We live in a lawless society. It’s not that there is no law or law-enforcement, but our culture is thoroughly anti-authoritarian and so anything to do with legal requirements or legal restrictions is never viewed without distaste, even hostility. Laws are frequently given only grudging obedience, even when they are for one’s own good.
That attitude carries over into spiritual matters. The law of God is not a popular subject today. Few have any desire to hear about a God who tells people what they ought to do and how they ought to live. God’s law is written off as oppressive or unnecessary. It would be a serious enough matter if this outlook were found only outside the church. Tragically, many Christians have little understanding of the purpose of God’s law, scant sense of any need for it, and a suspicion of those who have something to say in support of it.
How is it then that the psalmist can say, ‘O how I love your law’ (Psalm 119:97)? Lest that be written off as ‘just the Old Testament’, listen to the apostle Paul in Romans 7:22 – ‘in my inner being I delight in God’s law’. The truth is that God’s law is a precious gift to the human race. It expresses in practical human terms what Gods’ holiness looks like, and so it spells out his requirements for every aspect of our life and conduct. It is vital for Christians to understand the proper place of God’s law in human life.
God’s law is first of all a mirror. God requires of every person perfect obedience to his law. As his creatures we are under obligation to keep his law in every detail. Note the divine comment in Leviticus 18:5 – ‘Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them’. Jesus himself echoes this truth when he says to the rich young man in Matthew 19:17 ‘If you want to enter life, obey the commandments’. The obligation resting on each of us is identical.
The problem is, however, that we cannot meet God’s standard: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Failure at one point is enough to constitute us lawbreakers (James 2:12), as one crack breaks an entire pane of glass.
God’s law holds up a mirror to us, showing the reality of our sin. It forces us to see that we break specific commandments. If we are willing to listen, God’s law shows us what we are really like, but it is powerless to change us. It is ‘through the law we become conscious of sin’ (Romans 3:20). Indeed, as Paul discovered, the law can even provoke sin in us (Romans 7:7-8). In ourselves we have no hope.
The mirror of the law, however, has a positive function in that it drives us to Christ. Sinners awakened by the Holy Spirit’s application of the law to their consciences realise their need of a Saviour and turn to Christ.
God’s law is also a muzzle. In relation to society as a whole, it is given to restrain the outward expression of human sinfulness. It serves to prevent some sinful actions that would otherwise have been committed. The law of God cannot change human nature, but it can restrain the manifestation of sin. That deterrent effect will operate where God’s Word is known and where the Church has some degree of influence. The law is also written on the heart of every person (Romans 2:14-15), reminding us of God’s holiness and justice. When the fear of God and respect for his Word decline, however, the muzzling effect of God’s law is reduced and sin is expressed ever more openly.
For Christians, God’s law has a third function: it is a map, a guide for life. When we are saved, we cannot forget about God’s law: the Lord has provided the wisdom and guidance we need in his law, so that we can live God-honouring lives in his world. Because the Holy Spirit indwells us, we have the desire and the power to obey. We obey not in order to be saved but because we have been saved. We are saved to do ‘good works’ (Ephesians 2:10) and God’s law shows what form they should take. If we are truly regenerate, we will, like Paul, delight in God’s law. Obedience is the fruit of love: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’, Jesus says in John 14:15. The more faithfully we obey, the more we will reflect our Saviour. In a lawless age, Christians love God’s law as they love the God who gave it.