Thursday, July 24, 2008

Whatever the law says... (Part 4)

This entry might seem a little odd coming from me, but the subject matter here has come up from time to time when I've been discussing grace and law with others. On rare occasions, New Testament writers such as James and Paul have brought up "law" in their talk of the Christian life. So I've heard people say things such as, "See, both James and Paul said law was part of the Christian life!" And so I just wanted to include an entry here in which I shared my thoughts on all this. As always, I'm open to your thoughts as well.

First off, I want to make clear my personal conviction that the law itself does not convict a Christian of sin or of guilt or of having fallen short in any area of Christian living. In the examples I'm going to share from James and Paul, it looks to me as if it has more to do with 1) silencing Christian hypocrisy and legalism, and 2) showing us what is good. I'll explain below.

The life we live, we live by faith in Christ. We live by the life of a Person, not by rules that were written in cold stone. We don't live by law, and we don't look to the law to see how to live. There is no life in the law, but there is life in Christ. In fact, we have died to the law in order to have life in Christ! We don't go back to our old lover... especially when our new Lover is sufficient in every way! We know that "His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3), which is something we will simply never, ever find in the law. We live by the very life of Christ, not through looking at the law.

My first example of one of the rare cases of an New Testament writer talking "law" to believers is from James. Again, I can't stress enough that I believe we need to look at this in the context of the full understanding of the law that has been revealed in the NT.

James wrote, "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:8-13, emphasis mine).

Keep in mind what we've already said in this series... that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law. Keep in mind that it was given to stop the self-justifying mouths of unbelievers. Keep in mind that it was given to make the world guilty. And keep in mind that after it did all this in the life of a non-believer, that person turned to faith, and died to the law in order to be married to Christ (Rom 7:4). Keep in mind that "the law is not of faith" (Gal 3:12).

And keep in mind that James was talking to people who knew the law. Remember in Romans 7 when Paul talked about how we had to die to the law in order to be married to Jesus? Paul started off by saying, "I speak to those who know the law." In other words, "I want to explain to you how a person has to die to the law in order to have Jesus, and since I'm speaking to those who know the law, let me use this example, from the law itself, to make my case." Paul wasn't talking "law" for the purpose of putting anybody under it, but rather to make an illustration of something else. Paul could have illustrated his point without using the law, but that's simply how he chose to do it.

I see James doing something similar. James says here, "If you really fulfill the royal law according to scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well." How does one do this? It most certainly can't be a fleshly act (our own attempts at following the law). It's the result of God's divine power that has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness. James then says - and this, to me, is the key of the entire passage - "but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors."

Now, if James' words mean that a Christian stumbles in one point and is "guilty of all," and is actually convicted by the law as a transgressor, then that has just made void all that Christ has accomplished on our behalf, and it makes void His life in us! Indeed, as Christians we sin. But we are not convicted by the law as transgressors. The law already did that, and then we died to it and turned to life and righteousness in Christ. Please give me liberty in paraphrasing, then, what I believe is being communicated here:

"My Christian friends, through Christ you fulfill the royal law ("love your neighbor as yourself"), and that is good. But if you show partiality (or "if you have respect of persons," as another versions says), you sin. I know you're familiar with what the law says. Don't you even remember that under the law you were convicted as transgressors? Even if you had kept the whole law and yet stumbled at one point, you were guilty of all! If you didn't commit adultery, but did murder, you were still a transgressor of the law nonetheless. So... now that you're in Christ, by His life love one another and don't sin by judging one another and showing partiality. You know that you were saved by the principle (law) of liberty, not the law of Moses. In the end, you will be judged by this wonderful law of liberty, in which you were made free by the love of God. Act and speak towards others in this same way!"

Another rare example of bringing up the law in the life of a believer comes from Paul in Eph 6:1-3. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with promise: 'that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.'"

A quick read of this would perhaps make it seem as if Paul is talking about actually using the law as a guide in the life of a Christian. But I don't think so. In admonishing children to obey their parents, Paul points out how this is a good thing. Again, my own paraphrase, "It's such a good thing that God even promised long life for those who would honor their parents."

If we take into account everything else that Paul said about the law, we can clearly see that he is not telling Christians to follow a certain law here. For one thing, Paul himself said that there is no law that could ever give life. This particular commandment promised life... but of course it was conditional upon people keeping the law - the whole law - and no one has ever done that. As James said, if you keep all the laws but break one, you're guilty of all. No matter what, under the law, we're guilty! This case in Ephesians is a very rare reference to the law that Paul made to remind us what is good.

Again, I've heard these scriptures brought up from time to time and I just wanted to share my thoughts on it all as part of this series. The fifth and most-likely final post in this series will be tomorrow, and I'll also get Part 2 of "Love in 1 Corinthians 13" posted soon.


  1. I don't think anyone could have explained these verses better than you did here, Joel. Very encouraging and uplifting. Thank you, brother.

  2. I have enjoyed the whole series. Thanks for all of your hard work!


  3. Joel,
    Wow! Wonderful! I totally agree to your interpretation. It makes a lot of sense in the light of the big picture of God's grace.

    I like this kind of stuff!

  4. for what it is worth

    i posted on grace walk

  5. Sorry all, it's been crazy hectic and I've been away from the computer. Thanks for your thoughts.


    It's very eye-opening to look at various 'law' scriptures through the lens of what scripture itself says about the law. It's always uplifting to dig into these things and pull out the gems!


    Thanks so much. I'm glad you've enjoyed it.


    I like this kind of stuff too! Can't get enough of it!


    I'm glad you read and posted about Grace Walk. It's a book that I think has helped countless people to become secure in their identity in Christ.