Using the Law Unlawfully

Have you ever sought to defend a cause only to end up proving something you didn’t mean to—like attempting to prove the existence of God only to find yourself backed into a corner? It’s a humbling, and evening a frightening, experience. Since I don’t think quickly on my feet, I have argued myself into a corner on more than one occasion.

One such occasion (or a period of time, rather) involved the realization that I had misinterpreted more than half the Bible. Up until that point, I was convinced that the prominent use of Scriptural commands—“Choose this day,” “If you are willing to obey,” etc.—proved that those commands could be obeyed. But as last week’s post pointed out, such a conclusion is faulty.

The conclusion is more than just faulty, though. It undermines the very faith on which we stand. You see, when we use the law to prove mankind’s ability, it ends up proving much more than we bargain for. It proves not just that we have some ability to follow after God; it proves that man can do all that God requires, without any aid from God.

We need to remember that God requires that we obey all of His law, not just a part of it. “You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them” (Lev. 20:22); “keep all His statutes…all the days of your life” (Deut. 6:2); “walk always in His ways” (Deut. 19:9). That is the condition on which God’s promises rest: full and complete obedience.

Consider what Christ described as the greatest commandment of all: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]” (Matt. 22:37). This command is the sum of how we are to relate to God. The command exists, so does that mean it is within man’s power to love God totally and completely, without God working in his heart at all?

The answer should be obvious. Just take a look at Matthew 5, where Christ expounds on several Old Testament laws, and evaluate how you have measured up to that standard in the last few weeks—let alone, in the last several years. Obedience that truly gives God His due is just as far from our grasp as the stars in the heavens.

Saving faith entails an acknowledgement that our obligation to the law exceeds our ability. We cannot obey it—not partially, not completely, not even to save our own lives. We are like a man who files for bankruptcy, declaring that he cannot pay off what he owes. Because his obligation exceeds his ability, he pleads for mercy in the form of the elimination of his debts.

But maybe you only want to prove that man can love God to a certain extent, to at least make a strong effort to pursue God. Even if that were so, where does that leave us? James says, “whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). When it comes to being justified in God’s sight, partial obedience isn’t any better than no obedience.

If God’s commands are within our grasp, if mankind is able to obey and love God of his own accord, then there is no need for grace. There is no need for Christ. We may argue to the contrary, but that is the logical conclusion of using the law to prove mankind’s ability.

Either we have the power to fulfill the entire law or we cannot fulfill any of it. There is no middle ground. And Scripture tells us that Christ came to call not the righteous (i.e., law keepers), but sinners (i.e., law breakers) to Himself (Luke 5:32). Righteous, God-fearing, law-abiding people don’t need to repent; only sinners do.

If we fail to grasp that the law exists to show us our inability, we will end up using the law illegally. That’s right; we will take a good thing—the law of God—and use it contrary to God’s purposes. That is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:8-9: “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless.” The law was made not to prove our righteousness but our unrighteousness. It was never made for those with the power to keep it—only for those who cannot. And those who find themselves powerless are perfectly situated to receive the amazingly good news of the gospel.


Steve Martin said… a great post. A great Word of law...and gospel.

As my pastor has oft said, "I have never met a person yet (outside of the Lord Jesus) who is able to get past the 1st Commandment. We fail the test right there.

But One who did not fail is in our corner. He loves us...He died for us...and it is He who will be our judge on that Day.

As you so rightly say, "That is good news". Indeed.

Thanks, very much.
Cap Stewart said…
Steve, thank you for your continued encouragement!
Erika said…
Hey Cap!

Well, I've been mostly offline for the last few weeks, but I've spent the last couple of hours getting sucked back into the online vortex. :-P

My journey has led me to your blog where I have read a few of your posts. You have been writing about a topic that is of great interest to me - how the law and grace work.

I have enjoyed reading your thoughts, but on this post I thought I'd share a thought (or two) of my own.

It seems often we put law and grace (or gospel) against each other as if they are two totally separate things. But I see law and grace as one.

Grace exists within the very words of the law. Our Savior said the first five books of the Bible, often referred to as the "law" were all about Him. He said Moses wrote of Him. Yes, Moses detailed God's standard of holiness for His set-apart children, but he also wrote of God's mercy and kindness in providing atoning blood to make a way back to Him when they inevitably fell short.

So, here's a question: Does the law really demand perfection or does it demand repentance when we fall short?

God Himself says the law is not too hard. After having Moses recap the law for the children of Israel before heading into the promised land He says:

"For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off." (Deut 30:11)

On another note, you mentioned that Christ came not for the righteous. You then defined the righteous as law-keepers. I think its important to point out that the Pharisees, whom He most often chastised were not law-keepers. To the contrary, they were law-breakers, substituting their own law for God's.

"You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!" (Mark 7:8-9)

While I wholeheartedly agree that law-keeping cannot save us, I do see clearly in scripture that our obedience to the law demonstrates our love for our God and Savior. Lovers of God who obeyed the law because of their love for Him were never chastised or corrected. Scripture commends humble law-keepers like Zechariah and Elizabeth:

And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. (Luke 1:6)

How are we to process this statement if the law was an impossible standard? The only way it makes sense to me is that they believed God and responded in faith to His directions for walking in the Way, which when rightly understood, always included the covering of a spotless lamb.

Anyway, these are really just rambling thoughts. I hope you don't mind me sharing them with you. I'm just still on the journey of understanding the work and will of my God and Savior and I love coming alongside other believers and comparing notes. ;-)

Cap Stewart said…
Erika, you are welcome to post your thoughts on this blog whenever you want! I would have responded sooner, but I somehow overlooked that you had commented.

I agree that the law and gospel are not at odds. They complement each other beautifully. What I'm trying to caution against is a misapplication of the law, as if it--and not the gospel--is our source of hope.

Does the law really demand perfection or does it demand repentance when we fall short? I would say both. The standard of God is perfection: "be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Pet. 1:16). When we fall short--and all of us do--we are to repent.

I have a hard time interpreting Deuteronomy 30:11 as saying that God's law is easy to keep. If we say God's holiness is easy to achieve, we are undercutting the very gospel we say we believe in.

I think I'm with Martin Luther, who states in The Bondage of the Will that Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is a declaration of how the law has effectively come to Israel: it is "not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off" (v. 11, NKJV). Indeed, it isn't "in heaven" (v. 12) or "beyond the sea" (v. 13). Rather, it is near them (v. 14). The commandments have been faithfully set before them so plainly and clearly that they need not look elsehwere.

To quote Luther, "What a fool was Christ, Who shed His blood to purchase for us the Spirit, Whom we do not need, in order that we might be made able to keep the commandments with ease, when we are so already by nature! . . . . Let [us] now say that free will has such power that it not only wills good, but keeps the greatest commandments, yes, all the commandments, with ease!"

Now, having said that, I don't think you and I disagree as much as it may appear. My last post in the law/gospel series will go live tomorrow, and I think it brings some much needed clarifications. (Of course, you are free to disagree if you think otherwise.)

Thank you for your thoughts!