Twenty years ago I was a third-year law student, learning the law and preparing for my new career. Twenty years later I do not practice law, though I do use my law degree in my current employment in legal publishing. For a long time I wondered why I went to law school and what God would have me learn from it. I think that it has given me a better understanding of the purpose of the law — both the Biblical law of Moses and the law that governs society.
Let’s take a look at the law in the United States. There are hundreds of thousands of laws at the city, county, state, and federal levels. Many are criminal laws prohibiting certain behavior. Others are civil laws requiring individuals to engage in certain behavior. Some laws are statutory and are created by legislative bodies, or are rules created by agencies that were created by legislative bodies. Other law is based on past court case decisions. Often laws are passed to prohibit a wrong that has been committed. The sheer number of laws on the books in the United States is mind-boggling. It makes the Biblical law of Moses look like a drop in the bucket.
In spite of all of these laws telling us what we cannot or should not do, or what we must do, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates “In 2008, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year-end — 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults.” In the civil arena, millions of lawsuits are filed against individuals, insurance companies, and corporations every year because of a claim that someone has violated someone else’s rights or injured them in some way. Clearly all the laws aren’t really doing what they were designed to do, which is protect people and give them guidance on how to behave in a civilized society.
We spend so many resources trying to create laws to govern how we should act. We are coming up on an election next week in which we will elect legislators, and in some cases judges, to create more laws, or modify or interpret the ones we have. Billions of dollars have been devoted to campaigning for this election and billions more will be spent to pay these legislators and judges to do their job. Unfortunately, in our “civilized” society such as system seems to have become necessary, though not completely effective.
At the core of all of the laws that are passed or handed down by judges are some basic principles that came from the mouth of a Savior. Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12. Even today, this is the core of the law: to treat others as you would want them to treat you. If only we as humans would do that, we would no longer need the hundreds of thousands of laws telling us how to act. But instead of doing to others as we would have them do to us, we do to others as they HAVE done to us. We want payback and justice.
It seems the human heart, the human will, does not naturally follow the golden rule. We never have. In the beginning, there was only one rule: “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.” One simple rule designed to protect Adam and Eve from the knowledge of evil, from selfishness and pride that lead to anger and bitterness. When there was that one simple rule, following the golden rule came naturally because they didn’t know anything else. But they broke that one simple rule.
Later God gave ten simple commandments, all designed to protect the Israelites and teach them how to follow the basic golden rule. But they couldn’t seem to obey even those ten simple commandments, and so more detailed rules and regulations were added to clarify and expand on the basics of the ten. Over time, the Pharisees did much the same as we have. They took a simple ten commandments and the other rules and regulations God had given, and they added a whole host of laws to clarify and expand upon them to govern the Jewish people.
Then along comes Jesus to bring us back to the basics, and what is the Greatest Commandment of all:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:34-40.
It seems so simple. Love God and love your neighbor (who is, by the way, pretty much everyone, not just the guy who lives in the house next to yours). And yet the human heart so often doesn’t get it. Oh sure, we love those who love us and those we get along with, but what about those people who really tick us off? We don’t really love them. We don’t even know how. That’s why we create all those other laws to try to control our true nature, which is selfish and prideful. But the law will always fail in its efforts to change who we truly are.
But there is still hope.
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4.
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Romans 8:9-11.
The Spirit of Christ changes a person when they truly believe in their need for a Savior and the saving Grace of Jesus. It doesn’t happen all at once, but over time the Spirit rearranges the heart and will of God’s children to truly understand what it means to love your neighbor. The Spirit creates a desire to love your neighbor more and more. The law becomes irrelevant to the extent that you want to do better than the law can proscribe, because the law as humans know it and try to create it can never live up to the Godly standard of true and abiding love.
To be governed by the Spirit rather than the law is the last great hope of humanity. All we need to do is believe, trust, and surrender. Then we will truly love.