The Christian and God’s Law
Law, Grace, Holiness
This morning we begin a new series; a study of the Ten Commandments. It seemed like a natural progression after studying the attributes and character of God to now seek to learn how to serve and honor this great God of ours. The Ten Commandments seem like a real good starting point. The commandments are laws that God gave to Israel as they marched through the wilderness during the exodus.
Now it is true that God gave the Hebrews many laws. And it is also true that many of those laws no longer apply to us. For example, we no longer have to abide by the sacrificial laws and many of the ceremonial laws because they were designed to point to the perfect sacrifice which has been offered in Jesus. We no longer have to worry about the dietary laws (though some would say they are still helpful) because the New Testament has told us that we can eat whatever we want. The Old Testament is always interpreted in light of the New Testament.
But God’s moral laws have not changed. Since God does not change, His definition of right and wrong don’t change. Almost every one of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in some fashion in the New Testament. God’s law is still very valuable to us.
However, anytime we start to examine the Law of God there are inherent dangers that crop up. So before we get into the commandments themselves I want to address the dangers and the benefits of studying God’s Law.
DANGERS IN STUDYING GOD’S LAW
Danger #1: We will view the law as the way to salvation
Whenever you start looking at God’s law there is a strong tendency to believe that if you keep all these laws you would be saved. And actually, you would be technically correct. HOWEVER, you won’t, and you can’t, keep the law. It’s too late. Once you transgress the law in even one point you are in need of a Savior. Jesus qualifies as our substitute because He kept the law entirely.
There are many people who live spiritually anxious lives because they are hoping that they can live good enough to get into the Kingdom. They try to live nicer, be more generous, learn more, and serve in more areas. It is a dead end road. You cannot be good enough to earn salvation.
Romans 3:28 “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
Galatians 2:16 “We know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
We are saved by God’s grace. This is what Paul means when he tells us that we have “died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another.” (Romans 7:4) We have died to the law in the sense that the law no longer stands above us waiting to condemn us. We have been set free from the tyranny and condemnation of the law by the grace of God.
Danger #2: We will dismiss the law as irrelevant to us
The second danger comes directly from this first problem. Since we are saved by God’s grace, there are those who would say, “Hallelujah! Since I am saved by grace, I don’t have to obey the law of God.” R.C. Sproul talks about the little song these folks sing,
Saved by grace, what a blessed condition
I can sin all I want and still get remission
However, such a notion is certainly not Biblical. Jesus said,
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. (John 15:9-15)
Obedience is a sign of our love for God. The believer who doesn’t try to obey God, is a believer who is not a believer! In Romans 7 again, Paul writes, “by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (v. 6). We don’t stop serving and obeying the Lord . . . we do it for a different reason. No longer do we serve in order to gain salvation . . . we serve in gratitude FOR salvation.
We are saved by grace but we grow through obedience.
Danger #3: We will distort or add to the law
There is one more danger. This was the problem we see so often in the Bible when Jesus talked about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were originally a group of people who wanted to be faithful to God’s law. They were earnest, sincere and very godly. They were like the Puritans of colonial days. Their disciplines were designed to keep them focused. But as the second generation of Pharisees came on the scene things began to change. They became more institutionalized.
Basically the Pharisees had two problems. First, they emphasized the wrong things.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. [ Matthew 23:15-26]
Now it is not that tithing was wrong. Their diligence in honoring God with the tithe was a good thing. God still wants people to tithe. The problem was not their tithing. The problem was that they were so proud of their obedience in the tithe that they neglected the more important matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They cleaned the outside of the cup but neglected the inside. They were so pleased at their external obedience to the law that they forgot the inner transformation that was also supposed to be taking place.
We see this today when
- we give more attention to form than content. It always bothered me when I was at weddings when the emphasis was on “starting with the correct foot” instead of trying to draw the focus to what was taking place. I am also concerned when we spend more time with the mechanics of worship than we do on the message in worship. We are cleaning the outside of the cup while neglecting the inside.
- we give undo attention to one element of faith and neglect others. I’m concerned about preachers that I hear on television or the radio who are always preaching the same message (prosperity, healing, politics). They are one dimensional and develop shallow believers. And when we become “single-issue” Christians, we are just as dangerous as single-issue voters.
We must be committed to living according to the whole-counsel of God.
The other thing the Pharisees did was they elevated personal preference to the point of law. The Pharisees had all kinds of laws that supplemented God’s law. There were laws on how to wash your hands, how far you could travel on the Sabbath, what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. These laws were treated as just as authoritative as God’s law. In fact, the times you see Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees he was violating these man made rules. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, when he and his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, and when they didn’t follow the hand washing rules, or ate with questionable people, Jesus was ignoring the man made rules of the Pharisees. In adding to the law of God, they hindered people from faith.
Christians can be more like the Pharisees that we like to believe. Let me share some personal experiences.
I once had a girlfriend who broke up with me because I didn’t share her view of how Jesus was going to return at His second coming. I was unwilling to commit to specifics as to how He would return even though I affirmed that He will return. The fact that I could not see the obvious truth of her conclusions meant that I didn’t believe the Bible! She elevated her opinion to the level of God’s law.
I had another girl say she couldn’t continue to date me because I didn’t give an altar call at the conclusion of my messages. She concluded that I didn’t care about getting people into the Kingdom of God. I tried to explain that I cared very much about the eternal destiny of others. And I pointed out that for 1800 years lots of people came to faith without altar calls. I asked her where in Scripture she got this notion that this particular technique was required by God. I pleaded that it is the Spirit who brings a person to Christ . . . not singing “Just as I Am”. In fact, I argued (O.K., I was getting perturbed . . . she was cute!) that to place so much emphasize on the need to walk an aisle or to say a certain prayer was dangerously close to advocating salvation by works! We never dated again.
We had a girl in our Campus Life Group in Michigan who left the group because one of the leaders read from the Living Bible. She said that the only “authorized version” was the King James Version of the Bible (the “thees” and “thous” version). I tried to point out that the King James was not “authorized” by God . . . it was authorized by King James! But she was ready with a back up argument. She took me to the book of Revelation where we are told that anyone who alters the words of the testimony in the book would be condemned (Implying that new translations did this). I reminded her that those words were written in Greek and by her interpretation ANY translation (including the King James) would be a violation of that command. She was unpersuaded and considered me a “liberal”.
There are lots of other preferences that are often stated as laws,
- we tell people that a true Christian doesn’t drink. But the Bible says that Jesus drank. If drinking is a sin, Jesus sinned and we are without a Savior. The Bible tells us that we are not to get drunk or give influence over our body to any person or substance other than God’s Spirit. It doesn’t say we shouldn’t drink at all. Now, obviously, if it is illegal to drink, it is a sin to drink. And if you can’t control your drinking then it is also a sin to drink. Beyond this it is a matter between you and God.
- we imply that anyone who smokes cannot be a true believer or is at best a remedial Christian. Now the Bible does tell us to take care of our bodies and therefore it isn’t a good idea to smoke, but it also isn’t a good idea to overeat, to not exercise, to not get enough sleep and many other things. We must beware of making things that we don’t like into laws that others must conform to.
- some have said that those who dance are catering to lust. Now, I’ve seen some dancing that seemed to be doing just that but we must not say that all dancing is that way. We must not forget that many people danced for joy before the Lord.
- some say Christians shouldn’t play cards because it leads to gambling. But if we applied that same rationale consistently then we would have to conclude that we shouldn’t eat because it might lead to gluttony.
There are lots of other things some Christians prohibit,
- drinking caffeine
- men who have hair that touches their collars
- going to movies
- listening to various types of music
- wearing blue jeans (especially to worship)
Again, please understand that I’m not promoting any of these behaviors. What I am saying is that these are personal issues of conscience and should not be elevated to the level of God’s law.
I have to be honest, I have not only been a victim of “legalists”, I suspect I have also been guilty of imposing on others my personal preferences. We all like to push our own agenda. But this kind of thing is deadly in the body of Christ. It divides the church over marginal issues and makes us look like a bunch of “nay-sayers” to the outside world. We are not bringing the world a long list of rules to obey and behaviors that are forbidden. Our job is to point people to the Jesus who forgive them and set them free to live a new life.
THE BENEFITS OF STUDYING GOD’S LAW
So after sharing these dangers there may be some who would say: “If studying the law is fraught with so much danger, why study the law at all?” It’s an important question. We study the law because of it’s many benefits. Let me give you three.
First, the law is valuable because it shows us what we need to change. The law of God is like a mirror. We look at the law and we see a reflection of God. We see His character. We see a picture of righteousness. But we also see a picture of ourselves as measured by His standard. Inevitably, we see things that need to be corrected. We see sin we need to repent of.
One of the most horrible times of seminary was preaching class. In that class you were evaluated by your peers and it often stung. But the worst sessions were the one’s that were video-taped. You have to watch those with the professor. It is a humbling experience to watch yourself on tape. The Professor points out all the stupid and annoying things you are doing. It’s devastating . . . but it is necessary. It was one of the most humbling experiences but it was also one of the most helpful experiences as well.
This is what God’s law does for us. It gives us a chance to see ourselves more objectively. We see ourselves measured by God’s standard not our own. It can be painful. And it can also be encouraging when we see progress. I guarantee that during our study of the Ten Commandments there will be times when you will be unsettled. But we can’t be made well until we know what disease we are suffering from. We can’t live holy lives until we know what holiness means.
Second, the law is valuable for guidance. God’s law gives us warnings about things that are destructive for us and points us in the direction of God’s will. God’s law will help us sort through many of the options that are before us when we make decisions.
For example, you don’t need to wonder if it is God’s will for you to be sexually unfaithful. God is clear that such behavior is wrong. There is no need to wonder whether it is ok to marry an unbeliever. God says no. We don’t need to ask whether God approves of Psychics. God tells us to have nothing to do with such people. We don’t need to wonder whether God cares if we break a promise because He tells us to “let our yes be yes, and our no, no.” God’s law points us in the right direction.
God does not give us these negative commands because He wants to control us. God’s law is set down to protect us. His law is like a map that guides us through the minefield that we call life.
Third, the law is valuable because it reveals what is pleasing to God. I am always a little uncomfortable when it comes to buying gifts at Christmas and birthdays. I love to give presents to those I care about. But I want it to be a special gift. I want to give something they need, or want. I don’t want to just buy something to fulfill an obligation. Consequently I really appreciate hints, lists, and suggestions. It gives me focus and helps me accomplish my goal of doing something special.
God’s law tells us what pleases and honors God. The law helps us discover the heart of God. The person who has come to faith in Christ is a person who loves the Lord. They want to honor Him. The law tells us how to do so. If you want to live a life that pleases the Lord, then you would be wise to listen to the directions that God gives for doing so.
Let me conclude with two simple suggestion
+s regarding our upcoming study.
Pursue the Law’s Standard as you Rely on God’s Grace
In the weeks ahead we will need to remind ourselves over and over that we are saved by grace and not our good deeds. But even as we remember these things we should point our lives toward the holy standard set in the law. We must constantly be aware of our dependence on mercy and grace even as we diligently pursue holiness in our discipleship.
The Pharisees were not all bad. They did many things that we should do also,
- they tithed (gave 10%) of their income to acknowledge the Lord’s ownership of their lives
- they diligently searched the Scriptures to find the truth
- they spent much time praying
- they were zealous in trying to win the lost
These are good things. They are disciplines WE should develop. Jesus tells us that our righteousness should SURPASS the righteousness of the Pharisees. We should do the right things they did, but we must also remember that these things are not an end in themselves. God is not just concerned about our deeds, He is also concerned about our heart . . . a heart He has made new by His grace.
Develop a love for the Law’s Wisdom
David wrote in Psalm 119.
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding that the elders, for I obey your precepts. [Psalm 119:97-100]
David understood that pondering God’s law made him wise, it helped him understand, it helped him get on “the same page as God”. That’s the attitude we should have when we read God’s law.
A coach loves a teachable athlete. Why? Because that person can get better. The athlete that thinks they have everything figured out, the one that feels they know what they need to know, is the one that is limited in potential. We need teachable hearts. And to be teachable we need to be willing to receive correction. If you go into the study of the Ten Commandments with a defensive spirit, you are going to be real frustrated and maybe a little ticked off by this study. But more important, you won’t be able to grow.
So in our study we will true to be aware of the dangers but we will also try to listen, and learn, and strive to live lives that are pleasing to the God of grace. During the next couple of months I encourage you to memorize the Ten Commandments. But don’t just learn them . . . obey them.