Moses celebrates law as “good news.” So good, in fact, that Israel’s neighbors are said to admire it! After urging Israel to observe the God-given law, Moses argues that their obedience “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.’” Then Moses enthusiastically adds a punch line: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (NRSV).

In short, even Israel’s pagan neighbors recognized the great value of Israel’s laws. And in Moses’s commentary after the second giving of the law (Deut. 5:22-33), he rounds out his argument by noting two additional and related factors: the role of fear, and the purpose of law.

After describing Israel’s terror at the divine voice out of the fire, Moses quotes their urgent words:

Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive?

Their proposal? A mediator! “Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.”

Moses then describes God’s reaction to their request, underscoring the importance of God’s use of raw fear:

The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!”

God grants their request to make Moses a mediator. Moses then urges once more an understanding of the purpose of law:

You must therefore be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

According to Moses, obedience to law is not linked to eternal salvation, but to the good life here on earth. And he wasn’t squeamish about God’s use of fear to help them obey and live. In our “secular” age in the here and now, we understand the principle very well—without any appeal to God. If a youngster is at risk from a moving vehicle, the parent scares the kid half to death. It’s a life-and-death matter.

But shifting to the context of education, we must reckon with two additional factors: How does one move from fear to love, and how does one allow for the exploratory factor in a system that was originally motivated by fear?

In the first instance, love cannot be commanded. But 1 John 5:18 affirms a wonderful promise: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (NRSV). And the new covenant promises in Jeremiah 31 moves in the direction of affirming that same non-coercive ideal: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34, NRSV).

The question remains, however: How does one move from fear to love? If we look at our human world, for example, we could argue that it experience is what enables the change. When we observe that the “lover” has only our best interests in mind, fear gradually vanishes.

But, in the context of education, how does one come to the point where full exploration is encouraged, with no fear of authoritarian infringement on our freedom? Indeed, the goal is to establish a model within which both Scripture and the natural world may be fully explored—and not just allowed but enthusiastically encouraged.

Certainly the New Testament affirmation that “perfect love casts out fear” is crucial. But more surprising, perhaps, is the role played by God’s skeptical friends in the Old Testament: Job, Abraham, Moses, and Habakkuk. Job boldly declared: “He destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (Job 9:22, NRSV), and over the potential destruction of Sodom, Abraham confronted God over that very point: “Far be it from you to . . . to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25, NRSV).

Moses was perhaps the most successful of all God’s critics, for when God declared that he would destroy the idolatrous Israelites and make of Moses a great nation, Moses recoiled immediately:

“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (Exod. 32:11–14, NRSV).

Habakkuk is equally blunt: “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:3-4, NRSV).

In short, God himself has published, in Scripture, all these complaints about seeming flaws in God’s administration of the affairs on earth. Should we not take these seriously in developing our models for education? We may ask all our questions—we must ask all our questions.

One remarkable sidelight relative to education is suggested by the memory text for this week’s lesson in the official study guide: Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (NKJV). All three of the New Testament parallels for this passage add the word “mind,” a word missing from Deuteronomy: “all your mind” (Matt. 22:37), “all your mind” (Mark 12:30), “all your mind” (Luke 10:27). The mind is central in the New Testament passages. That’s worth pondering.

One other corrective to the typical evangelical view of law, as primarily an instrument of condemnation, is hiding in plain side in both testaments. It is the idea of “grace before law.” While typical evangelical theology sees law as condemning and grace as saving, one can argue from a “motivational” perspective that grace comes before law. Consider Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Did they deserve deliverance? No. Yet God delivered them “by grace,” touching their hearts so that at Mt. Sinai they could appreciate the law, in all its thunderous glory.

The New Testament parallel is in Romans 5, with a three-fold emphasis: 1) “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . 2) But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. . . . 3) While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son. . . .” (Rom. 5:6-10, NRSV).

In sum, grace is God’s wonderful gift —and so is his law. Indeed, as noted above, Jeremiah 31: 33–34 tells of a time when God’s law becomes so much a part of us that we are unaware of its presence.

For better or for worse, I have been blessed/cursed with a rebel soul. I hate to be told what to do. God’s promise is that someday I will live in a kingdom where nobody will tell anybody what to do, because the law is written on the heart.

Yet the idea of law as good news, as a liberating guide to life, which is so exciting and helpful for me, does not have that same effect on everyone. So the New Testament shows us how God has developed two different ways, two different paths to God’s kingdom. Both ideas are biblical, but are not greeted with equal enthusiasm by all believers. Indeed, some believers are wholehearted supporters of one view while viewing the other perspective with suspicion, even hostility. And that’s true of both extremes. The ideal, I believe, is for each of us to find the nourishment that meets the needs of our soul—while praying for the gift of God’s Spirit to understand the other perspective. Why snatch away from a fellow believer that which nurtures that believer’s soul?

Now, when describing the two views, I try to use explanations that are as neutral as possible, explanations that avoid offending those who do not yet understand one view or the other. Unfortunately, the best explanations involve words of many syllables. But in what follows, I mix simple words with pictures in order to get the point across.

I’ll start with the view that I grew up with, but which didn’t really work for me. It pictured Jesus pleading his blood to the father on my behalf. One could say that the cross is pointed heavenward and the demands of the law. I felt that if Jesus had to plead with the Father on my behalf, God must be reluctant to accept me. If Jesus talked long enough and hard enough, the Father would finally reluctantly agree to let me in the back door. That’s a distorted view to be sure, but that’s how I felt. That view we can call the “objective atonement,” a view of the cross that sees an objective standard in heaven that somehow has to be satisfied by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Romans 8 is a good source for that view.

The other view sees the cross pointed earthward, toward the human heart. No price is demanded; Jesus simply teaches us that God gave everything to save us. This view can be called the “subjective atonement.” I discovered it from John 14-17 and it transformed my view of God. In John 14-17, we hear Jesus telling the disciples that if they have seen him, they have seen the father (John 14:8). In other words, Jesus is God in human flesh. God didn’t just send someone else to earth, God himself took human flesh and came to show us what God is like.

I made that discovery while I was at the seminary and I remember excitedly telling my colleague Jon Dybdahl, “Guess what, Jon! Jesus is God!” He already knew that. I was just slow on the uptake.

Since then, I have gone back to Romans 8. Indeed, I have memorized it, seeking to understand those who find the objective atonement so helpful. Put another way, I was wanting to be blessed in the same way that others have been blessed by that chapter. And the light has begun to shine, for which I am very grateful.

Some of you will find Romans 8 more helpful, the cross pointed heavenward to the demands of the law. Others will be blessed by John 14–17, the cross pointed earthward to the needs of the human heart. By God’s grace, you will find what nurtures your soul best.

Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Therese Mikkelsen Skaar on Unsplash

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