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The Origin and Purpose of Law

The Origin and Purpose of Law

“They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” —Romans 2:15

As an attorney, I spend my days pointing people toward the law. Whether the issue deals with civil legislation or the rules in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, I often have to tell people that the law does not permit a particular course of action. That's when I brace myself for the inevitable protest, “But we live under grace, not law!” I am not the only one who hears this argument. When pastors attempt to address the issues of tithing, observing the Sabbath, or standards of morality, it is safe to assume it will not be long before someone points out that we do not live under the law anymore.

This would be a wonderful argument if it were not for the fact that it simply isn’t true. Jesus never seemed to interact with anyone without ultimately directing that person toward the law. He said He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). At the same time, He did not feel obligated to enforce the 600-plus laws that were so rigorously advocated by the Scribes and Pharisees. How do we reconcile this apparent discrepancy?

We must first recognize three distinct types of laws in Scripture: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Civil law regulates the conduct and affairs of a nation. Ceremonial law gives order to worship and instructs us about holy living. Moral law reveals the character of God and establishes the boundaries that protect us from harm.1

Civil Law

Much of the Old Testament discussion about law appears against the backdrop of the nation of Israel. A significant aspect of God's plan of salvation involved calling His people out of a world of utter paganism and teaching them how to live in a way that honored Him and protected them from sin. For most of the period covered by the Old Testament, it was a rarity to find a follower of Yahweh who was not a part of or directly influenced by the nation of Israel. Since His people existed as a nation-state, it necessarily followed that some of His commandments dealt with the way its government would operate.

We no longer define followers of the Lord by national origin. The laws that were designed to govern a nation and civic obligation toward that government cannot be said to apply to those who are not under that government's jurisdiction.

Ceremonial Law

One of the best explanations for the purpose of ceremonial laws comes from Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, former president of Asbury College. According to Kinlaw, the Church can only learn one lesson at a time. At every stage of the development in the community of faith, we can see God's purpose in instructing His people for that time. When He gave direction about the ceremonial laws, the descendants of Jacob had just come out of 400 years of living among the Egyptians.

God needed them to understand that there is a clear distinction between the lifestyle and worship they had known in that polytheistic culture and that which was acceptable and pleasing to Him.

At the heart of all of the laws about diet, dress, sacrifice, and worship is the principle that there is only one God, and not only does all authority derive from Him but so does all holiness.

Through the observance of the ceremonial law, God’s people learned that they could not define or determine for themselves what was clean and unclean. They learned that acceptable worship could not be based on whatever seemed good to them at the time. In other words, holiness is not subject to popular vote or individual preference but is based in something absolute.

Even amid the observance of ceremonial regulations, the Old Testament gives hints that something better was yet to come (1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalms 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6). That “something better” is found in Christ. In Him we find all holiness. In Him we find all we need to live lives pleasing to the Father. Jesus, who was faultless in every respect, clearly ignored ceremonial laws such as the prohibition against touching lepers or dead bodies. Since the Bible is clear that Christ was sinless in all respects, we must conclude that these ceremonial laws were no longer obligatory. The lesson from the ceremonial laws had achieved its purpose; the time had come for the Church to learn the lesson only found in Christ Himself.

The fundamental lesson of holiness is that there is nothing holy or righteous that originates in any of us; if we have any hope of experiencing holiness, it will come from God and God alone. That principle has not wavered, but the requirements of obedience to the ceremonial laws are gone. The reason for this is that Jesus came as the fulfillment of the law.

Moral Law

Civil law and ceremonial law serve a specific purpose for a group of people or for a time. They are, by their nature, malleable and finite. In contrast to these is the moral law. Moral law reflects the character and nature of God Himself. Just as God is eternal and omnipresent, His moral law is unchanging and universal. All law, if it is to be legitimate, must derive its authority from God's moral law.

Long before any government enacted legislation prohibiting theft, it was wrong to steal. It did not take an act of Congress for murder to be wrong. Certain things are wrong, in and of themselves, regardless of the will of people. For those who attempt to describe this outside the context of faith, this phenomenon is known as natural law. References to it can be found within civil law, most notably in the United States' Declaration of Independence, declaring as self-evident the truths that everyone is created equal and given, by our Creator, certain rights that cannot legitimately be taken away.

Paul referred to the self-evident nature of the moral law when he wrote, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14–15). Since God's nature is love, and since anyone who lives outside of an intimate relationship with Him faces serious consequences, it should not be surprising that His law always points us back to Himself. Because His love is for everyone, His law is available even to those who do not yet know Him.

The existence of moral law/natural law does not negate the need for human law, but when there is a conflict between the two, the natural law must prevail.

When Nazi war criminals were tried at Nuremberg and argued they were acting in obedience to the civil law of Nazi Germany, the U.S. prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, refuted the argument: “When I say that we do not ask for convictions unless we prove crime, I do not mean mere technical or incidental transgression of international conventions. We charge guilt on planned and intended conduct that involves moral as well as legal wrong . . . It is not because they yielded to the normal frailties of human beings that we accuse them. It is their abnormal and inhuman conduct that brings them to this bar . . . Does it take these men by surprise that murder is treated as a crime?”2

Natural law points us toward God's nature, but it does not give us the specifics about Him or His expectations for us. We may give lip service to God's existence, but when we attempt to follow the law or create human law divorced from a true knowledge of Him, our efforts will ultimately be futile. Paul recognized this when he wrote, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools . . . Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen” (Romans 1:21-25).

This, explains why, despite the natural law, society has strayed so far from God's standard. He created us in such a way that we instinctively recognize the sanctity of life. When we disregard such truths or attempt to design laws regarding life without the foundation of God as the only authority and source of all truth, these efforts will darken our intellects such that we become blinded to what He has made self-evident. Without a knowledge of God, we may say that we value human life, but we will begin to define “human” or “life” in a way that satisfies our desires instead of relying upon God to provide the definitions.

There is much talk about two different missions for the church: justice and evangelism. It is preposterous to think one mission can exist without the other. There can be no justice without an intimate relationship with the One from whom all authority derives, and there cannot be an intimate relationship with Christ without staying within the legal boundaries He has established to protect the relationship. Neither salvation nor justice can have an existence separate from Jesus.

What about Paul's admonishment that we live under grace rather than law? Those who use those words as a license to disregard God’s laws fail to consider Paul’s words in the context of the rest of the passage and in relation to the entirety of Scripture: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14).

At no point did Paul suggest that we don’t have to follow the rules.

He told us, rather, that the purpose of the law is to point us to an intimate relationship with the Lord. When we have achieved that intimacy, He will pour His love and righteousness into our hearts (Romans 5:5), so our evil desires will no longer need to be held in check by the law. Instead, out of a desire to preserve and enhance intimacy with God, we will be compelled to live lives that are holy and pleasing to Him.

As holiness people, we should neither run from nor ignore the law. Rather, we should embrace the promise of Jeremiah 31:33: “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.” We, too, can join with the psalmist in proclaiming, “Teach me, Lord, the way of Your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep Your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of Your commands, for there I find delight” (Psalm 119:33-35).

Michael Thompson serves as general counsel for the Church of the Nazarene and is an ordained elder.

[1] Since God's laws are rooted in His character, all laws reflect His love and concern for our wellbeing. He built safeguards into ceremonial, dietary, and civil law that protected adherents from all manner of dangers that the best scientific minds would not discover for centuries to come.

[2] Opening statement of Robert H. Jackson, November 21, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.

Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2020