I was scrolling a certain social media platform recently when I saw a post that said, “Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized. He cares about how you treat people.” The best construction is that someone is concerned that Christians would “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). But doesn’t Jesus care about both? And in order to be a doer of the Word, one must first be a hearer. In order to treat people the way God wants us to treat them, we have to know what he has commanded.
There is a tricky move that I see played a lot in our culture. People preach love, and they say that God wants us to love one another (so far, so good), but then they define love differently than God does. We can’t just make up whatever we want and call it “love.” God defines love in his Law, which is revealed most clearly in the Holy Scriptures.
Our Lutheran forefathers, in a document called The Formula of Concord, help us understand God’s Law rightly.
We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a divine doctrine in which God’s righteous, unchangeable will is revealed. It shows what the quality of a person should be in his nature, thoughts, words, and works, in order that he may be pleasing and acceptable to God. It also threatens its transgressors with God’s wrath and temporal and eternal punishments. (SD, V:17)
We can outline their definition of the Law in this way:
(1) “God’s righteous, unchangeable will” for how we (and the rest of creation) should be.
(2) Commandments regarding thought, word, and deed.
(3) Threats of punishment.
There is a great and valuable precision in this order.
I can only speak for myself. For much of my life, I have conceived of the Law as consisting of the last two: commandments and threats. But to think in such a way is to skip over the best part. At its foundation, the Law is “God’s righteous, unchangeable will.” This helps us understand that the Law of God is good. Existentially, if we only experience God’s Law as commandments and threats, be begin to feel that the Law is bad. We only recognize the negative effect it has on us, and a passage like Psalm 1 feels so alien:
1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
How in the world can I “delight in the law of the Lord” when it only commands me to do things I don’t want to do, and then it threatens to kill me?
First and above all, I learn through the Gospel that righteousness is given to me (and to you) freely for Jesus’ sake. He has paid for all sin, so God declares us righteous.
But the Law is not abolished. It is answered and fulfilled, but not abolished. So for me it has been immensely helpful to think of God’s moral law in the context of natural law. And by “natural law” I mean God’s design in the creation of this world. Consider Genesis 1:1-2a: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.” Another way to phrase that is, “formless and empty.” God’s act of creation solved both of these problems. He answered the emptiness by creating matter, and he answered the formlessness by creating structure. This structure is what I mean by “natural law.” It includes both physical and moral laws. The Law, at its deepest foundation, is simply God’s will for how all of his creation should function. And God’s will is always good. So when God commands something of us, it is not an arbitrary test to see if we truly love him. It is his good and gracious will, revealing how we can live well and in harmony with the rest of his creation.
The commandments and threats exist (mostly) in response to the fall into sin. Before the fall into sin there were two basic commandments: “be fruitful and multiply …” (Gen. 1:28), and, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:17). And there was only one threat: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). All the rest of God’s commandments and threats were made in response to the fall. If we were without sin, we would live according to “God’s righteous, unchangeable will” without being told to do so.
But we are broken. Our nature is not the way God designed it to be. Therefore, we do not live the way God designed us to live. Most of God’s creation does. Regarding physics, gravity still causes things to fall toward the center of the earth. Regarding biology, sex still makes babies. Animals hibernate and migrate. But, regarding human behavior, we do not live the way God created man to live, and it is because our nature is corrupt. That is the core of sin, and that is where we come into conflict with “God’s righteous, unchangeable will.” To delight in the Law of God means that we recognize that his will is good. We may disregard God’s physical laws by jumping off a building, not expecting gravity to accelerate our bodies to a violent destruction. In a similar way, disregarding his moral laws also causes us to collide with his design for creation. And we break ourselves against it. We also harm others. But when we see the gracious purpose for God’s commands, we can delight (at least a little bit more) in his Law. And we look forward to the Day of Resurrection, when our hearts will finally be set in harmony with God’s New Creation.
Our Lutheran forefathers said it this way:
If God’s believing and elect children were completely renewed in this life by the indwelling Spirit, so that in their nature and all its powers they were entirely free from sin, they would not need any Law. They would need no one to motivate them, either. They would do by themselves, and completely voluntarily, without any instruction, admonition, urging or driving of the Law, what they are in duty bound to do according to God’s will. They would act just like the sun, the moon, and all heavenly constellations, which have their regular course by themselves. They would act unobstructed, without admonition, urging, driving, force, or compulsion, according to God’s order, which He once appointed for them. Indeed, they would act just like the holy angels, who offer an entirely voluntary obedience. (SD, VI:6).
The peace of Christ be with you all,