What roles does God’s law play in the life of a believer?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. On one hand, Paul often speaks of being “dead to the law” because he has been “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:19-20). On the other hand, God’s law is often depicted in Scripture as being the thing that revives our soul, brings light to our eyes, and is more precious than honey from the comb (Psalm 19:7-10). Is it just an Old/New Testament difference?
This is a topic worth exploring, and I’m going to do that over my next few posts. At the risk of oversimplifying a very intricate matter, let’s define “law” first.
In these discussions, “law” refers to God’s moral law, which finds its expression in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-17). Rooted in the very character of God and given to us directly by him, it is timeless and irrevocable, and binding upon everyone everywhere.
Now, typically when we start talking about the Ten Commandments, we either think of Charlton Heston or some recent political scuffle about whether or not they can be displayed publicly. But we don’t often stop to think what purpose the law serves in relationship to Jesus Christ.
So we’ll briefly explore what are often called the “three uses” of the law. These categories can help us answer questions like: “Why is something from the Old Testament important for Christians today?” and “I believe in Jesus, so what’s the big deal about the Ten Commandments?”
The “first use” of the law, put as simply as possible, is this: the law exists to drive us to Jesus Christ and seek refuge in him.
In other words, when we hear God’s perfect and holy will expressed, we become conscious of the fact that we have fallen short of that standard and are in desperate need of help from someone else. We hear the demands to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (commandments 1-4) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (commands 5-10), and we become miserably aware of our guilt.
The holiness of God’s law reveals the ugliness of our sin. For this reason, the law is sometimes compared to a mirror in which we examine ourselves and by which our filth is revealed.
If you saw dirt on your face in the mirror, you would not yank the mirror off of the wall and begin rubbing your chin with it. That wouldn’t remove the dirt. Instead, the mirror reveals that you need soap, and so you go and grab the soap and water in order to remove the dirt.
The analogy should be clear. When we hear God’s law announced, we recognize our need for a Savior. We are told that we must keep these laws perfectly lest we fall under the wrath of a just Judge, and we know that we have not kept them at all. So we do the only thing we can do: seek shelter. We do this by clinging to Jesus Christ, the only one who has kept the law perfectly.
The law, in its first use, is often called a mirror. Martin Luther (who almost solely emphasized the first use of the law and saw little legitimacy in any other application of it), was typically more evocative in his imagery. Luther called the law a “hammer”, by which all pretense and pride are smashed and our vain hope of self-salvation annihilated.
In either image, the main point is that the law in and of itself cannot save us.God did not give us the Ten Commandments as a road map for how to dress ourselves in holiness so that we can stand in his presence. We can’t do that. We are sinful and warped. The law was not given to be the means by which we earn our way into heaven.
To sum up what has become a bit long: the “first use” of God’s law (hence the ‘Law 101’ title) is to see the law as the thing that drives us to the Savior.
This is true for believers and unbelievers alike. Christians–even those who have been following Christ for years–should often hold the mirror of the law to their own hearts and examine again the warped reflection that they see, and then flee again in humility and joy to the arms of the Savior, in whom we have the righteousness that we so desperately need.