Leading Question: “In the Old Testament, law is Gospel – good news – why is that hard for some people to believe?
Introduction to the Issue: The contrast between the view of law in the two testaments is striking. In the Old Testament, law is a gracious gift of God; in the New Testament it is God’s instrument for condemning. When evangelicals put law and gospel together, law will always come out a loser. It’s bad news, even if, like Paul, we affirm that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12, NRSV). The law condemns, the Gospel rescues us from condemnation. How did that change from good news to bad news come about?
Before suggesting possible reasons for the change, we should at least document the fact that a change has taken place. And here two passages stand out. The first is Peter’s speech at the Jerusalem conference, the one that determined that circumcision would no longer be required for membership in the body of Christ. As Peter tells about his own role in recognizing the equality of Gentiles before Christ, he slips an astonishing statement. Speaking about the God-given law requiring circumcision, he exclaims: “Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10, NRSV).
A second passage documenting the negative attitude toward law in the New Testament is Romans 7:
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Watching Paul move from this wretched unhappiness to the joy of Romans 8:1 is important for understanding a number of important issues in the New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For Paul, it is the death of Jesus that has rescued him from the condemnation of the law. He has, of course, admitted that the law is “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). But that’s still a long ways from calling law good news! Now let’s turn to three possible reasons for the change.
First, the general term for “law” in the Old Testament is Torah, a very positive word. It is the one used for referring to the entire Pentateuch; it is also a general term referring to a healthy wholism. Torah is the word used to celebrate law in Ps. 119. In short, the longest book in the psalter is simply a celebration of the goodness of law, Torah. But even the more specific “statutes and ordinances” were viewed positively by Israel. Moses celebrates law as Gospel with these stirring words from Deuteronomy 4:5-8:
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (NRSV)
Israel felt honored that her God had actually shown them how to live by giving them specific laws. When starting from scratch, such a revelation would be seen as welcome news.
But a second possible reason is closely tied to Israel’s history. When Jerusalem was destroyed and Judah went into captivity in 586 BCE, God’s people finally got it into their heads that their nation was exiled because of disobedience. They had not been faithful to God’s law. As a result, they went to the other extreme, building what later rabbis called a “fence about the law.” For every biblical command, they added an additional “protective” layer of laws. If they could keep these additional laws, then they might be preserved from breaking the essential law of God. So for the command against taking the name of the Lord in vain, for example, they took the next step and forbid the use of God’s name under any circumstances. In 1927 Rabbi A. Marmorstein published a book that listed 91 rabbinic synonyms for God (The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God, KTAV, 1927). Along similar lines, a more recent book (1997) by Judith Miller is entitled God Has Ninety-Nine Names.
In an attempt to keep the Sabbath more seriously, the rabbis enumerated 39 categories of work. When the disciples walked through the grainfield on the Sabbath, eating from the stalks, they broke four of these major categories: reaping, threshing, winnowing, and preparing a meal (William Barclay, Matthew, vol. 2, Daily Study Bible [Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1958], 24). The result of all this effort to protect the decalogue would seem to have heightened any distaste for law that may have been lurking in human souls.
A third factor may have involved Jesus’ focus on the internal application of the law in Matthew 5. That’s where Jesus deepened the meaning of murder to include anger, for example, and adultery to include lustful thoughts. Pondering those lofty ideals could lead thoughtful people to not only to abandon all hope of perfection, but also to look askance at law itself.
Question: If the law is Gospel, why should we speak in terms of “minimum requirements” for salvation?
Note: Thoughtful and careful believers who emphasize the sacrificial death of Jesus as payment for sin, also know that obedience is important. Thus they often struggle to define “minimum” requirements for salvation. But if the law can be seen as “good news,” then the flexibility that such a term suggests can help to shift the conversation from minimums to maximums, not to increase the burden, but to explore ways of transforming the burdensome into joyousness.