THE NATURE AND ROLE OF LAW
Judgment is the fruit of justice and law defines justice. All of us loath the though of judgment; very rarely do we hear the subject exposited in our churches. Yet we all insist upon it when our rights are violated. Interestingly, we are one of the most unforgiving and litigious societies in history, yet we avoid discussing personal accountability. We want justice, but we do not want to be just. More accurately, we want to define justice without being consistent, irrespective of what the law or anyone else says. The US Supreme Court reflects this attitude in what we call “judicial activism.” Rather than allowing the Constitution to define justice, the Court, in a myriad of opinions, ignores the Constitution, overriding the will of the people in the process.
We feel uncomfortable talking about the judgment of God, not because we don’t believe in judgment, but because Scripture assures us that we cannot define justice nor avoid judgment; both are under His authority. Justice ensures judgment.
Let’s now explore the third major section in this study:
LAW AND MAN’S INABILITY TO GOVERN HIMSELF
God does not want man to govern himself; that would be a quick trip to hell. Man has an insatiable appetite for autonomy; it was part of his nature before the Fall. If Adam had not wanted to govern his own affairs he would not have been tempted to the Serpent’s suggestion that he eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, wrestled with His submission to the governance of God. We will not govern ourselves in heaven, and He does not want us to govern ourselves on earth.
From the time of the Tower of Babel, men have been chased the dream of establishing utopia – a system of government without any reference to God. This was the objective in Plato’s The Republic, and philosophers and statesmen alike have been mesmerized by this dream ever since. Because God is gracious and merciful, He has frustrated man’s every attempt to accomplish this objective.
Men dream of utopia because they want to be independent from God. Dick Halverson, the late chaplain to the US Senate, use to publish the “Perspective,” a one-page challenge to business and professional men. In one of his issues he noted that the problems of our country could be easily solved. We could empty the prisons, cut the police force, eliminate crime, curtail the crippling cost of welfare, and pay off the national debt – simply by obeying the Ten Commandments. But man will have none of it; we will destroy ourselves before surrendering our dream of autonomy.
Before we can be reconciled to God we must understand that we are alienated from God. Before this alienation can end, we must surrender our craving for autonomy and declare our dependence upon God.
TWO PURPOSES OF THE LAW
One of the purposes of the Mosaic Law is to teach us our depravity and need for Christ. Another purpose of the Mosaic Law is to define and ensure justice. If we could ensure justice, we wouldn’t see our depravity.
Therefore we see that two of the purposes of the Law – to define and ensure justice and to reveal our depravity and need for Christ – are mutually exclusive. In short, God commands justice in the Law, and ensures that we are unjust by preventing us from reaching the goal of creating utopia. In this we see His grace.
In an earlier issue we explored the difference between legality and morality. Legality seeks to define morality, even though apart from the Bible it can never do it perfectly. The legislature struggles knowing that it cannot legislate morality. All good law is stated negatively. When the state establishes positive laws such as those pertaining to affirmative action, it overloads the judicial system with the need for interpretation. This, in part, creates the “imperial court” where the judges impose their will on the people without the consent of the governed.
Law is used in interpersonal relationships for two reasons: First, because of immaturity. At our home I establish a law that my little grandson cannot play in the street. He is too young to understand the danger, and so I enforce the law to keep him from harms way. As he matures, I need to take time to explain why children shouldn’t play in the street. When we make rules that seem nonsensical, and we refuse to explain their rationale, we encourage rebellion. The explanation, “Because I said so,” is at best inadequate. It probably reflects laziness on my part; I don’t want to take time to discuss the validity of his challenging my rule.
Second, we use law in interpersonal relationships because of willfulness. People need to be restrained from sin and harming themselves. The state establishes maximum speed limits to not only protect the driver, but also innocent people who happen to be in his way. If we make no rules regarding children going to school, truancy would abound and those same people would later become a burden on the state. Laws and their commensurate penalties keep people from stealing.
Having established this, note that you cannot relate to others on the basis of law. Precisely because we all sin, living in a sinful world, we need an eagerness to please others combined with an eagerness to forgive, in order for relationships to exist. If either of these two is missing, the relationship will disintegrate. When you assume the responsibility of the state and seek to ensure justice in your relationship with others, you will be unable to forgive; for remember, justice and forgiveness are mutually exclusive.
Conversely, when the state confuses its job of ensuring justice with the need to forgive, injustice reigns. Crime without punishment breeds anarchy. Today we fail to punish crime with the excuse that criminal behavior is the fault of the environment. People are victims because of their minority position, race, socio-economic position, etc. The state has no business trying to be redemptive; efforts are almost always at the expense of justice. You cannot relate to people on the basis of justice. This is why God calls upon us to forgive.
The following are illustrative of the lessons we should learn from this:
1 – In government, we allow evil to continue because we fear that the removal of it will create a greater evil. For example, most people agree that there is such a thing as pornography, and that it is wrong. But we have two problems. First, we cannot agree on what constitutes pornography. Second, we also want to maintain freedom of expression, and fear that if we define pornography too generally, we will infringe on this freedom. So we tend to be more tolerant of pornography than we would perhaps like, because we fear the consequence of being too harsh in seeking to eradicate it.
2 – We are content with a lesser good because we doubt that we can create a greater good. For example, one of the great debates in society is over public education. Most agree that our schools have failed in their task of properly educating our youth. However, we are reluctant to do way with public education, for we doubt that we can create a better system.
3 – The presence of law implies the presence of transgression. By way of illustration, in the 18th century in this country we did not have 65mph speed limits. The reason is obvious: no one could travel that fast. The presence of law reveals the threat of sin. In this we see the dilemma of government. If there were no laws there would be not be any transgressors. But if law and accountability did not exist, men would not submit to authority. We will develop this more fully later, but note in the Garden of Eden; Adam violated the only law God gave him.
As we close this section on “law and man’s inability to govern himself,” notice that the Book of Joshua closes with Israel possessing the land. The Book of Judges consists of a series of cameos showing the Theocracy in practice. A cursory reading of Judges forces us to conclude that from the start, the Theocracy never worked. Each episode shows the miserable failure of Israel against the backdrop of God’s patience and grace. In truth, Israel was more focused on God and His will when in captivity than when free.
The judges were not part of the law. God instituted them for pragmatic reasons because of Israel’s failure to follow the law. So the people demanded and received a monarchy. Some argue that during the reigns of David and Solomon, the system worked. It is a dubious argument, but if made, understand that it happened because man “improved” on God’s system and instituted the monarchy.
In either case, the rest of the period of kings was a disaster. During this period the ten northern tribes of Israel practiced Baal worship to such an extent that God used the Assyrians to disperse them among the other conquered people in her empire. Today they are referred to as “the ten lost tribes of Israel.”
And why not? They had forsaken the worship of the true God for gods that are no gods. What loss was there in being moved to foreign lands, which produced as good or better crops as Israel? It was a lateral move!
Later, God sent the southern tribes of Judah into captivity in Babylon. From that time to the present, the Jews have never experienced both political and religious freedom, except possibly for brief moments when they were in rebellion.
What do we learn from this? In the sense of following God and obeying the law, Israel has done a better job when deprived of her freedom than at any time she was ostensibly a Theocracy. Man will not live under the rule of God without pain and opposition. His lust for autonomy is so great that he will, without fail, rebel.
A sense of desperation is essential for man to maintain his focus on God. Only to the degree that he sees his relationship with God as an absolute essential for survival in the midst of pain and tribulation, will he willingly submit. Man will not even submit to the good without a sense of dependence. Without pain he will not perceive the good to be good.
Lord Jesus, come quickly,
 Genesis 3:5.
 Cf. Matthew 26:39-46.
 Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived 427-347 BC. In The Republic, Socrates, using the didactic method, sought to teach the people how to establish the perfect republic.