Grace before law
It’s the story of the gospel: God rescues his people from slavery through the sacrificial blood of the lamb, to build them into a royal nation and a kingdom of priests, so that through them the whole world will see his glory.
And then he gives them the law.
The Old Testament law, of which the Ten Commandments stand at the beginning and as the foundation, was always given as an act of grace. Grace upon grace, coming as it did after God’s gracious action of redeeming the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Grace upon grace shown towards the people he chose, not for anything that made them special, but simply because of his choice. It’s perhaps because the writers understood the giving of the law as an act of grace that the psalms contain expressions of deep love and appreciation for God’s law (see Psalm 19:7-11, Psalm 119:107-114).
The ancient Israelites knew that they were not justified before God by their obedience, just as Christians do. Article 7 of the Thirty-Nine Articles states that, “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New, for in both the Old and New Testaments eternal life is offered to mankind through Christ.” (English Prayer Book) Salvation is, and has always been, by grace, through Christ.
What is the law for, in that case?
Laws don’t make us perfectly obedient. When a teacher sets out the rules for their classroom, it doesn’t mean that their students will never break those rules. When the government passes laws, it doesn’t result in no criminal behaviour. Laws don’t have that kind of power.
But laws and rules do establish an expected standard of behaviour. They reflect the values and priorities of the teacher in their classroom, or the government of a nation. Laws set the boundaries which will result in punishment or reward, so that we all know where we stand. And, though they cannot perfectly control our behaviour, they do act as a deterrent. If we know that acting in a certain way will lead to a fine, or imprisonment, or detention, we are less likely to behave that way.
God’s law works in the same ways. Traditionally, theologians have called this the ‘threefold use of the law’: to be a mirror, a deterrent, and a standard for our behaviour.
How is God’s law a mirror?
The law reflects the nature of God himself. The law shows us right from wrong as God sees it. It establishes his values and priorities in a way we can understand. The law also acts as a mirror for us. It shows us what we are really like, how far short of God’s standards we fall. Without the law, we might persuade ourselves that we aren’t too bad, really. We can find excuses for all kinds of sinful actions, but the law doesn’t let us get away with those excuses.
How is God’s law a deterrent?
God’s law won’t make us holy, but it can stop us from being as sinful as we could possibly be. There are both punishments and rewards on offer, and both are designed to change our behaviour to be more in line with God’s will. Simply knowing God’s standards ought to make us want to live accordingly. Similarly, when we are told that God finds a certain action detestable, that ought to motivate us to avoid it.
How is God’s law a standard for our behaviour?
The law explains how to live lives that please our heavenly Father. God has not changed in the thousands of years since he gave his law and so his values, priorities and standards have not changed, though of course we will need to think about how those apply at a different stage of salvation history. But Christian freedom is freedom to love and obey our gracious, saving God, not freedom to indulge our sinful nature in any way we choose, and so we will still want to live up to his standards for our lives.
Jesus fulfilled the law
But surely Jesus came to fulfil the law, so that we don’t have to? Well, not quite. What Jesus said was:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-19
Jesus says that he came to fulfil the law but not to abolish it. The law remains until the last day, without the smallest dot being changed! So why don’t we offer animal sacrifices then? And why do we wear polycotton shirts and enjoy shellfish? Aren’t we ignoring some laws while insisting others?
The Old Testament law covers a wide range of different subjects, which Jesus fulfils in different ways. Let’s go back to Article 7: “Although the law given by God through Moses is not binding on Christians as far as its forms of worship and ritual are concerned and the civil regulations are not binding on any nation state, nevertheless no Christian is free to disobey those commandments which may be classified as moral.”
Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws concerning worship and ritual in a way that rendered them obsolete. There is no need for more sacrifices because Jesus has offered the one perfect sacrifice of himself, made once and for all. There is no need for more priests because Jesus is our great High Priest who has permanently opened the way for us into the most holy place. The ceremonial law has all been fulfilled in Christ and we keep it now simply through trusting in what he has done.
Jesus fulfilled the civil law by establishing the Kingdom of God which supersedes the nation of Israel. This means that some of these laws are no longer applicable, while others remain relevant in setting the principles for civil government. Laws needed for ordering and protecting an agricultural people in the Middle East don’t always have direct application to industrialised societies in different parts of the world. Laws which distinguished the Israelites from their neighbours are no longer needed, since people of all nations have been gathered into God’s kingdom. But, for example, the principles of justice established in the Old Testament law are still relevant in governing any nation in accordance with God’s will.
The third category, which includes the Ten Commandments, is the moral law. Jesus fulfilled the moral law by his full obedience to it. In heart, mind, word and deed, he loved his Father with all his strength, his mind, his heart and will, and he loved his neighbour as himself. But he also says that whoever loves him will keep his commands. We are not excused obedience because of his. He is our example to copy, our leader to follow, our master to obey.
Questions for reflection:
1. Are you naturally a ‘rule breaker’ or a ‘rule keeper’? What is your response to being told what to do?
2. What should motivate Christians to live holy lives?
3. In what ways are the Ten Commandments still relevant for Christians?
Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for the gracious gift of your law. Use it to teach us more of who you are, to show us more of our sin, and to lead us into greater godliness in everything we do. Amen.