The God of the Bible is presented without apology as a law-issuing God who expects us to be law-keeping people. God does not ask permission to assert Himself as the arbiter of human ethics (Gen. 2:15-17). He determines for His creatures the standard of right and wrong and we are duty-bound to know His commandments and honor them.
Such notions are naturally unsettling, particularly when one begins to comprehend precisely what God requires of us. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a stranger seated next to me on a commercial flight home from the east coast some years ago. I came to find out later that he had grown up in a strict Jewish family in which God’s Law to Israel was studied and honored. He was heading to Minneapolis on business and initially asked my advice on the hottest downtown night clubs. We were obviously strangers. He may as well have asked my advice on nuclear physics.
Perhaps it was my bald ignorance of the Minneapolis night club scene that piqued his curiosity, but in any event he began to probe to discover who I was. When he learned the orientation of my life as a minister of the gospel, he proceeded to poke fun at the religion he had long ago left in the dust. Along the way, he explained, he had decoded the vision of God presented in the Hebrew Scriptures. “What is the tastiest meat?” he pressed me. I hesitated. “Obviously, it’s pork,” he asserted with an air of confidence. “So what does God say? ‘No pork.’”
In his view, the God of the Bible calibrates laws so as to drive his children crazy. To whatever they naturally want, whatever is pleasing to their humanity, God says “No.” To whatever they find distasteful, God says “Yes.” As far as my friend was concerned, God’s laws are designed to increase our misery. And I fully suspect that as he headed off to downtown clubs later that evening, he was intent on violating several of those laws.
God’s law reveals
This Jewish man had one thing right: God’s law often grates against our natural desires and intuitions. Yet he missed the whole point of God’s law when he assigned the blame to God. God’s law does not reveal the heart of a cosmic kill-joy, it unveils the rebellious bent of our hearts against our Creator. Had God said, “Do not lick bird droppings off the windshield of a car,” we would find the notion strangely tantalizing. What is more, our ire would be stoked: “Who does God think He is, telling me what to do? I’m fully capable of deciding good and evil for myself, thank you very much.” In reality, God’s law serves to expose the innate distance of our hearts from Him (Rom. 7:7-24).
Yet we must also recognize that God’s law is never arbitrary—such as restricting the ingestion of bird droppings or demanding that no one enjoy the color purple. The Old Testament command against pork might strike us that way at first blush, but this is to misunderstand the divine agenda in law-giving on a number of levels—such as the inherent temporality of some laws and the uniqueness of God’s relationship with Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. Much more could be said on this point.
What we must grasp, however, is that God’s law always reflects the moral beauty of His nature. God commands that we not lie because His nature perfectly corresponds to reality and He is filled with perfect love. No deceitfulness or unloving selfishness taints God’s nature. Therefore, lying is diabolical to Him and His law against it graciously directs His creatures to conform to the splendor of His nature.
What is more, far from a celestial kill-joy, God demands our conformity to His moral nature for our good. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 (ESV): “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statues of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Concerning the word of this law, God exhorts Israel that “it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut. 32:47).
Our need for the Spirit
This brings the matter to a critical head: God’s moral law calls us to conform to the purity of God’s nature for our good, yet at the same time exposes our natural predisposition to disobey God’s commands, revealing our spiritual separation from God and rendering us liable to the curse of the law against law-breakers (Deut. 27:26, Rom. 3:19-20). The law stirs up and exposes our idolatrous unwillingness to let God be God as we consistently evidence our incapacity to conform to His nature. We naturally bristle at times when our desires run headlong into His law against bitterness, gossip, anger, hatred, lying, stealing, lust, greed, and the like. We routinely fail His command to love others as ourselves and to love God with all our hearts.
The good news is that Jesus Christ took on flesh to live in perfect conformity to God’s law and to die as a sacrificial Lamb to suffer the curse of the law against sinners (Gal. 3:13). The good news is that Jesus rose from the dead in victory over the wages of sin (death) and has sent His Holy Spirit to indwell believers and mediate the presence of Christ to them such that their conduct is actively guided by Jesus. This good news comprises God’s purposeful plan to liberate Jesus’ followers from the bondage of the law (which relentlessly exposes sin) that He might empower them to live out the essence of that moral law in the freedom of the Spirit (Rom. 7:1-6, 8:1-4; Gal. 5:16-25).
Since Christ has paid the penalty against sin, those who trust Him for saving grace are now equipped to “walk by the Spirit,” which means to lean upon the Spirit as an vibrant, influential resource in fulfilling God’s law. Where once the written law stirred up lust by saying, for instance, “Do not lust,” the presence of the Spirit counsels us as a godly friend to avoid that which is self destructive and dishonoring to God.
To those who dismiss God’s law as arbitrary and meaningless, or justify themselves as self-sufficiently righteous, none of this matters. But to those who know God’s law to be good and themselves to fall short of it, the notion of sins forgiven, liberation from the curse of the law, and freedom to live under the guidance of the Spirit is very good news indeed.
Learning to habitually “walk in the Spirit” liberates the believer from slavish dependence on rote law-keeping to enjoy a vibrant, relational dependence upon God’s Holy Spirit as guide and friend.
Lust, law and Spirit
To illustrate, imagine that you are a virile young man who has been invited to vacation with an aged Christian friend on the Florida coast. This old man owns a private stretch of shoreline. You are instructed by email to park your car at a public lot and then to walk along a crowded public beach for about a mile in order to reach your friend’s beach house. At the bottom of the email are found these instructions: “There will be many sparsely-clad and gorgeous young women on this long stretch of beach. Do not lust. And bind this note on your wrist to remind you to keep your thoughts pure until you reach my place. I will be waiting for you.”
Well, you weren’t really thinking about beautiful women when you started reading the message, but you sure are now. And as you set out on your mile-long trek, beautiful women in provocative swimwear is about all you seem to notice. You know what the word of instruction bound to your wrist says, and you even look at it now and then, but every time you read those words, “Do not lust,” that’s precisely what you want to do. There’s nothing wrong with the note on your wrist, but you have a strong urge to pull it off and toss it in the trash can near that gorgeous sunbather right over there.
Now imagine a different scenario. This time, your spiritually mature friend meets you at the parking lot and talks with you in earnest, fatherly tones about the moral challenge you will face as you set out for the mile-long journey across the crowded public beach. After helping you get your head straight, he leads you in prayer. Then, together you set out on your walk as you converse, engaging your minds with noble thoughts.
Evil speaking, law and Spirit
To reset the scene, imagine that you are a middle-aged woman who is deeply offended by a member of your family who has wronged you unjustly. You are invited to a wedding shower where there are a number of women who share your antipathy for this particular relative. Knowing your experience, a godly old friend sends you directions to the shower with the following lines of instruction written at the top: “Do not gossip and let your speech be always gracious,” with the suggestion that you hang this note from your necklace so as to constantly remember its instruction. You arrive at the party but it seems the note dangling from your neck serves mostly to remind you how mad you are at your relative and how badly you want to tell everyone what she did to wrong you.
Now imagine, alternatively, that your godly friend does not simply send a map and write a note at the top, but decides to go with you to the wedding shower. Sitting next to you she encourages you to do right, holds you accountable and strengthens your resolve. Attending the shower in the company of a charactered woman whose godly counsel and moral example you deeply respect offers superior resistance to sin when compared to a bald law hanging around your neck.
If you are a born again believer in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is such a friend and He is always with you! Walk with Him. Listen to Him. Discern by an increasing knowledge of God’s Word what the Spirit wants in every situation of life. Walk with Him along the beach and to the wedding shower and wherever life leads you. Walk with Him and heed His promptings to want what Jesus would want in any given circumstance—not for your misery, but for your eternal joy.