Leading Question: “Does the death of Christ nullify the law?”
Introduction to the Issue: When one links Christ’s death with the law, the clear implication is that the law is an instrument of condemnation, not a gracious guide. Though Scripture presents it as both, these two perspectives can easily quarrel with each other.
The two different perspectives on law also shed important light on differing perspectives on the cross. The “good news” view of law (cf. Deut. 4:5-8; Psalm 119) emphasizes contextualization, thus relativizing the absolute claims of law. Thus the cross of Christ teaches us about the servant God who came to reveal the Father to us. From such a perspective, family, more than the courtroom, is the most helpful setting for salvation discussions. John 14-17 and the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) play leading roles in illustrating this view. Note that when the Prodigal Son returns home, the Father throws the robe of grace around the boy’s shoulders. The story illustrates grace without the payment of penalty.
When one sees law as an instrument of condemnation, however, then the courtroom becomes a focal point in salvation discussions. The memory verse for this week (Romans 7:4) refers to those “who have died to the law through the body of Christ,” a view of law that reverberates through much of Paul’s writings, especially in Romans and Galatians (cf. Rom. 7:1-7; 8:1-8). Galatians 3:10-14 speaks of the “curse of the law,” a far cry from the jubilant celebration of law in Psalm 119 and Deuteronomy 4:5-8.
An internet narrative that came my way recently vividly illustrates how important the cross of Christ can be from this courtroom perspective. It was entitled, “I Love My Attorney.”
After living what I felt was a “decent” life, my time on earth came to the end. The first thing I remember is sitting on a bench in the waiting room of what I thought to be a court house. The doors opened and I was instructed to come in and have a seat by the defense table.
As I looked around I saw the “prosecutor.” He was a villainous looking gent who snarled as he stared at me. He definitely was the most evil person I have ever seen. I sat down and looked to my left and saw My Attorney, a kind and gentle looking man whose appearance seemed so familiar to me, I felt I knew Him. The corner door opened and there appeared the Judge in full flowing robes. He commanded an awesome presence as He moved across the room. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Him. As He took His seat behind the bench, He said, “Let us begin.”
The prosecutor rose and said, “My name is Satan and I am here to show you why this man belongs in hell.” He proceeded to tell of lies that I had told, things that I had stolen, and times when I had cheated others. Satan told of other horrible perversions that were once in my life. The more he spoke, the further down in my seat I sank. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t look at anyone, not even my own Attorney as the Devil told of sins that even I had completely forgotten about.
As upset as I was at Satan for telling all these things about me, I was equally upset at My Attorney who sat there silently, not offering any form of defense at all. I know I had been guilty of those things, but I had done some good in my life – couldn’t that at least equal out part of the harm I’d done? Satan finished with a fury and said, “This man belongs in hell. He is guilty of all that I have charged and there is not a person who can prove otherwise.”
When it was His turn, My Attorney first asked if He might approach the bench. The Judge allowed this over the strong objection of Satan, and beckoned Him to come forward. As He got up and started walking, I was able to see Him in His full splendor and majesty. I realized why He seemed so familiar; this was Jesus representing me, my Lord and my Savior.
He stopped at the bench and softly said to the Judge, “Hi, Dad,” and then He turned to address the court. “Satan was correct in saying that this man had sinned. I won’t deny any of these allegations. And, yes, the wages of sin is death, and this man deserves to be punished. Jesus took a deep breath and turned to His Father with outstretched arms and proclaimed, “However, I died on the cross so that this person might have eternal life and he has accepted Me as his Savior. So he is Mine. My Lord continued: “His name is written in the Book of Life, and no one can snatch him from Me. Satan still does not understand. This man is not to be given justice, but rather mercy.” As Jesus sat down, He quietly paused, looked at His Father and said, “There is nothing else that needs to be done. I’ve done it all.”
The Judge lifted His mighty hand and slammed the gavel down. The following words bellowed from His lips…. “This man is free. The penalty for him has already been paid in full. Case dismissed.”
I asked Jesus as He gave me my instructions where to go next, “Have you ever lost a case?” Christ lovingly smiled and said, “Everyone who has come to Me and asked Me to represent them has received the same verdict as you: “Paid in full.”
Passing this on to anyone you consider a friend (as I have done here), will bless you both.
Note how the headings in the official study guide all reflect this view of law:
Dead to the Law
Law of Sin and Death
Power of the Law
The Impotent Law
Curse of the Law
Our challenge this quarter is to find a way to allow both perspectives to thrive in the church and to complement each other. For that, we’ll need lots of study, lots of prayer. I once wrote a column for Signs of the Times that made a point of grace – without payment of penalty. I’ll reproduce it here, then comment briefly at the end.
“Heart of Stone, Heart of Flesh”
By Alden Thompson
Signs of the Times, November 1991
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26, NRSV)
Hard hearted or soft? Take your pick.
Success in our modern world seems to demand the hard, though I can’t imagine many “successful” people actually relishing the label. But “soft hearted” doesn’t cut it either, nor does “tender,” at least not in a world of macho males.
So let’s dump the adjectives and go with Ezekiel’s vivid nouns: heart of stone, heart of flesh. No contest. It’s like asking, “Would you rather be dead or alive?”
A closer look at Ezekiel, however, reveals a surprise, for he offers no choice. We expect him to ask the people to choose between the heart of stone and the heart of flesh. But no. God simply takes away the heart of stone and puts a heart of flesh in its place. It’s a pure, unsolicited gift.
Now that’s scary. So scary, in fact, that I feel the immediate urge to “ruin” Ezekiel’s message with a PS (at least parenthetically), a quick reminder of something we all know, namely, that we are called to choose and that our decision makes a difference.
Several stories in Scripture immediately come to mind. Joshua to all Israel: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15, NRSV). Elijah on Mt. Carmel: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21 (NRSV). John the Baptist at the River Jordan: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2, NRSV). Peter at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38, NRSV). Even Ezekiel, elsewhere in his book, makes it clear that the good can choose evil and the evil can choose good. And in both instances, the choice is decisive (Ezekiel 18).
Why, then, in both chapters where Ezekiel describes the new heart (Ezekiel 11 and 36), does he present it as an outright gift, without apparent human permission or participation?
Because a gift is a powerful way to bring a discouraged soul to life. A gift doesn’t have the same impact on all people at all times, however, so the Lord uses all kinds of methods: commands, invitations, promises, threats. One way or another He will win the hearts of His people and lead them to do good. But for some, His most effective way of renewing human life lies in the mysterious power of an undeserved gift. It transforms lives that pleadings, promises, and threats can’t touch.
An experience in Scotland helped me understand that truth.
We were driving into the city of Edinburgh, rolling along at a fair clip on Comiston Road. I was over the speed limit but wasn’t worried. British police don’t watch for speeders nearly as eagerly as American police do. . . .
From the opposite direction a car headed toward us with its headlights flashing. Now in Europe that could mean most anything: get out of my way, you go first, look at the sunset. The circumstances determine the meaning. But this time we were puzzled – until we actually saw the two foot patrolmen with their portable radar unit.
My heart sank. Just a few months before I had argued eloquently with a British insurance agent that my modestly checkered US driving record was really quite a good one (two tickets in the last five years, none in the last three). Now this.
The two men stepped up to my window and asked to see my driver’s licence. I pulled it out, a newly-minted UK edition.
“You were driving too fast, Mr. Thompson,” they said. “But not to worry. Nothing will happen. We’ll just note a couple of items for the record and let you be on your way. Have a good day.”
As I drove off, I discovered a brand-new conviction in my soul. In print it looks like this: “If these folks are going to be that nice, I’m going to be more careful to obey their laws.” Deserving punishment, I got grace. And this careless driver became obedient.
That’s just what Ezekiel had in mind for Israel. God would turn them back to obedience with the gift of a brand new heart. He’ll do the same for you, too.
But now a request: Do you have a story in your life about the power of grace (like my story of the Edinburgh police)? If you do, I’d love to hear it. Your story could change lives, too.
The only response I got to the column was a letter from a former student who said that my story didn’t really illustrate grace at all. The only way it could have been grace, she said, was for the policemen to go to court and pay the penalty for me.
I believe we can find both perspectives in Scripture, though not necessarily together. Maybe we could bring the two together under the heading of Jesus’ one-sentence summary of God’s law: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). The fact that one view is in some parts of Scripture and but not in others, suggests that not all Bible writers viewed the matter in exactly the same way. And if Bible writers with differing perspectives can live within the covers of the same Bible, maybe people could live together within the same church, even though they don’t all view the law and the cross in just the same way.
If we are to live together, however, it is crucial that we do not label one view as biblical – because it happens to mesh with our own experience – while rejecting the other as heretical. That’s not playing fair. I happen to know of some people have been greatly blessed by both perspectives. I have a very dear friend in Britain, for example, who is an avid fan of two quite different Adventist scholar/preachers, one that views law as good news and sees the cross as God’s primary teaching instrument (Graham Maxwell) and one that views law as an instrument of condemnation and sees the cross as paying the penalty for our sin (Desmond Ford). I suspect that Maxwell and Ford would be unsettled by my friend’s eagerness to blend the two. But he remains solid in his convictions, finding both views very helpful.
The “truth” that different Bible writers can present differing perspectives is brought out with startling clarity by Ellen White’s commentary on “The Bible Teacher.” Some would call it a post-modern perspective, i.e. one that stresses the differences in personal experience. But whatever label one uses, I am convinced that it speaks a great truth:
“The Bible Teacher”
Ellen White, Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-433
In our schools the work of teaching the Scriptures to the youth is not to be left wholly with one teacher for a long series of years. The Bible teacher may be well able to present the truth, and yet it is not the best experience for the students that their study of the word of God should be directed by one man only, term after term and year after year. Different teachers should have a part in the work, even though they may not all have so full an understanding of the Scriptures. If several in our larger schools unite in the work of teaching the Scriptures, the students may thus have the benefit of the talents of several.
Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, a John, a Paul, and all the writers who have borne testimony in regard to the life and ministry of the Saviour? Why could not one of the disciples have written a complete record, and thus have given us a connected account of Christ’s earthly life? Why does one writer bring in points that another does not mention? Why, if these points are essential, did not all these writers mention them? It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way. Certain truths appeal much more strongly to the minds of some than of others.
The same principle applies to speakers. One dwells at considerable length on points that others would pass by quickly or not mention at all. The whole truth is presented more clearly by several than by one. The Gospels differ, but the records of all blend in one harmonious whole.
So today the Lord does not impress all minds in the same way. Often through unusual experiences, [432/433] under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught.
It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson Book, comparing Scripture with Scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service.
The teachers’ success will depend largely upon the spirit which is brought into the work. . . . Let not the spirit of controversy come in, but let each seek earnestly for the light and knowledge that he needs. (Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-433)