A kingdom without a law would be an oxymoron, as is the notion of a ruler without rules. All communities and all relationships require guiding and defining principles to maintain health and vitality. Properly understood, law is life. Even secular scientists understand that all living things can only continue to function as they abide by various natural and physical laws. The same is true of our moral natures, as moral disharmony will lead to conflict and eventually death.
As our memory text this week reveals, Christ’s kingdom of grace does not involve the end or extinction of law. Rather, it changes where that law resides. Under the new covenant, instead of existing on stone tables held over our heads to condemn us, God promises his people to put His “law on their minds, and write it on their hearts.” (Jer. 31:33) These internalized principles now become the spring of action for a people whose hearts have been changed by God’s grace.
They keep the law, not to obtain salvation, but as a response and an outgrowth of the salvation that they have received. They indeed “work out” the implications and reality of their “own salvation,” the peace and assurance of which they have already received. (Phil. 2:12)
Now, because we retain our sinful natures, many Protestants, including Adventists, understand the need for a continuing use for the Christian of the external law. This is sometimes called the “third use” of the law, to distinguish it from the role of the law in regulating society (first use) and convicting people of their need for Christ (second use).
Both the reformed tradition, as well as Methodism, from which Adventism primarily arose, believed that the external law continued to serve as a check and a guide to see whether the believer was truly continuing in Christ. This is the use that James reveals when he talks about the “man who looks at his face in a mirror” and then “forgets what kind of person he was,” but the “one who looks intently” at the “law of liberty,” this man “will be blessed in what he does.” (Jm. 1:25)
This understanding of the third use of the law is why we teach our children (or used to, and still should) to memorize the Ten Commandments. Of course, we should also have them memorize the beatitudes, so they understand the true role and place of the law in the Christian life, and the importance of the spirit of the law. Our sinful nature could mislead us to confusing freedom in Christ for following our own lustful desires into libertinism; but these same fallen natures can lead us back to the miry morass of legalism.
One of the key reasons for Christian’s continued study of the Scriptures and God’s law is to avoid both these pitfalls. But legalism can come in two forms. The first is that our keeping of the law is the basis of our salvation. This ditch is probably the most widely understood and thus most easily avoided, at least as matter of belief. Very few people in the Protestant world or the Adventist church will admit to holding this belief. Almost all will affirm the great protestant, biblical doctrine of Justification by Faith.
But there is a more subtle form of legalism, and that is to hold that all biblical instruction must be enforced with equal weight, precision, and finality. Now, no one really does this in practice. Almost all agree that the various ritual, ceremonial, and even civil laws of Israel no longer bind Christians in the New Testament era. By our practices, we also show that even various New Testament instructions are not always binding. Most even conservative Adventists do not greet each other with holy kisses, and we find very few hats being worn by ladies these days in church.
But we have a greater difficulty dealing with the idea that some biblical instructions may indeed be universal principles, but others are indeed applications of these principles, that may vary with time and place. But there is a very real danger in not distinguishing between different kinds of instructions or “law(s)” (you may have noticed the slight variation in my title from the actual title of this week’s Sabbath school lesson to make the point about different kinds of rules).
That danger is that the spirit of the truly universal principles of Christ’s kingdom will actually be subverted by an insistence on the letter of some more localized rule or guideline. Now, this is a delicate matter that one does not want to go wrong on and use as the basis to disregard God’s laws when they are not convenient. And yet Christ himself affirmed this principle when he spoke favorably of David eating the showbread that was reserved for the priests. (Matt. 12:3-4).
It was this distinction between universal and local that allowed Paul to write “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Cor. 7:19). Was not circumcision an instruction, even a command of God? Indeed it had been. Yet Paul sees that there had come a time when the local application of this non-moral law was giving way to greater, more enduring principles.
Some of us see these kinds of distinctions between universal moral absolute and temporal ideal as playing an important role in our recent discussions over ordination and gender. How to take a biblical teaching, even one based on universal principles, and translate it into our own time and place takes care, sensitivity, and faithfulness to scriptural text. Such adaptions, the Scripture reveals, apply only to organizational ideals, not to universal moral teachings such as the Ten Commandments, Christ’s sermon on the mount, and biblical sexual teachings, such as adultery and homosexuality.
As I articulated these principles in the context of ordination in a class, I had one student propose to carry out a video project rather than write a class paper. That student has a real talent for drawing and creativity, and he has produced a five-minute, white-board-animation video, expressing what I wrestled with in a much longer biblical paper about moral law and organizational ideal.
Ideas are always imperfectly conveyed when moving from one medium to another. Certainly, some important nuance and distinctions get lost in moving from a 30-page paper to a-five minute cartoon. I would urge anyone who is stimulated in their thinking by the video to read the fuller paper. ( http://www.moderateway.com/#!moderate-position/c1p9k ) Yet, the central thrust of the argument, the difference between absolute moral commands and organizational ideals, and the importance of mutual respect for Christian freedom, is simply and powerfully conveyed by the video. Thus, I want to end my essay by presenting this video, created and written by Seminary Student Nathan Dubs, illustrating why all biblical instructions need to be treated in the manner that the Bible itself teaches they should. Thank you, Nathan, for your creative and thoughtful work on behalf of Christ’s kingdom.
Nicholas P. Miller is professor of Church History at the Adventist Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6079