The Nature and Role of Law – Part 10

The Nature and Role of Law – Part 10


Part 10

God’s commandments, by their very nature, are objective in their meaning, but how a believer chooses to apply these commands is frequently subjective. For example, Paul says in I Timothy 2:12: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” The command is clear, but how to apply it is not. Can she teach male children in Sunday School? Can she teach her own sons? When does the child cross the line between being a child and a man?

Some applications of commands are more objectively determined than others. It is easier, for example to determine whether a person has committed murder than to determine whether he has loved his neighbor. Thus, applications of negative commands are easier determined than positive commands, simply because with positive commandments, intent must be taken into consideration. When an assassin plunges a knife into a man’s chest it is murder, but when a surgeon does the same, it is life saving surgery. However, if the surgeon dislikes the patient and is less careful than otherwise, and the patient dies, is it murder? Only God, who knows the heart, can decide.

So you may ask, “How can I subjectively decide what the application of the commands looks like? I suggest that you ask and answer three questions:
1 – What does the command say? (Be ruthlessly honest when you answer this.)
2 – Am I in a state of perpetual brokenness and submission to God as I seek to apply His commands? Do I want to please Him? Do I view His commands as laws or requests?
3 – Does my application follow the Golden Rule? In other words, would I want people applying other commands using the same logic that I have used in this command?

We have been discussing how love and the Golden Rule make law unnecessary. When a person seeks to apply the law with brokenness and in accordance with the Golden Rule, the law is fulfilled. Closely related to this is an examination of the relationship between law and self-denial. Let’s therefore take a brief look at this subject.


Some people like to approach self-denial in the same way that they believe the law should be followed. However, law differs from self-denial in the following ways: Law is objective while self-denial is subjective – subjective in the sense that each person decides for himself what it looks like. Law is external, given to us by our authority, while self-denial is internal, originating from personal conviction. Therefore we see that others determine law, while each individual for his own life determines self-denial. If I command my children to have a quiet time each morning before breakfast and fast twice each week, I give them a law. But if I determine these same standards for myself, without reference to any outside authority, I practice self-denial.

People practice legalism when they impose their standards, usually in reference to positive laws, upon others. However, when we insist that others in the Body of Christ obey God’s commands, usually in reference to negative laws, this is not legalism, it is church discipline. I cannot charge another with legalism if he confronts me when I break a commandment of God. If I am wise, I will thank him for his willingness to watch for my soul.

When a man practices discipline in his own life, because he has convictions that these disciplines will help him accomplish his goals, this is not legalism. A disciplined man becomes legalistic if he makes laws for himself outside of the commandments of God set forth in Scripture, and concludes that His relationship with God is determined by his keeping them. But discipline is different from legalism; the two should not be confused.


People have always had a love-hate relationship with law; they love its clarity while hating its limitations. So too, when it comes to self-denial, there is a love-hate relationship. People love the fact that they get to choose what the application of self-denial looks like, but on the other hand, they hate the fact that they will need to answer to God about the kind of application they have chosen.

As noted earlier, all good law is stated negatively. However, God introduces positive law in His expectations of us because positive law reveals the heart, and heart attitude is exceedingly important to God. Since God alone knows the human heart, we are best served making only negative laws when seeking to govern the behavior of others.

Positive law, like actions involving self-denial, is ambiguous in that each person must decide for himself what its application looks like. Like self-denial, positive law cannot be measured. Thus, if you wish to observe if people want to relate to God on the basis of law rather than love, look at how they relate to positive law.


As you know, Jesus had difficulty with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. By way of illustration, read the following discussion Jesus had with them:
“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were
hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw
it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the
sabbath.’ 3 He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry,
and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the
Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but
only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in
the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the
temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, `I desire mercy, and not
sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of man is lord of
the Sabbath.’”[33]

In this passage, Jesus raises the question, What does keeping the Fourth Commandment look like? In essence, the Pharisees argued, “He keeps the law best who does the least work.” It is ironic that after Jesus rebuked the people in Matthew 11:20-27 for their failure to repent,[34] the Pharisees rebuke the disciples for violating the Pharisees’ interpretation on how the positive commandment pertaining to the Sabbath should be kept.

Jesus’ disciples ate grain while walking through the fields on the Sabbath. Were they wrong? In answer, Jesus tells two stories: First, He tells how David, while fleeing Saul, ate the shewbread in the Tabernacle. Jesus affirms David in his breaking the Mosaic Law. (We will discuss this more in the next section.)

Second, Jesus calls attention to the priest’s caring for the Temple on the Sabbath. Granted, it is the Lord’s work, but they nonetheless violate the Fourth Commandment when they do it. Are the priests wrong? Jesus concludes with the admonition, “Mercy is better than Sacrifice.” By quoting from Hosea 6:6, Jesus means that God much prefers a heart of spiritual softness to an external observance of the law.


Jesus calls for repentance and mercy; the Pharisees call for the people to meet the Pharisees’ expectations on how the positive laws are obeyed. How did the Pharisees arrive at this unhappy state? To understand, we need to look at the Babylonian Captivity. God gave Judah into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar because of Judah’s willful disregard for God’s law. The sins of Judah were many, but the two primary ones were idolatry (a negative command) and not honoring the Sabbath (a positive command). The Jews had no difficulty determining how to keep the negative command, but application of the positive command presented a bit of a problem.

To rectify this failure to honor the Sabbath, the Jews established the Synagogue and the order of Scribes while in captivity in Babylon. As far as I can tell, God makes no reference to these solutions being His desire. However, the people took the initiative and created them to avoid repeating the problem that got God angry with them in the first place. To their credit, the Jews never again repeated this problem.

But in doing so, they sought to relate to God on the basis of law – i.e., they viewed keeping the law as a necessity rather than a privilege. Thus the letter of the law replaced the spirit of the law. With God, the heart, and only God can know the heart, is more important than the act. We have earlier observed how an act, such as the use of a knife in the hands of a surgeon or an assassin, is differentiated by intent. For this reason, God excuses ignorance, for with God you are innocent when ignorant, even if your action is wrong – simply because He knows your heart. Governments on the other hand, insist that “ignorance in no excuse,” because they cannot know your heart’s intent.


I suggest four lessons from this:

First, if I have a heart to please God, loving others as myself, then when I oppose a person who breaks a negative commandment, I have their best interest at heart. Instead of judging the application of the positive commandments, I will allow others to interpret for themselves what such applications looks like.

Second, we must all live with the tension of wanting both security and freedom. In life, we cannot have both because the two are mutually exclusive. Railroad tracks afford the train security, while at the same time restricting its freedom. The forced retirement program of the US government, Social Security, restricts our freedom to spend all our money the way we wish while young, yet it provides security for our old age. Life abounds with many illustrations of the balance between security and freedom, but it is best practiced in the Christian life through self-denial.

Third, don’t seek to relate to God on the basis of law. In your marriage, as well as in most relationships, you don’t relate to one another on the basis of rules and regulations. So also, we have noted that the desire to please our loved ones blurs the distinction between a law and a request. God’s commandments afford you opportunity to learn how to please Him; they are not the basis upon which the relationship is established or maintained.

Fourth, never view God’s commandments as punitive. When relating to others, restrictions are not necessarily punishment, and with God they never are punishment. He designed all restrictions for your good. If you succumb to the temptation of concluding that His law is punitive, you are guaranteed an unsatisfactory relationship with Him.

This concludes the fifth of six parts on The Nature and Role of Law. With the next issue we will begin to explore the last section, the Mosaic Covenant. What role, if any, does it play in the believer’s life today?

In His firm grip,


[33] Matthew 12:1-8.
[34] Cf. esp. v. 25: “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, ecause thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”