The spirit of the Law, as opposed to the letter of the Law, is what matters to God. It’s about heart, will, spirit, nature, or character, which is where the legalistic Pharisees went afoul.
Not all people who keep the Law are righteous. And people who don’t keep the Law are not righteous. But all righteous people keep the Law—not flawlessly, but wholeheartedly in the Spirit of love and joy.
Today, the debate rages on over how the Law, grace, atonement, and faith relate. It’s easy to get confused by apparent contradictions in Paul’s letters, or seeming conflict between Paul and Jesus. The incorrect premise is that through the cross, Jesus abolished the Law. But what he actually abolished, for the joy set before him, was spiritual Death.
God’s Law is Good
This act of grace on God’s part allows us to safely re-learn how to live in the goodness of His ways. But, according to Paul, the sinful mind opposes the Spirit and therefore does not, and cannot, correctly submit to God’s Law.
Of course, the Law by itself won’t make you a good person any more than traffic rules will make you a good driver because no one, including God, can legislate morality. No law has transformative power. But spirit and intent does, including the spirit of God’s Law.
So it isn’t some evil thing to avoid. After all, it’s as much God’s Word as anything else is. Cheerful, willing practice brings increasing competence and blessedness. “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2Cor. 3:6)
Grace and faith don’t kill obedience, but rather, bring it to life, although God expects it to be child-like and clumsy at first. That’s okay, and in fact, necessary; and that’s good news!
Preliminary Thoughts Toward the Mind of the Spirit
As I wrote in another post, and to shed light on the confusion, it’s important to first distinguish between secondary laws like clean vs. unclean food, tithing, circumcision, etc., and the Law, the Ten Commandments. Jesus boiled the Law down to two commands: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Paul boiled it down to one: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:14) And James put it this way: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (Jas. 2:8) All three men are quoting Leviticus 19:18, the Law of the Spirit and spirit of the Law.
We should also assume Jesus to be the prime Expert on anything and everything. No Pharisee, priest, prophet, apostle, scholar, or institution overrides him; and he never cancelled the Law. So really, no amount of worship, confession, prayer, “belief,” bible study, speaking in tongues, or witnessing can honor the Lord if his Law is ignored because, according to him, “If you want life, obey the commandments.” (Mat. 19:17) Again, we’re looking at spirit, intent, and desire as opposed to a grim, outward image of compliance.
Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Mat. 5:17-18)
“It’s easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luk. 16:17)
With his fine intellect and wit, Jesus often addressed serious issues with a touch of sarcastic humor, aimed mostly at bombastic Pharisees who imposed heavy life-style burdens. He knew that neither heaven nor Earth would be disappearing anytime soon; so these remarks showed just how serious he was about the true Law, yet simultaneously told misguided Pharisees to lighten up.
Heaven and Earth still haven’t gone away and everything is not yet accomplished. Therefore, if we’re to take Jesus seriously, we should understand that the Law remains in effect today. It’s silly to call him Lord if we’re going to disregard him, and even more ridiculous to pit the cross, the ultimate act of love, against the Law, the ultimate policy of love, both of which come from God who is love.
So when Jesus says to keep the commandments, he doesn’t mean to go get circumcised and make a burnt offering, or be sure to stone your neighbors when they wrong you. He means to become a healthy person who happily thinks and carries out acts of love.
Tomorrow (rather than next week), with these preliminaries in mind, Part 2 will look at what Paul has to say in the book of Romans. You might be as pleasantly surprised as I was that there’s less confusion than most of us have been taught.