"The law is our anchor, Jesus is the wind in our sails"
Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #18: "The great principles of God's law are embodied in the Ten Commandments and exemplified in the life of Christ. They express God's love, will, and purposes concerning human conduct and relationships and are binding upon all people in every age. These precepts are the basis of God's covenant with His people and the standard in God's judgment.Through the agency of the Holy Spirit they point out sin and awaken a sense of need for a Saviour. Salvation is all of grace and not of works, but its fruitage is obedience to the Commandments. This obedience develops Christian character and results in a sense of well-being. It is an evidence of our love for the Lord and our concern for our fellow men. The obedience of faith demonstrates the power of Christ to transform lives, and therefore strengthens Christian witness. (Exod. 20:1-17; Matt. 5:17; Deut 28:1-14; Ps. 19:7-13; John 14:15; Rom. 8:1-4; 1 John 5:3; Matt. 22:36-40; Eph. 2:8.)"
Lawless" and "lawlessness" are scary words. I can't imagine that very many ordinary people would want to live in a lawless society. But we run into trouble when we consider the alter native, because "law" or "law and order" aren't very happy words either. "It's the law, you know!" sounds like someone is trying to push us into doing something we'd rather not, or to stop us from doing something we quite like.
But if we feel caught between these two troubling words, law and lawless ness, at least we're in good company. In Romans 7 Paul describes his battle between delight in God's good law and his rebellion against it. "Wretched man that I am!" he cries out. "Who will res cue me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24, NRSV).
By the early 1860s, when Seventh-day Adventists finally decided to take a name and formally organize as a church, God's law had become central to our identity. The "seventh-day" in our name points directly to the Ten Commandments. And before we had anything that could be called a list of Fundamental Beliefs, the words "commandments of God," lifted directly from the three angels' messages of Revelation 14, stood out in the simple covenant used to organize local churches: "We, the undersigned, hereby associate our selves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ."1
The Adventist advantage
Now there are weighty reasons why Adventists have seen the Ten Commandments as a notch above all the rest of the laws God has given to His people. Some of the Old Testament laws can sound very strange to our ears. Not the Ten Commandments. And it's not just a matter of the fleeting sounds of the moment. The Bible itself gives the Ten Commandments a place of special honor.
A few years ago that point was brought forcibly to my mind in a quite unexpected way. While on sabbatical in Scotland, I was putting the finishing touches to my book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers2 when I happened by the office of a well-known Old Testament scholar. We chatted a bit about the various projects we were work ing on. When he asked me what I was doing, I frankly told him that I was writing a book to help my students see more clearly what never changes in Scripture. I said I was sick and tired of seeing my students lose their faith when they discovered things in the Bible they didn't think were supposed to be there. Here's a brief summary of what I told him:
The unchanging anchor in Scripture consists of the great principle of love, Jesus' two great commands (love to God, love to your neighbor), and the Ten Commandments. You can draw a double line around those laws and everything else for they never change. The rest of Scripture simply applies them in particular times and places, an interpretation suggested by Jesus' summarizing comment which accompanies His statement of the two great commandments: "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:40, NRSV).
While the two great commands are certainly enduring, the Ten Commandments represent an additional layer of stability. They, too, "hang" on the two great commands, but they never change. Draw your double line after the Ten. Everything else in Scripture—all the laws and stories—"hang" on the two, illustrating how we are to understand and apply the fundamental principle of love, the two great commands, and the Ten Commandments in many and varied circumstances.
So there, I thought to myself. That's my good Adventist Bible study on the law.
To my surprise, he replied without hesitation, "Of course that's where the Bible draws the double line. Look at Deuteronomy 4:13, 14." Incredibly, our next few moments together still sounded like an old-fashioned Adventist Bible study on the law.
"Note the difference between verses 13 and 14," he said. "In verse 13, God is addressing Israel directly, not speaking through Moses. According to this text, God gave the people 'his covenant' and described what He gave them as 'ten commandments.' Furthermore, the text states that God Himself wrote the Commandments on two stone tablets."
"But," he continued, "note the changes in verse 14. First, God is addressing Moses, not the people. Second, to Moses, He gives 'statutes and ordinances,' not 'his covenant' or the Ten Commandments.'"
"In short," he concluded, "you're quite right. The double line comes after the Ten Commandments." I was astounded that he would respond so spontaneously and quickly with that solid "Adventist" exposition of the Bible. It's not just Adventist, of course. It's just a simple and straight forward reading of the Bible evident to any honest person.
To make the "Bible study" complete, we would need to add just two additional points. First, the "statutes and ordinances" were written by Moses in a book and placed beside the ark, not in the ark (Deut. 31:24-26).
Second, the penalties for breaking the Ten Commandments are not included in the Decalogue itself but in the additional legislation, thus giving the Decalogue a more enduring quality.
Penalties are much more likely to be shaped by time, place, and culture, and thus vary considerably, even in the Bible. In the Old Testament, for example, the additional legislation assigns the death penalty to every one of the Ten Commandments except the last one (don't covet), an application matching the violent needs of the violent people who had come out of Egypt.
Jesus, of course, coming to earth as God in the flesh, points us toward the nonviolent ideal, with the story of the woman taken in adultery being the most famous example: "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (John 8:11, NRSV). Jesus could omit the penalty while still affirming the command as enduring.
And in the New Testament that enduring quality of the Ten Commandments is underscored by the fact that they are quoted and excerpted by both Jesus and the apostles. The array of texts is impressive: Matthew 19:16-21; Mark 10:17-21; Luke 18:18-22; Romans 13:8- 10; James 2:8-12.
So our Adventist forebears have delivered to us a rock solid understanding of law, grounded thoroughly in both Testaments. But that didn't mean that they were ready to live happily ever after.
It wasn't long before our Adventist pioneers, like the great apostle Paul him self, became aware of the "wretched" tensions which the law stirs up. In 1890, for example, Ellen White wrote this lofty description of God's law and His ideal: "The law of love being the foundation of the government of God, the happiness of all intelligent beings depends upon their perfect accord with its great principles of righteousness."3
Yet in that same year she also penned this striking exclamation: "Let the law take care of itself. We have been at work on the law until we get as dry as the hills of Gilboa, without dew or rain. Let us trust in the merits of Jesus Christ of Nazareth."4
So we like the law and we don't like the law. What can we do about that dilemma?
Most important of all, we must know that the story of Jesus takes us to the first, last, and best answer. From his "wretched" exclamation in Romans 7:24, Paul moves on to that glorious promise in Romans 8:1: "There is there fore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (NRSV). And pointing us to another key passage in Scripture, Ellen White wrote this buoy ant exclamation in the 1890s:
"Good news! Good news! Ring throughout the world! 'For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.' This lesson is one of the greatest importance to every soul that lives; for the terms of salvation are here laid out in distinct lines. If one had no other text in the Bible, this alone would be a guide for the soul."5
Now when Adventists point to Jesus as the solution to our problems with the law, we are simply identifying with great truths known and recognized throughout the Christian world. The simplicity and power of this truth is nicely captured by C. S. Lewis:
"The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had—and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a 'great man,' but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The 'Gospels' come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made."6
But Adventists have taken the argument a step further, making special claims about the Ten Commandments which give us a great advantage, but also place us in great danger. In short, we have argued that all of the Ten Commandments are enduring; that taken together as they are written, they provide believers with a secure anchor, protecting us from a wide range of temptations, from those which bubble up from within—our own passions and appetites—to those which threaten us from without, the temptations posed by an increasingly secular and relativistic world. Others may waffle, wandering about in search of meaning and security; Adventists can rest secure, held by an anchor that never moves.
That's the great advantage. The danger? The very simplicity of our message makes us vulnerable to the greatest sin of all: arrogant reliance on our own ability. And in our pride, we too easily fail to look within and discover those more subtle—and thus more dangerous— forms of sin which will certainly lead us away from God's kingdom and keep us from touching the hearts of those who need to know the story of Jesus.
But God has a plan to preserve the advantage for us and to protect us from the danger, a plan that can best be understood if we sketch the history of God's law from a cosmic perspective, from a perfect world, to rebellion, and back to a perfect world again.
From no rules to many rules
An important aspect of the Adventist understanding of law is that God's law of love is a natural law like the law of gravity or the laws of mathematics. It is a "natural" law, not an arbitrary one, because it is the natural reflection of God's character. In other words, God cannot choose to make one law for this part of His kingdom, and another one for that part. He cannot change His law, nor can anyone else because it is simply a reflection of Himself.
The opening line of Ellen White's book Patriarchs and Prophets makes this point with powerful simplicity: "'God is love.' His nature, his law, is love. It ever has been; it ever will be."
Two biblical passages, in particular, point us in this direction. One is Romans 13:10: "Love is the fulfilling of the law" (NRSV)—or, to put it another way, love fills the law full. The other passage is the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34 which points to a time when no one will need to teach someone else and no one will command anyone else to know the Lord because God will have written His law on the heart.
In other words, the law has become so much a part of human life and thinking that the loving response has become entirely spontaneous. The law has not been rejected or abolished; it simply has been internalized where no one can see it.
Ellen White follows that line of thinking when she describes the perfect world at the time of Lucifer's rebellion: "When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of."7
But the war in heaven changed all that. Adventists have rightly argued that God could not just snuff out the rebellion immediately—unless He wanted all His creatures forever after to serve Him simply from fear. Ellen White describes God's ideal in this way:
"God desires from all his creatures the service of love—service that springs from an appreciation of His character. He takes no pleasure in a forced obedience; and to all He grants freedom of will, that they may render Him voluntary service."8
So for a time, God gave Satan freedom to develop his way, a government based on the principle of selfishness instead of the principle of love. Genesis 3 to 11 documents the tragic and ever worsening results: sin in the Garden, Cain's murder of Abel his brother, the Flood, Babel. When God stepped back on the stage more actively at the time of Abraham, Scripture says that Abraham's own family worshiped other gods (Josh. 24:2). That's how bad things had gotten.
When things are that bad, what does God do? He lovingly—and daringly— adapts the principles of His kingdom to the needs of His fallen creatures. As Jesus bluntly explained in connection with divorce, God has given some rules because of the "hardness" of human hearts. But such rules should never be mistaken for His ideal: "from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8, NRSV).
Surprisingly—yet probably not surprising when we think it through—at Sinai, Israel was delighted that God had given them rules to help them. Indeed, Moses said that even the surrounding nations would almost envy them for their rules, saying, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" (Deut. 4:6, NRSV).
Moses went to exclaim: "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?" (Deut. 4:7, 8, NRSV). Ellen White echoes that sentiment: "The object of all these regulations was stated: they proceeded from no exercise of arbitrary sovereignty; all were given for the good of Israel."9
Yet the joyful reception of the rules masked a real danger, namely, that rules can never lead to love. They can guide and protect, but they can never really touch the heart. The fact that God is willing to give rules touches the heart, but the rules themselves never can. And so we come to the final reality in God's great plan, the story of Jesus.
Rules are never enough
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronts us with the terrible truth about our tangled lives, namely, that rules can never transform the heart. Hammer blow after hammer blow drive home the stinging truth: You haven't murdered? But what about your murderous thoughts? (Matt. 5:21, 22). You've kept your sexual activity in check? But what about your impure thoughts? (Matt. 5:27, 28). You've stayed within the legal limits of revenge: an eye for an eye. Now turn the other cheek, go the second mile (Matt. 5:38-41). Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44). Be perfect—like God is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
Jesus, we cry, You make it impossible. We almost had the rules down pat.
Now You've ruined it.
Precisely. Jesus shows us a marvelous example of how we really want to live.He prayed for His enemies, lived a life of purity, turned the other cheek. God took human flesh to show us how it could and should be done. His listeners watched Him, admired Him. But then they realized that they couldn't do it. So they killed Him. . . .
And we don't do it either. Broken rules, shattered ideals. Where can we turn?
From shattered ideals and broken rules, back to the rule of love
When the incarnate God died on the cross, a new cluster of amazing truths began to dawn in the hearts of His fol lowers. On the cross, in some mysterious way, God had paid the price for our sins, covered our shame and guilt. He has forgiven us. We are clean. Whole. And He sent His Spirit to perform the work of transformation on our crooked hearts.
In other words, that which was impossible before begins to happen through the work of God's Spirit. But now we know we are dependent on God and living by His grace. No longer are we trying to impress Him or anyone else by our good works. Obedience is no longer driven by fear or mere duty, but springs from gratitude.
That's why Paul could exclaim. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1, NRSV). "The love of Christ urges us on," he wrote to the Corinthian believers. "Because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. . . .If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: every thing old has passed away; see, everything has become new!. . .For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 17,21).
What has happened to the law? Affirmed and confirmed for all eternity. As Paul put it, "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means. On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31, NRSV). God Himself has demonstrated to the entire universe what the law of love really means. He Himself lived out the law of love in the flesh. He Himself demonstrated the full extent of that love by paying the price for our sins, taking away our guilt and shame. He Himself made it possible for us to move beyond the rules to live in genuine, loving relationships with each other and with the Creator of the universe.
Perhaps the essence of this great teaching is best captured by Jesus in His conversation with His disciples just before His death: "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (John 15:15, NRSV). Servants, you see, live by rules. Friends don't need them because the rules are written in the heart.
God has wanted to be friends with us all along. But we didn't know how. So Jesus came to show us. And He has promised to transform our tears of frustration into tears to joy. Finally, we are once again in a perfect world with no rules—except the rule of love, engraved on the heart. Jeremiah's new covenant promise has been fulfilled. "No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:34, NRSV).
God Himself has shown us: The law has always been our anchor and Jesus is the wind in our sails.
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1 Published in Review and Herald, 18:148, October 8, 1861 ("Covenant, Church," SDA Encyclopedia, 2nd
rev. ed, 1996, 416).
2 Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1991).
3 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1890), 34.
4 ———, Manuscript 10, 1890, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (Washington D. C.: The Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), 2:557.
5 ————, Testimonies to Ministers (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1923), 370. The sentence "If one had no other text in the Bible ..." is recorded first in an 1895 letter to General Conference President O. A. Olson (EGW1888, 4:1449) and was subsequently published in two pamphlets in the 1890s (1896 and 1897).
6 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1961) XXI11:3 (New York: MacMillan, 1966), 108.
7 White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 109 (1896).
8 Patriarchs and Prophets, 34.
9 ———, 311.