Complexity Yields not to Law

The law exposes our sin and shows us our need for Christ.

The law is a viable and valuable guide for our lives, guiding us in the way pleasing to our father and life-giving for us.

The law is all this. But it is not able to change our hearts.

We affirm this but then demand implicitly and explicitly legal compliance from ourselves and others forgetting what complex creatures we are. We are not machines programmable by law and able to be steered by command like a horse. Do we really comprehend the significance of this?

Theodore Roosevelt was hustled home from service in the New York legislature for the birth of his first child. He returned to Albany after this joy, but then was summed back. Before he reached it, a dark cloud had settled over his home. His wife had died. And eleven hours later, his mother, too, was dead.

How do we process such sorrow? How do we manage such an assault? In such a setting would I be able to heed the law, to “not sorrow like the rest of men who have no hope?” No, I would not.

The book Mornings on Horseback, as I have pointed out, is a book about what made Theodore Roosevelt what he was. But what has made you or me or those we preach to what they are? In the face of the law, some of us will be crushed because our background and experience and personality and biological composition make us unable to respond. Complexity of this nature yields not to law, only to grace.

As I grow older, do I see more of Jesus in me? No. I see more of the less charitable attributes of my ancestors. And no law will change that. It is who I am. It is subject only to the Potter’s hands of grace.

I want others to be conformed to the image of Christ, and this will mean preaching the law to them. It will mean preaching the law to me. But it will mean understanding that they and I are incapable of law-keeping. And the law I’m able to keep may be the one another fails often to practice. Patience must rule, not condemnation.

Complexity yields not to law. Let us run to grace.

The Rule of Law

“Domitian’s claim to ultimate power and his rigid law enforcement produced the same unhappiness that plagued China when rewards were given for reporting on the misdeeds of others, and vexed Aparta when each man was the enforcer of his brother’s morals. The atmospere in Rome grew so oppressive that Tacitus expressed gratitude that his much-loved and missed father Agricola had died before Domitian’s reign: ‘Domitian no longer left interval or breathing space…. Under Domitian more than half our wretchedness consisted in watching and being watched, while our very sighs were scored against us.'” (Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World, page 739)

There are those in history who, in frustration at the disarray and messiness of human society, conclude that the solution to such disarray is law. Whether a family or an empire law is imposed as the holy grail of order. The more law, it is assumed, addressing more of life, the greater the happiness.

Some Christian thinkers latching onto this propose that the law which should receive such broad imposition is ‘Biblical Law’. Sophisticated proponents of this view nuance that this cannot work without a broad spread of spiritual renewal. These propose that a great spread of Christian faith will allow for a righteous imposition of biblical law, resulting in the greatest glory to God in a universally righteous earthly kingdom. They do not advocate, strictly speaking, the imposition of such law when Christians are the minority. But they do long for a time when a society predominantly converted, will structure itself best around God’s law.

This is sophisticated, careful, and frightening to the core. They do not question the premise that law is the solution to social disarray, nor do they properly estimate the remaining corruption of the redeemed heart left to wield that law.

The quote above speaks of an experience in the Roman empire when legal restrictions multiplied into moral application, where every sin became a crime. We ourselves have come to understand the resulting oppression of certain muslim regimes based upon religious law governing every sphere of behavior.

But these are examples of law in the hands of converted men. True. But I’ve been a Christian long enough, serving as a pastor nearly half my life, to know that redemption does not cure all the ills of the corrupt human heart. Christians are as capable of oppression and misapplication of law as the next guy. And we pastors are often the most culpable.

Law does not tame the human heart, Biblical or otherwise. We ought not dream of a society which is someday ruled by law. It should scare us when the enforcement of morals falls into the hands of powerful people. We should never fall into the illusion, no matter how skillfully presented, or how seemingly ‘rooted’ in ‘Biblical’ notions, that the solution to social disarray is the enforcement of law (which is normally law which we find pleasing enforced upon those who seem to so easily disregard it).

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even when it is in the hands of Christians. Especially when those Christians are drunk on the idea that the power they wield is the power of King Jesus.