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The Nature of Law

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

In our fantasies it is sometimes appealing to wonder what it would be like to live in a place without any laws, where a person is free to do whatever he pleases. Laws can be irritating at times; do this, don't do that, and, of course, we never get them right. But the reality is that laws do exist and they exist in great abundance. So, what purpose do laws serve? Why do we need laws?

Law Defines Right and Wrong

"What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful" (Romans 7:7-13).

Laws do not make a particular action right or wrong. They simply state what currently exists. For example in science we have something called the law of gravity. Now gravity existed long before someone came up with the law of gravity. The law of gravity defines how gravity operates, but the law did not create gravity. For the same reason we have laws declaring murder to be wrong. These laws define what constitutes murder and in God's law murder is defined to be a sin. However, the law did not make murder into a sin, it just clearly defined that the action of a murderer is sinful.

This is why God's law is called truth. "Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your law is truth" (Psalm 119:142). Unlike the laws of man which are sometimes arbitrary and inaccurate, God's law accurately defines what exists.

Though actions are right or wrong, even without a law to define them as right or wrong, justice demands that a law must define something as wrong before it is counted against us. "For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law" (Romans 5:13). In fact, sin is defined to be the breaking of law. "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4). Therefore, sin does not fully exist without law: "For apart from the law sin was dead" (Romans 7:8). Sin has no teeth when people are not aware of its existence. Hence, before we became aware of law -- when we were children -- sin had no power to destroy us. "I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died" (Romans 7:9). Childhood is the time when everyone exists without the knowledge of right and wrong. "Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there" (Deuteronomy 1:39). Unfortunately, we grow up. We realize that there are laws which define right and wrong, and with that knowledge we are then held accountable for our actions.

Hence, law defines wrongful behavior, allowing God to justly hold us accountable for our actions. However, even this doesn't spare us the consequences of our bad behavior. Consider this example: if no one ever told me not to touch a hot pot, would that spare me a burn when I touch the pot? Of course not! My awareness of the danger doesn't change the consequences that might result. But, you know the lack of a warning might have spared me a spanking from Mom.

In the beginning, God gave Adam and Eve a simple law. "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die'" (Genesis 2:16-17). The garden was filled with every imaginable type of flowering and fruitful tree. Only one tree, in the middle of the garden, was forbidden to Adam and Eve. God's law did not make this one tree dangerous. The danger already existed. There was something within that tree that would produce a bad consequence. Hence, Adam and Eve were made aware of the tree and the consequence by the commandment of God. Yet even with advance warning, they broke the commandment and, thereby, sinned. "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).

God has always warned man of the dangers in this world. There have always been laws to steer us away from those dangers. Even before Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, people had laws by which to live. How do I know? Because people were sinning before Moses lived. "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it" (Genesis 4:7). Remember, sin cannot exist without a law to be broken. "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam" (Romans 5:14). Since death (sin) reigned prior to Moses, law existed.

Now some clever person might think, "Hey! If I never learn the law, then God won't hold me accountable for my sins. Now, I might not be aware of the dangers, but at least I won't go to Hell for breaking God's law." The apostle Paul discuss this idea. "When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them, in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel" (Romans 2:14-16). Paul is saying that the Jews were given a law by God, but the Gentiles did not have access to that law. So how could God condemn the Gentiles when they did not have the Law of Moses? What Paul points out is that there are some laws which exist instinctively within us. For example, you usually don't have to tell people that murder is wrong. Most people know it is wrong. Nor do you need a law for people to know that taking something that belongs to someone else is wrong. The fact that people live by a moral code, even without the Law of Moses, shows an awareness of right and wrong. That awareness might not be well defined, but there obviously exists an internal law. Since that law exists, people can be justly held accountable to its obedience.

Law is a Teacher

Since the law defines right and wrong, it can be seen as a teacher to mankind. "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Galatians 3:24). It not only warns against dangers, it also instructs us in the way to live righteously. Because we are warned in advance of the dangers of sin, there exists not so nice side-effect of law. "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire" (Romans 7:7-8). If I told you not to think of an elephant, the image of an elephant will pop up in most of our minds. It is just the nature of man. Few of us are clever enough to think of all the possible sins in the world; but, when the sin is defined for us so as to warn us of the danger, well, the idea of the sin becomes implanted in our minds. We might not have thought of the sin on our own, but now that we are warned against it, we are also aware of the sin. Satan uses that knowledge against us to tempt us to do the very sin of which we were once fully ignorant.

Law is a Testimony

"The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple" (Psalm 19:7). A testimony is a witness. The law is a witness to God. It proves the greatness of the one who created the law. "Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments" (Psalms 78:1-7).

Law contains more than definitions of right and wrong behavior. It also contains history of how people lived in the past under those laws. It is a record of what God promises will happen in the future, dependant at times on the behavior of those people. When we see in the Law what God promised and when we read how God faithfully kept those promises, the law provides evidence of the might and righteousness of God. "When I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them out of their enemies' lands, and I am hallowed in them in the sight of many nations, then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer" (Ezekiel 39:27-28).

Law Proves We Need a Savior

In the thousands of years that the law has existed, history has proven that man is unable to keep the law perfectly. No matter how hard we try, we always manage to mess things up. "But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe" (Galatians 3:22). We are forced to face the reality, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). As it records the consequences of those sins, the law shows man the true extent of his misery. "Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:20-21).

You see, law cannot make a person righteous. "If there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law" (Galatians 3:21). History has proven over and over that all men sin. Man sinned before Moses brought the law down from Mount Sinai. By Moses, the Jews were given a clear law, written out for them in detail. They lived under that law for about 1,500 years, and yet the people continued to sin. If perfect law keeping could save a person, surely in that time someone would have been saved; but, no one was saved. Therein lies the weakness of law. It depends on man's obedience. "For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God" (Hebrews 7:18-19). The weakness of the law is that man is expected to keep it, but man is unable to do so. The law, coming from God, is holy, but we are miserable sinners. "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin" (Romans 7:14).

Hence, God established a way to save man that did not require perfect keeping of the law. "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Galatians 2:16). Here some may stand up and shout, "Yippee! I don't have to worry about law any more!" However, they are wrong. Read the very next verse. "But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!" (Galatians 2:17). Remember, sin only exists where there is a law. If we can be judged sinners while seeking justification in Christ, then Paul is saying that law still exists.

We cannot lay claim to salvation while continuing to sin. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2). We cannot be saved by law, but those desiring to be saved cannot willfully break the laws of their Savior. "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). The commandments of God are not burdensome. They exist for our benefit to keep us out of danger. They teach us how to avoid sin and how to live to please God.

The part that we cannot do -- to affect our own salvation -- God has done for us. He sent His Son to pay our debt of sin. All He asks of us in return is faithful obedience to His will. To become a child of God, God asks us to listen to His teachings, to have faith in Him, to leave our sins behind through repentance, to stand boldly for our Savior by confessing our faith in Him, and to be baptized for the remission of our sins. Yet as we live the Christian life, we know that sin still happens. We still fail and break the law of God. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 1:8 - 2:1). Won't you make your life right before God this day?