13th Sunday After Pentecost: Why Then The Law?
Our Epistle readings today deal with the question of the place of the Law of Moses in our spiritual walk as Christians.
Some people think that the Ten Commandments, has no place in a Christian service.
So let’s reflect on this together. I speak about the Law in reaction to a kind of antinomianism which I think is prevalent in the modern Church.
Antinomianism, if you break it down means (anti-against, nomos-the law). It is the error of thinking that because we are saved by grace through faith that what we do with our earthly lives, with our bodies, is not important. Paul saw that danger in the early churches and spoke against it – for example in Romans – “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid! ” [6:1] …and later… “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? God forbid!” [6:15] …a little further…“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? God forbid!" [7:7]
What I’m speaking about... when I say the Law of Moses, I'm not talking about the myriad of rites and ceremonies, which includes the sacrifices and food laws – these laws are fulfilled in Christ and no longer apply – we are told this in the New Testament [Hebrews 9; Mark 7:19; Acts 10]. And all acknowledge that the civil laws about how to govern a society are not eternal laws – they changed within the Old Testament itself. I am only speaking of the Moral Law – those laws about how to live, summarized in the 10 Commandments, and summarized further in the Two Great Commandments: love God and love your neighbour.
So, let’s look today at what our readings tell us about how the Moral Law does not help us and how it does help us as Christians.
How does the moral Law of the Law of Moses, not help us?
The Law does not help us if we try to use it to justify ourselves, that is, looking at the list as a way of convincing ourselves that we are doing alright and that I’m a “good person” and so should be alright when I one day face my Maker. I haven’t murdered anyone, I’ve been faithful to my spouse, I haven’t stolen etc. so I should be OK (remember the self-righteous Pharisee? (In the Gospel of Luke 18:9). Actually, all of us here probably already feel condemned, especially when we know that Jesus said these laws refer not just to outward acts but the thoughts of our hearts (do we hold anger towards someone? do we lust in our hearts? and so on…).
So the Moral Law cannot help us justify ourselves before God, but in fact only to see ourselves as somehow broken, and, since we believe that God cares much about justice – then we all stand condemned before God. In Our epistle Reading for today, St Paul says (Galatians 3:16-22), “the Scripture has concluded all under sin.” Or another translation “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin” This is not a kind of trick to inspire guilt and subjection to an oppressive God – but it is simply a reality check. We are all in need of mercy, of forgiveness from God, and if we’re going to live together here, we all need from one another, and must extend to one another, forgiveness.
So here we see one purpose of the Moral Law. When we look at it, wherever we are on our spiritual walk, just beginning or in the heights of maturity, we continue to see our brokenness and our need of grace, it humbles us.
And St Paul reminds us in the Epistle (Galatians 3:16-22) that our salvation comes not by what we do, but by the promise of God.
He reminds us that the promise of salvation came to Abraham, who lived 430 years before the giving of the Law of Moses.
Without knowing that Law of Moses, and surely without being perfect, Abraham was saved by faith – he trusted in the promise of God of a new land, of offspring, and, on the mountain, that God would provide the sufficient sacrifice in place of his son Isaac (looking, without knowing, to Christ’s sacrifice).
And we can also think of the people of Israel in bondage in Egypt. God did not send Moses to them in Egypt carrying the commandments with him, and telling them that if they follow the Law then God will take them out of slavery and through the Red Sea to the Promised Land. Rather, God had chosen his people, and sent Moses down to them with a promise – they were brought out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and only later, on the way to the Promised Land, did they then receive the gift of the Law of Moses.
So why is the Law given?
Why do we bind the two Testaments together in one Holy Bible? Why do we continue to teach the 10 Commandments in Catechism?
It was given to help us see our brokenness, that we are in fact unable to help ourselves, that we are in need of a Saviour. And when we cry out, as we do every Sunday– “Lord, have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us), Jesus is there for us. Whoever comes to me, says Jesus, I will not cast out! And, Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you!
So the Law is not about who is in and who is out– it is a helpful diagnostic tool to see the state of our hearts.
And once we are born again by grace, through faith, the Law can help us see why we might not be experiencing the peace and rest now that we desire.
There is a Psalm read each morning at Morning Prayer, describing the People of Israel on their wilderness journey to the Promised Land, that ends with this: "Forty years long was I grieved with this generation and said, It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways. Unto whom I sware in my wrath: that they should not enter into my rest." [Psalm 95:10-11]
The Moral Law helps us see our need of a Saviour, and then is a gift to us as a kind of goad to engage in the battle to put the Old Adam to death and to rise to the new person in Christ – even our failures become an instrument of sanctification. Our failures remind us to draw closer to Jesus – and in that closeness, there is an exchange of love from God, an intimate communion with our Lord and only by this means will our hearts be truly changed that we might experience, even in this life, an entering into God’s rest.