One of the perennial questions of the Christian life is how we are to stand in reference to Law. I am going to be speaking of Law in a “broader” sense than the Old Testament Law. Though I do have the OT Law in mind, I am speaking about something more general, which I hope will become apparent. One of the greatest troubles of people who grow up in church is they believe Christ to be the ticket into heaven and then they must do his commands. The Christian life is thought of in an overly-simplistic manner – that our obedience to God is a matter of our effort to carry out his commands, such as “love your neighbor”. We believe on Jesus Christ, and then we end up trying very hard to do what he commands.
My efforts in the following post(s) are to first show the (1) the purpose of Law, (2) the insufficiency of our efforts to obey Law, and (3) the bondage that Law brings. Second, I would like to try and show (1) how Christ replaces Law, (2) the essence of the Law of Christ, (3) how freedom from Law is truly obtained, and (4) how we obey God and Christ. These are reflections and are not intended to be some great outline of how this all works, there are many much wiser men who have tread these depths that we ought to consult on these matters. At any rate, I hope this might help others process through this topic.
The Purpose of Law
The first question that must be asked is, “Why Law?” – Why do we have Law, what is its purpose and function? Some might ask the question or live on the assumption that Law is irrelevant. Anyone who believes Law to be irrelevant is blind and has not spend much time with humanity or is quite deluded.
Any and all expressed and codified law presupposes the inclination to break it.
A helpful way to understand this is to see Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notes on a similar question. Bonhoeffer is commenting on why Jesus abolishes the taking of vows by his disciples and instead letting “your yes be yes and no be no.”
The very existence of oaths is a proof that there are such things as lies. If lying were unknown, there would be no need for oaths. Oaths are intended as a barrier against untruthfulness. But it goes further than that: for there, where alone the oath claims final truth, is space in life given to the lie, and it is granted a certain right of life. The Old Testament had expressed its condemnation of the lie by the use of the oath. But Jesus destroys the lie by forbidding oaths altogether. Here as there it is the same question, one and undivided, of the destruction of untruth in the life of the believer. The oath which the Old Testament set against the lie is seized by the lie itself and pressed into service. It is thus able through the oath to establish itself and to take the law into its own hands. So the lie must be seized by Jesus in the very place to which it flees, in the oath. Therefore the oath must go, since it is a protection for the lie.
Cost of Discipleship; p. 152, emphasis added
To make a vow implies that there is the possibility that the one who promises to keep the vow can and has inclinations toward breaking it, hence the vow.
Such is the nature of Law. The implementation and presence of Law presupposes that human nature is inherently bent toward evil. If humanity were good or humans were essentially good then there would be no Law. How can this be, especially when the common assumption by the unbelieving world is that humanity is essentially good? The answer lies in the observation that the breaking of but one commandment reveals the whole being of man to be anti-law.
Even one such action of wrongdoing implicates that the wrongdoer has an evil heart. The nature is totally changed at the moment of the first wrongdoing. A single-instance violation completely destroys all Law. What it is at the core of law breaking is not the single-instance violation itself, but the inclination toward violation. Once a human (read: Adam) has committed transgression, the inclination toward good has been subverted eternally. There is no longer anything binding the person towards goodness. They have rebelled and therefore are constantly capable of rebelliousness. Law itself has been undone and by the transgression its whole purpose has been refuted. The person has, through their rebellion, demonstrated that they believe themselves to be “above the law” – that is to say, they assert themselves no longer bound to it. They show by but one act that Law cannot dictate – from now on, they are the dictator.
When a man (Adam) has committed transgression, he is not simply saying something about the single commandment, but about Law itself. This is the crucial point to understand. Above the single instance of transgression stands Law. The command, “Thou shalt not steal” or “lie”, etc., does not stand on its own but is dependent upon the whole of Law itself. When a man transgresses he is saying something more about obedience and less about a specific command. He is saying, “I am under no obligation to obey. I am my own autonomous decider of truth, what’s right, and what is good. Law is applicable insofar as it provides for me.” Hence, the issue is not primarily with the object of the command, “Thou Shalt Not Steal“, but with command itself “Thou Shalt.” The problem is not ultimately that man wants to steal, but that man is rejecting obedience and setting himself in autonomy to what is good. Law demands not partial obedience, or stumbling obedience, even as many try and justify themselves with the statement, “nobody’s perfect…” but complete compliance, for Law is singularly concerned with complete and perfect obedience. The principle of obedience crumbles before the man who asserts his autonomy, the decider of his own fate. And when obedience crumbles, Law falls with it. If a man is not subject to one commandment, why ought he be subject to another? If a man can lie, why can he not also steal? or murder? Some may say, “because of the seriousness of the crime.” But I ask, which is more serious, the degree to which the commandment has been broken, or the Law upon which the commandment hangs? The higher principal broken is obedience itself. Though the single transgression itself may be most abominable, the more abominable act is the belief in autonomy to obedience to Law.
The single-instance violation in effect destroys all hope for genuine and true obedience, for humanity moves from a state of dependence to a state of autonomy. Obedience at its heart is “subjection to all”, disobedience at its heart is “subjection to none”. Obedience is subjection and dependence because it knows that Law is wiser, for it is Right and Good, and so must depend upon Law to delineate conduct. Disobedience is autonomy because at its heart it declares Law actually to be evil and wrong, a denier of desire a pleasure. If a man disobeys Law, he is effectively declaring that the commandment of the Law is foolish – “What does Law know? Law doesn’t know what it’s talking about. All it wants to do is hold me back from having pleasure, so Law is foolish. You know what, Law is in fact evil, for what right does it have to deny me access to the pleasure I so desire?” Law then becomes irrelevant. But it is more – Law becomes a tool in the hands of a rebel. It becomes a tool that can be used and discarded so long as it serves the purpose of the rebel himself. Law is not accepted because of its superiority over man, but instead, it is only accepted when it can serve the ends of the person.
At such a moment, when man sees that they are no longer bound to Law, Revealed Law must come in to curtail human rebellion. Without Revealed Law, human rebellion goes unbridled and unchecked, and therefore has free reign. A man must be told, “Thou Shalt Not” for the very reason that he believes that there is no ultimate “Thou Shalt Not.” Unless a command is given, transgression has free reign, pleased to do with itself as it pleases, and judgment and punishment must be attached to the commandment, lest man think his evil is without consequence. Transgression has free reign because man has become evil. They do not do good, for truly, they cannot. They cannot obey Law for but one moment for they most centrally believe that they are above Law. This is what the Puritans mean by the phrase, “Beautiful Sins” – though man may obey a commandment such as “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” for this is within their power, they cannot likewise obey Law, for they are opposed to Law. Though they have external conformity to the commandment and therefore appear beautiful, they have internal rebellion to Law and therefore even such acts are sin.
Law, as Bonhoeffer alludes, is “intended as a barrier.” It sets the boundaries of fallen human conduct. But Law is irrelevant to fallen man, for he is a Law unto himself. Law is then seen to be given on the presupposition that man is fallen, evil, and broke.