I’m an adjunct professor at a Lutheran seminary where I teach, among other things, “Hebrew Bible” and “Introduction to Judaism.” Particularly in my Hebrew Bible classes, students are frequently surprised at the overwhelmingly positive description of God’s law in the Scriptures. As Lutheran Christians, we are heirs of a particular hermeneutic that seeks to differentiate between law and gospel. Martin Luther said, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”
But to distinguish law from gospel does not have to mean devaluing law. There is a place for law in the life of the Christian—Lutheran or otherwise. But just to make Dr. Luther happy, let me say clearly that this article is about law, albeit with some gospel at the end.
When I’ve taught students Hebrew in the past, I took them first to their own Bible and Psalm 119. It’s a long acrostic, with the first words of each verse within a stanza beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This clever extended poem is a meditation on how wonderful God’s law is, and how a life spent contemplating God’s commands and statutes is a worthy goal. In the first stanza, the psalmist proclaims: “I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances” (Psalm 119:6-7). The psalmist knows that those who attempt to follow God’s law will face derision. Nonetheless, the writer is grateful for the opportunity to study and meditate on God’s preferred way of life.
“We have been freed for joyful obedience.”
The theme of following God’s commands as expressing God’s preferred way of life is hammered home in this week’s reading from Deuteronomy. God, through Moses, presents a stark choice to the Israelites: choose to follow law that leads to life and prosperity, or neglect God’s law and embrace death and adversity (30:15, 19). A few verses earlier, God reassures the people that following God’s law isn’t too hard for them or out of their reach (11, cf. Matthew 11:30). God desires that the Israelites will live according to the law, not simply because God enjoys rules, but because doing so is loving the Lord, obeying God and holding tightly to our heavenly parent (20).
I’ve never learned so much, so quickly, about God as I have since having two little ones. I can see my 3-year-old struggle to obey the rules that my wife and I put into place for his safety and thriving. The swelling of love and pride I feel when he chooses to obey me by being kind to his little brother or helping out as we try to get ready to leave the house in the winter is pure joy. I imagine God feels similarly when God’s children choose to love each other and build up the holy family that we have been grafted into.
Jesus carries forward God’s perpetual insistence that following law is a way to love God and bless our fellow humans. As I’ve argued the last couple weeks, far too often we think that we can love God but neglect, or even actively harm, our neighbor. Jesus reminds us that the goal of the law was to set up a holy community. Accordingly, the commandment not to kill needed to be refined and intensified to prohibit anger and public insult (Matthew 5:22). The commandment not to commit adultery needed to be refined and intensified to prohibit lustful gazing (28). The commandment that specified that men could not just cast off and neglect their wives, but instead must give them a full, legal certificate of divorce so they could remarry, needed to be refined and intensified to prevent the easy divorcing of vulnerable women on a whim (32). The commandment that protected God’s honor by prohibiting invocation of holy things in false vows needed to be refined and intensified to prohibit all duplicitous speech (34). In his teaching, Jesus shows us how following God’s law can be a gift for us, for our communities and for our God.
At the risk of losing some of my Lutheran credibility, viewed in light of its ability to help us love God and love our neighbor, God’s provision of law is gospel. It is a gracious gift from God that we do not deserve, we cannot earn, and we cannot hope to follow with all the diligence and seriousness that it deserves and requires.
The even better news is that, as our Methodist siblings recite most weeks in their liturgies, “we have been freed for joyful obedience.” We are slaves to neither the law, nor the sin that comes from failing to uphold the law. Instead, we are God’s beloved, adopted children who have daily opportunities to respond to God’s free gift of grace and forgiveness by loving God and loving our neighbor, which is, after all, the most important of God’s laws.