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Love the Law

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Posted by Peter Jensen, 9 Jan 2020

Peter Jensen discusses the problem with laws in this excerpt from his editorial in the latest edition of Churchman

Given its age, it’s odd how powerful the Bible is.

It has a constant capacity to speak the truth about us and to us; it helps us both to understand ourselves and also to long for something better; and then it gives us that better hope in the face of Jesus Christ.The Bible is not a philosophical treatise; it is better than that, more human. It gives its truth through song and proverb and epistle and sermon and apocalypse and story and promises. In some ways it’s like an old and crusty uncle who frightens at first appearance but turns out to be the wisest person you will ever meet, precisely because he minces no words and softens no reality.

Part of the crustiness is the Law. The Bible is, among other things, a legal book containing the Law of Moses, but much else by way of legal demands. And then our Lord himself says, “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” (Matt 5:19).

It is a paradox. As the Bible itself testifies, law provokes both respect and dislike. It has that effect on us. Thus, when all is said and done, I find it hard to like the Sermon on the Mount, especially the material in the fifth chapter of Matthew, in which the Lord not only affirms the ongoing veracity of the Law, but also makes sure that we feel its interference into our lives. Banning murder is not enough; now he bans anger. Banning adultery is not enough; now he bans lust as well. And his concluding demand for perfection (5:48) is outrageous because it is totally beyond our ability to fulfil, even if we read it as a call to comprehensive love rather than mere purity.

And yet, we cannot say that he is wrong. In reaching into our hearts, by exposing our motives and not just our deeds, Jesus has clearly spoken truth. He is right. But as he does this, he passes beyond any normal legal concept into something different. No human tribunal can judge hidden lust, envy and anger unless it breaks out in behaviour. Furthermore, although we may through self-control stop anger becoming murder and lust adultery, there is no discipline which will prevent such desires from rising in the first place. We are beset by spontaneous evils from evil hearts.

Paul’s passionate words in Romans 7, also expose some of these paradoxes. Having shown that the “old written code” has held us in captivity, he nonetheless asserts, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (7:12). Not surprisingly, then, he tells us, “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being” (words which make it hard to think that Romans 7 is about the unregenerate [cf 8:7,8]). But he also speaks of having died to the law so that we may belong to Christ, of having been enslaved to the law, and indeed of the law provoking us to sin (7:4–6).

And here the Bible is, once again, so contemporary.

One of the things I enjoy is learning from professionals about their current experiences. They give insights into how society is trending. As I talk to schoolteachers about their craft, for example, it has become very apparent just how dissatisfied many in the profession have become in recent years. Experienced and competent teachers are taking early retirement.

Various factors create these feelings. Teachers talk about the aggressive attitude of parents, the entitled behaviour of children and the general lack of respect which they are shown. But one of the chief difficulties lies in the amount of paperwork which attends their endeavours, the constant reporting on what goes on in the classroom and the documented accountability which now makes the
business of actually teaching only one of their many responsibilities instead of their chief task.

There are reasons for this. There is a deep anxiety about the quality of education. The competence of teachers is suspected. Teachers need to be monitored and re-trained. The result is a plethora of conferences and reporting. Accountability reigns. And then, of course, there is the desire from some in power to use the classroom to create a new social environment and bring in progressive social change. This, too, makes teaching even more onerous.

The same octopus of paperwork is being reported by health care professionals and others in such fields as accountancy. It seems as though the constant uncovering of unprofessionalism and incompetence is being met with an equally constant creation of new regulations and new laws. This is understandable and in some cases absolutely necessary. But it is worth noting how costly sin is as we see more in-service training, attended by groaning and inattentive adults for the sake of getting a certificate. It seems that more education and more regulation are the only solutions to
incompetence and misbehaviour.

As a friend of mine sagely observed about the ever-increasing complexity of the taxation laws: “they are the creation of bureaucrats with second class minds and are instantly subverted by villains with first class minds” (the latter no doubt well-educated). For the truth is that if we are going to avoid being governed by a zealous, law-making state, forever increasing its powers of interference, it requires that the citizenry love the law and are upright persons. They must have the same attitude as my late father, who never cheated at golf even when he was playing on his own. Each air-swing was counted, and no putt was ever tried twice. Or, in the famous words of William Penn, “The key to good government is good men.” Only when citizens are good enough to keep the law by choice, will we avoid the ceaseless making of new laws.

Furthermore, a system reliant on laws can only work if it does not have to be zealously policed. But in that case, you really do need to have citizens, teachers, accountants, lawyers, plumbers and shop assistants, who keep the law because it is there to be kept and not out of mere fear of being caught.

But does this even begin to be conceivable? Well, God endorses both law and education in his book. Is the legacy of the Bible to our culture any help? Is it not merely another variety of unhelpful legalism?

Read Peter’s answer to this in the rest of his editorial, along with the other articles and reviews in the latest edition of Churchman, available here.


Archbishop Peter Jensen is the Editor of Churchman

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