Sweeter than honey
My pastors are preaching through Jesus’s sermon on the mount. It’s refreshing to be reminded of the rightful place of God’s law in the Christian life. Sometimes it is easy for us to dismiss the place of law for the Christian; after all, we are not under law, but under grace. And since the law cannot save us, is there any use for it other than to condemn us and drive our miserable souls to Jesus?
If we were to stop there, the godly sentiments of Psalm 119 are left sounding completely foreign to us. How then are we to understand the law as a source of blessing and delight?
Protestants have historically recognized three uses of the law: to restrain our wickedness, to reveal sin, and to direct and guide the lives of Christians. We might say that this third use, often called the “rule of life,” is to be led in the pleasant “paths of righteousness.” It is in this way that the law brings us life and joy rather than condemnation. And in fact God always intended for his people to relate to his law this way. We can see this in the very giving of the law: he introduces it by emphasizing that “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20). Israel was to obey God as those who were already saved, whom God had already chosen to dwell among — not as those who were trying to earn God’s favor and salvation in the first place. It is true that God is holy, that none of us is without sin, and we cannot approach him without suffering the curse of the law. But God knows our frame; he understood that we would sin. He made temporary provision for sins in the sacrificial system, and made permanent provision for our sins in Jesus, who became a curse for us.
Judicially the law does accuse us, and we must deal judicially with the law through Jesus or else suffer condemnation and wrath. But as Trinitarians we know that there are always complementary facets. Relationally God’s people deal with the law as those who are adopted sons. God is the father who puts a dollar in our grubby little hands to buy him a birthday present, and then delights in our present! Calvin puts it this way:
When God is reconciled to us, there is no reason to fear that he will reject us, because we are not perfect; for though our works be sprinkled with many spots, they will be acceptable to him, and though we labour under many defects, we shall yet be approved by him. How so? Because he will spare us; for a father is indulgent to his children, and though he may see a blemish in the body of his son, he will not yet cast him out of his house; nay, though he may have a son lame, or squint-eyed, or singular for any other defect, he will yet pity him, and will not cease to love him: so also is the case with respect to God, who, when he adopts us as his children, will forgive our sins. And as a father is pleased with every small attention when he sees his son submissive, and does not require from him what he requires from a servant; so God acts; he repudiates not our obedience, however defective it may be.
Because the law comes to us from a wise and loving father, a wise and good king and shepherd, and a life-giving helper, we ought to count it as a delight — and we can be confident that patient trust and persistent obedience will bring us true blessing. And because we are sons, we ought also to be growing in the law, seeking to imitate our father by meditating on his law and obeying it.
The fact that law is instruction from our father means that it helps to make us wise and mature. That should come as no surprise: Solomon, who excelled all the kings of the earth in wisdom, gave us the book of Proverbs, which is itself an extended meditation on the ten commandments. Consider: it comes to us in the context of the fifth commandment (“my son”), and teaches us about the fourth commandment (work), the sixth commandment (anger), the seventh commandment (the forbidden woman), and others. Jesus, the one greater than Solomon, does exactly the same in the sermon on the mount, drawing wisdom from God’s law (“you have heard”) to teach us how we ought to tend the soil of our hearts and to warn us of the ensnaring and hardening effects of sin.
Paul speaks similarly of maturity in Galatians 4. The law is a guardian or tutor, under which we are indistinguishable from slaves. But in Jesus the Son we receive adoption as sons; we are no longer under the tutor but are heirs come into our inheritance. And yet clearly this does not mean we should put our tutor and lessons out of mind. True, there are some parts of our discipline and training (e.g., dietary laws) from which we are now set free, just as a child no longer drinks from a bottle, a runner in a marathon is no longer running sprints, and a pianist on stage is no longer playing scales and etudes. But God intends that even in the freedom of sonship we live out of all of our training; and there is a great deal of the law that we must still obey and build upon with patience and persistence. In fact, God now imprints his law on our minds and hearts (Hebrews 8-10).
Since we now deal with the law relationally, our obedience is not a matter of earning and keeping God’s favor but is a matter of loyalty and allegiance to God. And so the law may sober us but it cannot terrify us. In fact, we must follow the pattern of David, Solomon and Jesus: we should train ourselves to think of God’s expectations for his sons as a delight, as the path of blessing and protection; and we should labor to grow in wisdom and maturity through studying God’s law, meditating on it and disciplining ourselves to obey it.