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.

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