No Standard

The reason that modern Christians have so much disagreement over politics and government is that most believe the New Testament, but do not take the Old Testament seriously. Many Christians have never studied the Old Testament law, because they believe that the law has been replaced by grace. Even those who know that Jesus has not abolished the law are uneasy, because they have accepted the conventional wisdom that the Old Testament is harsh and cruel.

This creates a serious problem, because it leaves Christians with nothing to say about the role of justice and government. The New Testament teaches very little about this topic. The reason is that God does not repeat himself. His word on these issues is contained in the Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, so it does not need to be repeated in the New Testament. Those who ignore the content of those books are left with a big hole that has to be filled in some other way. Without a standard to decide the role of law and government, Christians who teach on political issues end up following a secular prophet.

Eight misconceptions about the nature and purpose of God's law contribute to these misunderstandings.

1. Justification by Works

Christians tend to hate the law, because we relate it to salvation by good works. The Old Testament is seen as salvation by law and the New Testament as salvation by faith, so the law is redundant now that Jesus has died on the cross. This view is wrong, because the law was not given to provide forgiveness for sin.

Abraham understood this five hundred years before the law was given. He knew that animal sacrifices could not earn forgiveness of sin (Rom 4:1-3). The only value of the Old Testament sacrifices was that they looked forward to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. Justification was always by faith, so attempting to earn salvation by works of the law was always a distortion of its true purpose. Justification was always by grace and never by works of law.

2. Righteousness by Law

The most common error is the view that we can be made righteous through keeping the law. The Jews believed that they were special because they had the law. They also believed that they could gain righteousness by keeping the law. Many Christians agree with that claim. They believe that God gave the law so that the Jews could live righteously. This is not true. God gave a set of sacrifices at the same time as he gave the law because he knew that the Jews could not achieve righteousness by keeping his law.

Paul spent a large part of his ministry debunking the myth that righteousness can be achieved by keeping the law. Here are two statements that make his position clear.

If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Gal 2:21).

Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith" (Gal 3:11).

The law never could make us righteous. True righteous can only be obtained through Jesus, and his righteousness is appropriated through faith. Trying to achieve righteousness by keeping the law is foolish, because it was not designed for that purpose.

Many Christians assume that Paul taught that there is something wrong with God's law, but this is not true. He was very hostile to those who claimed righteousness through the law, but he was careful not to denigrate the law itself. He was clever enough not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

3. Standard of Holiness

One reason that keeping the law does not make people righteous is that the Law of Moses does not contain a complete list of all sins. The law focuses on sins that would prevent people from living in harmony. It was not intended to be a list of all sins. Pride is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Neither is presumption or gluttony. We should not be surprised at these omissions, because this is not the purpose of the law.

Moses understood this. Although humility is not one of the Ten Commandments, Moses was the most humble man on the earth. He was humble because he loved God, not because it was required by the law. He understood that the law was not given to define sin, but to provide a way for people to live in peace with each other.

Jesus corrected this error in the Sermon on the Mount, by giving a true standard of righteousness. He then explained that keeping the law was not sufficient for a holy life. There are plenty of people who have never committed adultery, murdered someone, stolen from their neighbour or perjured themselves before a court, but that does not make them holy. Jesus explained that anger and lust are sins, even though they are not forbidden by the law.

Our righteousness must surpass the standard required by the law (Matt 5:20).

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48).

Keeping the law makes us peaceful citizens, but it does not make us holy. God's holiness requires a much higher standard than the law.

Some Christians assume that Jesus was changing the law and setting a higher standard. This is not correct. Jesus was not changing the law (Matt 5:17-18). He was explaining the difference between the laws needed for a harmonious society and the standard of righteousness required by holiness. The law is sufficient for people to live in harmony, because that is its purpose. It is not a standard for holiness.

4. Failed System

Many Christians see the law as a system failed. That does not make sense, because God does not make mistakes. The law only failed when it was used for a purpose that is different from what God intended. God knew what he was doing when he established his law. It does not fail when used according to his purposes.

Paul is very negative about our ability to be justified by works of the law, but that is not a failure of the law. If we think that we can be made righteous by obeying the law, we have misunderstood the nature of righteousness. The failure is ours. Blaming the law is an attempt to pass responsibility for our failure to God. That is a very dangerous tack to take.

5. Temporary System

Some Christians assume that the law was given as a temporary way of righteousness until Christ came. The problem with this view is that at least three thousand years had gone by when God gave the law. If a temporary system of righteousness was needed, why did God wait for so long to give it?

Five hundred years before the law was given, Abraham understood that righteousness comes through faith in God (Rom 4:9). Moses was accepted by faith, before he received the law (Heb 11:24, 25). If righteousness through faith was already available, it does not make sense for God to replace a superior righteousness with an inferior temporary law?

The answer is that God gave the law just when it was needed. Up until the time of Abraham, there was plenty of room in the world, so people did not need to live in close proximity. When people had disputes, they could just move away from each other. By the time of Jacob, people were starting to live closer together and disputes over property were becoming prevalent (Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban). A system for resolving disputes was needed.

Then they went down to Egypt to live as slaves, with no choice but to accept the Egyptian system of justice. This changed when they escaped. With a million people living in a small country, disputes would be bound to occur. God have the law to deal with the problem, just when it was needed.

The law was not a temporary system of righteousness. It was a system of justice for dealing with disputes over property and violence towards people. God gave the law to restrain crime. It never had any other purpose, and that purpose has not changed. It was given when it was needed, because God's timing is always perfect.

6. Just Sacrifices

Many Christians assume that the law is all about sacrifices. This is misleading. The law introduced the tabernacle and regularised the process for offering sacrifices, but it did not introduce them. The first sacrifices were first offered by Cain and Abel (Gen 4:3). Noah, Abraham and other patriarchs also offered sacrifices. These sacrifices were temporary, so once Jesus had died, all other sacrifices were redundant. Sacrifice existed independently of the law, so the end of sacrifice did not make the law redundant.

The law came as part of a package. At the same time as he gave the law, God gave a system of priests and sacrifices to deal with sin. These sacrifices were a constant reminder to the people of their sin. They also pointed forward to Jesus perfect sacrifice. As part of the package, God also gave other external distinctives, like the sabbath and circumcision, to separate them from the nations around them.

God no longer works through a nation, so the external distinctives are no longer required. Our agape love should distinguish us from the people of the world. The perfect sacrifice of Jesus ended the need for the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus became the great high priest, ending the need for priests.

However, a method of restraining wickedness is still needed. Everyone understands this. Even nations that reject God have laws against theft and violence. They might mess up God's law by adding human accretions, but they generally understand the need for laws against these crimes. Everyone understands that law is essential for a peaceful society.

7. Law or Love

Many Christians believe the New Testament is about love and the Old Testament is about law. They see these as opposites. They see the Old Testament as harsh, cruel, severe and lacking in love and mercy.

Jesus had a different view. When asked what is the greatest law, he said,

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt 22:37-40).

The first part of his response is well known, but the final sentence is fascinating. Jesus says that the law hangs on the command to love your neighbour as yourself. If the law is harsh and cruel, it cannot hang on a command to love? Jesus saw the law as an expression of love.

Paul was even blunter in his statement about the law.

The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself (Gal 5:14).

The law is summed up by the word love. A law that is harsh and cruel be summed up by the word love? This does not make sense.

Only one conclusion can follow from these statements. Those who assume that the law is harsh and cruel have misunderstood it. If we read the law in the way that Jesus read it, we would see God's love, not harshness and cruelty. If we are not seeing love when we read the law, then we may need to read it again through the eyes of Jesus.

I believe that Christians who want to understand political systems need to seriously study the Old Testament law. However, we need a radically different approach. We must approach the law in the same way as Jesus and Paul, looking for love of God and love of neighbour. We might be surprised at what we find.

8. Despising the Law

Jesus has a strong warning for those who teach people to despise the law. Those in the modern church who despise the law should take note.

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:19).

This is an amazing statement. Those who teach people to ignore the law are at the bottom of the heap. Those who teach the law will be called the greatest in the kingdom. This is one that we have not noticed. Christians should think twice before they knock God's law.

The True Purpose of the Law

These misconceptions have prevented Christians from understanding the true purpose of God's law. He gave the law so the people of a nation can live together in peace and harmony. The law was given to protect citizens from theft and violence that can destroy the cohesion of a society

Paul explained the purpose of the law to Timothy.

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers (1 Tim 1:8-10).

The law is good when used for the correct purpose. However, what the law is good for is dealing with lawbreakers and evil people. By dealing with murder, adultery, theft and false witness, the law allows good people to live together in peace.

God's timing was perfect. He revealed the law as soon as Israel gained independence and needed good government. Abraham did not need the law, because he was a sojourner in a foreign nation. The Israelites did not need their own laws in Egypt. However, once they had escaped from slavery, they needed a good system of laws to allow them to live together in harmony. They needed a justice system to protect innocent citizens from the theft and violence that can destroy a society. God gave the law to create a peaceful society. We have missed this key because we have been confused about the reason for the law. God's law is the key to justice.

Jesus did not abolish the law, because peoples and nations will always need effective laws.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matt 5:17,18).

Societies will need good laws as long as life on earth continues, so the law will remain until God's purposes on earth are complete.

Holy Spiritual and Good

Paul also confirmed the goodness of the law in his letter to the Romans.

What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
We know that the law is spiritual (Rom 7:7,12,14).

The law is holy, righteous, spiritual and good. Christians who reject the law are rejecting a gift from God. The law is only a problem when used for the wrong purpose. When used as a substitute for the cross, it becomes a heavy burden.

When used as a principle of justice, God's law is good. Choosing to live under man-made law, when God has given a law that is holy and good is foolish. Once we realise this, our attitude to the law will need to change. The key to understanding God's government is to love the law.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes (Psalm 119:97-99).

This passage is usually interpreted as a command to meditate on the scriptures, but this is not what the Psalm says. It encourages us to "love the law". It suggests that "loving the law" is the key to gaining wisdom about the role of government and the law. The Lord said something similar to Joshua

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful (Jos 1:8).

Loving the law of God is a key to understanding true justice.

See Law and Grace.