The Law As Gospel?

For most of us, the word “law” is not a happy word. I have never heard anyone say, “It’s the law” in a friendly tone of voice. But let’s explore the issue against the backdrop of a practical modern example, “required” seat belts, and I’ll start with some questions: When did you first start buckling up? What made you do it? Or maybe you are one of the few remaining renegades who insists on a life of unfettered freedom....

I don’t remember when or why I started buckling up. Typically I’m fairly obedient in practical matters—I only rebel when someone tells me I have to do something. Initially I buckled up faithfully when I was driving, but less faithfully when I was a passenger. But, since the winter of 1963, I wear a seat belt all the time, for in 1963 I was a passenger without one and popped my head through the windshield. I can still rub the scar on my forehead and feel it in the middle of my scalp. It’s a convincing argument in favor of seat belts.

But if seat belts are such a benefit, why doesn’t everyone wear them? Of course they restrict our freedoms and of course they’re uncomfortable. And yes, one can even cite examples of accidents where it was more dangerous to wear a seat belt than to be without. Still, the evidence in favor of seat belts is overwhelming.

So, our elected officials have decided to help us wear seat belts. The first efforts were gentle: buckles in the shape of hearts with a “loving” message: “Buckle up – we love you!”

Didn’t work. Here’s a harder line: “Buckle up! It’s the law.” Stronger words, but still not much muscle. Sometimes the hard rhetoric was softened just a bit: “Buckle up! It’s our law.”

But only when it turned expensive—“Click it or ticket!”—did the habit begin to catch on. When I checked the fines a few years ago, in Washington State, where I live, the fine was $101 for riding without a seat belt. Next door, in Oregon, it only cost $94. But in both states the authorities issue tickets with no qualms of conscience. Still, I am amazed at how often the report of a fatal accident includes the line: “The driver was not wearing a seat belt.”

Now let’s bring God into the picture. Should God be concerned about such things as seat belts? Why not, if God, like John, wants us to “prosper and be in health” (3 John 2)?

So, God sets about the task of helping us protect ourselves and others. In short, to make us be good. Well, make is a bit strong. Encourage? Entice? Coax?

You see the problem. Paul lays it out—his dilemma, ours, and God’s: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21).

But now let’s come to the role of law in education. After all, the umbrella concept for this quarter’s lessons is “education.” So does “law” help people think? In typical evangelical theology, law is an instrument of condemnation and points to the need of grace. But that doesn’t really help us see law as good news or to see law as a catalyst for exploratory thinking.

So let’s look at two Old Testament passages that paint a more balanced view of law. Both are from the book of Deuteronomy. In the first one (Deut. 4:5-8), Moses celebrates law as “good news.” So good, in fact, that Israel’s neighbors are said to admire it! After urging Israel to observe the God-given law, Moses argues that their obedience “will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.’” Then Moses enthusiastically adds a punch line: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (NRSV).

In short, even Israel’s pagan neighbors recognized the great value of Israel’s laws. And in Moses’s commentary after the second giving of the law (Deut. 5:22-33), he rounds out his argument by noting two additional and related factors: the role of fear, and the purpose of law.

After describing Israel’s terror at the divine voice out of the fire, Moses quotes their urgent words:

Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive?

Their proposal? A mediator! “Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.”

Moses then describes God’s reaction to their request, underscoring the importance of God’s use of raw fear:

The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!”

God grants their request to make Moses a mediator. Moses then urges once more an understanding of the purpose of law:

You must therefore be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

According to Moses, obedience to law is not linked to eternal salvation, but to the good life here on earth. And he wasn’t squeamish about God’s use of fear to help them obey and live. In our “secular” age in the here and now, we understand the principle very well—without any appeal to God. If a youngster is at risk from a moving vehicle, the parent scares the kid half to death. It’s a life-and-death matter.

But shifting to the context of education, we must reckon with two additional factors: How does one move from fear to love, and how does one allow for the exploratory factor in a system that was originally motivated by fear?

In the first instance, love cannot be commanded. But 1 John 5:18 affirms a wonderful promise: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (NRSV). And the new covenant promises in Jeremiah 31 moves in the direction of affirming that same non-coercive ideal: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34, NRSV).

The question remains, however: How does one move from fear to love? If we look at our human world, for example, we could argue that it experience is what enables the change. When we observe that the “lover” has only our best interests in mind, fear gradually vanishes.

But, in the context of education, how does one come to the point where full exploration is encouraged, with no fear of authoritarian infringement on our freedom? Indeed, the goal is to establish a model within which both Scripture and the natural world may be fully explored—and not just allowed but enthusiastically encouraged.

Certainly the New Testament affirmation that “perfect love casts out fear” is crucial. But more surprising, perhaps, is the role played by God’s skeptical friends in the Old Testament: Job, Abraham, Moses, and Habakkuk. Job boldly declared: “He destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (Job 9:22, NRSV), and over the potential destruction of Sodom, Abraham confronted God over that very point: “Far be it from you to . . . to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25, NRSV).

Moses was perhaps the most successful of all God’s critics, for when God declared that he would destroy the idolatrous Israelites and make of Moses a great nation, Moses recoiled immediately:

“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (Exod. 32:11–14, NRSV).

Habakkuk is equally blunt: “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:3-4, NRSV).

In short, God himself has published, in Scripture, all these complaints about seeming flaws in God’s administration of the affairs on earth. Should we not take these seriously in developing our models for education? We may ask all our questions—we must ask all our questions.

One remarkable sidelight relative to education is suggested by the memory text for this week’s lesson in the official study guide: Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (NKJV). All three of the New Testament parallels for this passage add the word “mind,” a word missing from Deuteronomy: “all your mind” (Matt. 22:37), “all your mind” (Mark 12:30), “all your mind” (Luke 10:27). The mind is central in the New Testament passages. That’s worth pondering.

One other corrective to the typical evangelical view of law, as primarily an instrument of condemnation, is hiding in plain side in both testaments. It is the idea of “grace before law.” While typical evangelical theology sees law as condemning and grace as saving, one can argue from a “motivational” perspective that grace comes before law. Consider Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Did they deserve deliverance? No. Yet God delivered them “by grace,” touching their hearts so that at Mt. Sinai they could appreciate the law, in all its thunderous glory.

The New Testament parallel is in Romans 5, with a three-fold emphasis: 1) “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . 2) But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. . . . 3) While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son. . . .” (Rom. 5:6-10, NRSV).

In sum, grace is God’s wonderful gift —and so is his law. Indeed, as noted above, Jeremiah 31: 33–34 tells of a time when God’s law becomes so much a part of us that we are unaware of its presence.

For better or for worse, I have been blessed/cursed with a rebel soul. I hate to be told what to do. God’s promise is that someday I will live in a kingdom where nobody will tell anybody what to do, because the law is written on the heart.

Yet the idea of law as good news, as a liberating guide to life, which is so exciting and helpful for me, does not have that same effect on everyone. So the New Testament shows us how God has developed two different ways, two different paths to God’s kingdom. Both ideas are biblical, but are not greeted with equal enthusiasm by all believers. Indeed, some believers are wholehearted supporters of one view while viewing the other perspective with suspicion, even hostility. And that’s true of both extremes. The ideal, I believe, is for each of us to find the nourishment that meets the needs of our soul—while praying for the gift of God’s Spirit to understand the other perspective. Why snatch away from a fellow believer that which nurtures that believer’s soul?

Now, when describing the two views, I try to use explanations that are as neutral as possible, explanations that avoid offending those who do not yet understand one view or the other. Unfortunately, the best explanations involve words of many syllables. But in what follows, I mix simple words with pictures in order to get the point across.

I’ll start with the view that I grew up with, but which didn’t really work for me. It pictured Jesus pleading his blood to the father on my behalf. One could say that the cross is pointed heavenward and the demands of the law. I felt that if Jesus had to plead with the Father on my behalf, God must be reluctant to accept me. If Jesus talked long enough and hard enough, the Father would finally reluctantly agree to let me in the back door. That’s a distorted view to be sure, but that’s how I felt. That view we can call the “objective atonement,” a view of the cross that sees an objective standard in heaven that somehow has to be satisfied by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Romans 8 is a good source for that view.

The other view sees the cross pointed earthward, toward the human heart. No price is demanded; Jesus simply teaches us that God gave everything to save us. This view can be called the “subjective atonement.” I discovered it from John 14-17 and it transformed my view of God. In John 14-17, we hear Jesus telling the disciples that if they have seen him, they have seen the father (John 14:8). In other words, Jesus is God in human flesh. God didn’t just send someone else to earth, God himself took human flesh and came to show us what God is like.

I made that discovery while I was at the seminary and I remember excitedly telling my colleague Jon Dybdahl, “Guess what, Jon! Jesus is God!” He already knew that. I was just slow on the uptake.

Since then, I have gone back to Romans 8. Indeed, I have memorized it, seeking to understand those who find the objective atonement so helpful. Put another way, I was wanting to be blessed in the same way that others have been blessed by that chapter. And the light has begun to shine, for which I am very grateful.

Some of you will find Romans 8 more helpful, the cross pointed heavenward to the demands of the law. Others will be blessed by John 14–17, the cross pointed earthward to the needs of the human heart. By God’s grace, you will find what nurtures your soul best.

Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Therese Mikkelsen Skaar on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10786
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Thank you Alden, you made my week and gave me something to consider that never occured to me before!

Thank you again!

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Having brought up two children, I understand the idea that a law is there for the protection of one who doesn’t know the ramifications of going against the point of the law; where it comes to obeying the letter of the law without any deeper understanding. However, I object to the idea there are “two paths into God’s kingdom”. For the CHRISTIAN, the NT is pretty clear that it wasn’t the obedience to the law that saved even the OT faithful, but the faith in the offering given on the day of attonement, that was the key to forgiveness. That has not changed. Paul makes it clear that, for the CHRISTIAN, our works (obedience) has nothing to do with entering God’s kingdom. Jer. 31 is, of course repeated in Heb. 9, and explains the importance of Christ’s attonement on the cross.

“Why snatch away … that which nurtures that belier’s soul”? If the believer relies on the shadow that pointed to the real; and in the process minimize object of the shadow - the real - there needs to be more education. Unless we can enter the “kingdom” relying on our good behaviour, we must drop the infantile practice of relying on our obedience.

Also, the word FEAR can be understood as terror, but also, honor and respect. I would admit that usually the word is defined as terror, as it in this article - however…

The other issue speaks to the idea that this has to do with “education”, of which the “mind” is exclusively involved. Is it suggested here that it is our mind that makes God’s kingdom possible? That would leave out a lot of people of diminished minds. It would also set up a sort of cast system of believers which is rejected by the Bible, where Jesus inviters - “Who so ever…”

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I don’t know that we can avoid a view of law as a pragmatic tool rather than romanticizing it with layers of “care and love”. As such, I’m not really sure that the latter is merely an excuse for former. State and insurance lobby attempt to minimize cost and risk, while injury lawyers are still fighting for making seat belts to be inadmissible into evidence proceedings for insurance payout arbitration. NH doesn’t have that requirement to this day.

Law simply grew in complexity since the OT… and it’s very common for theologians to jam broader category of “law” into one, and then draw parallels from pragmatic laws like seatbelts, or descriptive laws of gravity… and then equivocate it with religious laws, which are very different and arguably served a very different purpose.

I really do think it’s worth pondering beyond what the author suggests it means with implications for our mind.

I would suggest another perspective of law as it relates to how our brain develops from early childhood and beyond, and that what we call “law” is a set of memeric (learned) constrains or motivations that subdue (or at times trigger) our intuitive emotional response.

So, what we would understand as religious law and morality, would be the fundamental layer of behavioral constraints and motivations that allow complex societies to exist. Of itself, I don’t think it makes all laws good. Let’s just say that It’s good for that purpose.

I respect Alden Thompson, but to me, this article misses the boat. It equates gospel with law. That just totally throws the NT overboard. The gospel calls for the response of faith/allegiance to Jesus as Lord, not adherence to law/Torah observance. That is no longer the criteria for belonging.

Secondly, it detaches the concept of law from covenant. This then twists everything that Paul was saying in his letters about law/deeds of the law vs. grace, as if Paul was speaking only of a moral and legal dilemma confronting people trying to be good enough to be accepted by God and make it to heaven. That may be a reformation and evangelical preoccupation, but it wasn’t Paul’s main concern.

Paul was concerned with the equal belonging of Jews and Gentiles to the people of God. The law, through its entry sign of circumcision, and covenant identity markers such as kosher laws and sabbath observance, was to no longer be a wall between the observant and the non observant. Faith in and allegiance to the messiah that issues forth in self giving love is the law of the new covenant community. All who belong to him, and have received his spirit are included equally, regardless of Torah/Law observance.

The law of the messiah was and is other centered love, bearing one another’s burdens, caring for one another, especially those in need. This is the mark of the new creation/covenant community of God, a love that cannot be legislated through rule, regulation, and observance of such. Torah observance, which was a specific covenant with a specific people, at one time in history, was part of old creation, and could not be combined with the new in the way this article seems to suggest, and that in a sense misframes the NT argument over Torah/law. Adventism engages in this as it’s reason for being… with all the problems that go with it.

Thanks…

Frank

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Well, in doing so you are detaching the concepts from contents of these concepts that many modern progressives make a mistake of doing.

The law is foundational to love in a sense that it defines its boundaries. Otherwise, love as a concept loses its meaning.

We can’t make appeals to abstract method of some sort without understanding the contents of the procedure that such method outlines. What is love? It’s a single word, but if we unwrap all of the possible contexts in which we can describe what love is and what love isn’t specifically, it would take volumes to fill.

Hence, it becomes obvious that love is more of an attribute than it is a hierarchy. It’s that mark of approval we place on any contextual preference. We may consolidate such preferences into principles that can be more broadly applicable as near-universals, but it would be mistake to conclude, like the author does in the other article, that love is all we need. It would be like saying “red marker is all you need” in a scope of all of the positive things we can mark as red.

Hence, while progressives take a very intentional swing away from fundamentalism, which only scopes “love” to specific and limited boundaries one can’t venture beyond, such swings have tendency to go waaaaaaaay to far into conceptual obscurity in which one is left wondering “what is love” and fill it with whatever cultural misconceptions that may come along.

As the author points out, you can’t separate love from the law. These are the same thing, essentially. And the author merely points to the voluntary nature of love which stems from either habitual or internalized understanding, as opposed to perfunctory obedience to the law.

Sorry,Ark. You ignore the historical and covenant context surrounding law/Torah that are in the Pauline and NT text… the very thing this article does.

Frank

I ignore it because we are discussing the law as a concept common to all of these. You can’t begin with “contract” and then claim that the only way to understand the concept of the law is through contractual application.

If both of us on desert island, and there no food, if I’m stronger than you… why shouldn’t I kill and eat you? These kinds of ethical consideration apart from contractual agreements is the core justification for why foundational laws exist as something that could be loosely considered objective in human reality.

What about Jesus as the content of the concept of love?
Or theologically spoken: personified law.
@Arkdrey @frank_merendino

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But, if one is to use the biblical text, which this article does, one must endeavor to use it within its historical context, not just ignore it. To speak of the law/Torah as a timeless ethical standard, apart from specific and historic covenant, is to do just that. It may address issues that have value, but it skates over the issues and arguments behind what someone like Paul was addressing concerning law/Torah in the NT. We are then in danger of twisting and misapplying what he was saying.

Additionally, Paul was accused regularly of leaving Gentiles with no moral framework because he insisted that they not be brought into life under the Torah… as if he were preaching license. His counter was that faith in Christ and the power of the spirit were enough to birth, form, guide, and bear the type of real life fruit that was what God was seeking to create…a new humanity united in the messiah. It does not mean that teaching and moral guidance and correction didn’t happen. But, it was not through a legislated moral code, which is what Torah had become. The principles of faith, hope, and love and all of their applications can’t be codified into rule and regulation, given the multi hued realities of life, relationships, and culture.

Law is good if one uses it lawfully, and was meant for old creation, as 1 Timothy says. It cannot produce the fruit of new creation, what God is after in Christ and the spirit. It is why Paul wrote concerning the fruit of the Spirit that against such there is no law… iow, where this fruit is seen and lived in community, the law essentially is superfluous. Iow, why would one need to tell people to not murder who are energized by the spirit to practice the type of other centered and self giving love that Christ already modeled?

Frank

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Hi Kate… Paul points his converts much more to the crucified messiah, his humility and self giving love, as the guiding principle for life together, than he points them to the Law. This was the center of the good news, not the Torah. Torah/law was thus decentered. In this sense, Jesus is what Torah pointed to as a shadow, the living Torah. This article and subsequent comments seem to do almost the opposite.

Thanks…

Frank

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It’s so interesting, isn’t it? We have a living Torah. A living person. Think about the implications. Absolutely great!

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The problem is that the first job of any Christian theologian is first to sell you a presupposition that the narrative version of Jesus that we have is flawless and only constitutes highest human ideals that are viable today and not a projection ideals of the 1st century writers.

The question for you would be, given what you understand as a template of Christian narrative, could you write a better version of Jesus today… based on our more refined moral expectations in this day and age? Could he, and would he do more? Would he talk about more egalitarian perspective on gender, and would he describe a more mature approach to human sexuality that lacked misconceptions and outdated taboos? Would he offer a more nuanced perspective on slavery, and perhaps be shown freeing a slave and telling the master that it’s the right thing to do? Would he be boiling milk to get rid of the invisible animals living in it that can harm a child? Would he stop abusive father or a husband from beating their children and wives?

Which version of Jesus would look more like Jesus if someone happened to write these, and you had two versions today? One would be addressing all of these issues, and the other simply references the 1st century ideals.

What would be so bad about two versions? Jesus addressed things appropriate in his day and age (1st century ideals), and the Spirit goes steps further and addresses things appropriate in our day and age (21st century ideals). So?

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I think the implications of that unravel many religious approaches to Christian narratives. Perhaps I can respond with a song? A little disclaimer, the first half projects immaturity of religion as it exists today , so if you are offended about comedic implication of “god swearing”, which was created to emphasized immature perspective on God… don’t listen. But, it quickly evolves to a more mature introspection on concept of God and heaven, and whether these are really helpful or detrimental to our progress and our understanding of God. I always find the way the song ends to be very profound.

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Ark seems to be operating from a premise that Jesus is little more than a type of tribal concoction, and isn’t the revealing of God as king… that his crown was thorns and his throne a cross. How does one go beyond this picture of deity, and even true humanity, that rests on humility and self sacrifice, and not the wielding of power and authority? In this sense, it is timeless, eternal.

The cultural details and applications can be adapted according to time and place.

Frank

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Sure, the law was redefined by Jesus in his “Sermon on the Mount”, as well as in his description of the entire decalogue in terms of love - "Love your neighbour as yourself. Is there a better definition somewhere else?

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No, I don’t operate from that premise. Due to lack of certain knowledge, and no means to validate these claims, the only way I can approach these is as a story in which I have to be able to draw some parallels to modern life. I don’t reject that such story may have happened. Buy it’s not something that we can validate, which splits certainty into broader range of possibilities.

The concept of God as king makes very little sense, given that king concept is a product of feudal mindset.

Would God be our President or Prime minister in our time and place :slight_smile:?

Ark…

The gospel is the announcement of the kingdom/rule of God through his chosen king. That is what the messiah was, and that’s how it was understood and pictured throughout the NT. It was God’s action through Jesus to restore the world to rights through his upside down kingdom. Where self giving love, justice, humility, and care take the place of Mars and Mammon and all its greed and brutality as the driving force of the world. It calls all to join up with Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah, and through the power of his Spirit, in this project of new creation, even in the midst of this old one. It anticipates his consummation of what he has inaugurated. We thus live and labor in hope.

This is the substance of the gospel and its call, even if you find its royal language to be archaic, or the gospel itself to be a quaint and irrelevant message. If you find calling Jesus the leader, rather than the title king, is more in tune with modern sensibilities, then so be it.

Frank

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Btw, outside of source material, there is much of history that we cannot validate. By such logic, the NT writers are excluded from being valid sources. But, then let’s also exclude much of what we have available as source material for much of history as well.

Frank

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