I Will Write it on Their Hearts: A Discursus on the Law
Bible Text: Exodus 21-24, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Matthew 5:17-20 | Preacher: The Rev’d William Klock | Series: Exodus | I Will Write it on Their Hearts
A Discursus on the Law
by William Klock
Two Sundays ago I introduced you to the part of Exodus, running more or less from the twenty-first through the twenty-fourth chapters, called “The Book of the Covenant”. I was glad to have last week, All Saints’, off from Exodus, because I wasn’t sure how to proceed and it gave me an extra week to prepare. The Book of the Covenant is composed of legal material. It’s not legislation—at least not as we think of it—and I’ll get to that later. And while there are a few sections that seem to be pretty unified in terms of subject matter—for example, the first section addresses the treatment of slaves, an interesting place to start, although it actually does make sense—other parts range across a broad array of subjects. I have to be honest and say that I’m still not sure how these upcoming sermons are going to flesh out or even approach this material. Preaching on Old Testament legal material is not a simple task, not because it’s irrelevant, but because it is. It’s just that how it is relevant is often a very difficult thing to work out and there’s plenty that’s going to be tentative. I don’t like to be tentative when I’m preaching. I’m not infallible. Far from it. But I like to do my homework and be reasonably certain about things before I preach them. And the truth is that when it comes to passages like this, that’s going to be more of a struggle than usual. But I will do my best with the Lord’s assistance, because he himself has told us that even the most obscure of the laws he gave to Israel remain relevant to us in some manner and after some fashion even if they aren’t binding on us. As he inspired St. Paul to write to Timothy:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
I trust that those words are true and so we will press on. But I’ve realised that before we continue with Exodus 21, I think we could all benefit from something of a discursus on the law itself, what it is and, probably more importantly, what it’s significance is to us as Christians—how these God-breathed words are profitable to us for teaching, reproof, correction, or otherwise to train us in righteousness. It’s not an easy subject. It’s one that Christians have struggled with and argued over ever since St. Paul wrote his epistles to First Century churches being torn apart by this very issue. You might think that St. Paul settled matters, but the ongoing disagreements between Christians on the subject to this very day say otherwise. And so this morning I’m going to tread into a subject where only angels walk without fear and, I hope, lay some foundation stones for how we’ll approach the coming chapters in Exodus.
My own views on this subject have evolved with time and study. In the past, when it came to the relevance of the Old Testament law to Christians and the relationship between law and gospel, I took for granted the position shared by the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. They differ on some minor points, but I won’t get into that this morning. As Anglicans, we stand with our feet in that historical Protestant tradition. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that the law has three uses today. First, in the civil sphere, the law restrains sin. Second, it serves as a mirror to reveal our sin to us and to point us to Jesus as Saviour. And, third, for the Christian—for those who are in Christ—it teaches us the way of righteousness.
Of course, this raises a second question: What parts of the law are applicable? This is a question that goes back to the early days of the Church. We read the Church Fathers, as far back as the Second Century, wrestling with the law and dividing it into categories, some of which are obsolete because of Jesus and some that aren’t. In his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin formally divided the law into three categories: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial (or civil). This was then carved into stone in the Reformed tradition, when it was incorporated into formal doctrinal statements like the Westminster Confession and the London Baptist Confession. In some Protestant traditions, it’s heresy to question these principles. This tripartite division of the law was meant to clarify what applies to Christians and what doesn’t. The civil laws were for the ancient nation of Israel. While a nation today might choose to take some lessons from them or even borrow some of them directly in its own legislation, only Israel was Israel. The civil law of Israel isn’t binding on any other people. The ceremonial laws—the ones having to do with temple, priesthood, purity, and sacrifices have been fulfilled in and by Jesus. Some might say that they are still relevant to Christians. We are obligated to them, but Jesus fulfils the obligation on our behalf through his death on the cross. That leaves the moral law—those commandments that address issues of morality and ethics. That part, says Calvin—and many, many others in the tradition—still applies. The moral law shows us the way of righteousness. The moral law reveals the holy character of God. So the civil laws of Israel are—more or less—irrelevant for the Christians. (It’s really more complicated than this, but this will do for our purposes this morning.) Because Jesus has fulfilled the ceremonial laws of Israel, Christians can set them aside—so long as we remember that Jesus is taking care of them for us. But the moral and ethical parts of the Old Testament law still apply.
It seems neat and tidy. But it really isn’t. That said, you could do worse and a lot of Christians have. The fact is that this formula has served us pretty well since the Reformation (and even before that). But, even the theologians who worked these things out and even a lot of the guys today who hold to them dogmatically admit that these things aren’t as simple as these formulas make it sound. The problem is that there are many parts of the law that don’t lend themselves to easy categorization. There are some laws that fit into all three categories and that defy any attempt to chip off just the parts that have an ethical or moral dimension. But, I think the bigger problem, is simply that this way of approaching the law is anachronistic. It’s imposing a foreign, much later, and very Western concept of “law” onto the torah. If St. Paul were here, I think he might appreciate the effort, but as a Jew devoted to the torah, I think he’d be very troubled by what we’ve done with it. The torah is the torah. It was the divinely given way of life for God’s people. It was God’s gift. It was good and beautiful. All of it. Not just the parts that have to do with ethics, but all of it, and it defies any attempt to impose these foreign, external categories. The Lord delivered his people so that they could worship him. They were, first and foremost, a worshipping people. And this was how that looked. He had chosen them and declared them holy, declared them to be his own, and the torah shows how that holy people were to live in relation to the Lord and to each other. All of it. Not just certain parts. It’s telling that the Book of the Covenant begins and ends with regulations concerning worship and woven between them are the regulations concerning the social, the horizontal relationships of God’s people. This “book” is Israel’s covenantal response to her redemption by the Lord.
The other problem with this threefold division of the law is that it misunderstands the nature of the law in the Bible. We can forgive Calvin. He didn’t know anything about Ancient Near Eastern law codes. No one did until a bit over a century ago. Hammurabi’s Code was only found in 1901. Other Ancient Near Eastern legal material has been recovered since and the context it’s given has forced us to rethink how we understand the nature of torah. We commonly translate that Hebrew word torah in English using our word “law”—and that’s largely thanks to the ancient Jews having done the same when translating the Old Testament into Greek—but, first, torah is bigger than “law”. Torah is “teaching”; it’s “instruction”; it’s “precept”. It can be “law” and “statue”, but it’s also all these other things. It’s more like “wisdom” than it is “legislation”. And wisdom is highly contextual. It’s very different thing than a modern code of laws. Think of Proverbs 26:4 and 5: “Answer not a fool according to his folly” and then the very next proverb says the opposite: “Answer a fool according to his folly.” It’s all about context. In some cases it’s foolish to let the fool drag you into his folly, but there are also times when the fool needs your correction. It’s all about the situation, about the sort of fool and foolishness you’re dealing with, and whether or not you’re the person with the maturity or authority to give correction.
Also, the focus of torah. Torah gives order. Remember that for ancient peoples, order was the highest good. They were very different from us in that respect. We think our happiness is the highest good, but for them it was order. It’s stressed from the beginning of the Old Testament. The creation stories of Genesis stress the Lord’s bringing order from chaos and declaring it good. And so Israel, as his people and as his witnesses, were to be an ordered society—a society that, according to the conventions of the day—modelled something of what God intended for creation and what he one day promises to restore. It’s more than just morality and ethics. It’s all encompassing. In his recent book on the nature of torah, John Walton points out that the point of torah isn’t obedience to specific rules or laws, but an understanding or a comprehension of the order, the goodness that the Lord intends for his world. We tend to think of the law in terms of “you ought”—God commands and we respond in obedience. The torah certain expects obedience, but torah goes beyond that. The Lord says to Israel, “you will know”—you will live this new way of being and know me and know my goodness and know my life. The torah isn’t the end. The torah is Israel’s God-given means to the end, which is know God and to live the life of a called-out and redeemed people in midst of the nations.
Consider how Jesus, when he was tested by that legal expert, summarized the torah. The words are in Matthew 22:37-40, but you all know them by heart:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
To love God and to love neighbour is more than a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. The thou shalts and thou shalt nots help. They point us in the right direction. But obeying is only the first step on the way to knowing. It’s about being the community of people graciously called by the one, true God, and shaped as a people through his deliverance and his loving care. About being people who lift the veil on God’s redemptive plan and the world to come when all is set to rights.
I think this is where the old Protestant “orthodoxy”, the “law and gospel” dichotomy falls short—at least as it’s often been explained and applied. Too often we put law before gospel. This is that second use of the law—where the law serves as a mirror, showing us our sinfulness, and pointing us to Jesus. This was Archbishop Cranmer’s reasoning for beginning the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper with the decalogue. We recite God’s perfect law and are reminded of our failure and inability to truly live it out, and that prepares us to hear the gospel, the good news about Jesus the redeemer, as the liturgy eventually leads us to the Lord’s Table. We are first stripped bare by the law, then clothed with the righteousness of Jesus.
The problem with this is that in the Bible, grace always precedes law. Always. Consider the story we’ve read in Exodus. The Lord delivered Israel from her bondage. The Lord saved his people. Then he gave her his law. The law is for God’s redeemed people. Notice that there is no expectation in the torah for the nations to keep this law. The Canaanites weren’t punished because they didn’t keep it. It was never given to them. The Canaanites were swept from the land for the simple reason that to do so was necessary to prepare it for Israel. It was the land the Lord claimed for himself. By claiming it he declared it holy. Just as he had with Israel. A holy land for a holy people. When we read the prophets centuries later, they condemn the nations, but not for breaking God’s law. The nations are condemned for their hostility towards and for their attacks on God’s people. Remember, the Lord’s goal is to restore all of Creation, to bring the nations back to himself, but he does this through his people. His people have always been called to be the salt of the earth and the light in the darkness. In the Old Testament, God’s people were that salt and light as they knew and lived the torah.
In light of that, we need to remember that the law was God’s good gift to his people. Again, the law follows God’s amazing grace. The law is given to a people delivered from bondage. He has said to them, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. I will be your God and you will be my people. And the law then follows. To us it may seem like a boring and irrelevant interlude in the action of the story. I certainly feel it as a preacher. It’s fun to preach the exciting events that get the Israelites to Mt. Sinai. It’s tempting to skip over these chapters to the golden calf episode where there’s some action again. But the Israelites didn’t see it that way. This is vitally important stuff. God has declared them his people. Their natural response is, “That’s great. Now what do we do? How do we live as your people?” That’s what this is all about. We have a horrible tendency to see the law as a burden. But, Brothers and Sisters, the law only becomes a burden when broken. The law only becomes “legalism” when we’re trying to figure out how far we can bend it before it breaks. When Moses declared the torah again to the new generation of Israelites on the verge of entering the promised land, he said to them:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (Deuteronomy 30:11)
And a bit later:
For it is no empty word for you, but your very life. (Deuteronomy 32:47)
This was Israel’s life. This was what salt and light looked like. And it was all of grace. It was given to them as a people of grace. It included provisions for those times when it was inadvertently broken. It even had an annual “reset button”, if you will, that sent the sins of the people far from them as they were laid on the scapegoat. And so we see the word, for example, of the Psalmist that we’ve been reading through this season of Trinitytide, the words of Psalm 119:
My delight shall be in thy statutes, and I will not forget they word. (v. 16)
For they testimonies are my delight, and my counselors. (v. 24)
Behold, my delight is in thy commandments, O quicken me in they righteousness. (v. 40)
I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou hast set my heart at liberty. (v. 32)
That last verse makes the point so well: “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou has set my heart at liberty.” Grace precedes law. Consider Psalm 51, the song of penitence that David composed after he’d been exposed for adultery and murder. He prayed:
Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. (vv. 10-11)
Even though the law that David knew was one written on stone tablets, he also knew that that the life defined by the law was a matter of the heart and that the only way it could be lived faithfully was by grace. David sinned. His heart was disordered. And so he pleaded for the renewing work of the Spirit in his heart. This isn’t the prayer of a legalist. This isn’t the prayer of a man who saw the law as a burden. This was the prayer of a man who saw the law as a thing of grace and the way of life of God’s people.
We need to hold tightly to the goodness and graciousness of the law that we see in the Old Testament as we read the New Testament. It’s easy to read many of St. Paul’s words about the law and to see it as a bad thing, as if it were a burden and a curse. He say in 2 Corinthians 3:6, that well-known and oft-abused phrase, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Many passages from Romans have been misused or misapplied to condemn the law—“one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28), for example, or “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression (Romans 4:14-15).” But as we saw in our study of Romans, Paul’s point was never to disparage the law, but to make it clear that it is faith in God’s grace that defines (and has always defined) the people of God, the true Israel. If we remember that grace precedes law, we see then that the law does not make God’s people. Law is the thing that shapes the lives of God’s people—and that’s true in both the old covenant and in the new. It’s just that the new covenant has a new law. Those passages from St. Paul simply remind us that the law of the old covenant was for a certain people in a certain time and certain place. A new law has superseded that law.
Let me go back to the words of Jeremiah 31 that we read for our Old Testament lesson this morning:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The defining difference between the old and the new is that in the new covenant, the law has been written on the hearts of God’s people by the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? I remember preaching that years ago and someone said, “Fr. Bill, what does that mean? Did the Spirit forget to write on your heart the bit about ‘Thou shalt not eat bacon’? Or did you just choose to ignore that part? And if you chose to ignore it, is it really written on your heart?” And around and around in a circle he went with that logic. To think that all the Spirit did was transfer the text of the law from stone tablets to the tablet of the heart is to miss the point. It’s not just that the law the Spirit has written the law on our hearts; it’s also that the law he’s written on our hearts is a new one.
The point for God’s people has always been to know him. Israel knew the Lord through his gracious calling and deliverance. He gave her his law that she might know him still better. But the law written on tablets of stone could never accomplish what God’s own Spirit in the human heart could, so far as it comes to truly knowing God. The law gave godly direction to the disordered desires of sinful human hearts, but through the gift of his Spirit, the Lord himself takes our hearts in his hands and renews them, regenerates them, and reorients our desires.
And I think this helps us in our approach to the law as Christians. When we look to Jesus, he actually seems to make the law more difficult:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
And then Jesus goes on to explain how the it’s not just a matter of not cheating on your wife or stabbing your neighbour. Don’t even look lustfully at another woman and don’t even harbour hate for your neighbour in your heart. And yet what Jesus points to is the fact that what the law was intended to do was to show us how to love God and to love our neighour. And love is a matter of the heart—and to do it right, our hearts must first be set right by God. The law given through Moses showed what that looked like for a people living in a certain time and place and culture. And, of course, that has posed problems for Christians. Israel’s historical and cultural context is not ours. We struggle with the law because so much of it is foreign to us. And so we tend to approach it with a great deal of inconsistency. We take some parts straight-up when they can be easily fitted into our cultural context, while we ignore others that are utterly foreign. There are some parts of the law that leave even the best Bible scholars scratching their heads, because their context has been lost to us.
The other thing we commonly do, which I think if we do it at all, it must be with great caution, is to draw principles from the laws. The next bit of the Book of the Covenant we’ll look at has to do with slavery. The regulations here are, as legislation, irrelevant to us. And so it’s common to look to these laws for some kind of underlying principle we can tease out and apply. St. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians when he uses the commandment not to muzzle an ox while it treads out grain to explain why it’s important for the Church to pay its ministers. So I can’t say that this idea of drawing principles from the law is illegitimate, but we do need to be careful with it. We need to be careful that we’re not misrepresenting the text or missing it’s point. That said, the nature of wisdom literature is that it does prompt us to think in just these sorts of abstract and organic terms. If God cares about the ox treading out the grain, he certainly cares for the clergyman ministering the gospel. That’s a legitimate extrapolation. But we need to be careful. We need to be sure we understand the original context of the passage—which isn’t always easy—and we need to be sure we’re not missing the original point.
And so my somewhat tentative position on how we ought to approach the Old Testament law is that we need, first and foremost, to let it be what it is and say what it says. We can’t ignore the parts that are difficult or that don’t fit into our cultural setting. We can’t privilege the parts that do fit into our cultural settings. And we can’t divide the law up into civil, ceremonial, and moral sections, because such a thing would have been utterly incomprehensible to Israel. We need to accept that the law is the law is the law. At the end of the day, we need to let Scripture speak for itself. What does this look like in practise? Well, I think the way we most commonly approach the Old Testament law is to ask how we can apply it today. What I think our priority ought to be, what we should be doing first, is seeing that this is how God dealt with his people in the context of the Exodus—in the context of their deliverance. I suspect that if we do that, it will be easier and more natural for us to then look at the relationship between the Lord and Israel—and the law as part of that relationship—through the lens of the gospel.
That’s the second thing we need to do. Jesus and the Spirit are the fulfilment to which Moses and the prophets were looking. And I think that’s the most important thing here. The response of God’s people to his deliverance has always been love—that we love him and that we love each other. In doing that we witness his presence amongst us and we give the world a glimpse of what the world set to rights looks like and draw the nations to the Lord Jesus. And Jesus has given us the gift of God’s own Spirit to fix the heart problem that plagued Israel. The Spirit has renewed our hearts and placed in them a love for God and a love for neighbour that Israel lacked. We no longer need a law with penalties to prompt us to love. The Spirit has taken care of that and made it our natural disposition. Jesus now shows us what it looks like to love God and neighbour. But, of course, Jesus does so within the context of the old covenant and its law. And we cannot escape a struggle with the law. As new covenant people our task now, as it is with the whole of the story of the Lord and Israel, to look at it through the lens of the gospel. As we do so, we see the character of God—his goodness and faithfulness, his love and his mercy—and we see his plans and desires for his people. No, the law doesn’t apply directly to us, but we’ll see what it looked like for God’s people in the old covenant to love him and to love each other and, with wisdom, maturity, and the help of the Spirit, we can transpose that great symphony into the key of the gospel.
Let’s pray: Our Father, we thank you for your word and for the story of love and of grace that it tells us. I pray that as we come to one of the more challenging parts of that word, that your Spirit who dwells within us will give us understanding and will help us to see this story of you and your people through the lens of grace. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Lost World of the Torah (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2019), 196-197.