Do We Ask The Right Question?
The law of Moses is often set against the grace of God as if they are in opposition. It is true that we can read the New Testament as if this were so. For example, John writes, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Paul writes, “For he (Jesus) himself is our peace abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Ephesians 3:14-15). Paul also writes “Christ is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). In particular, Paul seems to support the view that the law should be put aside in an age of grace, when he writes, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law under grace ” (Romans 6:14).
The book of Galatians can appear to argue against the law so much that believers in Jesus Christ should put it out of their minds completely. Yet Paul, who wrote the letter to the Galatians, also exclaims in another letter, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), and James, another Apostle, lifts the law high when he states, “But the man who looks into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).
Does Paul contradict himself? Is James in opposition to Paul so much that they are seen as teaching different things? Has Paul got a message of freedom for the Gentiles while James is concentrating on the Jews to whom the law still applies? Are believing Jews different from believing Gentiles in this respect? How does this link with David’s great psalms of delight in God’s law? – “Oh I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Psalm 119:97). Does the New Testament reader only need to give a passing glimpse, at what seem to be matters of little relevance today, as he reads these psalms? What about the book of Leviticus? Is this ancient history or relevant reading?
If there is something about the life of grace, within the New Testament context, which leads to freedom, then why can so much still go wrong in the church? Indeed, what message does the church have to a world which is sinking ever deeper into lawlessness? By what standards does a nation honour God and what will lead to His blessings on a nation? How does one train a child in an age of permissiveness? When and where do we need to apply principles from the law of Moses? If our principles of life are not based on this law then what principles should we apply? Moreover, have we understood, in this very important phase of history, when the Jewish people are returning to the Land of Israel, how law and grace relate to one another in the plan of salvation and the purposes of God as worked out through history? What, indeed, is the full Gospel message to the Jew and to the Gentile? What reference is to be made to the law, or which parts of the Old Testament teaching should be emphasised and for what reason?
We must be careful to ask the right questions concerning law and grace. If we contrast law with grace as if acknowledgement of grace implies that the law is to be totally disregarded, or if we teach that meditation on the law of God (which was administered through Moses) implies that the grace of God is not sought after or acknowledged, then I would suggest that the wrong question has been asked, or that there is some confusion about the New Testament message.
Paul’s letters do not lead to the conclusion that an age of grace has come which makes the law totally irrelevant. This conclusion could cause Christians to neglect the teaching of the Old Testament and be one of the causes for our separation from the roots of our faith. This was not Paul’s intention, and misunderstanding of the New Testament message of Paul could even lead to deceptive influences arising in the church, and these influences could give licence for many wrong things in the name of freedom. With no parameters by which to check our lives then the whole list of sins of the flesh of Galatians 6:19-21 would simply creep upon us. There can be an even more subtle deception wherein a so-called life of grace is lived within legal constraints. Even the deep principles of Christian living, including grace, faith, praise, worship, prayer, humility and unity can be lived in a framework of bondage which is associated with legalism. The reason is that it is not so much the life of grace and law that is to be contrasted as the life of flesh with the life of the spirit. Even praise of God and attendance at church meetings can be driven by fleshly desires and fleshly outworking, as can attempts to minister in any of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In such a way the concept of grace has been misunderstood and this wrong concept leads to bondage or lawlessness of subtle kinds. The flesh can even create a legalistic framework for concepts of grace and freedom.
When we see this we are in a position to see that Paul’s message is not ambiguous and does not conflict with James nor the Old Testament teaching. Certainly he addresses the issue of the law as he leads us through his great Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, in particular, but we must read his message with care. This is an immense topic, but one of particular importance in relation to how we understand and seek to live by the whole truth of the Bible.
The Messages of Galatians and Romans
Galatians and Romans are two of Paul’s Epistles which have much to say on the issues of law and grace. Much is also written elsewhere in the New Testament, of course, but it is useful to comment on these two particular epistles. It is very important that the emphasis of the letter to the Galatians is understood. A superficial reading might lead to error and quite the opposite conclusions to those intended.
Paul’s message to the Galatians sets the law in context of the plan of salvation. Paul reminds his readers (Chapter 1) of how he was once zealous and highly qualified in regard to the Judaism of his day, but had received the Gospel message by personal revelation, as well as his commission to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. He was astonished that the message which he had brought to the Galatians had been perverted through the teaching of false apostles. We see here the danger of wrong emphasis of the law. The Galatians had been persuaded by certain legalistic Jews (Judaisers) that they had to obey the law of Moses (particularly circumcision) if they were to be saved. Paul makes it quite clear (and this is his main point in the whole letter) that there is no salvation to be found in the keeping of the law, but only by faith in Christ (Chapter 2:15-21). He emphasises his point by reminding his readers that the Holy Spirit was given to them as a seal of their salvation when they believed, not as a result of obeying the law (Chapter 3:1:5 with cross reference to Ephesians 1:13-14). Paul’s exhortation (Chapter 3:1), which conveys the urgency of the letter, should leave us in no doubt that there is no legalistic route to salvation. It is by our failure to obey the law, and everyone has failed (Cross reference to Romans 3:11-18), which establishes our need of salvation through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, and it is a perverted message which inclines us to think that working harder to obey the law can result in salvation. Paul goes on to point out how the law was intended to lead us to Christ, like a schoolmaster (a person who accompanies us to school; Chapter 3:24-25). The emphasis is on the saving faith in Jesus Christ, this faith being the same for both Jews and Gentiles. This faith, as Paul shows clearly (Chapter 5), leads to freedom. This freedom is to be found in Christ and not in works of the law. Clearly, as discussed by way of the parable of Hagar and Sarah (Chapter 4), Paul exhorts his readers that attempts to achieve salvation through works of the law bring bondage and not freedom. Paul then goes on to say (Chapter 5:16-26) that believers should live by the Spirit. It is in this section that he contrasts not law and grace, but the acts of the flesh and of the Spirit. He urges his readers to live a free and successful life by the Spirit. Life in the Spirit brings right fruit and not bondage to law, a bondage which also results in failure. In other words, the law is not the conscious influence on those who truly live by the Spirit, not because the law is negated but because the fruits of the Spirit are automatically pleasing to God, while a life in the flesh is a life that can only be controlled by corrective laws, against which the flesh wars. The life of the Spirit, however, is not a life of lawlessness, but one which pleases God because the whole outlook on life has changed, and because one is in fellowship with God, step by step through life. Desires are different, direction of life is different and it is possible to live this life in freedom. This is the high objective set by Paul. Yet he also goes on to point out that believers can sin (Chapter 6:1), wherein there is also a gentle remedy to be applied by the spiritually mature.
Sin, of course, is identifiable by the works of the flesh which in turn are identifiable by the principles of the law. Thus the emphasis of Paul’s letter is on the way of salvation which leads to freedom and life in the Spirit, not on bringing down the value of the law, which he actually upholds. It is a simple faith in Christ which is accompanied by the gracious gift of God’s Holy Spirit which is Paul’s major and magnificent emphasis. But the value of the law in identifying sin is not at stake here. Neither are the high principles of the law. Indeed, the message to the Galatians would not contradict the view that a truly Spiritual life would be in accordance with essential aspects of the law which do apply to believers and do please God, but which cannot be achieved by fleshly striving.
A study of the book of Hebrews makes it clear that the ceremonial aspects of the law (the Temple, the sacrifices, the High Priesthood and even the higher meanings of the Feasts, including the Sabbath rest) are all fulfilled in Jesus. The book of James complements Paul’s message, upholding the value of the moral aspects of the law as a mirror to our heart’s condition (James 1:22-25). There is no contradiction in these things, merely particular facets of truth. The law cannot save us, but it can give us a conscience and identify sin so that we can be led to Christ, where we can grow to maturity without condemnation. In this growth to maturity, the law will continue to identify the right path. On the right path there is freedom and security as we live a life in the Holy Spirit. We can come off this right path when we are not fully able to hear or obey the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. Off the path, our sins are covered by the mighty sacrifice of Jesus Christ, though there is something more to be said by Paul in the book of Romans on this matter, namely that we would be mistaken to interpret this as freedom to sin in careless ways (Romans 6:1). The amazing grace of God is that, through Christ, we are able to fail as we grow while having our hearts set on a life of the Spirit, which is itself free of failure when lived to the utmost. The rights and wrongs of the law are not reduced but enforced in this way.
Does Paul emphasise the merits of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, leaving us to guess whether he would have anything good to say about the law? We have shown that he emphasises the heart of the Gospel message, his main concern, but that it is not in contradiction to the message of James, who was an Apostle to the Jews and has the matters of the law close to home. The whole of the New Testament provides the comprehensive message and so James and Paul stand side by side, as well as with the writings of others. Paul certainly stood against legalists and even against Peter when he slipped back into legalism, but he also upholds the value of the law and there is no ambiguity in the whole message (the whole truth) of the New Testament. Indeed, there are occasions on which Paul specifically acknowledges aspects of the law which are relevant to him at a particular time (For example, Acts 15, 1 Timothy 5:18, Acts 16:3, Acts 21:22, Acts 18:18). In none of these places do we read that the law can save, of course, which would be in contradiction to Paul’s clear teaching elsewhere.
In the Epistle to the Romans Paul develops the major theme of salvation through faith and is incisive in his message that there is one means of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles and that this is through the same saving faith. Again, as in Galatians, he shows that the contrast is between the life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit. These are the two real issues to be addressed. Chapter 6 describes the struggles with sin (the flesh life), while Chapter 8 describes the glorious free secure life of the Spirit, which is the goal of believers. Again, as in Galatians, it is not so much grace that is set against law, as if one cancelled the other in principle, it is the grace of God which removes the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13) a curse which is upon those who cannot obey the law by works, yet try to do so, and that is everyone who has not received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, Paul’s message is concerned with the effects of the law on us not on the content of the law. Time and again he reminds us of the value of the law. It is holy, righteous and good (Chapter 7:12, 16). While showing that there is no favouritism in the plan of salvation (Chapter 3:29), both Jews and Gentiles being part of one body, he also emphasises that God will be faithful to His covenant with the Jews (Romans 9,10,11). Here we see the height and depth of God’s love and faithfulness and we enter into the awesomeness of what has been accomplished in Christ. No wonder Paul’s emphasis is on the plan of salvation through faith and grace, and no wonder we can miss lesser emphasis on the standing of the law among believers.
The path to the spiritual life is opened and seen to be a life without condemnation while the believer is seeking to grow to maturity. The attitude that believers should have to one another is to be non-legalistic while encouraging spiritual growth. The emphasis of Romans 14:1-8 like Colossians 2:16-19 might appear to cancel injunctions of the law which were previously upheld as good. This is not the case. The emphasis is on the freedom to grow to maturity in Christ, rather than a specific agenda (though the items on the agenda are not presented as unimportant, of course). If one person has grown into the life of faith beyond another this is no reason to condemn the other person, who through grace is given room to grow. Growth is important, but the learning process is one borne out of freedom to grow and not condemnation in immaturity. Paul is confident that we should encourage one another towards spiritual maturity and this in freedom. He is confident that the Holy Spirit will lead into all truth as the Lord promised (John 16:5-15) without the need for legalism or judgmentalism. Correction through love is, of course, to be taught (2 Timothy 3:16), and the teaching of the law is as relevant as ever, being a full part of Scripture.
Of course, there is to be no ambiguity about the fact that Jesus Christ has brought an end to the need for sacrifice for sins as laid out in the Books of Moses. The letter to the Romans contains a similar thread to that of Galatians. We see that a main pointer is towards the believer’s life in the Spirit, the result of saving grace. Yet neither in Romans nor Galatians, nor anywhere else in Scripture, are we to suppose that the law is to be put away by us or will not be brought to our remembrance by the Holy Spirit. It still has value and is to be a mirror to our lives and a check on our path, without condemning us, while we are growing to maturity.
The Value of Word Studies
The Old Testament has been translated from Hebrew (and a little Aramaic). It was written by authors who conveyed information from a world that was quite different from most of the present day world, and with a language that had particular emphasis and meanings. The early Apostles, including Paul, were all from this background and even though the New Testament comes to us in Greek there are thought patterns to be discerned which relate to the Hebraic mind. Thus when we read our translations of the Bible, while being in absolutely no danger of missing the fundamental truths of the faith, we are wise to study or be tutored in some of the background meanings which are otherwise hidden. The richness of the message of Scripture can be sought in this way and understanding can be deepened.
Thus some of the misconceptions about topics, including law and grace, can be removed by deeper studies of the meaning of words and the message which they were intended to convey. It is wise to begin with Old Testament (Hebrew) word studies because many of the New Testament Greek words will relate to meanings of the Hebrew equivalents.
We can come to some very speedy conclusions about the background meanings of law and grace when this is begun, which help with our overall perceptions. In particular we are conscious of a God who does not change, and whose love and grace are embroidered over the whole of history. The “Old Covenant” was given by no less loving and gracious God than the God of the “New Covenant”. The “Old Testament” pointed to Jesus Christ no less than the “New Testament” reveals Him.
Thus we see that it was an act of grace which brought the law to the people of Israel. “He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.” (Psalm 147:19-20). What an astounding fact the psalmist understood, that God had selected a nation to show the right path and begin to work through them to what we, in our day, would see completed in the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. God showed them not only His righteous requirements but also the way of forgiveness through sacrifice, foreshadowing the atonement through the blood of Jesus. It was grace that made provision in the Old Covenant for what would be fulfilled completely through Jesus. God’s holy requirements of the law, simply stated but profoundly difficult for human flesh to keep, were declared with provision for the sin that would be exposed through these very same laws. All of this was a work of grace that God should even begin to work like this among men.
When we took into the meanings of the words behind our translations all of this can be richly revealed. We can see clues to it from our translations. Psalm 19, for example, demonstrates that there is a wide spectrum of meaning to be attached to the requirements of God, which are not just contained under the one word, “law”. In English we use the various words law, statute, precept, command, ordinance (verses 7 – 9) to show there are shades of emphasis on these legal entities pronounced and taught by God. This goes well beyond the normal division of the law into Ceremonial, Moral and Judicial. We see that there was a giving out of God’s heart to man which showed both His holiness and His desires for holiness among men. Certainly there is a legal framework, but we must be careful that we don’t impose upon our understanding the characteristics of the legal framework of the Gentile nations, such as the Romans, and misunderstand that a righteous, holy God was behind His own revelations to mankind, but also a loving God who was already prepared, at the giving of the Commandments at Sinai, for the sacrifice of His own Son centuries later.
Moses, himself knew of the different elements of teaching in what God had revealed through him, and at the time of Moses, more words were needed to describe these elements than simply “law”. The English translation of Deuteronomy 4:13-14 illustrates this, using the words covenant, Ten Commandments, decrees and laws. As we read Paul we must have in mind the different aspects of the teaching brought to Moses. Indeed, the general word that is translated from the Hebrew as “law” is “Torah”, which carries the meaning of teaching or instruction, a much softer emphasis than the legalistic framework which is often associated with it and probably was applied by the legalistic Jews who had gone into error in Paul’s day.
The characteristic of God which echoes through the pages of the Old Testament is “hesed” which is translated with many hints of meaning, such as love, kindness, loving-kindness, mercy as well as being one of the words that mean grace. It was God’s loving-kindness that brought the Torah and who through His same character brought salvation through His Son and sent His Holy Spirit. The New Testament uses words based on the Greek “Charis” to convey the qualities of God in this plan of salvation, but we must be careful to understand the character of God through His works and the words used to describe Him in both Old and New Testaments. Otherwise we revert to the meanings of words as they are translated into our own language and miss the depth of meaning of the Bible’s message, whether through Paul, or Moses, or David. We see a grace that is deep and loving that transcends one particular application of a word, and covers the whole of God’s work including the giving of the Torah as well as the message of Paul. The Torah shows us God’s heart by His grace as well as having the potential to reveal the heart of man.
Jesus’s Attitude to the Torah
We have argued that the New Testament teaching of Paul is chiefly concerned with the way of salvation and he does not teach followers of Jesus to be antinomians (those who would say that the law was of no effect and completely ignore it, thus tending to encourage lawlessness). We should free ourselves, therefore, from any self imposed bondage which prevents us from meditating on the law in order to discover what benefits this might have. If this reasoning is correct then we would expect this to conform to the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus came into the world, in His humanity, as a Jew, totally identifying with the Jewish customs. He was circumcised on the eighth day, went to the Jewish Feasts, conformed to the Rabbinical methods of teaching and taught from the Jewish Scriptures, including the Torah. Some scholars suggest that he wore the tassels on the rim of his garment as commanded by the law of Moses. It is true that He identified Himself completely with the Nation of Israel for reasons other than upholding their traditions (Hebrews 2:17-18, 1 Timothy 2:5), but it is also clear that He upheld the teaching of the Torah to such an extent that He raised it to another plateau.
He taught with an authority which astounded the people (Matthew 7:28-29). He demonstrated that His teaching contained revelation about Himself in relationship to the law as well as deeper understanding about the law itself that other teachers could not perceive (For example, His teaching on the Sabbath: Mark 2:23-28). He then openly fulfilled, as He had said that He would (Matthew 5:17), the requirements of the law, in His atoning death and resurrection.
The word fulfil should be understood as meaning “filled up”, “brought to fulness” Thus Jesus both acknowledged the laws of Moses on earth and fulfilled them through His ministry, demonstrating what this meant. He was careful to say that the righteous requirements of the law must be taught and obeyed (Matthew 5:17-20). He gave all provision for our freedom from a yoke of bondage which other Rabbis imparted through their legalistic teaching, by the sending of the Holy Spirit, as Paul was later to teach, but He by no means taught people to neglect the outworking of the law in community life and attitude to God. He showed that the whole teaching of God came from the central principles of loving God with all one’s heart, soul and mind, and one’s neighbour as oneself, upholding the central teaching given through Moses (Matthew 22:34-40, Deuteronomy 6:5).
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7) Jesus makes it plain that the statements of the law given in the Old Testament have a far higher meaning which His disciples must follow. Far from cancelling the law He upholds it and in ways that have considerable outworkings in everyday life on this earth. Importantly, because of Jesus’s higher revelation of the meaning of the law, our focus is drawn more to what and how He taught His disciples as recorded in the New Testament than to the Old Testament accounts. To read the Old Testament accounts alone could lead us to the legalism that Paul warned the Galatians about. Nevertheless, Jesus did not encourage us to neglect the teaching of Moses. He taught us that we should understand and follow its deeper meanings, not legalistically but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is not a careless life of ease, but a disciplined life of learning. However, Jesus has broken the yoke of bondage that the law requires, through the finished work of Calvary. Surely Paul assumes that we will read and learn from all of Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel accounts while also reading from His own letters. There is no contradiction.
If there is any doubt about Jesus’s attitude to the law then we should remember that Jesus is the King of the Jews (Luke 23:3-4), and that there are specific attitudes that the King must have to the law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). “It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life.”
In the ordinary sense of the meaning a prisoner would view freedom as being the ability to resume his normal life, to make his own decisions, to do just what he wanted. However, the carnal man’s desires pull him towards sin. Thus the normal outworking of freedom is sin. Thus we must be careful to understand just what freedom from the curse and bondage of the law should mean in our lives. Indeed, even in the normal sense, we should ask if there are bounds to freedom, for if one man is free to do what he desires then this is likely to restrict the freedom of another.
The understanding of true freedom is important for the believer. It is possible to seek spiritual freedom in Christ yet, in reality and out of misunderstanding, use it as licence for sin, perhaps assuming that Christ covers careless or deliberate sinning for us. Paul put it this way: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:1-4).
Thus freedom in Christ cannot be freedom to break the laws of God (though our mistakes as we seek to grow to maturity are covered, of course, or we are not free of the curse of the law). Indeed, it is a strange kind of freedom for the carnal man, because it is a freedom that leads to death! However, there is the promise of life into which we are freed through our death in Christ and this is the freedom that He brings us. This is the life that Jesus promised that would be lived to the full (John 10:10).
The true freedom that is for the believer is, then, freedom that is found in the spiritual life which the Holy Spirit brings. Anything else is a counterfeit and is bondage to the carnal nature. Even the Christian religion can be carnal, and hence sinful and in bondage, unless the spirtual life is lived to the full and the carnal nature is put to death in Christ.
Thus the freedom that we are talking about is not licence to follow the carnal nature. That sort of “freedom” is really bondage to sin and hence to the law which exposes sin. That sort of “freedom” is a counterfeit and can manifest itself in many ways including counterfeit spirituality, legalism, sinfulness and legalistic religion.
A clue to the motive behind true freedom comes from the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Hebrews were in physical bondage to the Egyptians and then God, through Moses, led them out to freedom. The message that Moses was given to take to Pharaoh was, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (Exodus 7:16, 8:1, 8:20 etc). The freedom from bondage was so that the people might worship God. This is true freedom. This is the restoration of the relationship which was intended in the Garden of Eden. This is the purpose of the plan of Salvation, the Sacrifice of Jesus. True freedom is not to make us carnally minded and give licence for things of this world to be done without inhibition. True freedom is given so that we might turn to God in right relationship.
Of course the Hebrews who left Egypt did not achieve this, and we are taught that their example is for our edification (1 Corinthians 10:6). It is interesting that the law was given in the wilderness soon after the Hebrews left Egypt, and Moses could even say, “And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” (Deuteronomy 6:25). The law remains a set of parameters by which our freedom is gauged. There are limits to true freedom and within those limits we can move. How often do we see this in relation to children, who are most secure to explore life when they know the bounds to their freedom? It was not the law that failed primarily, it was the human heart’s inability to obey the law that was revealed. This is a lesson from the Israelites in the wilderness, and it is a relevant message for us as we also consider the meaning of freedom in the context of new life in Jesus.
Later generations of Jews have refined the law to much finer points than Moses originally taught, and this is the teaching that comes to Jews through the Mishnah, Talmud etc. It was an attempt to “put a fence around the law” by making the rules for life more strict than the literal demands of the law, hence protecting Jews from getting near to breaking the actual law. This is a logical idea but bound to fail because the human heart is prone to sin, and as James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10). The struggling over fine details of the law and yet being blind to general failure was expressed by Jesus as “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.” (Matthew 23:24). This failure of the law to bring righteousness must not be misjudged, however. It pointed to the new heart that was required (Ezekiel 36:24-27) but in the context of the new heart and the giving of the Holy Spirit there would be a desire and ability to follow God’s laws: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (verses 26-27).
The laws still remain the bounds within which true freedom is exercised. The failure of the human heart does not change this. The result is that the law reveals sin but is powerless to save. True freedom will be outworked within the laws of God, which act as a boundary fence, but is made possible only through spiritual rebirth (John 3:3). The essence of this freedom is just the same as was intended (and still is) for the Hebrews coming out of bondage, that we might worship God. There is no other purpose to our freedom in Christ, which has brought us life in all its fulness. One of the climaxes of Paul’s message in the book of Romans points this out, that, “If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ (Romans 8:13-15). This is true freedom, freedom to come close to God and worship Him. True freedom is freedom in the Holy Spirit, with the flesh in submission. True freedom is spiritual in nature and there will be no true freedom outside of Christ and unless the Holy Spirit has graciously come to live in a person.
Meditations on the Law
Having discovered what true freedom is and having been released from the bondage of the law to grow to maturity is there any merit in meditating on the law? Psalm 19 is a wonderful hymn of praise to our God who has put order and beauty into His creation, leading on to a meditation on the wonderful order to which the law leads a person in his physical life, and pointing towards a repentance from the heart and worship to God. Surely such a psalm is very relevant to the worship from the free spirit outlined in the last section. It is worship that is based upon the right attitude to the law, which leads us to God and knowledge of His ways. Surely we are able to capture the heart of David that was also expressed in Psalm 119, which over and over again praises God because of His ways which have been made known to men: “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” (verse 97). Surely our liberty in the Holy Spirit results in our meditation on all of God’s ways as an exploration of Him and brings us to worship Him. As we grow to maturity in freedom, our praise is towards Him for taking the bondage away while leaving His ways to be explored.
Why are Jewish children introduced to the book of Leviticus at an early age? It is so that they will be taught the way to go that all will go well with them (Proverbs 22:6, Deuteronomy 6 etc). The Jewish leaders who brought bondage through their teaching missed the real reason for meditating on God’s word, a thing which David did not miss and one which we are equipped to take up through the grace of our Lord. Thus the reading of Leviticus should bring delight and praise, not bondage. When approached in this way it is discovered to be a rich treasure store.
Take, for example, some of the simple treasures like Leviticus 19:32, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.” How wonderfully simple. Take a look at modern youth in the secular world and you will see just the opposite in the context of rising crime against the elderly, and more general lawlessness. Surely, we can see that somewhere behind God’s injunctions, at the heart of the matter are safeguards for societies. If one were inclined towards God’s ways then such simple injunctions would be natural consequences. How simply God might have led us to Himself through these issues, that anyone can understand. Oh, how I love your law!
Take the simplicity of dealings with crops and land shown in Leviticus 25. What nation has ever done this? A Jubilee year is set aside and rent is reckoned in proportion to the number of years to the jubilee. After all it is not the land that is rented,but the facility to grow crops (verse 16), and anyway God owns the land (verse 23). With this principle, we are God’s tenants, there is right order to our transactions and God is with us to enable the harvest (verses 18-19). There are libraries of books written on economics, but not one system is as simple and effective as this, which is written into a few verses of one chapter of the book of Leviticus. Look at the nations in disorder through greed. With a right heart and a right seeking after God’s ways, which are held together in the principle of loving one another and loving the Lord, how simple it would have been to live our daily lives. The Hebrews could have been a light to the nations and taught us this profound simplicity. No need for economics degrees, it is all contained in a short chapter of Leviticus. Of course, it will never be seen on this earth outside of an established millennial kingdom, but, nevertheless, the Lord’s perfect ways have been revealed in their profound simplicity. What a wonderful meditation on what might have been. Oh what an insight into the mind of God! Oh how I love your laws!
What about Leviticus 24:17, which echoes Genesis 9:6, “If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death”? It is made clear elsewhere (Deuteronomy 13:11) that the principle of deterrence is included in the law structure. We cannot say how effective this principle of deterrence can be in isolation from the need for complete obedience to all God’s laws, but what we do know is that God expects such laws to lead to the good of a society and that He would bless societies who sought to obey Him. If we take away God’s laws, lawlessness increases rather than remains in check; the whole world situation of today declares this. This is an immense subject for meditation, but also has important practical application. This meditation must be at a mature level, however. Take, for example, the situation recorded in John Chapter 8, of the woman caught in adultery. No-one was able to stone her because of their own guilt. This draws us into the depth of the principles of the law, in which we see the community aspect of sin. It takes righteous representatives of a righteous nation to administer God’s justice. There is a corporate nature to the law as there is a corporate nature to sin. God’s laws are simple in their statement but deep at the heart, and only meditation upon them will reveal this depth. Oh, how I love your law!
Paul makes an interesting reference to Deuteronomy 25:4 in his letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy (1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18). He demonstrates how the injunction “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading the grain” has a much deeper meaning at its heart. He does not deny that this practice is right for oxen but shows that it has parallels in the way ministers in the work of God should obtain material support from their ministry. Paul has seen these principles at the heart of the law and brings it out in this individual case. Surely, then, there are depths for us all to discover in our meditations on this and other aspects of the law. Those issues, which can seem vague and uninteresting, really have hidden depths that lead to our free spirit to respond in ways that bring life and truth into our communities. Oh, how I love your law!
When we begin to explore the law carefully and seek its deeper meanings we discover that we can grow into God’s holy ways far more effectively than through the application of a legalistic framework within the context of the flesh life. We see principles within the practical applications which are good at the simple level of obedience and profound in their deeper application. Surely, the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth desires that we explore God’s laws in this way. He will use our times of meditation on the Scriptures (Old Testament as well as New) to lead us into the deeper truths. Surely this was what was intended at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), that a message should go to the churches to encourage Gentile believers to begin to meditate on God’s laws, by beginning on four important but not too heavy injunctions (relating to fornication, abstention from meat sacrificed to idols and from strangled animals, and from blood). The need to not burden the Gentiles was born out of trust in the Holy Spirit’s teaching to those who would desire to go on to maturity. Hearing the good things of the law, possibly from the teaching in the synagogues, as well as clear teaching on faith in Jesus and the grace that brought us salvation, would lead to meditation on these things within the freedom to learn that is given by the Holy Spirit. Acts 16:4-5 describes how the teaching of the Council of Jerusalem was taken from town to town and how the churches grew daily, both spiritually and numerically.
We were meant, for example, to grow in understanding of why we should not eat meat unless drained of blood, and from eating blood itself, trusting God to show us deeper reasons for this, but not because it is imposed legalistically. Our meditations would take us deeper into holiness and spiritual maturity. This does not contradict the message of Paul to the Galatians concerning salvation through grace, but is a pointer to the depths of God’s ways which we are free to explore with Him, without condemnation. Ultimately our meditations lead us to a deeper knowledge of our Saviour. The dryness of the law is replaced by a willingness to yield as we see what He has done for us, as we see Him fulfilling the law, showing us His ways for our health and well-being, seeing Him in every letter of the Torah, in types and provisions, even for the sins that we committed unintentionally (Leviticus 4:27). Oh, how I love your law, I meditate upon it day and night! It leads me to you; it shows me your ways. I thank you that you have freed me to live a spiritual life in which I can rise to maturity, freed from the failure of the flesh and the harsh consequences of that failure, but yet to go on to perfection which is at the heart of your law and in all of its outworkings in my life!
The Relevance of the Law to the Gentile Nations
It is one thing to consider the role of the law in a Christian’s life but another issue in relation to a nation’s laws. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” declares the Psalmist (Psalm 33:12). The Psalmist was considering Israel in particular when he said this, recognising the the amazing situation which was offered, in which a nation could be kept by the Lord, secure in His ways. The Psalmist must have been conscious of the conditions for God’s covenant blessings to be bestowed, namely, obedience to all the commands of the law. In such a moment of revelation we, like him, might see with our spiritual eyes the great possibilities that were offered to this one nation, but which were never fully realised. Herein too lies the agonising sadness of the exile of the Jews from the land of Israel, which is reflected graphically in the book of Lamentations, as well as a vision of a nation on which God’s Spirit can be poured out and in which His order and government are maintained. Here too is a beginning of meditation on the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross where the penalty for sin and failure to obey all of these laws was paid, so that individuals might be gathered into communities, each person being born again by the Holy Spirit.
Clearly, though the principles for national blessings to Israel were laid out, it was never to be realised. The nation did not become a light to the world so that every other nation could learn from them the way to achieve national blessings, by organising society according to the ways God laid out for Israel. There is not, and will not be, a “born again nation” except that it be built of born again individuals. Though the Psalmist gives us a vision of a nation that could be blessed by the Lord, and the prophets give conditions for blessings from the Lord to any nation (for example, Jeremiah 18:7-10), we know that the Kingdom of God will be built, ultimately, through individuals who turn to the Lord for salvation.
These things should send a shudder through the government of any nation. It is not possible to see a specific promise for any nation other than Israel in Scripture (Psalm 147:19-20), but it is possible to know what God requires of a nation, through what was taught to Israel: simply, that God’s laws had to be obeyed. The context of their failure, and our understanding that the flesh would always fail in its striving against sin, is the context of the shudder that these things should bring down the spine of every Gentile nation. Salvation does not come by legalistic obedience to God’s laws, yet they are the means by which sin is controlled and revealed, and the schoolmaster to bring all who will come, to Christ.
Thus it is imperative that believing men institute and maintain laws in a nation which are as close to God’s declared ways for Israel as possible. It might be argued that this is limited to moral laws, but I would argue that one of God’s laws have been abrogated. Even the laws of sacrifice have not been taken away; rather, they have been fulfilled in Jesus. There is need for sacrifice and it is good for a nation to have leaders who declare with certainty that God’s righteous requirements have been and are fulfilled in Jesus.
We can easily give examples of nations of the world that are not putting God’s laws at the centre of its government. Such a nation deliberately rebels against God and encourages its citizens to do this. It does not produce the framework in which sin is controlled and so departs to a place where God lets the nation discover the fruit of its open sin: “I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law.” (Jeremiah 6:19). The world is full of such examples and it is horrific to see the consequences when men, particularly the leading men of a nation, choose darkness instead of light (John 3:19-21). The result is spiritual wilderness, for centuries in some cases, in which every demon and false god can destroy the lives of even innocent people. The example that Jesus gave of the falling of the tower of Siloam on eighteen people illustrates clearly how the corporate sin of a nation can lead to harm coming to those who are not the chief sinners (Luke 13:4). It is an awesome responsibility to be the leader of a nation, particularly when God’s ways have been known and have been deliberately rejected by that nation.
It is particularly sad when a nation backslides when it once upheld Godly laws, and knew the guiding and protecting touch of God upon it. Britain is such a nation, and this nation has slipped more and more from the protecting hand of God as its national laws have turned more and more away from His ways. Consider some of the milestones of decay:
1951; Abolition of the law prohibiting witchcraft.
1959: The Obscene Publications Act.
1965: Abolition of the Death Penalty for Murder.
1967: The Abortion Act.
1967: The Sexual Offences Act.
1967: The Obscene Publications Act Amendment.
1968: The Theatre Act.
1969: The Divorce Law.
1990: Amendment To the Abortion Act.
Along with these things go the rise of relativistic morality which parallels the relativistic theories of science, the lack of teaching of Biblical truths, particularly in schools, as ideas of evolution are taught as if true, creating a myth which purports to be truth and yet proclaiming that the truth of the universal flood, which was because of God’s judgement, is itself myth, the rise of compromise in the church regarding Biblical truth and the rise of multi-faith compromise. Alongside relativistic, evolutionary and quantum thinking comes the rise of prominence of Eastern mystical religions in the form of the major deception of the New Age Movement. As Godly parameters to life are not emphasised or enforced, so decay creeps in, not only morally, but also spiritually. The removal of censorship controls has led to a growth in violence and pornography on films and television and in newspapers, magazines and books. Violence has also crept in through the back door of many homes and schools with the rise of computer games with this emphasis. Another emphasis on fantasy through games, films and literature is resulting in many people, particularly the young not being able to tell the difference between fact and fantasy. The easing of divorce laws has led to countless divorces and split homes. Indeed, the easing of every restraining law has opened the door to lawlessness. In the background too is the broken covenant with the Nation of Israel. At present, the British nation is among the many nations which are not being disciplined through its laws and leadership. The result is that, together with the lawlessness that abounds, the people of the nation are not being made conscious of God’s ways which might lead them towards a personal response to the salvation offered through Jesus Christ, spiritual rebirth and a right framework for freedom. The church is also in danger of drifting away from its original mooring to the deep heritage of faith traced back through the House of Israel and Judah, to the extent that Paul’s warning might not be heeded by many in this generation, “Do not boast over those branches Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
Surely all of our logic points to the great need for a nation to get as close to God’s laws as it can. Then we might be in a position to cry out for mercy and protection, perhaps revival, but only then. It is an awesome thing to see a nation taking away its own protective laws and leaving itself vulnerable to decay, economically, socially and politically, and then perceiving that God allows decay in such circumstances. God’s laws have been made clear in the Old Testament, laws that would have brought blessings to Israel. The least we can do is our utmost to implement them on behalf of our nation and then, who knows, the Lord, rich in compassion and love, might strengthen our communities once more through the church. Ultimately He is looking for clean hearts from individuals in communities, where the Sabbath is a delight and not a legal entity, where murder is replaced by love in the heart, where there is no desire to destroy human life in the womb or to expose our children to pornography, violence or harmful fantasy. The clean heart comes out of a transaction between God and individuals, but the laws of a nation, in a Godly framework, will bring about the safe framework in which God will act among individuals and maintain an overall sense of blessing among people with whom He sends His angels to work.
At a time of decay in a nation, the Gospel message must be backed by a proclamation of God’s laws. Indeed, these are the means by which sin is revealed, confessed and can then be forgiven. The laws do not save: but they lead, through the conviction of sin, to the one who does save.
From the elements of the discussion in this paper, it is clear that we face a complex issue when we try to understand law in relationship to the grace of God. This also reflects the intricate nature of Paul’s letters to the churches, which include many of the aspects of this discussion laid out in the Bible bit by bit. This shows us that we must meditate on Scripture, sometimes seeking maturity on one point, sometimes on another, and generally moving forward into all truth. There is much more to be said on the subject of our discussion. For example, the dating of the Epistles in relation to the Council of Jerusalem. If Galatians is dated before Acts 15 then we can understand Paul’s teaching as coming before the injunctions that were sent out from Jerusalem, where there was a resolution on matters of the law as applied to Gentile converts. On the other hand, we have shown that Paul’s message to the Galatians does not conflict with the teaching of the Council of Jerusalem. If the letter to the Galatians came after that Council then the teaching of the Council can be assumed anyway in the full light of the letter. With all of the New Testament set before us, of course, we are in a position to consider all that it teaches and relate it to the message of the Old Testament, historical considerations being in the background to our exploration of all truth.
The final conclusions are simply stated and can be tested against a broad ranging argument. The major emphasis on the Christian life is to grow in the life of the Spirit, wherein there is freedom to grow and be led into all truth, without condemnation. The external obedience to the law is (and always was) intended to be a result of internal reality; righteousness and holiness in deed being the result of a clean and regenerate heart. However, the flesh does war against the spirit and seeks to take over. This take over can be in diverse ways. As Jeremiah wrote, in a context quite similar to our ideas in this paper, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no-one lives. But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’ The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:5-9). The Old Testament message is no different from that of the New. The difference is that the solution to the problem is seen finally to be fulfilled in Jesus.
In the New Testament, Paul teaches that the works of the flesh will not save us. The works of the flesh must, however, be subject to the law of God or they will lead our children and our nations into total lawlessness. Hence, while emphasising the urgency to train our children about the way they should go, putting good things and corrective influences their way, the ultimate goal is to lead them to rebirth in Jesus and to both freedom and security in the spiritual life. However, the flesh life still wars with the regenerate heart. Indeed, the heart of every person needs regeneration and this comes out of a personal response to Jesus Christ. The Old Testament proverb, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) is as relevant today as it ever was. Only one man lived on this earth with perfect submission of the flesh life to the life of the Holy Spirit and that was Jesus Christ, perfect man and God. The rest of us have a fallen nature which contests our spiritual life, even after we have made our commitment to the Lord and received the blessings of salvation. The goal is maturity in the spiritual life, but it is a path of growth, wherein the flesh life is more and more submitted to the spiritual life. Everything of the flesh is open to deception and corruption and must come under the control of the law. The danger point for Christians is to assume too much and to fall into the flesh life as if it were the life of the spirit. In such a way counterfeit spirituality is manifested, and this accounts for many of the things that can seem to be right and are, nevertheless, wrong in the church, legalistic frameworks for ministry instead of servant-hearted uplifting and edifying ministries in which the love and life of the Spirit are obvious, philosophies of men which purport to be doctrines of God, idolatry of ministry and covetousness for position, even idolatry of the saints of preceding generations and counterfeit charisma. The last of these is one of the more dangerous areas of the flesh life, when it brings counterfeit into the church, and echoes what Jesus said, “Many of you will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you . . ..’”(Matthew 7:22-23).
There is security in the life of the Spirit, but there is also the reality of the struggle. This is not a life of works, but it is an area of growth and discipline to the flesh: We are to be overcomers. If this is misunderstood, a life of false freedom will be lived, in which the flesh will take over and deception and lawlessness will abound. The grace of God has sent His Holy Spirit to give us true freedom. The mature spiritual man will be truly free and, instead of exhibiting good deeds of the law in a moral framework (important and good though these are in every society) he will naturally overflow with spiritual blessings to others and these will come from a heart that God has placed in him, which is close to His own heart. This is the high goal to be discovered. As Paul wrote, the acts of the sinful nature are obvious (Galatians 5:19) and what comes from the spirit are not acts but fruit (Galatians 5:22).
Paul, himself, encourages us to move forward to maturity by the grace of God, but recognises that it is not brought about in a moment. Our conversion is the first step, so that we must be aware of the struggle between flesh and spirit as we grow in order not to fall into sin because we assume that we cannot. In the book of Philippians he puts it this way, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing that I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:12-16).
Through grace, God has sent us the perfect teacher, the Holy Spirit, and has covered our sins in Jesus Christ. We are free to grow in grace and truth, towards the only true life of grace, when we are completely submitted to God and our walk in the Holy Spirit. Yet the law has a part to play alongside this as we mature in the life of grace, as a means of revealing sin and as a means of disciplining families and nations, so that many more might seek to grow in grace. Indeed, at the end we will say, by the grace of God, “Lord I love your Torah!” The deep roots of the Christian faith will reach down and discover that the heart of the Torah of God. Whatever the external manifestations of the law might be, of course, we will discover the heart of the Torah reflects the heart of God and should also reflect our own heart’s condition of loving our Lord with all of our heart, soul mind and strength and our neighbour as ourself. We don’t do these things in order to go to Heaven, but because we are going to Heaven. This is the way the believer should look on the teaching of God.
In the context of our meditations and intercessions for the Gentile nations and for Israel, we can also dig deeply into an understanding of the sinfulness of mankind, the dealings of God with the nation of Israel through history, reflected in the blessings and curses in relationship to the law, and hence we can understand the plan of salvation more clearly, through the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Yeshua Hamashiach, as the final moments of history are coming together for the whole world.
Our final emphasis, of course, must be a reminder of the most important point. The goal of our discipleship programmes in the church should be for every believer to become mature in the life of the Holy Spirit. This is the true life of grace and, ultimately, the only way in which our righteousness can exceed that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 2, No 1, The Feasts Autumn 1993)