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Why is the Law of God So Good ?
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Epiphany IV - 1/30/11 Deut. 4:5-13, 32-40; Ps. 66; Rom. 13:1-7; Mt. 8:1-13
Why indeed? Do we Christians delightedly explain the law of God?
William Blackstone, the preeminent English lawyer of his time, during the 1700's, was read by the American founding fathers, because they were looking for clues as to what they themselves should construct for their new government.
The colonists were united on their desire to keep the freedoms which they enjoyed as Englishmen. Probably no nation on earth had the kind and breadth of freedom which the English had. The Biblical understanding of civil government had worked itself into their minds more deeply than in any other nation.
The French were about to erupt into a conflagration against Godly government, and to declare themselves atheists with a vengeance. But both Britain and America refused to go in that direction. Blackstone, one of the first English lawyers to draw together those centuries of the development of "common law" into a unified body, wrote:
This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.
There were no doubt atheists in America who would have disagreed with Blackstone, but there was no public contention about the matter. Blackstone's words were accepted as a settled matter of fact. Every single founding father agreed that we are both personally and politically responsible before God for our laws and for our behavior.
All of this, of course, goes back to Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments which we rehearse and assent to regularly here at St. Luke's. We beseech God to write all these Thy laws on our hearts. We plead with God to turn us into the kinds of followers of Jesus who will joyfully submit ourselves to Godly law and Godly rulers, and that we will know how to distinguish between the Godly and the unGodly. And we therefore by implication are praying that, as we ourselves administer authority in our own realms (as parents, as business owners, team leaders, etc.), we will be that kind of ruler.
You do not have to read through many pages of the Book of Common Prayer to find that theme coursing through the prayers. At Evening Prayer (p. 33), for example, we pray, "...that they [our rulers], knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek Thine honor and glory; and that we and all the people, duly considering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honour them..."
We pray for them not only to enforce rightly, but to do it joyfully -- for the honor and glory of God.
The principle behind such a prayer is that no one has a right to command other persons -- unless God has given them that authority to so do. No strong man, no oligarchy, has a right to command others simply by the fact that they have risen to the top of a power struggle. Might does not make right. Military victory, or a political coup, does not give anyone the right to command others. It may give them the coercive power to force others to obedience, but it does not give them the right to so do. God, and God alone, can give the right.
But given that authority and rightful use of it, a ruler has all the authority of God behind him.
[A sidebar... That is the same authority we should be exercising as given in our collects. We pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, we pray to the father with the authority of the Son of God, and with the power of the Holy Spirit behind and undergirding us. If we are really doing that, how can we not have effective prayers?]
That principle (that moral authority is the way to unite a people) has been a part of one and only one religious tradition -- the Biblical tradition. No other culture, no other religion, no other philosophy in human history, has, so far as I know, ever clearly said, suggested, or implied such a principle. In the pagan world, just like the secular, there is no moral principle of right to command, there is only coercive force. Might makes right -- or so they think. It was often considered the duty of the powerful to rule the weak -- because it created some sort of order out of the otherwise inherent chaos.
But the Biblical world has a different way of producing order out of chaos -- a moral consensus of the people, an agreement among the people that certain things are really right and to be followed, and other things are really wrong and to be shunned. Where the people have that moral agreement, as the founding fathers well knew, you need fewer laws. When the people want to do what is right, there is much less need for civil government. The moral force of the people keeps evil to a minimum.
Power and moral consensus are the two fundamental ways
that we humans have tried to bring about political and social order. If your
worldview does not have a moral order, you are left with coercion and power
struggle. "Morality comes out of the other end of a gun barrel," as some
Our lesson from Deuteronomy makes the same contrast, but in quite a different manner. Moses tells the people to keep these statutes and to do them...
...for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statues, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him? And what great nation is there , that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?
Who has ever heard of such a thing, Moses asks:
Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm... according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
Where else in all history has that been even imagined?
Both the law and the power of God are unique in all human history. But that is, of course, what one might expect of a God who creates ex nihilo, a God who is personally and literally omnipotent and omniscient. No other deity in all human history has been thought of in that manner.
Right before their eyes. That is what made them eyewitnesses to the works of God, and that is why, in Isaiah 43, God tells His people to step up to the plate and witness for Him, that He is indeed God, creator of the universe. They had seen Him in action.
That makes a significant and watershed difference between Biblical and all other religion -- the Biblical world has a moral order based on our reason for existence. No other worldview has that because, lacking a creator, it can have no moral order, and is thus limited to power struggle for uniting and forging a social and political order. That is how both secular and pagan governments have typically operated.
So, it would take only a heart and mind open to the truth of the matter to see the glory of the Hebrew way of governing under the law of God. Foreigners would come and be astonished: "What a wise and understanding people! You put personal relationships ahead of power struggle! You submit law and coercive force to the good of the people!" Or, as Jesus later put it, "The law is made for man, not man for the law." Pagan and secular law is made only for those at the top who hold the reins to power. It is not made for the benefit of mankind.
We Judeo-Christians pass those kinds of laws because
God wants it that way, not because we are so wise and capable. On our
own, we are right back to power struggle, rule by force, not by the moral law of
God. We are demonstrating that all over the once-Christian West as we descend
through secularism back into paganism.
It is in this context that we must read Romans 13:1-7, our epistle for this morning. Paul writes: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."
There is, as Paul implies, only one government on the face of the earth, that of God. All government not recognizing that is either operating in ignorance or in rebellion. God wants to persuade us and draw us to Himself by freewill covenant, not by coercion. But on occasion He just steps in and makes something happen a certain way -- as with Cyrus in the freeing of the Hebrews from Babylonian exile.
God wants His people to persuade the nonbelievers as to whose authority they bear. Only rarely will God sanction the invasion of a nation, as with Nazi Germany. Because of the chaos which rebellion causes, even against a real tyranny, God generally wants us to obey our rulers. But that changes when the rulers command something clearly and directly contrary to the law of God.
Paul understood that. He was quite familiar with rulers who were evil-minded, he himself having been one. Paul would not "put the pinch of incense" on the pagan altar to acknowledge Caesar as "lord". He would have disobeyed the emperor if he was asked to do that. Had he complied, he would have renounced his worship of God and God alone as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Just as our Book of Common Prayer, Paul also writes, the ruler "is the servant of God..." The ruler is thereby not free to assert his own authority contrary to God. When the ruler begins to claim to have the authority of God over all things, or to act that way, then we, the people, are to seek his replacement. Our government made that claim in 1962 by declaring prayer illegal in public schools, that it, not God, would decide the difference between right and wrong.
But we must, of course, begin with ourselves. Do we
honor God in that way in our personal lives? Do we submit ourselves to
the law and grace of God so that we can with integrity ask others, including our
rulers, to do the same? If we, ourselves are not honoring the law of God, then
God will not bless us with a Godly legal system. We will get what we live in our
How can all this help us in our communications with non-Christians? How can we reach out to them with our understanding of the law of God? What can we say to them that might in some way be convincing and persuasive, that the law of God is not at all, as typically thought, mean-spirited, arbitrary, unreasonable, always telling us what to do, a killjoy, etc?
(1) the law of God is not just an "imposition", although it is indeed partly that. We are required to obey those laws, as any real law. It is imposed. But it is more than that. The law of God is specifically designed for our benefit. It really is designed for us, not us for it. God says over and over and over that if we will obey His laws, things will go well for us.
I had a very difficult time coming to understand what that might mean, how the laws of God really were for our benefit. In the understanding I grew up with, the "benefit" would be that God would not beat up on us. He would not pack us off to hell -- if we obeyed Him.
What I did not understand until well into adulthood was that our human nature requires a certain kind of context in which to flourish, a certain kind of external structure, and a certain kind of self-discipline by which to become a truly free individual. Freedom requires self-discipline.
The ideal external structure is a family with strong, nurturing mothering which passes on to the child a secure sense of his or her being. I am a somebody. And it requires a strongly present fathering which supplies protection for the home, and a sense of moral direction as the child begins stepping out into the big world. And mostly it requires a pointing on to God who is the true Parent.
When we honor our parents, we flourish because, unless they are terribly abusive, they provide that initial home in which we can learn what it means to be a growing man or woman. We need parental discipline which we incorporate into our own self-discipline.
It is like becoming free to play a musical instrument or play a sport. They both require lots of discipline from others translated to within ourselves. That discipline leads to a freedom to do things we would never be able to do otherwise.
That is true of becoming adult men and women. We need to
work at discipline so that we can play at life, just as playing a
piano. The law is our friend, for our benefit.
(2) Another item to suggest to your friends. The law is not only for our benefit, the law of love, the highest of all laws in the whole cosmos, which is again unique to the Biblical world, does what no other law can do. It weds law and grace.
The law commands love, that is, law commands grace. Gracefulness and love become an obligation, not just a "good idea", not just an "if you please..." As Paul says, loving your neighbor is fulfilling the law. Love is the meaning of all the other lower laws. The lower laws are just examples of what loving looks like in particular situations. The often supposed conflict between law and grace disappears. They work together like a dancing couple.
Mothering represents grace, the free gift of one's being, one's personhood. Fathering represents the law, the "shoulds" and "oughts" of life, the moral obligation, pursuit of the reason why we exist. But a well-married couple weds those two into a seamless relationship which we call "family".
The Word of God occasionally penetrates into the minds of pagan writers. St. Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, is reported to have said, "There is nothing more admirable than two people who see eye-to-eye, keeping house as man and wife, confounding their enemies and delighting their friends". Well-married couples manifest that unity eternally within God.
Why is a well-married couple so delightful to behold?
Because they wed that which we all so much want wedded within ourselves -- law
and grace. The contradiction of law against grace is self-destructive and
unbearable. That is what the attractiveness of gender is all about
(believe it or not)... Masculine and feminine dancing within us.
So, indeed, why is the law of God so good?
It is so good because it points to that very discipline which leads to freedom and joy, unbounded by the constraints of the fallen world. The law of God leads to our becoming what we are meant to be -- children of God. It leads to the freedom to "play" life, like Yasha Heifitz could "play" a violin. Effortlessly.
The law leads to (of all places) living by grace.
Ask your friends how they might want to improve on that best of all possible worlds. You might have some interesting discussions...!
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