Dispensationalists are sometimes accused of holding a contemptuous attitude towards God’s law. Sometimes this accusation is warranted. Certain versions of dispensationalism treat the law as irrelevant or even downright harmful.
While I am a dispensationalist, I do not share this attitude. When I read the New Testament, I find exactly the opposite view of the law. While legalism is condemned, the law itself is held up as a thing of glory, a thing that is holy and just and good.
Recent conversations have led me to look within and to ask myself, “How do I see God’s law? How do I feel about it?” In the following paragraphs I am going to try to answer that question. Therefore, this essay should not be taken as a normative statement. I am not arguing that my attitudes are exactly the correct ones. Rather, I am attempting a more-or-less phenomenological description of the attitudes that I discover within myself. Perhaps these attitudes need to be corrected—in fact, I am sure that they do. Both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists are welcome to bring the Scriptures to bear so that my view of God’s law can become more accurate than it is now.
Before I describe these attitudes, however, perhaps I should say a word about the notion of “law.” In the narrower sense, I use the term to refer to the 613 commands and prohibitions of the Sinai code. These commands and prohibitions are of three kinds. Some of them directly reflect the immutable character of God. Others, while certainly consistent with God’s character, reflect His plan for Israel as a nation. Still other commands reflect God’s intention to prepare His people for the coming of His Son. These three categories correspond roughly to the ordinary distinctions between moral, civil, and ceremonial law.
When I approach the law, I do not begin by asking which part of it I must keep today. If I understand 1 Corinthians 3 correctly, even the Decalogue has been rendered inoperative as a rule of life. This abolishing of the law does not mean that I am free to live in any sinful way that I please. It simply means that the mechanism for progressive sanctification is not to be found in legal commandments. It is found in the Spirit.
The life of one who is led by the Spirit will reflect the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit results in a life that looks very much like law-keeping, even though the focus is not on the commandments. This is probably part of what Paul means when He says that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.
So, how do I perceive the law? When I look within myself, I discover that I respond to God’s law in several ways.
First, the law delights me. It is a great and glorious revelation of the character of God, as well as a revelation of certain aspects of His plan. Even when God’s commands are not addressed to me, they show what is consistent with His character. In the case of the moral law, the commands are a direct revelation of God’s moral nature. By studying the law as a whole, I learn a great deal about who God is. I learn what sort of thing pleases Him and what sort of thing disgusts Him. I gain a picture of true justice in all of its white heat. As the law discloses God and His nature, and as the law shapes my understanding of justice, I respond with joy, for the law tells me that the moral universe actually is as it truly ought to be.
Second, God’s law inspires me. It shapes within my mind a picture of the good life, and it grips my heart with yearning to live such a life. The more that the law shows me God’s nature, the more I wish to emulate that nature. The more it discloses true justice, the more I wish to be truly just. I am convinced that the life of a person who genuinely lived by God’s law would be a magnificent life indeed. By describing that life, the law makes me want to live it. When I read the commandments and see them as holy and just and good, I wish to make them my own.
Third, God’s law also provokes me. Part of me wishes to be less a law-keeper and more a law unto myself. That part of me hates to be crossed. I confess that often, when I read “Thou shalt not,” something within me responds, “I shall so!” In fact, this part of me is so bad that it even takes God’s commands as suggestions for sins that I would have never thought of on my own. Sadly, though I delight in the law of God according to the inner person, I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind.
Fourth, God’s law terrifies me. The law is not merely a description of the way I ought to act, think, and feel. It constitutes a demand that I actually live in those ways, and it attaches severe penalty to any failure. Worst of all, it gives me no help in achieving the righteousness that it describes. My lofty aspirations crash repeatedly into the dust of my own depravity, and then the law mutters its curses in my ear. At such moments it fills me with such dread that I cannot bring myself to look upon the face of the Law-giver. I feel the law hovering between myself and Him as a monstrous bludgeon to strike out at my rebellion and failure.
Fifth, the law drives me to Christ. Since I am a convicted sinner, He offers the only possible refuge for my desperate soul. In Him I find deliverance from the law’s threatening, for the curse of my sins fell upon Him. But I also find more. In Him I discover the perfect law-keeper, the truly righteous man. Without the law, I would never have appreciated the beauty of His righteousness, and without my failure I would never have understood the magnificence of His victory. He kept the law, and what is more, He kept it for me. His righteousness has been credited to me. All of my hope rests upon His blood and righteousness.
Sixth, I find that the law is being written on my heart. I am not doing that writing myself. No amount of self-discipline could ever lead me genuinely to honor God’s law. Instead, I am trusting the Holy Spirit to keep changing me inwardly (to circumcise my heart, or to take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh) so that I do by nature the very things that the law requires. The law is more like a travel brochure than it is like a road map. It shows me a desirable destination (righteousness), but it does not tell me how to get there. The Holy Spirit actually gets me there, and He does this by inwardly conforming me to the image of Christ.
Indeed, the righteousness of the law presents a vague and hazy picture that snaps into crystal clarity in the person of Christ. Now that Christ has come, I find that He is the fulfillment of the law. All of the beauties that I see dimly in the law are disclosed with brilliant precision in Jesus Christ. It is not that the law has become less glorious. Instead, its glory has been eclipsed by the greater glory of Christ. If the law is like a travel brochure with little, grainy pictures, Christ is Himself the destination.
All that I love about the law, I love about Christ to an exponentially greater degree. My delight in the law feeds directly into a delight in Christ. In a manner of speaking, Christ has taken over the place of the law for me, in the fullest, most forgiving, and most enabling sense. He himself has become my law insofar as reflecting His person and character has become my rule of life. This “law of Christ” (take that as apposition) has displaced the law of commandments and rendered them inoperative, not by canceling them, but by fulfilling them and enabling the righteousness to which they point.
In sum, I cannot despise God’s law because it offers a preliminary (if somewhat obscure) picture of Christ. I love the law for His sake. At the same time, to be fascinated with the picture rather than the person would not honor either one. Christ offers me the beauties of the law without its terrors because He has endured its terrors for me. Ultimately, He is my law (not as a different law, but as the fulfillment of all divine law). As the Holy Spirit transforms my character to resemble His, I hope for my practice to take on the majestic contours of a life that truly honors the law.
Mercy Tempering Justice
John Quarles (1624-1665)
Had not the milder hand of Mercy broke
The furious violence of that fatal stroke
Offended Justice struck, we had been quite
Lost in the shadows of eternal night.
Thy mercy, Lord, is like the morning sun,
Whose beams undo what sable night hath done;
Or like a stream, the current of whose course,
Restrained awhile, runs with a swifter force.
Oh! let me glow beneath those sacred beams,
And after bathe me in those silver streams;
To Thee alone my sorrows shall appeal:
Hath earth a wound too hard for heaven to heal?
|This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.|