I live a block away from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Once my parents walked by the church and saw a society of witches holding a service in one of their sanctuaries. Another time we saw a Buddhist idol in the main sanctuary. The church, which serves as the seat of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, posted something more recently which led me to reflect on its spiritual implications. It was a massive red sign with three words: LOVE OVER RULES.
Two ideas stand out to me about this sign. The first is that this message is exactly the kind of religion that New Yorkers and members of the culture at large want. The second is that this message reveals a set of gross misunderstandings about the law of God.
New York City has long stood at the vanguard of sexual ‘liberation’ movements. Consequently, biblical standards of morality concerning gender and sex are generally viewed as hateful and oppressive. Growing up in NYC churches, I often noticed how youth leaders and pastors carefully tip-toed around questions about homosexuality. I did not envy their positions, since many New Yorkers will tell you what they think and leave your church if you say something offensive. You can see why a church might be tempted to emphasize the message of love over rules. They are operating under the notion that the only ‘rule’ God has given us is to be nice to everyone and affirm their behavior.
Biblically speaking, love is fundamentally attached to the law of God. In Matthew 22, when being tested by a lawyer on the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘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’” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus was not arguing that these two commandments are more important than the ten commandments, but that they are a summary of the ten. The first four God-oriented commandments direct us to love God and the final six neighbor-oriented commandments direct us to love our neighbor.
What are the purposes of these commandments? In the garden of Eden, the way to receive the blessing of eternal life and avoid the curse of death was through obeying God’s moral law. But since we fell into sin and can no longer keep God’s law perfectly, is the law of God useless?
I would argue that there are three main purposes for the law of God, which are helpfully summarized by theologian Joseph Pipa. He argues that “the Ten Commandments, God’s Law, have three main purposes: to show people their need of the Savior, to function as a restraint in society and to direct the believer in his behavior.”
The first use can be proven from verses like Galatians 2:24, which state that “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” By functioning like a mirror (James 1:23), God’s law reveals to us our sinfulness since “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). For instance, imagine a non-Christian who believes he or she does not need Jesus. They might think, “I am not a murderer or anything like that, so there is no way I could deserve hell.” But in order to show such self-righteous people that they do not have the perfect righteousness God requires, Jesus explained the sixth commandment with incredible force. In Matthew 5, he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old,‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment … But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22-23). Clearly this non-Christian would not be able to meet this standard and they ought to be humbled by this reality.
When we engage with those who believe God will let them into heaven because of their own good works, we should show them that we can never meet God’s high standards. We should encourage them to abandon all hope in their own righteousness, and remind them to believe in Christ and be justified, not through their own righteousness, but through Christ’s.
Paul beautifully describes this glorious justification in Philippians when he states, “yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
The second use of the law, the restraint of wickedness in society, is less related to salvation yet still important. This restraining influence of God’s law is sometimes accomplished through the civil magistrate punishing criminal sins, which causes many to fear and flee from such behaviors (Deuteronomy 13:11). But it is important to consider how the governing authorities are described in Romans 13:4. The verse reads, “For [the earthly ruler] is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
But what standard of good and evil is Paul referring to here? Humanity’s ever-changing subjective moral opinions? Should we be happy that our pluralistic society makes laws based on “what [is] right in [our] own eyes” rather than what is right in God’s eyes (Judges 21:25)? In my opinion, God’s objective moral law is the standard of morality that every nation ought to implement, since it is God’s world and he knows best. Jonathan Blanchard’s plaque in Blanchard Hall seems to concur: “Society is perfect where what is right in theory exists in fact, where practice coincides with principle, and the Law of God is the law of the land.”
The third use of the law is my favorite to talk about: viewing God’s law as guidance for how believers should live. Not only does God save us from the penalty of our lawlessness, but he frees us to be able to obey, though imperfectly. He loves us by our good works and looks “upon them in his Son, [and] is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (Westminster Confession of Faith 16:6). That’s right: you can please your heavenly Father — not in the sense of paying for your sin, earning your own salvation or making him love you — but in the sense of pleasing him as your Father. You can only please God because “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). This reality of pleasing, loving and obeying God changes everything about the way we view his law: it becomes a joy and a pleasure.
While once it may have felt like there was a gun pointed at your head, controlling your life through the terror of breaking a commandment, now as a believer you can hate sin and seek obedience because you love your Father. There is a world of difference between the child who gets good grades because he wants his dad to love him and the child who gets good grades because he loves his dad.
A true child of God will want to please their Father in heaven. Only an illegitimate imposter can live their entire life content to displease and dishonor the God they supposedly love. Have you been adopted into his family? If so, your faith should be evidenced by good works inspired by seeking to please God rather than dead works seeking to earn the reward of salvation. If not, then receive Christ by faith, for “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).