The Law That Never Was…

I came across this intriguing quotation at the Coal Creek Coffee House in Laramie, Wyoming. Assuming it’s authentic, 17th Century Istanbul was a dangerous place to drink coffee. The idea seems foolish to us now — even if some of us would do well to cut down our caffeine intake. We don’t make laws about anything so trivial these days. Or do we? I don’t doubt for a moment that for those who framed this strange ban it made perfect sense at the time. Coffee was evil and dangerous, and ordinary people needed to be kept away from it.

Recent revelations about the real roots of America’s so-called ‘war on drugs’ throw up a more contemporary and more disturbing parallel. In this case the banning of substances was motivated not by social concern but by partisan prejudices. No matter how sensible or justified the control of illicit drugs might be, the framing of the laws in question was anything but. Laws, it seems, can say as much about our weaknesses and blind-spots as about our righteousness.

This fault-line in our thinking interests me because the place I hear talk of ‘law’ almost as much as in the political arena is in the Church. We speak of living in obedience to God’s Law; we define sin as the failure to do so; we campaign, in some case, for the law of the land to be re-framed to better match-up to our perception of the laws of God. The root of all this is the view passed on to us that the Old Testament is all about God’s Law. It’s about God shaping the hearts of his people by urging their obedience to a set of personal, social and moral laws. His response to their failure to do so is the exile, a season of less-then-optimum living conditions to whip them back into line. Even when we preach in our churches that the New testament is a book of Grace, we are still stuck with roughly two-thirds of our bible being a Book of Laws. If we don’t want to accuse God of having a personality-switch partway through his life, we somehow need to take account of both. Oddly, in doing so, we are often drawn more enthusiastically towards the laws than the grace, and we wind up, like the 17th century Turks, banning everything in sight.

Thus would all seem fairly trivial if it wasn’t for the fact that our law-loving churches are in the midst of a deep and brutal show-down with western culture. The evidence for this is in court-rooms from the local to the federal, but is also found in family rooms right across the West. An older generation are holding firm to the God-as-lawgiver paradigm, and a younger generation are rejecting it. The few among the young who find their way into a narrative of grace are holding on to their faith. The majority — who do not — are letting it go. Pastors left with shrinking, ageing congregations are unsure what to do. ‘Law’ for them is such a significant building-block in their theology and worldview that they fear its removal — like the Jenga piece right at the bottom of the pile — will bring their world crashing down around them. It is to the credit of these leaders that they don’t say that the Old Testament is about God “before he became a Christian”, but the result is that they fudge the issue, and use sentences like “we believe in a God of grace, but…’ and “it’s true that God is love unless…”. Substitute if, until, as long as, except: the result is the same. Grace is real, but is contingent on obedience. Unconditional grace would involve ditching that pesky Old Testament, the famous Ten Commandments, the whole narrative of moral and social obedience. Or inventing a Jesus who fundamentally changes who God is, deflecting his anger at our moral failure and replacing it with a love that is as new for the creator as it is for his creatures.

Or would it?

What if the Old Testament story is not about laws at all? What if the Ten Commandments, and all their ancillary friends, are merely bit-players in a drama whose central character is found somewhere else altogether? What if the Old Testament is not about Law but about worship?

There are some very strong textual reasons for believing this to be the case. The Psalms, of course, and all that talk about the temple. Even the Book of Exodus itself — yes, the one with the ten commandments in it — devotes two-thirds of its text to instructions for worship. Beyond word-counts, though, there is a strong thematic case for reading the Old Testament as a book not about Law but about Worship. Consider these few bullet-points:

  • Might God’s heartfelt disappointment in his creatures, Adam and Eve, be rooted not so much in their failure to obey him but in their unwillingness to trust him; trust being the corollary of worship?
  • Might it be their substitution of shame and fear for intimacy that drives a wedge between them and their maker?
  • Might the consistent call of God to the hearts of the people not be better understood as a call to worship than as a call to moral perfection?
  • Why else would the primary “sin” of the Jewish people always be listed as idolatry — a failure of worship, not of moral or social behaviour?
  • Is the exile truly best understood as a response to moral failure, or more accurately as a response to the demise of true worship? Is it not the humble worship of the heart that God has looked for, and not found?

Once you begin to explore these question you realised how much of the Old Testament sings this song. The call of God is a call to worship. It is our hearts he desires. Intimacy with us is and always has been his goal. The God who went looking for his favourite gardeners in the cool of the evening is still seeking those who will worship him wholeheartedly. It is through worship, not obedience, that our maker longs to shape our lives. It is in trust and intimacy that character is formed, not in fear and compliance. And this is not an after-thought — a New Testament edit to an otherwise Law-based Old Testament — it is the story that has always been there. Laws exist in the Old Testament, in this reading, for much the same reasons as they exist today: to keep us alive and safe; to establish a just society; to make community possible. Law was never the crux of our relationship with God. Worship always has been.

The transition from Old to New Testament is not, then, a shift from Law to Grace. It is a move from impossibility to possibility; from an intimacy that will always elude us to a full and free reunion. It is the Father running at last along our Prodigal Road; hurtling towards us with wide-open arms; enfolding us in the intimate embrace he has always longed for. It is an end to fear and shame. A restoration of trust.

The Good News of the Gospel is not that God has suddenly stopped asking for your moral perfection. It is that he never expected it in the first place. He wants now what he has always wanted; your worship. The love and trust of your heart. He wants to shape your character to reflect his because you love him, not because you fear him. And he has done everything necessary for you to enter into his intimate embrace. He has swallowed your shame. he has eaten your fear. He has pointed you towards your loving Father and said “run”.

Only such a reading makes sense of the Christian worldview; of the Trinity; of the revolution the incarnation brings into play. Jesus does not change who God is but reveals his true nature. There is no other God hiding behind the back of Jesus. Grace is not new. It is the posture God our maker has always had towards us. It is our shame, our fear, not his anger, that has created distance between us. The self-giving miracle of the incarnation becomes even more profound when we realise that the problem was on our side of the chasm all along. God has never changed his stance towards us — he has always loved us.

Unless we can work out that the Bible is not about “Law” we will still think we can please God by giving up coffee, and we will still insist that others do the same. Why not, instead, tell some people around you that all God has ever asked of them is that they receive his love, and worship him?