Find Love through Law

When viewed correctly, God's law is not restrictive; it portrays life as the glorious thing God intended it to be.

James Coffin is presently serving on the pastoral staff of the Avondale Memorial church, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.
The law of God isn't a very popular topic these days. In fact, modern man seems to have a basic dislike for any highly defined code of behavior. Yesterday's norms are considered too restrictive; today each person prefers to do his own thing. Even many Christians, basking in the warmth of God's free grace, think that any mention of God's law smacks of legalism. To them the law seems cold and impersonal. Further more, Biblical higher critics maintain that Moses only edited and restructured an ethical code that had long been in existence in ancient Babylon.

In contrast to the above-mentioned attitudes, the psalmist David loved God's law. He took great delight in it (Ps. 119:70, 77, 97). Far from finding it a negative list of don'ts, he perceived what God was actually trying to communicate through the law. And he couldn't contain his enthusiasm. David saw what James later pointed out, that the law of God is not just a legal demand but, when seen in its proper perspective, a "law of liberty" (James 1:25). As to the law's origin, the Bible is explicit: God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger (Ex. 31:18).

It is deeply significant that God chose to write the law Himself. Generally it has been God's custom to communicate His will to an individual, who in turn communicates it to the people. When the message has thus been channeled through the human agent (although it is nonetheless a message from God), it inevitably bears the stamp not only of the messenger's individuality but also of his cultural background.

In at least two instances God chose to reveal Himself directly, bypassing the human agent: when giving the Ten Commandments, and in the incarnation of Christ. In the giving of the law He made a verbal statement about His character. In the Incarnation He actually became the human agent, not only making statements about the character of God, but acting it out as well. If we find Christ tender and loving and the law harsh and exacting, we need to reevaluate our understanding of the law, for Christ and the law were given to reveal the same thing.

Often we fail to realize that God gave the Decalogue to a saved people—a people whom He had delivered from bond age, not because of their own intrinsic goodness, but because of His great love and grace. Jesus asked in the New Testament that the recipient of His salvation should respond by keeping His commandments; in the Old Testament He requested the same love response from those delivered from the bondage of Egypt. If a commandment was broken in either Old or New Testament times, forgiveness was freely granted.

Works played no part. When the sin ner accepted on faith God's promise to forgive, and gave evidence of his faith by confession and the slaying of the symbolic sacrificial lamb, he was completely forgiven. It is only in this context of grace that the commandments can be properly understood.

The Decalogue (as found in Exodus 20:3-17) begins with the words: "Thou shall have no other gods before me." God seems to have a way of beginning with the obvious and progressing to the less apparent. In Hebrews 11:6 He em ploys a similar sequence in pointing out that to please God we must first believe that He exists. Such simple statements concerning the existence and primacy of God may seem elementary and unnecessary. But the millions who worship a multitude of deities, not to mention those who reject the idea of deity altogether, are ample evidence of the need of such statements. If there is indeed one all-powerful God who is infinite and transcendent, then humanity's only claim to infinitude and transcendence is necessarily dependent upon its relation ship to Him. Nonexistent gods can do nothing to help us attain higher levels of existence.

Having focused our attention on Him self as the only true and infinite God, the Lord requests that we not limit in any way His magnitude. In one sense, if we limit God we limit ourselves, for we limit the heights toward which we can aspire. For this reason we are asked to not objectify that which defies form. We may think it helpful to have a tangible aid in directing our thoughts toward God, but no man-made object can ever capture correctly or completely the greatness and goodness of God. Whatever we construct must remain infinitely inferior to the Creator Himself. And as we continually gaze upon our own construction, our concept of God inevitably becomes dwarfed.

The latter part of the commandment points out that the real consequences of objectifying God may not be readily apparent. But three or four generations after such a practice is begun, we see that the object is no longer viewed as a mere aid to worship—a means to an end—it has become an end in itself.

Limiting God can happen in subtle ways. It may be through statues and icons that capture our aesthetic imagination but offer only a finite scope for reflection upon the One who is infinite. Ritual and liturgy may present an unbalanced emphasis, thus limiting our perception of certain aspects of God's character. The pictures that present Christ as weak and effeminate may cause us to turn away in disgust, preventing us from seeing His true character. Or, as the third commandment points out, even our words can keep us from recognizing the absolute greatness of God.

"Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Apparently our words may play a more significant part in our conceptualization of God than we have supposed. The man who calls upon God with an oath every time something goes wrong is limiting his concept of God. As the law of "impression through expression" works in his life, God be comes relegated to lower and still lower levels. The way we use the name of God in worship affects our concept of His character. The flippant reference to the Divine in our secular conversation leaves its mark upon us. In the second and third commandments God is at tempting to shield us from a dwarfed concept of Him, which inevitably leads to a dwarfed concept of man.

God thus focuses our attention on Himself as the only true God, and warns us of the pitfalls of limiting His greatness. But we have yet to catch a glimpse of the magnitude of His greatness. It is the fourth commandment that affords us a view of the majesty and power of God.

Here we see a God who is so powerful that He need only speak and a world is born. He need only touch and inanimate dust becomes living, pulsating, human flesh. But more overwhelming still, He invites us weekly to revel in His glory, that He in turn might share Himself with us in a unique and creative way.

God never intended the Sabbath to be a burden to man. Rather, He planned a joyous celebration, a loving reunion be tween the Creator and the created. In a special way God makes Himself avail able to us during the Sabbath hours so that we may enjoy total spiritual involvement with Him. Obviously, such a depth of involvement presupposes our full attention. God asks that we not be preoccupied with the humdrum monotony of our daily routine. Correctly viewed, our ordinary activities are infinitely insignificant in comparison with the joyous fulfillment that God wants us to experience on this special day.

God reminds us each Sabbath of His infinite creative power. He reminds us that we were created in His image, and therefore we also have infinite potential for expansion. If God could accomplish such a colossal achievement as the creation of a world in just six days, surely He can enable us to achieve the heights for which we were created.

The Sabbath is the summit from which the landscape of God's universe can be seen to have no permanently limiting horizons. It is the pinnacle from which all previous admonition appears in perspective. God is infinite, and man—when he reaches out in grateful acknowledgment to grasp the outstretched hand of God—shares in His infinity.

From such a vantage point the previous commands of God acquire a significance and clarity unseen before. The foothills that lie at the base of this tremendous promontory afford only hazy views of a segment of God's greatness. But from the vantage point of the Sabbath we can see the utter futility of trying to portray Him through representative objects. We stand amazed that we could ever lightly employ words about God. The majesty suggested in this commandment shows words to be hopelessly inadequate. We become aware that the first three commandments have been but safeguards to ensure that we have the pleasure of this one uninhibited look at God. Having gained insight into our relationship to God, we can look intelligently at man and our relationship to one another.

Despite what has been said in the Bible, in one sense we know very little about God. However, we do know of a certainty that He loves. If the Bible says anything, it says that God loves us—loves us with a love that defies human comprehension. We also know that God's love is manifested through acts of creation. And more than that, because He loves, He allows created beings to share in creative activity. God asks that we love, so that love might lead to creativity, and that our love might allow others the right to fulfill their creative potential. By so living we are but fol lowing the example of Him in whose image we are created.

Man expresses himself in varied creative roles. But the epitome of creativity, which personifies all creative potential, is the experience of parenthood. A child who does not have a deep appreciation of his origin will fail to comprehend his loving and creative role as a human. It is imperative that he realize that he is the product of a love relationship that reached its fruition in the creative act leading to his birth. Having such insight into his own identity, he should then act accordingly. Being the product of love, he must respond with love. That is the essence of the fifth commandment.

It is interesting that only two of the Ten Commandments are positive—the fourth and the fifth. All the others are stated negatively. But in these two we are asked to "remember" and to "honor." God is here dramatically illustrating that we must remember our origin: first, we are from God Himself; second, we are from our earthly parents. Then we are to honor those origins by fulfilling the role intrinsic to our design.

Commandments four and five concern institutions that antedate the Fall. In fact, they are the only institutions that bear the stamp of Edenic splendor. These two commandments are to be en joyed in their fullness; the others are but safeguards to ensure that we not fail of complete enjoyment.

As we have noted, man's purpose for existence is to love. Love leads to creative activity. And love allows creative fulfillment in others. The last five commandments provide a rational and structured warning against a hierarchy of pit falls that by their very nature contravene these principles. It is not without significance that killing heads the list.

Killing is the most unloving act avail able to man, and also the most uncreative. It is the opposite of creation. It robs its victim of all creative potential by robbing him of existence. Killing is diametrically opposed to man's purpose for living, so it ranks first on God's list of proscribed behavior.

Moving through this great revelation of God's will, we come to the command against adultery. The adulterer does not deprive his fellow participant of life. But he does adulterate—dilute—what should be the most beautiful and rewarding creative experience in which mankind can engage. The sin of adultery is in not loving adequately, not experiencing the fullness of creativity to be found in the marriage union, and preventing the other person from attaining that same fullness of experience.

We come to the area of theft. Love is not selfish, but stealing is. Stealing is terribly unimaginative, uncreative. TO steal is to drop from the creative realm to the realm of the material. What is more, the innocent victim is distracted from any creative pursuit that he may be fol lowing, and is likewise dragged down to the material realm. Again, such activity stands in stark contrast to the beautiful purpose for which we were created. We come next to more subtle forms of failure in creative loving. It may seem a small thing to tell lies about our associates. It certainly doesn't carry the stigma of, say, murder. But it certainly isn't an expression of love. It certainly isn't creative. And, like stealing, it distracts the victim from creative pursuits and forces him down to the mundane reality of saving his reputation.

The most subtle weakness—and the most widespread—is coveting. It seems so harmless to look and dream. But coveting is like cancer. It slowly eats away at us, preventing us from getting on with the joyous experience of living. Instead of expanding the time and talents that we already have, we stagnate. We fail to develop our potential because we fail to recognize it as potential. And in a subtle way we deprive the person whose possessions or abilities we covet of the depth of friendship with us he or she might like to develop. Once again we see that violating the commandment prevents us from loving, creating, and allowing to create.

Having thus viewed God's law, we see that it is not restrictive. As James points out, it is a law of liberty. As we note the amazing logic in its progression of thought, we cannot doubt that it was designed by an intelligence far surpassing our own. But most of all, we cannot fail to see the concern, the love, and the grace of God. Instead of being in contrast to Jesus, it makes Him all the more attractive. And beyond all else, it portrays life as the glorious thing that God originally intended it to be.

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James Coffin is presently serving on the pastoral staff of the Avondale Memorial church, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

March 1979

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