What does the law of God have to do with being a Christian?
This might be one of the biggest points of confusion in Christendom today. Do we need rules? If not, why did Jesus give us rules? Was it just to teach us that we can’t keep rules? Will the law free us? Judge us? Crush us? Kill us? Or empower us to live a good life?
Jesus spends a lot of the Sermon on the Mount talking about law, and he starts by saying that everything the Old Testament law and prophets set out to do is accomplished in him.
(Full disclosure: I do believe this means that large swaths of the Old Testament law are no longer applicable to Christians. We don’t offer animal sacrifices, because Jesus has fully atoned for us. We don’t keep the dietary and other “cleanness” laws, because Jesus has made us clean. Etc.)
But he doesn’t just say, “So you can forget about any kind of law now.”
Rather, he says that those who practice and teach the commands of God will be called great in the kingdom, while those who break and teach others to break them will be called least.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise. The entire universe is governed by laws. Everything has a “law” — a way that it works, and a way that it doesn’t work. Human beings are no different.
As Christians, we can enter into and be governed by “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2). Our lives can function according to the same laws that describe the life of God.
In other words, we can learn to live like God does.
A RECONSTITUTED PEOPLE
When a new law is given to a nation, it reconstitutes that nation. The nation now functions according to a new constitution. This is good or bad depending on the nature of the law given.
Good laws empower the righteous, protect the weak and poor, and disempower evil.
The law of Moses was a gift that constituted a righteous nation. Jesus has come with a new law, as the prophets promised, but this is a law of the Spirit, written on the heart. Rather than reconstituting nations and cultures and controlling human behavior according to external rules, it reconstitutes our hearts and then transforms our nations and cultures from the inside.
Jeremiah 31:33 describes the new covenant made by Jesus with his people:
“I will put My teaching with them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.”
In the new covenant, the law of God constitutes our hearts. We are governed by the life of God within us, and his law inside of us changes who we are.
Don’t miss this: the law of God is not a set of arbitrary rules. It is a description of how God is — of his nature and the way he designed the universe to interact with his nature. We are given the opportunity to be governed by the same law.
THE PEOPLE GOD WANTS
When we live by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, we live out of God’s life.
So we are not just people who don’t murder; we are people who don’t hate, who don’t dismiss, disrespect, and look down on one another.
We are not just people who don’t commit adultery; we are people who don’t lust, who don’t objectify one another and who are not controlled by our sexual urges.
We are not just people who don’t divorce without good cause; we are people who are deeply faithful to one another in the marriage bond.
We are not just people who don’t lie and intentionally manipulate and mislead one another; we are people who understand words as sacred and powerful and who honor that power and holiness in all we say.
And we are not just people who carry out religious duties: we are people who have a real and personal relationship with God in the secret place of our inner lives, and who live that relationship out in public.
LIVING FROM THE HEART
Recently I visited a beautiful camp for kids on Vancouver Island. Laughing, our hostess told us how every year certain “city slickers” will complain about mice in their cabins.
“Well,” the response always comes, “do you have food in your cabin?”
When you live in an open cabin in the woods, it’s impossible to catch every mouse or stop up every hole to keep them from coming in. But if you’ll stop keeping food in your duffel bag, the mice will clear out on their own.
This is the difference between living from external rules and living from the law of the heart. One tries to manage behaviour and “catch all the mice.” The other just cleans up the source of the behaviour.
My friend and ministry partner Mercy Hope likes to say that trees don’t lie. If a tree is unhealthy, you’ll know it. You can see it in the bark, in the leaves, in the fruit. Disease shows up everywhere. Human beings are the same way. An unhealthy heart creates unhealthy fruit. What’s on the inside always eventually manifests.
In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus was not really concerned about fixing people’s outward behaviour. He was concerned about changing their hearts.
WHERE THE “RULES” COME IN
Some people claim this means that we should never teach “rules” in the church. But this poses a problem, because of course, the Bible is full of commands. Not just the Old Testament — the New Testament too. Unless we’re unwilling to teach Paul, and Peter, and most of the Sermon on the Mount (!), we have to teach commands.
In fact, Jesus told us to do exactly that: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
So why do we have rules, if the rules aren’t the point?
RELATIONAL RULES AND THE SCIENCE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Well, why do we study science, if the laws of physics and biology and cosmology are all going to work without us anyway?
Like everything else in the kingdom, this is RELATIONAL. God is clear throughout the Scriptures that he wants us to pursue wisdom and understanding. He wants us to seek him. He wants us to be intentional in pursuing righteousness, learning to live as a child of God, and loving and worshiping our Father.
He does not want us to be ignorant or stuck or lazy. So he shares with us secrets of the universe: truths about ourselves and the way the world works that empower our true identities, disempower evil, and protect the poor and weak.
The more we understand about science, the freer and more powerful we become. We are able to access realities that have always been there, but which could never help us before we understood them — before we could harness electricity, for example; or generate energy; or send communication through cables and wires and radio waves. The laws of nature benefit as we understand them.
The laws of righteousness are the same way. That’s why God writes them down. He’s giving us a massive jump-start on the kind of life available to us — not by our own striving, but by the Spirit of God working in us and our own willingness to believe and receive.
Every New Testament “rule” is an open door, an invitation to a new kind of life that will make us fully human and empower us to live a life of grace and goodness.
BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE
In the law of the Spirit, identity comes before behavior. We aren’t children of God because we behave a certain way; we behave a certain way because we are children of God.
If you read Paul, you’ll find that whenever he gives commands to the church, he couches them in identity.
BECAUSE you are a child of God, live this way. BECAUSE you are full of God’s Spirit, don’t speak bitterness and cursing. BECAUSE your body is the temple of a holy God, don’t commit sexual sin. BECAUSE you are a new person, don’t live in the old ways.
Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a song of yearning for righteousness. David, its author, sang, “Oh, how I love thy law!”
David loved the law of God and understood that it represented his greatest freedom, his greatest joy, his most exquisitely realized humanity.
We have an even greater law than David did, both written on our hearts and revealed to our minds through the Scriptures. Having received a positional righteousness as God’s children, let us pursue a practical righteousness as ardently, as joyfully as David did — knowing that it is a gift to us, and that learning to live like our Father in heaven means bringing heaven to earth and transforming not only our own lives but also everything around us.
(This is Part 38 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)