THE NATURE AND ROLE OF LAW
In the last issue we saw that forgiveness means setting aside justice. You do not need to forgive a person unless he has violated the laws of justice. When the law is broken, God requires the state to execute justice. God instructs His people to forgive. In passages such as Matthew 18:21-35 (dealing with the individual forgiving another) and Romans 13:1-5 (dealing with the state executing justice), the difference between justice and forgiveness is quite clear.
The OT doesn’t give us quite the clarity between justice and forgiveness that we find in the NT. Throughout the OT God’s people clearly saw the need for God’s forgiveness, but the distinction between forgiveness and justice is blurred. For example, God allocated six cities of refuge to which certain people could flee in order to avoid justice:
“Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: 25 And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil. 26 But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; 27 And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood:”
God distinguished between murder and manslaughter in the law. Those committing murder were executed, but those committing manslaughter could flee to one of the six cities of refuge spread throughout Israel. To avoid the vengeance of the offended family, the manslaughter had to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. If the offender was found outside the city before the High Priest’s death, the avenging family could kill him without guilt.
From this we see that the people in OT Israel practiced vigilantism. The system was beautiful in its simplicity. Justice was a corporate responsibility. Possibly it is analogous to the US Military Academies where those attending solemnly vow, “We will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate any who do.”
The individual was responsible for executing justice. There were no magistrates or policemen designated by God in the law. People knew when the law was broken and what punishment God expected. Moses said, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.” Justice was swift; the people stoned the offender upon finding him guilty.
In such a system, all are instructed. Solomon warns, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” This doesn’t mean that there is no hint of the need to forgive in the OT. However, God’s call for the people to express mercy is primarily found in the later prophets. For example, the prophet Micah said, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
In the OT law, God warns that a person cannot hold a grudge, but as far as I can find, there is no reference to one person forgiving another person in the first five books of the Bible. This may explain why, in so many of the Psalms, King David prays that God will exact revenge on his enemies.
THE LAW OF THE HARVEST
In Galatians 6:7-8 we find Paul’s famous words, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. 8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” They are commonly summarized as “The Law of the Harvest;” a man reaps what he sows. This “law” is one of the foundation stones of Scripture. You find it in various forms throughout the Bible.
The heart of man affirms “the law of the harvest” through his innate sense of fairness; a person ought to reap what he sows. It does not seem right that an innocent child should suffer or that a serial killer be set free. Thus we feel frustrated when our sense of justice is offended. You would think that this basic principle would be void of ambiguity, but such is not the case. Let’s briefly trace it through the Bible:
When Moses comes to the close of his life, he lays before the people “the law of the harvest.” Deuteronomy 27:9-26 gives specific instructions to Israel when they enter the Promised Land. Half the tribes must stand on Mount Gerizim to pronounce blessing as the reward for obedience, and half must stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses on Israel if they disobey. Deuteronomy 28 spells out all the blessings the nation can expect if they obey God with all their hearts, and conversely the calamity that will befall them if they wander from God. This is “the law of the harvest” promised in earthly, temporal terms.
Psalm 73, however, calls attention to the opposite. The Psalmist notes that the ungodly prosper and the righteous suffers. The observation was confusing and painful for the writer, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.” This injustice will be rectified after they die, when they meet God in judgment. Thus the Psalmist reasons that “the law of the harvest” applies in the eternal, after death, but not in the temporal before death.
You will remember that “the law of the harvest” got the three friends of Job into trouble with God. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar applied “the law of the harvest” to Job’s plight. They reasoned, “A man reaps what he sows. It is obvious, Job, that you are reaping a bad harvest. Therefore we must conclude that it is because you sowed iniquity at an earlier time.” The debate between Job and his friends remained heated until the end of the book when God rebukes the friends and commends Job. “The law of the harvest” cannot be applied in the temporal.
The only corporate entity to which God commits Himself is the nation of Israel. With her God made a covenant. God has made no covenant with any other institution, including the church. Having committed Himself to Israel, He invited the nations of the world to observe what it is like to have God as King. In this context, God promised the nation that if they were obedient they would prosper, and if not, they would experience the rod of His wrath. In either case, the nations would learn important lessons about God. For this reason, God promised that, for the nation of Israel, “the law of the harvest” applied in the temporal.
Under no other circumstance can “the law of the harvest” be applied to the temporal. This does not mean that there are no temporal consequences for our behavior. Rather, we are not promised that righteousness will be rewarded with temporal blessings, and that sin will be rewarded with temporal loss. Galatians 6:7-8 may apply in the temporal, but there is no guarantee from God that it will. He does promise that it will apply in the eternal when we meet Him in judgment.
If “the law of the harvest” applied universally and consistently in the temporal affairs of life, then it would be possible to prove empirically that the moral laws of God are as absolute and irrevocable as natural law. This in turn would eliminate the need to walk by faith, and “without faith, you cannot please God.” Faith is essential in turning a man from a life of independence to dependence upon God in Christ Jesus. God does not want you to be able to prove that He exists or that His moral law is absolute.
Although “the law of the harvest” cannot be consistently applied in the temporal, the setting aside of justice when you forgive others does not eliminate consequences. For example, your 14-year-old child steals the family car and destroys it. He expresses great sorrow and repentance and begs your forgiveness. Understanding your biblical responsibility to forgive, you grant him his request. He responds by saying, “Wonderful, then I do not need to pay for the car.”
You take exception with his conclusion and suggest that he, in fact, must pay for the destroyed auto. He retorts, “If I must pay, then what good does it do me to be forgiven by you? You taught me that Jesus forgives me and separates my sin from Him as far as east is from west, never again to be remembered. If Jesus does that for you and me, why won’t you forgive like He forgives?” How would you answer your child?
You would correctly point out that forgiveness does not eliminate consequences. The benefit derived from forgiveness is the restoration of the relationship. You love and accept your child unconditionally, but because you do love him, you hold him accountable for his behavior. Your motive in requiring payment for the destroyed auto is not punishment, but a desire to teach him “the law of the harvest.” The temporal application of this “law” seeks to teach the child that there are eternal consequences for temporal behavior.
We are God’s children. What was true in your relationship with your child is also true in God’s relationship with us. “The law of the harvest” does not necessarily apply in this life, but it will for sure in the life to come. When it does take place in this life, when God does make us live with the consequences of our decisions, He graciously teaches us that sin does not pay. Forgiveness restores the broken relationship, but does not eliminate eternal consequences. If it did, truth would be relative and the Ten Commandments would be the Ten Suggestions.
Many seek to manipulate God by reasoning that justification eliminates consequences. Such people argue that obedience following conversion indicates whether or not a person is converted, but that God’s forgiveness eliminates any significant eternal consequences. Although it is true that God designed the doctrine of assurance for the obedient, your assurance of salvation does not negate the fact that God will hold you eternally accountable for your behavior on earth.
The force of law is in accountability. If there were no eternal consequences for temporal behavior, then there would be no accountability for violating God’s law, and we could consider His law negotiable. For example, when the State Highway Patrol goes on strike, people drive as fast as they want, not because the speed laws are nullified, but rather because there is no accountability.
Therefore we see that God gives sufficient evidence to warn us that “the law of the harvest” is inviolable without enough evidence to prove that moral law is absolute. We must walk by faith, but He graciously demonstrates for those with eyes to see that grace does not eliminate accountability and forgiveness does not eliminate consequences. I cannot prove to you that His laws are absolute and that you will reap in eternity what you sow in this life, but I can declare to you that this is the clear teaching of Scripture.
His and your servant,
 Cf., e.g., Exodus 20:5-6, 34:6-7, Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 32:35,43, Psalm 94:1. These references deal with God holding man accountable for sin and thus in the need of forgiveness.
 Numbers 35:24-27.
 Deuteronomy 17:6.
 Ecclesiastes 8:11.
 Micah 6:8.
 Cf. Leviticus 19:18.
 Psalm 73:17.
 Cf. Job 42:7-10.
 Hebrews 11:6.