My Crack at Law and Gospel

I was trying to read Romans last night, in the Lattimore translation. I couldn’t follow it. I know this is the word of God and I’m supposed to be blown away but Paul has a weird rhetorical style that is off-putting to me. He seems to be going for setting up stark contrasts, then knocking them down.

The point seems to be, we have the gospel now, which is better than the law, and overrides the law, but we still have the law. The parties in error seem to be the law party- “the gospel is great but we still need to follow the law” and the gospel party- “with the gospel all the laws are obsolete, forget them” and both are wrong.

At least I think both are wrong. I couldn’t follow the argument, so after a while I gave up and turned to the next book- which is 1 Corinthians, another book on law versus gospel, so I just went to sleep.

Personally I have more sympathy with the law camp. Maybe because I was raised Catholic, maybe because I’m an authoritarian personality, but I like rules. Rules are rules! Where would we be without rules? People can’t just do whatever they want! Chaos ensues! I feel good when I follow the rules, and I feel bad when I break them.

Part of the problem is that the OT law was given to a rural, agricultural society, and even by the time of Jesus was either irrelevant or hard to apply in some aspects for an urban population. For example, rules on slaughter and sacrifice. If you live on a farm, you know exactly where your meat comes from. You may have known the animal all its life, even if it was a neighbor’s, and you may have seen it slaughtered. You will know if the animal was properly slaughtered and if it was sacrificed to an idol. If you live in a city and buy your meat from a butcher, you won’t know and probably can’t find out.

Other things- like what to do if you find the ox or donkey of a neighbor you don’t like wandering around- will be irrelevant in detail, if not in principle. Rules about “the camp” are hard to apply because there is no camp- a well-defined area occupied by people of the same family and religion that can be kept free of unclean people or activities.

Still even today it is instructive. It shows that God expects people to treat each other fairly, even with differences in power, even if they don’t like each other, and show respect to others and the community.

The meat issue upset some people a lot, so that they refused to eat meat altogether. Paul said OK, if you don’t feel comfortable eating meat, don’t, but don’t make other people not eat meat. The typical Christian would say, who cares, an Orthodox Jew would say that’s a gross violation of the law- they don’t eat meat they don’t know the origin of, so in a strange city without kosher meat an Orthodox Jew would take the vegetarian route. Although neither Peter nor Paul made all things OK to eat, Jesus did.

In any case wrangling over the fine points of the law may be a sidetrack, but that doesn’t make the law disposable. You may not be able to follow the law all the time. If you don’t you should have a good reason why not. The question is the purpose of the law. The Calvinist idea that the only purpose of the law is to convict us of sin, and then we can discard it, is a little disingenuous. The law is not an ending point; you can’t follow all the laws, and then say “Yay I’m great! I’m holy now!” because you were only doing what you were supposed to do, and you don’t get any credit for that. It’s not really a starting point either, because that’s almost like using it to convict of sin only. You can start with the law by saying “I’m not doing everything I should. I should try to do more, with God’s help, knowing that I won’t be perfect, but I can honor and worship God by doing my best.” Or you can say- “I’m following all the laws. I’m only doing what I’m supposed to, what more can I do to honor and worship God?”

On that note- preachers like to say nobody followed all the laws except Jesus. I don’t think that’s true, exactly. Take the case of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist. The opening of Luke says that he and his wife, Elizabeth, “They were both righteous people in the sight of God, going blamelessly in all the commandments and judgments of the Lord.” So he was following all the laws. Then the angel Gabriel tells him he’s going to have a son, and Zachariah doubts him. For this he is struck dumb until the child is born. So beyond faithfully following the rules, he also needed to believe God when told something he didn’t regard as likely.

As David says in Psalm 19-

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

David isn’t saying the same thing as Paul, but the idea is similar. Just to know and study the law is good, because it shows the righteous and just nature of God. But David also knows he may not follow them completely, so he asks God to keep him from sin.

So what I think is- if we’re not following the law, follow it. If we feel we can’t, pray for help. Pray for help anyway. If there is some reason we can’t follow the letter of the law, let’s think seriously about the intent. If the law seems obsolete or inapplicable, let’s think about the spirit of the law and what it may be telling us.


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3 responses to “My Crack at Law and Gospel

  1. You aren’t saved by your adherence to the Law, but by your faith and love of God. But if you love God, you WILL at least TRY to obey his commandments. Jesus and Paul are both pretty clear about this. You’ll fail, but you have to try. How hard do you have to try? I don’t know, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

    • At least Augustine was honest about it- “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” If you’re going to do something wrong, at least admit it’s wrong. Maybe you’re planning on giving it up at some point, maybe you’re praying for strength to give it up at some point, maybe you’re honestly not planning to give it up at all but at least don’t kid yourself about it. And don’t make a big show of your rationalizations, and lead others astray.

  2. Yes, it’s really not hard as the Church to deal with failures of orthopraxis. It’s the damned rationalizations that are so hard. People with temptations to inappropriate homosexual desires that they are wrestling with are not a particular problem. Those that self-identify as their particular favorite flavor of sin are. Heretics who try to invert the Law are far worse than simple sinners,

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