What Christians Get Wrong About the Law
Apart from the token recognition that Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, we often speak about the law in antipathetic ways. On one level, this makes sense. Do we not read in Paul’s epistle to the Romans that we have been freed from the law’s oppressive yoke into new life in Christ?
If the law has any positive influence at all, it simply highlights the beauty of God’s grace. After all, none of us could possibly hope to obey the law in its entirety. We have enough trouble with the Ten Commandments, let alone all the priestly and holiness codes.
In this vein, we juxtapose the burdensome works-righteousness of the ancient Israelites — their attempts to “earn salvation” through their keeping of the law — with the freedom and grace extended to us in Christ. Where the Israelites were judged on the basis of external actions, we Christians are judged by our inner motivations. Obedience is not of prime importance per se; it is “the heart” behind that obedience.
In short, we associate the Old Testament law with works, action, and burden; and the New Testament with grace, motivation, and freedom.
Unfortunately, this interpretation rests on a woefully incomplete understanding of the law. Moreover, it glosses over some important ideas the ancient Israelites had about law-keeping and identity — ideas from which modern Christians could learn.
So, let’s dive into one of the texts where the law is given, paying particular attention to the relationship between obedience (action) and heart (motivation). We’ll begin with the most familiar example of law-giving: the revelation of the Mosaic law at Mount Sinai. In this well-known passage, beginning in Exodus 20, God provides the nation of Israel with the Ten Commandments.
In the prevailing understanding, the initiative rests entirely with the Israelites. “If only they can abide by this list of do’s and don’ts, they will incur God’s favor, and their salvation will remain secure.”
And yet, a closer look at the text illuminates the shortcomings of this approach. Anytime the law is given, including here in Exodus 20, God precedes it by reminding the Israelites of what God has already accomplished on their behalf. Namely, freeing them from Pharaoh’s oppressive regime. So, the Mosaic law presents us with a notion of obedience as response to God’s initiative; even, dare I say it, as a response to God’s grace.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image…”
If we flip back to the previous chapter, Exodus 19, the same pattern emerges. In this passage, the Israelites are encamped in the wilderness of Sinai when God suddenly calls out to Moses, instructing him (emphasis mine):
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples…
Again, obedience is cast as a response to something God has already done. Ideally, God’s saving work would engender thankful hearts among the Israelites. Out of these thankful hearts, then, flow obedience and righteousness.
So, where does this leave us? If our notions of law and obedience need revision, how should they be revised? How do we speak about the law in a way that stays true to its intended purpose?
First and foremost, we must stop referring to the Mosaic law as some heartless, “unkeepable” burden that simply highlights humanity’s collective need for the grace of Christ. While it certainly can serve this function, there is so much more to the law than this. In the Old Testament story, the law of Moses functions principally as an identity forming mechanism, as one of the means through which God cultivates a distinct ethos among God’s people.
For the Israelites, the idea is not, “we keep these laws in order to achieve the saving favor of Yahweh.” Throughout the Pentateuch, God has already demonstrated an unflinching commitment to this profoundly flawed nation. That much is assumed. Rather, the idea is that “we keep these laws out of faithfulness for a God who wishes to construct for us a distinct identity in the mélange of Ancient Near Eastern religion and culture.”
Here, we have a lot to learn from the Israelite model. Christians tend to think of action as flowing out from the heart. For us, the relationship looks something like this:
HEART → ACTION
Yet, the Old Testament story demonstrates the extent to which the reverse is true, as well. To put it simply, our practices can (and should) shape our inner lives. Perhaps, then, our model should look a little more like this:
HEART ←→ ACTION
Ultimately , I believe the relationship between obedience (action) and heart (motivation) in the Old Testament is much closer to our understanding than we let on. For us, just as for the Israelites, obedience is predicated on the notion that God has taken the initiative and accomplished something on our behalf — we too have been freed by God from our proverbial Pharaohs, brought out of bondage on eagles’ wings and ushered into the promised land of divine reconciliation.
We live in obedience. Or, at least we try to.