Christ’s Death and the Law
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.”
Note how the headings in the official study guide all reflect this view of law:
Dead to 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.
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: