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.