Negotiating with the law

The Law of God January 19, 2015

Red and blue lights swirled in my rearview mirror. I pulled over, and the helmeted police officer strode up to my car. He welcomed me to his town and invited me to be his guest at city hall. On the designated day I appeared before a solemn, black-robed judge who demanded to know why I was speeding.

“Forgive me, Your Honor,” I stammered. “You see, I work for the Lord, and sometimes I’m so eager to go where He wants me to go that I forget about earthly things like speed limits.”

“Is that so?” he replied. Then his face broke out with a grin. “Well, if you’re working for the Lord, we’ll hold Him responsible for your ticket. No fine for you!”

Happy as a mouse escaped from a barnyard cat, I strode out past the frowning police officer, revved my engine, and resumed the King’s business.

Please don’t profit from my example; we can’t always break the laws of the land and live happily ever after. The judge could set aside the law because it was prescriptive in nature. Traffic laws prescribe proper behavior and can be modified for mitigating circumstances (such as when a poor pastor needs mercy from a God-fearing judge).

God’s laws, however, are primarily descriptive. Except as we will see, divine laws describe the way things are, have always been, and always will be. So instead of merely prescribing the way things should be, they describe the way things are—eternal absolutes that never change and cannot be negotiated.

Consider the physical law of gravity. It doesn’t prescribe how a falling object ought to behave; it describes inevitable reality. Suppose you were skydiving and thought it would be fun to float with the birds without using the parachute. So you tried to negotiate with the Lord about suspending His law of gravity in the same way that my favorite judge suspended the traffic law. Not a good idea. You’d better hurry up and yank the rip cord! God’s laws never change—with two exceptions.

First, regarding miracles. Sometimes in His providence God alters the laws of His physical universe to save people or reveal Himself to them. Exhibit A would be Jesus walking on water. Christ even gave Peter a temporary dispensation from the laws of physics to enable him, however briefly, to do the impossible that dark night on the stormy Sea of Galilee.

The other example of changeable divine law is the Mosaic system of the old covenant. These ceremonial laws with their feast days and rituals could be altered because, like our traffic laws, they were prescriptive. They applied eternal principles to pre-Messianic Hebrew society. With the coming of Christ, however, “the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless” (Heb. 7:18, NIV). The Lamb of God became the “surety of a better covenant” (verse 22).

In contrast to the temporary, prescriptive Mosaic rituals, the Ten Commandments are descriptive divine laws that never can change. They describe God’s consistently loving character, so if He tampered with them He would deny Himself as a God of love. And since the Ten Commandments cannot be modified, abolished, or temporarily suspended like traffic laws, the penalty for breaking them could not be swept aside. Either sinner or Savior must die.

The Ten Commandments not only describe the character of God; they also describe the divine character implanted within faithful human hearts through the new birth. Filled with gratitude for God’s gift of salvation, we love Him who first loved us. Such love “is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). If it was better for Jesus to die than to break God’s law, then we also should prefer death to disobedience. During the persecution of earth’s final global apostasy, a faithful remnant will “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).

The test of genuine faith in Christ is whether our lives are drawn toward harmony with His law (see Rom. 3:31). Yet we never can trust in how well we succeed in keeping the law; our hope remains built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. None of us keeps God’s law perfectly. We all fall short in many more ways than we can imagine, both in the bad things we do (sins of commission) and the good things we don’t do enough of (sins of omission).

When Sinai confronts us with our sinfulness, we can flee for refuge to Calvary. There the forgiving love of God fills us with grateful love—which stimulates fervent commandment keeping.

One final note. One of the Ten Commandments is different from the others, seemingly prescriptive rather than descriptive. While nine commandments obviously are unchangeable moral principles, the seventh-day Sabbath seems subject to change. After all, what difference does one day make over another?

Upon deeper observation, however, we see that the seventh-day Sabbath cannot change because it memorializes two historic events that Christ finished on the sixth day and commemorated on the seventh: creation and redemption. The gifts of life from Eden and new life from Calvary are the basic reasons we worship God, love Him, and want to obey Him; therefore, the Sabbath rest that memorializes this life in Christ motivates obedience that fulfills the other commandments.

Nine commandments prescribe spiritual labor, while the Sabbath (which means “cessation”) offers rest from labor in Christ’s finished work. Thus genuine Sabbath rest in Jesus safeguards obedient Christians from legalism.

This article originally appeared in Ministry Magazine on September 1994.