The Law is Good (6)
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. James 2.12
Many Christians today regard the Law of God as unnecessary. Worse, they see it as a yoke or burden, weighing them down and keeping them from what they perceive to be the freedom and spontaneity of the Spirit. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” they insist, “there is liberty!” (2 Cor. 3.17). Keeping the Law, they say, claps us in rigid irons of legalism, whereas walking in the Spirit liberates us into the true freedom of Jesus.
This, of course, is precisely wrong.
Consider Paul’s explanation of what it means to know the liberating power of the Spirit: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8.5-7). That is, to be spiritually minded, where we know true life and peace, live in the freedom of the Spirit, and enjoy all the goodness of God in the true liberty of the Spirit, is to be subject to the Law of God – the law of liberty, as James has it.
Thus to be free from the Law is actually to be imprisoned to self, whim, the spirit of the age, smooth-talking spiritual powers of wickedness, clever but misguided theologians, or whatever – anything and everything except the life-giving, fruit-bearing, gift-bestowing, witness-empowering, into-the-image-of-Jesus-transforming Spirit of God.
The Spirit of God is the muse who inspires creative applications of the life-giving Law to everyday situations. By the Spirit of God we live not according to the letter of the Law, but in the Spirit of it, from the heart, unto the creativity that issues from the divine image and Word, making all things new (2 Cor. 3.1-6). We are artists, and into our hands God has placed His Law, this palette of freedom, so that we might paint beautiful pictures of holiness, righteousness, and goodness on the canvas of our lives and times.
In 1 Corinthians 11.1, the apostle Paul exhorted his readers to imitate him, just as he imitated Christ. I assume he intended that for us as well, who are his readers today.
Paul was steeped in the Law of God, and quick to apply it. When, under interrogation by the Jewish court, he was struck in the face at the high priest’s command, he exploded in a rage at this gross violation of the Law of God: “Then Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?’” When it was explained to him that he was addressing the high priest, he regained his composure, and submitted to the Law: “Then Paul said, ‘I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people”’” (Acts 23.3-5).
Paul argued that keeping the Law would save no one; however, this did not nullify the Law, making it a “dead and a useless thing” for those who believe in Jesus. No; Paul insisted that being justified by grace through faith in Jesus, the Law of God is established for us, so that by it we might both know our sin and follow the leading of the Spirit into the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.31; 7.12; 8.5-7; 10.3, 4).
We are not imitating Paul, and we are not imitating Jesus, if we do not submit to the Law of God in the freedom of the Spirit.
The master at his palette
But if we do, Paul shows us what glorious creativity the Law can engender to bring out the goodness of God in the land of the living. In two instances, Paul, following the leading of the Spirit, made creative applications of the Law of God to restore justice and bring God’s goodness into the churches in Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul denounced the Corinthians’ blinking at sin in their midst, and applied Old Testament civil statutes to expose their sin and insist that the congregation “vomit out” from their midst the one who had transgressed the Law of God (cf. Lev. 18.6-29). Later, acknowledging the remorse and repentance of the excommunicated brother, Paul urged the Corinthians to receive him back into full communion (2 Cor. 2.3-11).
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul used the Law to expose the sinful way the Corinthians had taken advantage of him as he ministered among them. He appealed to two Old Testament laws, one which would not have appeared to be relevant to the situation, and one from the ceremonial or religious laws, which had been superseded by Christ our High Priest, but contain valid principles to guide us. Paul was forced to work a day job during those 18 months in Corinth, because it never occurred to the Corinthians that they should support him as he carried on his ministry among them. He cited Deuteronomy 25.4, about not muzzling the ox as he treads out the grain, to insist that he who had sown spiritual things among the Corinthians should have been cared for in his material needs by them (1 Cor. 9.1-12). To add an exclamation point to his claim, he cited the Old Testament laws concerning material provisions for the priests as applicable to himself, as a priest and minister of God (Lev. 6:16, 26; 7:6, 31). “Even so,” Paul made the application, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9.13, 14).
Paul could make such creative and life-giving applications of the Law because he had submitted to it in the Spirit, studying and listening for the Spirit to teach him the proper applications of God’s Law for good into the circumstances of his daily life and ministry.
This is what God expects of us as well; but we will not be able to paint well from this palette of freedom as long as we remain unskilled in its resources and techniques. The Spirit does indeed set us free in the freedom of our Lord Jesus Christ, but He does so through the goodness of God’s Law.
1. In what ways does the Law of God help us to know the freedom we have in Jesus?
2. How is the Law of God like a palette? How are we like artists who must use that palette?
3. Can we imitate Paul and Jesus without learning and obeying the Law of God? Explain.
Next steps – Conversation: Talk with a fellow Christian about what you are learning in this series, and from your reading of the Law of God.
T. M. Moore
Why is the Law so important? How can we understand it? What use does it have in our daily lives? These questions and more are addressed in our brief book, The Ground for Christian Ethics. This could be the most important book you’ll read this year. Order your copy by clicking here. Order several copies, and read and discuss it with some friends.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.