Why Then The Law? Part 1: A Lawful Mess

Throughout the history of the church, the question of the role of the law in […]

JDK / 10.11.12

Throughout the history of the church, the question of the role of the law in the Christian life has been of paramount importance. Indeed, as witnessed to by the writers of the New Testament themselves, the issue was of pressing concern to all involved. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, we hear the radical profession that “the Law came through Moses, but Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” What exactly is this distinction between the two about? Why didn’t he simply say, “The Old Law prohibiting shellfish and bacon came through Moses and the New Law of Love came through Jesus?” That would have been a bit easier!

Instead, at the heart of the witness about the importance and significance of Jesus–at least according to the Bible–is a distinction. This is not surprising, however, given the fact that Jesus is the one who repeatedly placed himself and his own teaching in direct opposition to Moses, i.e., the Law. “You’ve heard it said. . . but I tell you” he says time and time again in the Sermon on the Mount. “This is my blood of the NEW covenant,” he says at the Last Supper, thus ensuring that the distinction between the Old and New covenants would become a central part of Christian worship until he returns. Now, in the history of the church, this relationship is tumultuous and fraught with misunderstandings and fear; however, the fact remains that it would have been easier for Jesus and the writers of the New Testament to leave us with a more positive view of the Law and its role in the Christian life had they simply said something along the lines of what can be heard in many pulpits across denominational lines every Sunday, namely, “now that you’re a Christian, you have the power and ability to fulfill the law—so do it.”

Undergirding this type of theologizing is an inveterate moralism that has threatened actually to extinguish the joy of the Gospel throughout the history of the Church.  But like Americans totally against immigration, at the end of the day there is just something incoherent about these appeals to a legalistic life, because there is something constitutive to the Christian message that forces the scales to tip towards grace, amnesty, and mercy rather than the law. No matter how meet, right and good it is to  go to church, do good works, etc. . . the thief on the cross only believed. Like the green on a roulette wheel, this simple fact, combined with Jesus’ own moniker as the “friend of sinners,” means that, thankfully, the House always wins.

That doesn’t mean that there is no shortage of discussion about the issue of the law in the Christian life, and over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at some of the history of the debate and current discussion surrounding the ways in which people have understood this concept. In all of this, however, it is important to remember what we’ve alluded to before, namely, that it is ONLY theological systems that take seriously both the supercession of the demands of the Law by Jesus and the subsequent negative judgment on those under the “curse” by the Apostle Paul that force such introspection. Whatever it means to be “under the law,” evidently that was part of the “curse” from which those who believe in Christ are free, because he, born of a woman and subject to said law, said it was finished.


Next installment: Marcion and Tertullian.