The Law – Defining Terms

I had an interesting revelation about the law a couple of weeks ago. It turns out that there are some people have some very, very different definitions for the Biblical word “law.”

In The Gospel Uncensored, I tried hard to distinguish between various uses of the word, using a capital “L” to refer to the Law of Moses, as opposed to more generic uses of the word. But, I assumed that everyone thought of “law” as something that is required of you, and for which there would be some sort of penalty for breaking.

It’s more of a guideline…

For example, traffic laws are not suggestions, or recommendations, they are rules with accompanying penalties for breaking them (and getting caught).  That’s why they are called laws.  However, there are some traffic signs which do contain warnings or suggestions, such as those warning of dangerous conditions.  It’s good to follow these recommendations, however there are no penalties for not following them (unless you have an accident, etc.).   The difference between laws and non-laws has been well-illustrated in the Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies with the phrase, “It’s more of a guideline than an actual rule” (which, by the way, first appeared in “Ghostbusters,” but that’s beside the point).  There are laws/rules that must be followed or else, and there are suggestions or guidelines, that may determine our success or failure, but for which there are no legal consequences.

The Bible contains both.  There are lots of laws, and also a lot of what could be called guidelines.  These guidelines include warnings about harmful behavior (which happens to include trying to become righteous through following laws) and “how shall we then live” exhortations.

The problem is, many people can’t seem to tell the difference.

The worst definition of law I have ever heard

A couple of weeks ago someone posted a short interview by a very well-known pastor that contained what is undoubtedly the worst definition of law I have ever heard.  The only good thing about it was that he defined his term, which exposed the bad theology he was presenting. His definition was something like (from memory), “The Law is God’s statements about everything that is good.”

What?  With a definition like that, your teaching on the compatibility of “Law and Gospel” is pretty easy. The problem is, your theology sucketh.

There are a number of folks out there that are overly committed to various Reformation concepts like “Law and Gospel” that no one really understands. So, theological discussions end up quoting certain Lutheran or Reformed theologians rather than just dealing with what the Bible actually says, which is a great way to avoid dealing with Scripture if people aren’t paying attention.  To be honest, while I consider Martin Luther to be one of my heroes of the faith, he is not my source of theological authority. I believe he was wrong about a lot of things, and that subsequent Lutheran theologians were also, perhaps even more so, wrong about many things. Quoting folks is fine, I do it myself. However, I don’t base any conclusions on the Formula of Concord, which is a theological position, not Scripture. (And don’t even mention Calvin…)

Good Advice?

If we accept my definition of “law” to mean a commandment with legal consequences, such as the Law of Moses, then we can draw a distinction between that and other exhortations, which may also have consequences.  Saying “jump off that cliff and you’ll fall to your death” is not a law in that sense.  You wouldn’t get fined or sent to prison for jumping off the cliff; you’d merely die, not as punishment, but as a natural consequence to your choices. “Stop sinning or something worse will befall you” is also not the pronouncement of a law, but a warning about the consequences of choices.  When Paul says, “Walk redeeming the time,” is he pronouncing a new law? Of course not.  To confuse the two is to read the New Testament without any sort of context whatsoever.

So, perhaps besides distinguishing between “Law” and “Gospel,” we should add a 3rd category, for “good advice.” While you might react to the idea that some of what Paul or Jesus said may be considered “good advice,” just think about it.  There’s nothing unholy about good advice. The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is absolutely excellent advice.  Paul gave some great advice in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Is this good?  Is it a law? What if we forget to think about something commendable?

Perhaps there’s a better term for it—wisdom, perhaps—but “good advice” seems functional. That doesn’t mean it’s not inspired or true, just that it is what it is.

Bad teaching

Unfortunately there is a lot of really bad teaching out there, and people have been conditioned not to question it.  This past week I listened to part of a radio-broadcast sermon on my way to church that was possibly the worst (next to Robert Tilton) teaching I’ve every heard on tithing. The pastor actually claimed that his particular church would be punished by God if the congregation failed to give appropriately. Think about it…

But, there are a lot of well-meaning pastors who link everything—righteousness, holiness, salvation, you name it—to certain cherry-picked behaviors. Tithing is a popular one, of course, for obvious reasons.  Divorce used to be a popular one, but as so many pastors and leaders have now been divorced, it’s no longer in favor, in spite of the fact that it is one of the few “commandments” that Paul declares is not from him, but from the Lord:  “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:10)” Here we have more than just good advice, we have an actual commandment, and it’s almost universally ignored in the contemporary church. Do we have any explanation for this, other than Jesus’ “Because of your hardness of heart…” (Matt. 19:8)?

And then, there’s the little matter of women speaking in church (1 Cor. 14)…

Legalism rules

For whatever reason, many people love laws, and can’t deal with the concept that Paul encouraged us to make decisions about some things “according to our faith.”  They also have a hard time dealing with the thought that we might called to do “good works” because they are good, and for no other reason. So, the natural result is to take random things from the Bible and make them into laws, and ignore the others.

Living the Christian life and doing Good Works is not like selling magazine subscriptions; you’ll never build up enough points to earn that crown. You do good works because you are being changed from glory to glory, and the more you are being transformed, the more you want to do good works.  Reading the Bible is a good thing to do because… it’s a good thing to do.  You should not jump off that cliff because, you’d die.  Don’t sin because sin can kill and enslave you; it’s bad.

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it?  Do good things because they are good, and don’t to bad things because they are bad.  Do you really need any other reasons?

Avoid confusion

Don’t confuse Law—that which was given to to Moses to guard the Israelites for a time—with the Gospel.  No righteousness ever came through the Law, which actually increased sin rather than increasing righteousness. And, don’t confuse wisdom (aka “good advice”) with the Law, either.  Paul told us in more than one way that the Law is now (and for Gentiles, always was) inapplicable. The “old man” died under the Law, the “new man” lives free from the Law.  The Law has been “set aside,” having been nailed to the cross.

One of the biggest areas of confusion regarding the issue of grace is the belief that a reliance on grace and teaching that the Law is inapplicable stems from the fear that this somehow is akin to licentiousness; that we actually will “sin more, that grace may abound.”  That, of course, is quite ridiculous.  There is no such possibility as being “free to sin,” as we know that sin is by nature bondage. We are no longer in bondage to sin, but also no longer in bondage to the law. As Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

Freedom determines a life lived in pursuit of good works, because that’s just how it is. Anything less is not freedom.

Grace, and peace.

A New Chain?

I don’t read a lot of blogs anymore, Christian or otherwise.  In a world where churches are obsessed with “feeding” people, and people are obsessed with “getting fed,” I find that I’m pretty fed up.  As a result, I don’t write that much anymore (as you can probably tell, if you’ve tried following this blog). I figure you’re all about fed up, too.

Today, however, I ran across one of those gems that was worth reading, and worth sharing. It doesn’t hurt that the post included a couple of choice strips from “Pearls Before Swine,” and a video of Derek Webb’s “A New Law,” which I had totally forgotten about. In my opinion, it’s possibly the only decent “Christian” song recorded in the couple of decades.  Here’s the opening of L.R.E. Larkin’s Mockingbird post, “Run, Dog, Run!

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20


I’ve written on Stephan Pastis’ work before; Pearls before Swine is my favorite comic strip, and I read it daily. Pastis typically displays what we might call “great acumen about human nature.” And he’s done it again here in the above (and below) strips.

It’s naïve Pig’s response that caught my eye. When asked why he’s excited, Chained-up Dog replies with tremendous enthusiasm, “New Chain!!” Pig’s right, being excited about a new chain is quite optimistic. In fact, it’s nothing to be excited about, because it’s not good news—the dog is still chained up.  But, truth be told, don’t we all get excited about the new thing/behavior/rule/diet/routine that will be the key to real success, to us finally achieving control over our lives. It’s in our fallen nature to be oriented as such. I’ve seen this in my own life, and I’m sure you’ve seen it in your own. I’ve seen it in my tendency to be attracted to the newest diet craze (where are we now, gluten?) to my fruitless efforts to watch just one show at night (wait…how is it 12am?).  I desperately try to control broken behavior with behavioral changes, and that is just switching out an old law for a new one; that’s not freedom and it’s certainly nothing to be excited about.

The good news is that the Gospel is not a new chain, a new law. It is a word of freedom, silencing the law and its tyranny in my life, in our lives.

Couldn’t have said it better, myself.  Read the rest of the post here, along with the video I promised.

New Covenant Law: No liability. No guilt. No condemnation.


The Recap:

In Romans Chapter 3, Paul makes the following points:

  1. Both Jews and Gentiles are under sin.
  2. The Law only speaks to those under the Law (Jews).
  3. Since the Law only provides knowledge of sin, no one is justified by keeping the Law.
  4. Through Christ, righteousness is manifested apart from the Law.

Then in verse 22, he summarizes as follows:

  1.  Righteousness is given freely to all who believe.
  2. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.
  3. All have sinned.
  4. All are justified by grace as a gift through the work of Christ.
  5.  To show God’s righteousness.

Now, Paul ends Chapter 3 with a slightly different argument, making the same point:

  1. God is the God of the Jews (who had the Law).
  2. God is the God of Gentiles (who do not have the Law).
  3. Therefore, justification has to come from somewhere other than through works of the Law, or else God would only be the God of the Jews.

However, Chapter 3 ends with Paul emphatically saying that we still uphold the Law. So what gives?

The Tension Builds

Paul, who wrote this letter to be understood holistically rather than in chapters or verses, doesn’t really get back to this point until Chapter 7, when he reaffirms that the law is good, and is not what brings us death (but rather, it is sin which brings death).  He also makes the excellent point that the fact that we want to do good affirms that we believe the Law is good.

Paul makes a very important distinction here: The Law is good, but that doesn’t mean that keeping the Law can make us righteous.  It’s pretty clear by this point that keeping the Law is an impossibility.  From Chapter 4 to 7, Paul has continued to show us that our righteousness is totally unrelated to the Law. It’s good, but now irrelevant; or perhaps a better word is inapplicable. (I’ll go back to Chapter 4 in the next post.)

An Easily Overlooked Point

In Paul’s discussion of the goodness of the Law, he makes a very crucial point which is missed by many people, who are under the impression that they can, and should, discipline themselves in order to stop sinning.  The presumption is that with regard to sin, we are the problem, and many of us are plagued by feelings of guilt and shame as a result. However, in verse 20, Paul writes, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Just think about this for a few minutes. If sin (the effect) is not caused by us but by sin (the cause), then there is absolutely no legitimate reason for Christians to suffer from guilt and shame.

The Law (which is good) tells us we should hate sin and its results; however, it does not judge us, who have died with respect to sin (Rom. 7:1-4), it judges sin itself.

The Plague of Sin

As I’ve said before, if you read through the Gospel of John, you see that Jesus consistently seems to treat sin as a disease, a plague on humanity. He never judges those afflicted by sin, but in pronouncing “Go and sin no more,” he sets people free from the bondage of sin. Who Jesus does condemn are those who by their legalism and condemnation perpetuates the plague.

Paul seems to be taking a similar position here; sin, like a virus, is waging war on our bodies (v. 21-23), and Paul himself does not appear to be free from this war going on within us. But, turn the page to Chapter 8, and my point above is affirmed: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

No liability. No guilt. No condemnation.