What Is the Law - Really?

Before jumping into the fray, let’s reconsider how the word law is used in our faith as believers in Christ.

There are two dominant dictionary definitions for law. One deals with civil matters –identifying people’s unacceptable behaviors and setting penalties to help correct their ways. The other has to do with the physical sciences –describing things (like gravity) and how those things work.

The typical Sunday sermon uses the Bible’s laws (principles, precepts, statutes, etc.) as the former –as a threat to cause people to change their behaviors– by declaring God’s impending punishments. We’ve been told to trust those laws as a friend –one who instructs us so that we stay on the straight and narrow path –and keep out of trouble with God.

But there’s a fundamental flaw in that –and we all know it. We believers don’t wholly do what they say –not the civil laws and not the ones in the Bible either. Maybe we do on the outside, but there’s a rebel on the inside who keeps us looking in the rear-view mirror of life –wondering, “Since God sees my heart, does He really like me –or is He thoroughly disgusted?”

Those Bible laws are supposed to be understood from two vastly different points of view.

  • The first is for when we were lost, dead, separated from God. Upon comparing our behaviors and repulsive thoughts to them we saw that we were condemned.
  • The other view is for us now that we are saved, alive, joined with God. Those same laws explain what Jesus has done to dispose of our wickedness and form within us a magnificent new creation that He loves as a bride –without end and without conditions.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2)

The laws in the Bible describe two sets of people: those who depend on themselves to somehow earn their eternity and those who depend solely on God’s mercy for His promised salvation.

Because we have crossed over the threshold from death into life, let’s leave the elementary teachings of judgment and condemnation behind. (We will look deeper into this Romans passage as we go.)

The Way Things Work

In this world there are things that naturally occur or exist –gravity, eclipses, rainbows, tides, storms. They are phenomenons –and there are laws that describe how they work. Those laws consist of causes and effects, stimulations and responses, actions and reactions.

The phenomenon of gravity is one we have all experienced –sometimes liking it and other times not. Gravity helps to keep our stuff where we put it. It also causes favorite fragile items to crash into shards.

It was Isaac Newton who figured out a way to describe it with math equations. It goes something like this. “Every bit of matter has an attraction for every other bit of matter –the amount of the attraction is dependent upon their size (mass) and their distance from each other.”

Imagine that one day I decided to obey Newton’s law of gravity, or for that matter, to disobey it. What would I do differently? Would I crawl along on the ground to prove that I was attracted to the earth? Would I climb to the top of a ladder and jump –making sure to hit the ground– to be obedient? To be rebellious would I hold grandma’s fine china plate above the sidewalk, let go of it, and demand that gravity not break it? Both of these are ridiculous!

This morning I was reading about “lift” –the aeronautical phenomenon associated with objects and the air that surrounds them. Lift is well understood –at least by pilots and the designers of aircraft. Properly describing lift, however, is another matter.

It involves Newton’s laws, the Bernoulli principle, the principles of conservation of mass, momentum and energy, the Navier-Stokes’ and Euler’s equations, the Kutta condition, the Coanda effect. . .

These laws all have a place in conveying how lift works. But do you need to know –or obey– any of them in order to get the airplane to fly? No, of course not. The airplane is shaped such that when it’s propelled by its engines it passes through the air and is lifted up into the sky.

The Phenomenons of Life and Death

The overarching laws in the Bible are what Paul wrote about in Romans chapter eight. There is the law of the Spirit of life and there is the law of sin and death (from Romans 8:1-2). They are based on what Moses told the Israelites, “today I set before you life and death, now choose life” (from Deuteronomy 30:19). And even Moses’ laws are derived from what God told Adam and Eve about choosing fruit when they were in the garden.

Being joined together with God is the very definition of spiritual life. It’s being present with the Lord –it’s living in the kingdom of heaven –it’s being indwelled by the Holy Spirit –it’s being clothed in God’s own righteousness as the bride of the Lamb. “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). By the way, the Hebrew word for know conveys intimacy –as in the consummation of the marriage between a wife and a dedicated, doting husband.

Conversely, not being with God is the definition of spiritual death. It’s condemned to the outermost darkness –it’s remaining outside of the kingdom –it’s without the life that is found only in His Son. Ah, but what is sin then? (That is the other part of the phrase sin and death.) The answer is found just one chapter earlier –in John 16:7-11. The Holy Spirit is convicting the world –its sin is not believing, accepting, trusting in Jesus.

The Bible’s laws don’t congratulate us for being obedient –they reveal our condition. We’re either alive (joined with God) –or we’re dead (separated from Him).

I’ve laid these out as the phenomenons that they are –descriptions of two conditions. We cannot obey (or disobey) the law of sin and death. It simply describes a person who has not trusted Jesus for eternal, spiritual life –he is without God –he is spiritually dead. Correspondingly, we cannot obey (or disobey) the law of the Spirit of life. It describes a person who is born of the Spirit –he is spiritually alive.

Laws are Merely Descriptions

Again, a phenomenon is something that naturally occurs or exists –and laws are used to describe them. Laws don’t guide or cause anything to happen –instead they merely tell how things work. Knowing the laws of gravity and lift don’t change their phenomenons –fragile plates still crash on the ground and airplanes still fly in the air. However, knowing those laws can improve our understanding of the phenomenons.

I’ve been asked, “But that’s not the case for civil laws is it?” The answer is “Yes, it just takes overlooking our old perceptions and seeing them from a new point of view.”

We might say that a person “broke a law” when we actually mean that his situation is suddenly described by it. For instance, one of the civil laws says “When a person is caught speeding while driving in a school zone, he pays a fine. And if it happens repeatedly, he also loses his driving privileges.” That law describes the phenomenon of speeding in a school zone.

What about the more serious cases –such as murder? Doesn’t the law cause a punishment? No. The law of murder doesn’t search out and charge a suspected perpetrator –the police do that. That law doesn’t convict a person –a judge and jury do that. That law doesn’t punish a guilty person –the jury (or judge) selects from the available options and then the department of corrections, or bureau of prisons does that. That law describes a cause and effect –a stimulus and response –an action and reaction –murder and its suitable punishment.

The point of all this is to explain the laws found in the Bible. A prime example is in Romans 7:7-13. There Paul basically said “I wouldn’t have understood what coveting was if the law of sin and death hadn’t explained and demonstrated it to me.” That tenth Commandment pointed out his flesh’s natural desire to covet. Then he realized that he wasn’t the perfect follower that he had presumed for years. The Law wasn’t to change his behavior so that he would quit coveting. It showed him that He had always been separated from God –he was dead!

Those familiar Bible laws that we quote so well –particularly the Ten Commandments– describe a phenomenon: We all start out in this world separated from God –we’re spiritually dead. Trying to keep, or obey, or follow, those laws can only take us to one end. They show us that we need spiritual life –we need Him. The reason that He gave those descriptions to us in so many forms (the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses, the dietary laws, the Levitical Laws, or their equivalent written on our hearts) was to reach everyone –regardless of background and circumstance. He wants us to join in His perfect life.

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Galatians 3:23-25)

Verses that identify law and commandment-breakers describe people that deny the truth –claiming that God’s laws don’t apply –or they’re outdated –or they’re irrelevant –or there is no God.

Using the case of the traffic law noted above, such a person would say “I refuse to believe that I was speeding and I will not pay this unjust penalty.” Those people are their own god –judging according to their own laws of what’s good and what’s evil –just as He said they would. (It’s in the last part of Genesis chapter three.) But refusing to believe a law –civil or God’s– doesn’t make it less true. Everyone needs eternal life.