The Good Use of God’s Law

Rooted asked contributors: How will a theological concept you’ve learned or come to understand better influence or change the way you do things in the new school year?  This article is one in a series of what they had to say.

Is “law” a bad thing?  For some reason, I’ve tended to view laws negatively —maybe because I’m a rebel at heart (thank you, Adam and Eve), or maybe due to the seemingly ever-increasing number of laws and regulations around me. But I don’t think I’m alone. As you probably know well, teens and their parents often struggle with rules, control and freedom in the home.

Since I was a student, I’ve also tended to view law in the Bible negatively. Consider passages like “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), “you have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Rom. 7:4), and “we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). It would seem from these passages — at least from the surface — that law and grace are wrestling each other, with grace coming out on top.

But over the last few years, I’ve come to love the relationship between the law of God and the gospel, and I think this relationship is important to a healthy, balanced youth ministry. To be sure, there are two positive uses of the law: (1) the law restrains evil and (2) the law shows us our sin, thereby driving us to see our need for Christ. Both of these are vitally important to understand, believe and experience God’s love for us.

But a third use of the law (sometimes referred to as “Calvin’s third use of the law”) positively directs us toward that which pleases God — the rule of life. Note the (chiastic) progression: the law shows us our guilt and sin, it drives us to the gospel of Jesus, and then the gospel frees us to joyfully obey the law of God.  I often missed this last part.

Indeed, we should affirm the holiness and goodness of God’s law: “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). “Now we know that the law is good” (1 Tim. 1:8). Notice the joy of the Psalmists: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps. 19:7). “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (Ps. 119:20). “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2).

I think my generation (I’m 33) and many current youth are fearful of legalism. And some of it is justified. We watched the cultural Christianity of some of the older generation, who didn’t drink, didn’t dance and (as it seemed to us) put on their Sunday best to impress as the essence of the Christian faith. Of course, the older generation did not actually believe that these things were the essence of the Christian faith, but that’s what stuck. That’s what was communicated.

Then, not too long ago, many have swung to the opposite pole of antinomianism: “bring on the grace!” Of course, being good Protestants, we championed sola gratia, by grace alone, but God’s law began to be an embarrassment and an uncomfortable topic at rallies and outreach services. We began sweeping calls to holiness under the grace rug and shoving God’s laws into the closet when guests came over. Functionally, we became ashamed of the Bible — cherry-picking the Scriptures for a feel-good faith.

But joyful and faith-filled obedience is not legalism. It’s simply that: joyful and faith-filled obedience. God’s law is not a burden, but a delight (1 John 5:3). As new creations, by God’s grace, we can say with Paul, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Rom. 7:22). Youth should hear the good use of God’s law — something joyfully beckoning them onward to please the God they love.

As you head into this fall semester, I encourage you not to be ashamed of God’s laws and commandments. Rather, take delight in them. Treasure them as something sweet and holy and good. They restrain evil, they drive us to see our need for Christ and they show us the life that is pleasing to God — like a lamp unto our feet and light unto our path.

Brian is pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church in Signal Mountain, TN and author of Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture(P&R, 2012) and Rebels Rescued: A Student’s Guide to Reformed Theology (Christian Focus, 2012).

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