Obviously the law is important or Jesus would have destroyed it. So I move the previous question. What is the purpose of the law?
The Parameters of God’s Desire
The law reflects the mind of God. If you want to know what God thinks about adultery or stealing or dishonesty or a variety of other kinds of behavior, check out his clear direction in the law. The Ten Commandments are not called “the ten suggestions.” All of the teaching in the Bible about morality, ethics, and Christian behavior was given so that we might know exactly how God feels on those particular subjects.
“You are near, O LORD, And all Your commandments are truth. Concerning Your testimonies, I have known of old that You have founded them forever” (Ps. 119:151-152).
Here is the point: The law reflects the parameters of God’s desire—not the parameters of his love. When those two get confused, then the law is used improperly.
Do you remember the woman caught in adultery? The religious leaders were going to stone her and Jesus said that only those who had no sin were allowed to throw stones. They all decided to quietly go away. John wrote: “When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’” (John 8:10-11).
In Matthew 23:37, Jesus is standing on a hill, overlooking the city of Jerusalem. His words are filled with pathos: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Do you see it? It was not the horror of what Jerusalem had done which prevented Jesus from loving and accepting them. It was their own unwillingness to let him love them.
The message of Jesus is clear: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matt. 9:12-13). Jesus didn’t always approve of behavior but he kept on loving. We are called to do the same.
The law functions as a measure by which believers can determine their progress. “For the righteous God tests the hearts and minds” (Ps. 7:9). “You have tested my heart; You have visited me in the night; You have tried me and have found nothing; I have purposed that my mouth shall not transgress” (Ps. 17:3).
Now it is important to know that any testing of our walk with God isn’t for his benefit. Too many of us think God sits in the heavens dreaming of ways he can test us to see how we are doing. He looks down and says to his angels, “Look at that! I had such high hopes for him. I really thought he would do better than that.” Of course not! Testing has to do with us, not God. He already knows how we are doing.
The law is an exam that God doesn’t grade. (The grade was already accomplished on the cross by Jesus, and it was an “A.”) You are the one for whom the test was designed. Check out God’s will as expressed in Scripture and you will know how far you have come (for encouragement), how much you have failed (for confession), and how far you have to go (for trust).
The law is our teacher, bringing us to Christ and keeping us there. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (3:24). He wrote to the Romans, “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’” (7:7).
And so the law of God allows me to see my failure. If I hadn’t known about my failure, I would never have come to Christ. And every time I go to the law to check how I am doing, those areas where I have not been faithful to the law cause me to turn anew to Christ for forgiveness, acceptance, and strength.
The Christian church is the only organization in the world where the only qualification for membership is that you are not qualified? Not only that. Properly understood, the Christian church is the only organization in the world where the only qualification for maintaining your membership is not being qualified to maintain your membership.
Do you ever wonder why Christ spent so much time with prostitutes and sinners? He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). In other words, Jesus is a doctor, and his business is helping sick people become whole. If you aren’t sick, or if you don’t think you are sick, he won’t appeal to you. The problem with the religious people of Jesus’ day was that they were as sick as the prostitutes and sinners, but they didn’t know it.
Jesus loves people who know they are sick. How do we know we are sick? We check the law. How do we know we need him? Check the law. The business of the law is to drive us to the Physician.
A Road Map
And, finally, the law informs us where the minefields are.
“Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies” (Ps. 119:97-98).
Most people, if they were honest, would admit that they define sin in terms of enjoyment. In other words, if you didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t a sin. Conversely, if you did enjoy it, it probably was a sin. By defining sin that way, we make God into a deity whose main purpose is to keep us from enjoying ourselves. A friend of mine says that everything she likes is either fattening, bad for her, or a sin.
That simply isn’t true. Instead, the law tells us how to be the happiest and the most fulfilled in a fallen world where things are never going to be right. If you want to live in this kind of world as skillfully and successfully as possible, obey the law of God. Some call me a cynic (I say realist) because I believe the main business of life is to get between two hospitals without messing it up too badly. I believe we are born in one hospital and die in another, and the object of life is to get from one to the other as successfully as possible. The way to do that is to pay very close attention to the law.
Maybe it’s my basic cynicism; but whatever it is, I feel the best thing I can do in my life is to be as obedient to God as possible. I don’t feel that way because I am such a wonderful person but because the world is such a mess that I need a guide. It’s a minefield and I don’t want to step on the mines. I’ve got enough troubles already.
The reason the Jews see “Holy Torah” as the greatest gift God has given them is because they have a secret: they have a road map that shows them how the world works. The law is your road map too. It helps us find our way around the strange country of life. Without it we can get terribly hurt and lost.
So What about Obedience?
We must never limit the love of God. When Paul said that he was constrained by the love of Christ, he was talking about a reality that every Christian knows. Love, not fear, is the motivating force behind obedience. If we ever substitute fear for love, we have moved into something that isn’t Christian. Not only that. If we substitute guilt, obligation, or appearances for love as motivating forces behind the Christian life, we will not only cease to live in a Christian way, but we will find people eventually turning away from even trying to live the Christian life. The process starts with the substitute and ends with desertion.
When I became a Christian two things happened. I got saved and I got loved. I got loved so deeply that it still amazes me when I think about it. Because I got loved so deeply, I want to please the One who loved me that much. I may not always please him—sometimes I even run in the other direction, because his love can really hurt. I may chafe against pleasing him; I may find myself in a very far country; I may not even speak to him. But I’ll tell you something: I want to please him and when I don’t please him it hurts.
Now if I really want to please him, I must know what pleases him. I find that out by reading the Word and listening to his commandments. When I know what he wants, I want what he wants. Love does that to you. But I must know what he wants. That is why we must never soften the teaching of the law of God. Holiness is a very important teaching as long as it is given in the context of God’s love.
And we must never forget the principle: obedience comes through freedom, not freedom through obedience. We must never soften the teaching of grace, lest we miss the joy God has promised.