It is not possible to read the Bible for very long before one comes to realise that central to its message is the concept of law.
The Law of God enters very early into its pages. Before Moses brought the stone tablets down from Sinai in an awesome – even staggering – demonstration that God is the supreme legislator of the universe, there are hints of an inviolable moral construct. Joseph appeals to this, for instance, when resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife.
Much of the Old Testament is an exploration of the splendours of God’s Law. The lengthy 119th psalm is an extended meditation on God’s law and the excellence of its precepts- those things that are moral, behaviourally, and spiritually “legal” are always beautiful, noble, and exalted. It is a moving psalm insofar as it reveals much about the author, a faithful priest whose life had not been a bed of roses, but who had discovered through it all that God’s Law was a bedrock foundation that even offered consolation.
Modern evangelism does not often present God’s Law in this light!
The New Testament does not hesitate to introduce us to Jesus of Nazareth, who is identified as the “Word made flesh“. In his own words, the Lord tells us that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it. Christ, therefore, is the embodiment of God’s Law; the solitary perfect man who follows the Law when all around him are lawbreakers.
Later, St. Paul provides an infallible and inerrant interpretation of Christ’s life and ministry, explaining the interplay between Law and grace, and how it is now possible that lawbreakers can be spared the penalty of their spiritual criminality. St. Paul explains that these people who are now saved from the wrath of God the Final Judge, can be renewed in a divine rehabilitation that makes them desire to be true, upstanding citizens of the Kingdom, obedient to the King and to his righteousness.
From beginning to end, the scriptures are soaked with Law. Indeed, the Law of God is the earthly manifestation of God’s character and nature.
The concept of law itself, though pivotal in scripture, is not isolated to Christian societies. Law has emerged in all human societies in all places and at all times. Man may be a natural rebel against the laws of God and even the laws of man, but his own heart and mind bears the indelible imprint of his godly origin – the imago dei – and so laws and rules flow out of his character nearly spontaneously. Man may lay in moral ruins, like a fallen castle, but the very ruins themselves bespeak of a time when he was erect and walked tall.
Even criminals operate according to codes, rules, and laws. The notorious Italian mafia – the cosa nostra – who have no respect for the laws of either God or man, and pillage and loot according to their whim, nonetheless enforce iron discipline upon each other. They mete out death penalties, tortures, and savage beatings for violating rules that they themselves have legislated.
In this we can see how the imago dei is inescapable, even in a group as revolting as the Mafia. Ironically, the Mafia’s existence is predicated upon rebellion, yet even they have found it necessary to establish laws in order to maintain cohesion within their rebellious group.
A natural capacity for law is expressed early in children. Though they quickly learn that rules often curtail exciting opportunities and tempting pleasures, children are natural lawmakers. Watch any group of children playing a game together, and it will not be long before one or other is appealing to rules, or making rules up, or arguing over the rules.
Neither is the law merely a matter of doing what works, although laws certainly serve the practical purpose of maintaining harmony within a collective of people. But there is a deeper, intangible moral universe underpinning laws that everyone is innately programmed to both understand and recognise. For instance, all people are able to identify laws that are actually forms of injustice – such as those that typically emanate from despots. No child needs to have “rules” and “laws” defined for him or her. They may need to be taught what the rules are for a particular place or situation, but they never need to be taught what rules are. This understanding is native, as it were, straight out of the box.
In our time – a time of universal moral chaos – our culture is in the process of supplanting God’s Law, hitherto communicated through scripture, nature and conscience, with a parallel law. It is manifested primarily in political correctness, and is every much a binding legal code. Sometimes it even has the force of parliamentary law behind it. Yet this new moral code of our times is a direct antithesis to the moral law given by God. It is a challenger to the throne of the Heavenly Legislator. Nearly at every point – in a manner that exceeded even a few ancient pagan societies – the new moral code contradicts God and his Law, which is maligned as bad, retrograde, and repressive.
A prominent example is sexuality. God’s law condemns all forms of sexual behaviour outside of a covenanted union between a man and his wife. But the new morality commands people to not only refrain “from judging” but to celebrate all the forms of sexual expression that carry God’s explicit censure. Thus, our times are marred by sexual abomination and purposeful gender confusion, and this in turn, inflicts great damage upon everything else. Or, take the laws pertaining to fidelity. God’s Law calls men to a life of worship of himself. But the new morality celebrates all religions, and claims some kind of validity for them all.
Movies and music are full of the new morality, with its debased language; its constant innuendos; its crass materialism; its coarse and guttural sensibilities. (No wonder historians in the past used to say that without marriage and all the attendant restraints on human appetites, civilisation is impossible.) It is seen in activist groups, like feminists who wish to impose a whole constellation of outlandish and ridiculous ideas upon the populace, and are halfway to succeeding. It is seen in the theory of climate change which, when taken to extremes, becomes an ideology in search of law.
It is everywhere around us, these new rules and sensibilities. Woe betide “offending” someone who is a member of a protected group of class! Woe to those who dare to speak plain truths into a world governed by this new parallel moral law (I had a comment erased from The Guardian some weeks ago because I had the temerity to point out the reality that homosexual unions are, by definition, sterile).
Yet even so, like the writer of Psalm 119, we can still take comfort from the Law of God. Its penalties as far as Christians are concerned have been lifted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the work he has wrought on the cross. Whatever else may happen, we can stand on this expression of God’s character as a rock foundation. Forevermore it will be a “lamp for my feet and light to my path”, a sure anchor, worthy of our delight and meditation, and that which surely spells the way to a happy, fulfilled, and ultimately purposeful life.