Fences and Mirrors—God’s Law, Sharp and Active

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In the past few postings, we have been exploring Question #2 of Theology 101, “What am I like?” Today I want to discuss the importance of the law of God, i.e., what God requires of us, in answering that question. As a matter of fact, God’s law, wherever it is found, Old Testament or New, is the main tool God has in helping us to answer it correctly.

This “importance of the law” may be surprising and uncomfortable to many who have responded to the gospel of the grace of God. To them, the idea of having anything at all to do in order to please God strikes utter fear in their hearts.

They often have lived for years in bondage to the necessity of having to live by obedience to the law as a condition necessary for God’s approval, as preached by the religious Pharisees all around them. They now understandably want nothing to do with any laws whatsoever! They have become what theologians call “antinomians”—”against the law.”

Those who preach this gospel of the grace of God are often accused of this very thing. Martyn Lloyd Jones, a famous English preacher of the last century is quoted as saying,

“True preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge (antinomianism) being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this . . . If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.”

Paul heard this very same accusation of antinomianism wherever he went:  “Let me get this straight, Paul; if I am no longer under the law as a way to live, then the law must have been a bad thing, even sin. Right?” Paul’s answer is incredibly short, concise and packed with insight: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET” (Romans 7:7).

He is saying that the law is indispensable because it defines the character of God, and it exposes anything that does not measure up as sin. One is no longer in the dark. Right and wrong are not up for grabs. They are not in question. The written law of God has removed all doubt. Case closed. That was Paul’s approach.

However, not so fast. Paul reiterates that the law is good in 1 Timothy 1:8, but adds a qualifier that the church today, for the most part, has completely missed. “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully,” implying that there is an improper or unlawful use that is not the way God uses His law. Paul discusses the same idea in II Corinthians 3 where he says using the law improperly “brings death” (vs. 6), is a “ministry of death” (vs. 7), and a “ministry of condemnation” (vs. 9). In other words, the very law of God, improperly applied, has disastrous results!

So, it follows that nothing is more important than this truth of using God’s law properly in my life if I am earnest in my desire to daily follow Jesus.  What is the law’s “proper use”?”

There are two, and only two, legitimate ways God uses His law in our lives. They are spelled out clearly in two successive verses in Galatians 3:

“But before faith came, 1.) we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 2.) Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”  (Galatians 3:23-25).

The first use of the law by God in our lives is as a guard to protect us from destroying ourselves until we come to faith in Christ, and the second is to be our tutor (paidagogos – lit., child-leader”) to lead us to faith in Christ. The only two ways God uses His law in our lives is to guard us and to lead us to faith in Christ.

To guard us, i.e., to protect us in the family, in the community, and in society in general, is easy enough to see. Before we are Christians we need external constraints with sanctions applied when they are broken to keep us from lawlessness because many of us have inadequate internal ones. This is God’s first use of His law, His external one. This has to do with our relationships with others and not with God.

However, It is considerably harder to see and understand God’s second use, His internal one, which deals with our relationship with Him. Many believe that we should do our very best to be “obedient to God’s law in everything we do, which will “please God” and we will “grow in our faith.” However, that is most definitely not God’s second use of His law but instead is an illegitimate one; it will be, to use Paul’s words in II Corinthians quoted above, a “ministry of condemnation” and will “bring death” to all who try to please God by anything they do.

The obvious question is, “Why, then, are there commands on every page of the Bible proclaiming what God asks us to do even impossible things like, ‘So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Matthew 5:48)?

Here’s why. This is God’s second use of the law in our lives—as a tutor, or “child-leader” to lead us to faith in Daddy. Faith in Daddy only comes to us fallen, independent, self-sufficient sinners when we try to keep His law and finally realize we are helpless to ever do so. “Almost’s” don’t count; “Nobody’s perfect,” and “Everyone does that” won’t work. When God finally opens my eyes to the condition of my heart, I see I am helpless to ever keep His law.

Another biblical word for this second use of the law is as a “mirror” (James 1:23, 24) that shows us our pervasive sin, our helplessness to keep the law, and ultimately faith in what Daddy did at the cross to forgive every bit of our sin resulting from all those broken laws. Mirrors are never for cleaning; we do not scrub our faces with them. They are always only for exposing to us what we can’t see otherwise, our dirty faces!

Paul’s three-verse definition of God’s two uses of the law in our lives concludes with what many see as a throw-away line.  They cannot fathom how it could be true, so they ignore it. When the child-leader, the law, has brought us to faith, Paul says “We are no longer under a ‘child-leader.’”

Next week we will explore that statement by Paul as we begin to answer Question #3 of Theology 101: “How does God relate to me?”

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