The Law and the Gospel

By Stephen Terry


Commentary for the December 8, 2012 Sabbath School Lesson


“To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.” Romans 5:13, NIV

Anyone who has played the well-known American board game “Monopoly” has probably been to jail. In fact most of us make several trips to jail during the course of the game. The onerous aspect of going to jail is that a player must forfeit fifty dollars unless they are fortunate enough to roll doubles on the dice during any of their next three turns. However, there is one other way to avoid the fine. There are two “Get out of jail, free” cards in the game, and whoever holds one of them can leave jail immediately with no fine. This can be valuable depending on the timing of when the card is played.

Sometimes we hear Christians talk of grace like a “Get out of jail, free” card. Although it cost the greatest of prices, grace is free to us. (See Romans 6:23) It is not based on a lucky chance draw of a card like in Monopoly. It is free to everyone who chooses to receive it. Everyone is offered this gift because everyone needs it. (See Romans 3:23) This is because of sin. The Bible tells us that sin is a universal problem that needs a universal solution. But what is sin?

At this point, many Christians would cite the oft-quoted passage “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” 1 John 3:4, NIV This establishes that there is a direct correlation between law and sin. Interestingly, Romans 5:13 appears to contain a paradox when compared with 1 John 3:4. If sin is law breaking, then how could sin exist before the law was given? Yet, this verse says it did. By definition, then, law must have existed. So then we determine that the law existed but was not “given,” as the verse states. To be given, this indicates a Giver, who logically has knowledge of the law, else how could it be given?

Commonly we identify this giving with the events at Mount Sinai where the Ten Commandments were inscribed in stone. We often speak in specific terms about this as “The Law” given to Moses for the people. These two tablets of stone engraved with ten precepts have become for many the ultimate expression of law. But is it? Is it even possible to contain all law in these rules? We often speak of the law as representing the character of God. Can that infinite character be contained in this finite Decalogue?

When Jesus was queried about what is the greatest commandment, He responded that the two greatest were to love God and one’s neighbor. (See Matthew 22:35-40) While neither of these is so stated in the Ten Commandments, yet we often hear that the first four of the ten encompass loving God and the remaining six speak to loving one’s neighbor. Even if this is so, which is greater, these two commandments or the ten commandments derived from them? Of course, the source is always greater than the derivation. Indeed, we can see the limitations of the derived tenets when we discover that they do not cover everything. For instance, there is no command not to spit in someone else’s glass of water engraved in these stone tablets. However, to someone living according to the greater law, this would not be something they would do.

So why were the tables of the Ten Commandments given? Perhaps it was due to the condition of the recipients of that law. The Israelites were coming out of many generations of slavery in Egypt. Their ability to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit over that of their taskmasters may have been nearly extinguished. Without that ability to hear the Holy Spirit, the inner voice of law cannot guide the life. One might say that just as a hearing-impaired person needs a hearing aid, the Israelites needed an aid to guide them in the direction of the Spirit’s voice. The law can never really be communicated by words engraved on stone tablets. It can only be received by the Spirit speaking it to the heart. If we cannot hear that voice, then we are no different than those Israelite slaves. Paul wrote of this condition in his letter to the Roman church. “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Romans 7:14, NIV

The law was never intended to be an external set of commands. Ancient wisdom tells us about the source of mankind’s actions. “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…” Proverbs 23:7, KJV Jesus tried to illustrate this by showing that our thoughts condemn us even if our actions do not. (See Matthew 5:27-28) We might logically conclude conversely that right thoughts will automatically produce right actions. The Bible indicates that this is God’s desire for us. Both the Old and New Testaments speak to God’s will regarding this inner spiritual voice. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “`This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. `I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’” Jeremiah 31:33-34, NIV

Paul expressed the same thoughts in the Epistle to the Hebrews by quoting this passage from Jeremiah twice (See Hebrews 8:10-12 and Hebrews 10:15-17) Since this inner voice of the Spirit speaking to our hearts and minds is God’s desire for us, we might conclude that when mankind was first created in God’s image, his ability to hear this voice must have been at its peak. But mankind quickly decided to shut out that voice, like a child covering his ears and shouting “Nah, nah, nah!” Genesis teaches us through the story of Adam and Eve, that man actually hid from that experience of close communion with God. (See Genesis 3) Ever since, God has tried to let us know that we could re-open that door, and He will restore what was lost. God is still willing to speak to our hearts and guide our actions just as in the beginning. (See Philippians 2:13) This inner voice will awaken in us the desire for even more of that lost communication.

For some this may be a scary idea. If God is speaking to us spiritually, directly to our hearts and minds, it is not easy to determine what His will might be for someone else. Instead of being accountable to us, the person becomes accountable directly to God. Paul tells us not to worry about this. He wrote, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Romans 14:4, NIV Perhaps this warning is because if we try to direct another’s spirituality, our voice can actually hinder the Spirit’s speaking to the heart of that person. It might even hinder the Spirit speaking to our own heart. We might do well to ask ourselves which is the greater source of truth, our understanding or that of the Spirit? As the old saw says, since we have two ears and one mouth, perhaps listening is twice as important as speaking.

While some may choose to believe that their understanding of these things is far more advanced than anyone has ever experienced before, history does not support such a conclusion. For instance, “True Christianity” by Johann Arndt, written in the early 17th century is as excellent an exposition on righteousness by faith and the love that informs the heart of a Christian as anything written today. God has been, is, and will continue directing His work through this inner speaking of the Spirit. His grace is sufficient for all our sins past, present, and future to enable that communication to remain open. This voice speaks with the authority of that higher law from which all other laws, including the Decalogue, are only derivatives.

So why grace? Grace allows us to continue to grow the relationship while we are learning to hear the Spirit. It is God telling us that He has provided a way so that nothing will interfere with our coming to Him and growing into all He intended us to be. Without grace we could only hide in the bushes, understanding nothing of the Spirit’s voice and knowing our shame but having no way to remove it. God desires that nothing impede our ability to grow into this fullest possible relationship with the Spirit. Until we do, we are vulnerable to letting other voices than God’s control us. Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about the need for this, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” Ephesians 4:14, NIV

There are many voices, all claiming to have the answer for how we should live our lives. Some of these may have elements of truth in them. However, even so, they are only derivative truth. Should we be happy with that when grace has made the Source readily available? Maybe we should seek instead to hear that voice of the Holy Spirit which speaks peace to our hearts. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” Romans 8:14, NIV



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry


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