The place of the Law in the life of a believerIntroduction
This study examines the extent to which Biblical Law applies to the believer. It seeks to determine to what degree Biblical commands are binding on the life of a believer.
The believer is no longer under the Law
From Romans 7:1-6 we first need to restate in what sense a believer is discharged/released from the Law. The crucial question is, what meaning do we give to this statement?
i] It certainly includes the meaning that we are no longer under the condemnation of the law. We are no longer under the Law's penalty.
ii] It also probably means that we are not under the law as a means of justification. Mind you, I am not convinced that any of Paul's theological combatants ever suggested that anyone was saved wholly by obedience to the Law.
iii] It could mean we are no longer under the minutiae of the Law (insect law!). This is true, but probably not the point Paul is making.
iv] It includes the idea that we are no longer under the Law as a means to progress the Christian life (sanctification). The law is now written on our hearts. We live in the new way of the Spirit - the way of freedom.
For the believer the Law has served its purpose
It is true that the Law, as revealed to the people of Israel, defined the response behaviour expected of a child of God. The problem was that mankind was affected by the permanent affliction of indwelling sin - rebels by nature. Thus the Law was to serve a far more important role. It was to expose human sin, and even to some extent promote rebellion, Rom.7:7-13. For Israel, the Law served to condemn sin and apply God's curse upon the sinner. The Law serves to expose our desperate plight in the sight of God. The prime purpose of the Law then is to show that we are rebels facing judgement and in need of God's mercy. The Law therefore drives us to seek some means of escape - it drives us to Christ. "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord", Rom.7:24-25, cf. Gal.3:19,24.
Jesus continually used the Law in this way. The incident of the Rich Young Ruler is a case at point, Lk.18:18. This man wanted to know how to get to heaven. Jesus told him to obey the Law. He, being an excellent rebel at heart (like all of us), had approached the Law from a reductionist standpoint so that he could kid himself into believing that he obeyed it. To deal with that, Jesus gave him a law he knew would devastate him - a law that truly displayed love of neighbour. Naturally "when he heard this, he became very sad". The point of the exercise was to get him to admit to the fact that he was a sinner in need of a saviour.
The parable of the Good Samaritan drives home the same point, Lk.10:25-37. A teacher asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus points him to the Law - "Do this and you will live". Jesus is then prompted to define what it means to "love your neighbour as yourself". Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus concludes by saying "go and do thou likewise". The point of the story is that we are all of us Priests and Levites. Certainly the teacher who asked the question knew that he would have done what the Priest and Levite did because of the dictates of the ritual Law. The only honest reply to "go and do likewise" is... "I doubt if I can. I am a sinner in need of a saviour."
For the believer, the Law has done what it set out to do. It has driven us to the foot of the cross to find salvation in Christ.
Giving the Law its rightful place in the life of a believer
Although the believer is no longer under the Law, in that it has served its function of leading us to Christ, it remains a guide to Christian living. It clearly expresses the mind of God, all that is good. Its principles remain and are binding on believers, just as they are on all those created in the image of God. Yet there is danger. It can easily enslave us to sin and curse us again, not because it is sin, but because the "old Adam" still resides within us. We must take care how we use the Law as a guide to Christian living.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is an excellent example of how this problem can overtake us. What we normally do is use the parable as an explicit example of the law of love, and then direct each other to live it out in our lives - love like the Good Samaritan loved. Most sermons and Sunday School stories make this point. So we often unwisely use Law as a means of achieving godly living in the Christian life.
It is this issue that Paul is most agitated about in the book of Galatians. It is clear that there were those in the church who were promoting obedience to the Law as a means to purity in the Christian life. For Paul, once the Law has led us to Christ it has done it's job. It does not then take on the task of sanctification. Its function is simply to display sin for what it really is, Rom.7:6, Gal.3:23-25. In fact, says Paul, a Christian who tries to seek God's approval (stand righteous before him) by means of obedience to the law, denies the gospel and alienates himself from Christ, Gal.3:3-5;5:2-4.
The Law is not the means of promoting a righteous life (a life lived pleasing to God). Of course it never was. We may well be children of God, but we still possess the old nature of sin. Indwelling sin is a continuing reality in the Christian life. If we try to live by the Law we find that the Law only promotes rebellion. "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out". "For what I do is not the good I want to do." Law only promotes rebellion. It gives life to indwelling sin and so enslaves us, making us "a prisoner of the law (power) of sin at work within my members". The end result is either outright rebellion or self righteousness, Rom.7:14-25.
The ultimate purpose of God's act of salvation was to gather to himself a people set apart for Him, a people set apart to live a life well-pleasing to Him, to the praise of His glory. The Law was not meant to achieve this end, either before or after conversion. The Law, in fact, promotes a way of salvation that is actually apart from the Law. It does not promote the way of obedience, but rather the way of grace through faith. In coming to Jesus and giving our lives to him, our sinful nature has been bypassed/set aside/done away with/ ("crucified"). The old nature that was our master, springing to life at every command of God, enslaving us to sin, no longer reigns. Rather Christ reigns within us. We are indwelt with the Spirit of Christ and thus the life we live in our body is now the life of the indwelling Spirit of God, by grace through faith, Gal.2:19-21.
We can still stir up our old nature to rebellion. All we have to do is promote observance of the Law. Indwelling sin then seizes the opportunity afforded by the Law and produces in us every kind of rebellion, Rom.7:8.
If instead we promote faith in the indwelling Spirit of Christ, then we will find that we begin to fulfill the requirements of the Law. We begin to live a life pleasing to God because the Spirit of Christ, the obedient Son of God, lives through us. "The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God", Gal.2:20b. It is as we daily put our trust in Jesus that his indwelling Spirit lives through us to achieve that righteousness of life that we all yearn for, Gal.5:5. It is through the indwelling Spirit that we fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law, Rom.8:4, cf. Rom.8:1-17.
So in the Christian life, the Law is not the motivating force to promote right living, rather it is the gift of God's grace appropriated through faith that makes us Christ-like. As we daily trust Jesus for his renewing Spirit to steadily renew our body of sin, so we begin to live a life pleasing to God.
It works this way. Jesus moves to the center of the Law in the command to love one another, Jn.13:34-35. We can't do that of ourselves, it's impossible. In fact if we try to obey this command we find ourselves living a lie - a smiling nastiness. The command, of itself, only serves to expose our corruption and our need for a saviour. Yet Jesus has obeyed the command for us (we are therefore justified) is well able to live out the command through us in His power (we are being sanctified). He has indwelt us and is victorious over the powers of evil. We know he is able, and will in fact enable us to do as he commands. So all we need to do is to trust that he will work his work of grace in and through our lives to love others even as he loves, cf. John 14:12.
Look also at the command to love God with all our heart. All the Law does is condemn us, but through the indwelling Spirit, not only can we recognise and serve our God, but we can even experience Him intimately as our Father, Rom.8:15-16; Gal.4:6-7. It is by grace through faith that we love God, and by grace through faith that we experience His tender fatherly love.
So we burst out in the Christian life, doing great and miraculous things for Jesus, loving as he loved, not by being told to do it, but by trusting that Jesus will in fact do it through us, Gal.3:5. It is those who rely on the indwelling Spirit of Christ who do not gratify the desires of the sinful nature, Gal.5:16, but rather bear the fruit of a life lived pleasing to God, Gal.5:22-24.
What use then is the Law in the life of a Christian? In simple terms it defines for us the Lord's required life-style for a true child of God. It is our guide to a life well-pleasing to God. Yet as already stressed, it is not the means of producing a life pleasing to God. In it's myriad details it describes, in practical terms, what it means to love God and love neighbour. Although only normative, and although much of the Old Testament Law is no longer applicable, the Christian has in the Law (as expressed in Christ's life and teachings and as summed up in the law of brotherly love) a very clear expression of the mind of God. The Law therefore, for the Christian, is a very effective gauge to see whether we are keeping is step with the Spirit, Gal.5:25. It enables us to test our actions to see whether we really do fulfill the Law of Christ in our lives, Gal.6:2-5. In using the Law this way, we are continually thrown on the mercy of God for forgiveness, 1John1:8-10, and we are encouraged to look in trust to Jesus, through whose power alone we can live a life pleasing to God, Gal.5:24.
So in the Christian life the Law serves as a guide, a sign-post. With the warnings of the moral law behind us and the ideals of Jesus before us, we are easily able to assess the direction of our Christian life. We can then look to the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Jesus to carry us forward in the Christian life, daily shaping righteousness in us (sanctification), and this as a gift of grace through the instrument of faith.
So having identified the Law as it applies today, its normative shape and its guiding ideals, the believer is to use it to give direction to the renewing work of the Spirit of Christ.
The law of God is "holy, righteous and good" and "spiritual", but our problem is that we are "unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin." "Apart from the law, sin is dead", but it is by the law that "sin might become utterly sinful", Rom.7. So the primary purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ and thus receive a "righteousness that comes from God". "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes", Rom.10:4.
The danger facing believers is this: "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" Gal.3:3. We need to be reminded that "now that faith has come we are no longer under the supervision of the law", Gal.3:25.
How then do we proceed in the Christian life? Simple, "live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature", Gal.5:16. We must therefore allow the law to be a tool for the renewing work of the Holy Spirit:
First. Place the normative moral law behind to warn of the abyss. "Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness", Rom.6:13.
Second. Sweep aside the "minutia" of the law.
Third. Press toward the ideals of the Kingdom of God, by cooperating with the indwelling Spirit of Christ, motivated by his compelling love, 2Cor.5:14-15.
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