The Law of God and the Law of Christ
Leading Question: “If Jesus is God in the flesh, God incarnate, why should we have a lesson that distinguishes between the law of God and the law of Christ?”
Introduction to the Issue: Christianity required some 300 years before affirming in the doctrine of the Trinity the full divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From a practical point of view, the New Testament clearly distinguished the roles of all three. The Father is always on the throne; Jesus is God manifested in the flesh; and the Holy Spirit is the unseen presence of God throughout the universe. Given the difficulty of communicating such a doctrine with clarity, it is understandable that when Scripture depicts Jesus as praying to His Father and pleading with Him on our behalf, one can easily get the impression that the “real” God is the Father and Jesus is in some kind of secondary role. In my early years as a Christian, I was haunted by such a perspective: Jesus I knew was my friend; but a hesitant Father sat on the throne who needed convincing before he would reluctantly let me in by a side door. Curious, perhaps. But that was my view, shaped by the mental picture of Jesus pleading to the Father on my behalf.
In the light of Philippians 2, Christians have said the Jesus voluntarily emptied himself of divinity and took the form of a servant. Thus, during his earthly sojourn, Jesus was clearly subordinate to the Father. Yet he was fully God. If then Father and Son are both fully God, the title of our lesson for this week is misleading when it suggests that the law of God and the law of Christ might be separate entities.
When Jesus told the disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NRSV), he could have said that he was simply the embodiment of God’s law of love. But given man’s sinful condition, communicating that with clarity presents real challenges. If the God we serve is both all powerful and all good, what kind of “laws” should one expect from such a God? And how does he give “permission” for his children – without their appearing to be arrogant or insolent – to treat some laws as obsolete?
What God seems to have done is to give us a book full of examples – the Bible – in which laws adapted to particular needs come and go. He seems to expect us to study these laws inductively so that we can establish which laws no longer apply. The conference described in Acts 15 seems to point to a procedure like that, a procedure carried out in the community until they had arrived at consensus. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” they said (Acts 15:28). This is not thunder from Sinai, but a thoughtful, prayer meeting of fellow believers who have come to a decision under the guidance of the Spirit. There were no external signs of the Spirit’s presence; but they sensed His presence and declared that their conclusion had been guided by Him.
A major critique of my book Inspiration, however, has been that the inductive method – drawing on examples to establish the truth – is the wrong one for the job. My critics say that I should be using the deductive method instead. Puzzled by that position, I finally asked one of them to define the difference between inductive and deductive. With the deductive method, he said, you always start with what you know to be true. So the question is: should we decide what is true based on the examples? Or should we come to the examples already knowing what is true?
My problem with the deductive position is two-fold. First, God has given us parallel passages in both Testaments that often differ significantly from each other. In the Old Testament one can compare Samuel-Kings with Chronicles. In the New Testament, one can compare the four Gospels with each other. If our “deductive” authority has given us parallel passages, shouldn’t we be obligated to study those parallel passages inductively?
My second problem is a practical one: If I start with what I know to be true, I will never change anything. Yet Scripture reveals some rather dramatic changes in God’s dealing with his children. A position that declares our present understanding of truth to be eternally true would prevent us from dealing with change.
Related to my preference for the inductive method is the desire to approach my work honestly without fear of divine wrath. Is it appropriate for me, one of God’s creatures, to relate to the Master of the Universe is such a way? If I am called to love my Maker – as Scripture clearly indicates in both testaments (e. g. Deut. 6:4-5; Matthew 22:35-40) – then an important passage about the nature of that love is found in 1 John 4:18-19: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us” (NRSV). Without fear, there is no threat of punishment. From an ideal perspective, then, I should be so fully in harmony with the Creator that I will do his will intuitively. This would echo the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34 where the law is written on the heart and no one commands anyone to obey.
All this may help us explore the one passage in Scripture that actually uses the phrase “law of Christ,” namely, Galatians 6:2. A similar phrase is found in 1 Cor. 9:21. But the straightforward phrase “law of Christ” appears only in Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This appeal to helpfulness ties in with Paul’s exuberant statement of the ideal in Galatians 5:13-14: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [NRSV = self-indulgence], but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In short, the “law of Christ” is indistinguishable from the law of God, a law which is “fulfilled” by the simple command to love. Romans 13:8-10 is explicit:
I was intrigued and somewhat amused when I checked out Galatians 6:2 in several major commentaries. The massive volume on Galatians in the Hermeneia series was written by Hans Dieter Betz. A pastor in Germany before coming to the United States as a Professor of New Testament, Betz reflects a vintage German attitude toward law. Given their penchant for obedience, Germans typically emphasize righteousness by faith, a doctrine that teaches Christ’s obedience on our behalf. Betz describes the phrase “law of Christ” as “strange.” Then after considerable comment he says similarly that the phrase “the law of Christ remains a puzzle” – Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 299-300.
Betz helps us understand that God and his children face a very similar challenge when it comes to communicating the truth about an internalized law. In short, it cannot be mandated, but still must be taught through explicit statements and commands, ones which his children will later internalize and/or set aside as the need arises, but doing so without showing disrespect to the law giver. That is all the more reason why we should approach the topic with great care, realizing that we need full community participation if we are to come anywhere near to getting it right in the end.
Closely linked with the topic of law is the issue of the “mediator,” and here Scripture presents two perspectives, reflecting the two views of law. That view which emphasizes internalized law, focuses on the picture of a mediator who introduces the Father to us. Such a view is dominant in John 14-17. The most explicit statement is this one from John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (NRSV). In such a view, Jesus as teacher is more important than Jesus as sacrifice.
By contrast, those who are more inclined to focus on external law, see the mediator as introducing us to the Father. John 14:6 points to such a view: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (NRSV). More typically, however, such a view is Pauline, as reflected in this line from Romans 8:34: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (NRSV).
Both views are biblical and will be found meaningful in varying degrees by different believers. Unfortunately, the more extreme spokespersons for both views are inclined to declare the other perspective as non-biblical and dangerous. Such a position, especially when spoken with vivid rhetoric, rouses fears in the heart of those who cherish the truths that they have discovered, finding them both helpful and precious. They fear that a movement could sweep through the church that would snatch away the very truths that enable them to live faithfully for Christ. Their fears are likely to trigger strong rhetoric in response, thus widening the chasm. So let me put my conclusion in italics and bold print: Both views of the cross are biblical, but not all believers will find both equally helpful. If we can keep both views alive within the community, each believer may draw from both as needed as they seek to walk humbly and whole-heartedly with their Lord.