Sermon: What is the Purpose of the Law?

Paul asks: What is the purpose of the law?

When we lived in Jerusalem it was clear that Jewish people thought that we Christians didn’t think the Torah (the Law) was important.   They thought we simply thought it was important to believe, but keeping the Law of the Hebrew Scriptures was unimportant.

Paul considers this issue in the Galatians passage. 

Gal 3:21: “If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law … Before … faith [in Jesus] came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.  You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:21, 23-26).

Paul made a very dangerous statement (verse 25): “We are no longer under the supervision of the law”!! Does that mean we can be lawless?  It sounds like a rebel’s charter!  What did he mean?  Was he saying “Just believe in Jesus and do what you like”?

The words of Jesus in the reading from Luke help us:

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ He answered: ‘’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’’; and, ‘’Love your neighbour as yourself.’’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ (Luke 10:25-28)

The heart of the law is not legalism, rigid obedience to a code of law. The heart of the Law is love. Firstly, it commands us to:

Love God

This is a most neglected duty amongst human beings. Sometimes people say: “My neighbours don’t go to church but they behave in a very Christian way.  They love their neighbour more than some Christians.”  I know what they mean. Some unbelievers are very kind, generous and hospitable.  But I want to ask them: “Do you fulfil the first and greatest commandment?  That is, do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?”  The answer has to be “No.”  So they aren’t behaving in a very Christian way. They are failing to fulfil the most important Christian duty of all. 

God doesn’t need my love.  But he is love and love calls for a loving response. Have you ever experienced unrequited love?  If so, you were pre-occupied, off your food, dreaming of your beloved, looking out for your beloved and trying to communicate with your beloved!

God is the greatest sufferer from unrequited love. Millions whom he dearly loves, don’t love him. Some of those who profess to love him are selfish and unfaithful.

We are called to love him with all our heart (emotions), soul (the centre of our being), strength (making an effort to please him and mind (trusting him, meditating on his Word and discerning his will).

So Christianity isn’t about rigid obedience to a code of law.  Martin Luther said, “Love God and do as you please!” His point was this: “If you truly love God, you will do what pleases Him.”

Secondly, the law of love commands us to:

Love our neighbour

This is a real challenge – to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Christopher Hitchens, one of the “new atheists” in his very anti-religious book  “God is not great” criticises Jesus. He writes: “The order to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed, as is the hard-to-interpret instruction to love others ‘as I have loved you.’ Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves: the thing sim­ply cannot be done (as any intelligent ‘creator’ would well understand from studying his own design).”  What a sad – and rather ignorant – statement from a ranting author.

He is ignoring – or doesn’t know of – the grace of God, otherwise known as the indwelling power of Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit.

God doesn’t just give us rules and then leaves us to obey (or disobey) them. He offers us supernatural power to love him and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It is this supernaturally-inspired love for God and neighbour which spurs and enables us to want to please God and our neighbour.  It is our relationship of love and trust with God that is the foundation of our eternal salvation, not rigid obedience to a code of law.  Another problem with the legalistic approach is that we shall never keep God’s law perfectly, which would be the only way we could deserve salvation in this life and eternity in heaven. We don’t and we won’t deserve these blessings. But because we love and trust God, because we love and trust Jesus, God accepts us as if we did deserve salvation in this life and eternity in heaven.  That is the good news, the godspel, the gospel.

We are no longer under the supervision of the law, i.e. bound to think rigid obedience to a code of law is the way to salvation in this life and eternity in heaven.  Instead we go the way of love and trust in God, in Jesus, which is the basis of our acceptance by God and which supernaturally spurs and enables us to want to please God and our neighbour.  

How much do you love God? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?

How much do you love your neighbour – as much as you love yourself?  

Ask God for the filling of the Holy Spirit which will enable you to do all this and then , by faith “go on being filled with the Holy Spirit.”

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction