In the last few postings I may have left the impression that the law of God is somehow the “bad guy” as we enter the life of faith as a Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth, as sings King David in Psalm 119:97, the phrase that is the title of today’s posting.
Psalm 119 constitutes the longest chapter in the Bible, and is made up of David’s view of the law as perfect without any blemishes, his attempts to follow it as the only rule of life, the advantage keeping it gives him over his enemies, and even his success in doing so. If you have read my previous postings this has definitely not been the message I have conveyed. What is the answer to this seeming dichotomy?
Paul gives us the answer in 1 Timothy 1:8, 9: “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully . . . knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners . . .”
In these verses Paul says that the law is good ONLY IF it is used properly—for lawless adulterers and murderers like David—implying that there is a way the law can be used improperly. As a matter of fact, the holy, righteous law of God will actually kill spiritual life if it is used incorrectly (2 Corinthians 3:6). David discovered its proper use, found rivers of living water flowing in his life, and wrote Psalm 119 as a result.
What would constitute the unlawful use of God’s law? This is a question the majority of the church in America today has not even realized it needs to ask. There may be an unconscious uneasiness about a nebulous “legalism” that remains undefined, but there is also the opposite—the much-feared “license” always lurking in the shadows, just waiting to pounce on unwary believers. We are not sure where these two sinful practices begin and the desirable traits of obedience and freedom end.
However, the church does recognize its increasing ineffectiveness in accomplishing its mission of extending Christ’s kingdom in today’s culture, but she doesn’t generally have a clue that a fuzzy understanding God’s law and how to use it properly is at the very heart of the problem. Paul defines the lawful use of the law for us clearly in successive verses in Galatians 3.
These two verses represent the two distinctly different objectives God has as He brings His law, as found in the Bible, to bear in our lives. Not understanding these distinctions has led to the law’s misuse, with exceedingly destructive results in the lives of many Christians today.
Use #1 – Galatians 3:23: “But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed.”
Use #2 – Galatians 3:24, 25: “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.”
We will begin to investigate the first use of God’s law, its guarding function as a fence (vs. 23) , and then the second use, its guiding function as a tutor (vs. 24, 25).
The use of the law of God as a guard in the civil government
It has been recognized in the church down through the ages that the first function of the law is its external application as a guard here on the earth. This has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s relationship with God, who is “above” us in heaven.
All societies must have some civil law in order to survive. How does a society function when it is made up of desperately wicked sinners whose behavior must be controlled in order to preserve that society? It survives only as long as their external conduct, what is “beneath” them, i.e., under their control here on the earth, is guarded or regulated by laws that define what is acceptable behavior in that particular society. When those laws are broken, there must be appropriate sanctions in order for them to be at all meaningful and effective.
Historically in America, when dealing with crime in the society, our forefathers based their external, civil laws firmly and self-consciously upon the civil laws enumerated in the Bible. Over the last 1½ centuries, this custom has fallen from favor in America and any suggestion of the possibility that the civil law in the Bible should have anything to do with the civil law today brings amazement, ridicule and scorn.
This is the response of most Christians as well. They have known nothing in their lifetimes but man creating his own laws by which he governs himself, even though our colonial founders originally based those laws on the Bible. Increasingly our laws have no basis of authority whatsoever except what man himself deems to be right.
Most Christians have never considered that there are only two possibilities for the origin of civil law: 1.) God’s law that He Himself has revealed to us in the Bible under which God wants us to live or 2.) sinful man’s law that he creates himself under which he wants to live. There are no other possibilities for civil law.
It seems to be obvious which option has the best opportunity to create a successful, peaceful, smoothly functioning society, but we have subconsciously believed that they won’t work today in modern society. We must somehow think up our own laws that seem right to us to govern ourselves, with no self conscious standard but our own reasoning. How are we doing with that?
Our out-of-control government has usurped the place of God in making its own laws to govern our country. We are now operating totally under man’s law rather than God’s. This has produced an ever-burgeoning welfare state, abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, disintegrating families, “hate” crimes, a managed economy that picks winners and losers and on and on. This has occurred because we have greatly expanded civil law’s province beyond its biblical parameters while often neglecting its narrow guarding function of protecting and punishing.
Next week we’ll look at the use of the law of God as a guard in the family.