Relevant Biblical Passages: Deut 7:9; Matt. 7:12; 22:35-40; Rom. 13:8-10
Covenant Law. In some Christian traditions, especially those which place a heavy emphasis on Pauline theology, law and grace are sometimes seen as being antagonists: law condemns, but grace saves. This antagonism seems especially true from an experiential perspective as suggested by Paul in Romans 7: The law jars us to an awareness of the fact that our daily experience often falls short of God’s ideal as described in the law.
Such an “antagonistic” perspective on law, however, can obscure God’s original gracious purpose in giving the law. Even given the tensions which Paul describes in Romans 7, he still witnesses to the “goodness” of the law (“holy and just and good,” Rom. 7:12) and sees it as the enduring standard for Christian living. In Romans 8, Paul points to the way of the “spirit” as God’s means of seeing the “just requirement of the law” being “fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). And his major objection to the way of the “flesh” is that it makes it impossible for us to obey: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8).
Key biblical passages from both testaments highlight this “positive” approach to law as a gracious law of love within the framework of God’s covenant with His creatures:
Deuteronomy 7:9. “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments” (NIV)
Matthew 7:12. Treat others as you want them to treat you: “This is the Law and the Prophets”
Matthew 22:35-40. Jesus’ two great commandments, love to God and love to one another: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets”
Romans 13:8-10. “Love is the fulfilling of the law”
James 2:8-13. “Royal law of liberty”
How does the believer make peace with this tension between the high ideal set by the law and the reality of our daily experience? Can we really experience the law as “good news”?
Note: In Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (RH 1991), I develop the case for a “positive” view of law, one which sees law more like a user-friendly owner’s manual than a demanding warranty agreement (chapters 7-8 [pp. 98-136 in the English edition]). Such a view of law, however, implies that many of God’s laws are adapted to particular human circumstances and are not universally binding on all people at all times. In other words, in many ways the body of laws given by God is more like a “casebook” than a “code book.”
Within our human context, however, some laws never change; indeed they form the stable anchor for the believer’s existence. The texts noted below suggest that the ONE great principle of love is the focal point of God’s law and character. This can be further defined in terms of Jesus’ TWO great commands, and still further defined in terms of the TEN commandments. Excursus A and Excursus B from chapter 8 of Inspiration document such an approach. That material is reproduced below for purposes of ready reference:
Excursus A: The Biblical Basis for the Law Pyramid
The Centrality of the One, the Two, and the Ten
NOTE: While the key elements for the Law Pyramid are present in the Old Testament, the New Testament clearly sharpens the focus and provides the perspective that shapes the Law Pyramid. The following texts contribute to the understanding of the One, the Two, and the Ten as the universal and enduring elements in Scripture.
Leviticus 19:18: You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Matthew 7:12: So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 19:16-21: And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Matthew 22:35-39: And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Mark 10:17-21: And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: `Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Mark 12:28-31: And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Luke 10:25-28: And behold a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 18:18-22: And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?” No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother. And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
John 13:34-35: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 14:15: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
John 14:21: He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.
John 15:10: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
John 15:12: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
John 15:17: This I command you, to love one another.
Romans 13:8-10: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Galatians 5:13-14: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
James 2:8-12: If you really fulfil 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 keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
1 John 2:3-11: And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
1 John 3:10-18: By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.
1 John 3:23: And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
1 John 4:7-12: Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
1 John 4:16-21: So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.
1 John 5:1-3: Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
2 John 5-6: And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning that you follow love.
Excursus B: Ellen White’s Commentary on the Nature of Law
Adaptation and Restoration of the Ideal Law of Love
BEFORE SIN IN HEAVEN, THE ANGELS WERE VIRTUALLY UNAWARE OF LAW. “But in heaven, service is not rendered in the spirit of legality. When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of. In their ministry the angels are not as servants, but as sons. There is perfect unity between them and their Creator. Obedience is to them no drudgery. Love for God makes their service a joy” (TMB 109).
BEFORE SIN ON EARTH, THE LAW WAS WRITTEN ON HUMAN HEARTS. “Adam and Eve, at their creation, had a knowledge of the law of God; they were acquainted with its claims upon them; its precepts were written upon their hearts. When man fell by transgression, the law was not changed, but a remedial system was established to bring him back to obedience” (PP 363).
AS HUMANKIND FELL AWAY FROM GOD, THE LAW WAS ADAPTED TO NEED: “If man had kept the law of God, as given to Adam after his fall, preserved by Noah, and observed by Abraham, there would have been no necessity for the ordinance of circumcision. And if the descendants of Abraham had kept the covenant, of which circumcision was a sign, they would never have been seduced into idolatry, nor would it have been necessary for them to suffer a life of bondage in Egypt; they would have kept God’s law in mind, and there would have been no necessity for it to be proclaimed from Sinai, or engraved upon the tables of stone. And had the people practiced the principles of the Ten Commandments, there would have been no need of the additional directions given to Moses” (PP 364).
THE DECALOGUE APPLIED THE PRINCIPLES OF LOVE: “The precepts of the Decalogue are adapted to all mankind and they were given for the instruction and government of all. Ten precepts, brief, comprehensive, and authoritative, cover the duty of man to God and to his fellowman; and all based upon the great fundamental principle of love. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27). In the ten commandments, these principles are carried out in detail and made applicable to the condition and circumstances of man” (PP 305).
ADDITIONAL LAWS ILLUMINED THE PRINCIPLES OF THE DECALOGUE: “The minds of the people, blinded and debased by slavery and heathenism, were not prepared to appreciate fully the far-reaching principles of God’s ten precepts. That the obligations of the Decalogue might be more fuly understood and enforced, additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the principles of the Ten Commandments” (PP 310).
ALL THE LAWS WERE FOR THE GOOD OF THE PEOPLE: “The object of all these regulations was stated: they proceeded from no exercise of arbitrary sovereignty; all were given for the good of Israel” (PP 311).
THE LAW IS AGAIN INTERNALIZED: “The same law that was engraved upon the tables of stone, is written by the Holy Spirit upon the tables of the heart” (PP 372).