The Thistle

The Beauties of the Law

The Beauties of the Law
by Prof. Jerram Barrs

How does God call us to think about his law, and how can we teach the law as an introduction to the gospel of Christ?

A colleague once said to me, “At this time in our culture apologetics is ethics.” I agree thoroughly with this statement, for we live in a culture that has lost its moral compass. In such a time as this, God’s moral commandments are one of his most comforting and challenging gifts to us as believers. They are also one of the most significant ways by which we can introduce unbelievers to the good news that comes to us from the Lord. In this time of moral uncertainty and confusion, we can be glad that the Lord has given us a sure moral word for every generation and for every time.

The First Beauty: God’s Law Reveals His Character

Scripture teaches us that God’s glory is revealed in his goodness. See, for example, Exodus 33:18–19. In this passage Moses asks the Lord to reveal his glory to him. The Lord replies: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ ” God’s character is the basis for affirming that this is a moral universe—a universe in which there is at the back of all things a final distinction between good and evil, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice, mercy and oppression, graciousness and indifference. Such knowledge is a great blessing, for where human religion denies the existence of the personal and infinite God, as, for example, in Hindu pantheism, then it is acknowledged that there is no foundation for any ultimate distinction between light and darkness, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice. In professor and mythologist Joseph Campbell’s interviews with broadcast journalist Bill Moyers (published as Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth), Campbell declared:

Heraclitus said that for God all things are good and right and just, but for man some things are right and others are not. When you are a man, you are in the field of time and decisions. One of the problems of life is to live with the realization of both terms, to say, “I know the center, and I know that good and evil are simply temporal aberrations and that, in God’s view, there is no difference. . . .”

Since in Hindu thinking everything in the universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to anything in the world? How should we say no to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness? . . . For you and for me—the way is to say yes.

Western secularism also has no foundation for making clear and permanent distinctions between good and evil. Therefore, we are left with four alternatives:

  • the personal preferences of the individual seeking his or her own happiness
  • the will of the majority deciding what is right and wrong
  • the imposition of the views of some powerful elite (whether the elite are politicians with power, philosophers claiming superior knowledge, business interests with money and access to government, or scientific interests that impose their wishes on the people)
  • an ideology such as Marxism or radical Islam insisting that it knows what will bring about an ideal society

In contrast to these options, the whole of Scripture affirms that the law is the expression of God’s righteous, just, kind, and loving nature. The law therefore is not arbitrary; rather, these decrees are righteous and wise because God has issued them (Deut. 4:5–8; see also Lev. 19:2, where God introduces his commandments by declaring: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’ ” Then, after each commandment he adds, “I am the Lord your God.”).

The Second Beauty: God’s Commandments Set the Definition For Our Lives

We are made in the image of God and are to walk in his ways. As human persons this is what we were created to do—to live as the one who made us lives. Leviticus 19 teaches us that we are created to live in imitation of God. We are to be holy, just, and merciful because this is who God is. Psalm 25:4–14 teaches that we are to walk in God’s ways, following the pattern of life set by the covenant-giving and covenant-keeping God. This psalm declares: “good and upright is the Lord, therefore he instructs sinners in the way” (v.8; see also Deut. 10:12–13: “What does the Lord require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”) Influential sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin refers to what is commonly called the “third use of the law” as the principle and proper use of the law—it defines true humanness for us.

The Third Beauty: Even the law’s Exposure of Our Sin is a Loving Work

Our teaching of the law must not begin with the law as the enemy that exposes sin, for this gives us a negative view of the law. In contrast, the apostle Paul declares that the law is “holy, and righteous, and good;” it is indeed “spiritual” and perfect (Rom. 7:12, 14). It is because the law is beautiful that it reveals the ugliness of my sin. Even this use of the law—what is often called the “first use of the law”—is actually a gracious work of the law, for my sin needs to be exposed and deserves to be revealed for what it is—the enemy of my life and eternal well-being. So the law is a gracious tutor leading me to Christ, the place I most need to go to find mercy and forgiveness.

The Fourth Beauty: The law Calls Us to Show Grace, Love, and Mercy to Others

This calling is at the heart of the Sabbath laws; the laws about forgiving debts at sabbatical years; the laws about liberty from bond service in the jubilee years; the laws about rulers imitating God by being advocates for the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the alien; the laws about agricultural and business practice that demand mercy and generosity to those in need. All these—and many more—mirror the goodness and kindness of God to Israel. The law teaches us to reveal the mercy, love, and grace of God in all our relationships with other people. The gleaning laws give us an example here: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:9–10).

Such case laws (and many others) give us the “floor” (a term used by Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham) of what God desires. The spiritual person who loves the law recognizes this and desires to fill up the room of the law rather than find satisfaction in obeying the mere letter. The story of Boaz’ kindness to Ruth (Ruth 2) is a wonderful example of this. Boaz understands that the intent of the gleaning laws is that he be generous like God, but he goes way beyond the letter of the law and fulfills the spirit of the law. His righteousness is consequently beautiful and inspiring.

Some of the laws express the principles, intent, and spirit at the heart of the law rather than the “floor.’ This is true of Jesus’ saying that the law is about justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In similar fashion, Jesus teaches us that the whole law is about loving God and loving our neighbors; Paul tells us that every law has to do with loving our neighbors as ourselves (see Rom. 13:8–10).

The Fifth Beauty: We are to Treasure the law as a Source of Wisdom

The law brings life, blessing, and freedom to us (see Rom. 7; Ps. 1; Ps. 19; Ps. 119; Jas. 1:25). Our culture teaches us that freedom is found in doing whatever I think will bring me vivid personal feelings and personal success (sociologist Robert Bellah’s summary of what we Americans hunger for in this moment of our history). But the Christian understands that true freedom is found not in doing what I choose for myself, but in walking in obedience to God’s commandments.

The Sixth Beauty: The law Provides a Treasure Trove of Material With Which to Serve Our Societies

As we urge those among whom we live to value human life, or to delight in chastity and fidelity, or to fight with passion for the protection of those who are most vulnerable, the law is a rich resource. This is traditionally termed the second use of the law.

Reflecting on these six beauties of the law helps us to see that the exposition of the law is one of the most powerful apologetic weapons given to us by the Lord. This is to be true in our teaching: we should be giving sermons on work, sexuality, money, mercy, justice, kindness, deliverance from oppression, love for the alien, and every other aspect of the wisdom of God’s law. We do this not to attack people and make them feel worthless but to attract them with God’s vision for the well-being of human life. Above all, this beauty of the law is to be demonstrated in our lives, for, as the late theologian and pastor Francis Schaeffer used to say, “Our lives are our final apologetic.” The truth is that righteousness is inspiring and welcoming. This is so when we see the loveliness of the life of Jesus (sinners delighted in his company), and it is so when we read about the mercy of Boaz. This is why we love the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), and the Good Shepherd (John 10). It was the kind and gracious heart and the warm hospitality of one of my fellow students at college that the Lord used to open my heart to the gospel. Paul challenges us to make the gospel of God our Savior attractive by our lives (Titus 2:10), and Peter urges us to live in such a manner that unbelievers will see our good deeds and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).

A student of the late Francis A. Schaeffer, Professor Jerram Barrs joined the Seminary faculty in 1989 after 18 years with L’Abri Fellowship in England, where he also served as a pastor in the International Presbyterian Church. Professor Barrs brings to his teaching a special sensitivity toward those outside the Christian faith and is in great demand as a speaker in the United States and abroad. Other interests include the arts and literature. He is the author of numerous books, including The Heart of Prayer (P&R, 2008), The Heart of Evangelism (Crossway, 2005), and Through His Eyes (Crossway, 2009). This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Covenant magazine.