In all seriousness, with no discernible sense of humor nor irony, student protesters and rioters in the streets of Paris, in May of 1968, chanted, “It is forbidden to forbid!” Had they lingered in thought a few moments over an espresso at a sidewalk bistro before hitting the streets to start fires, throw bricks, and battle with police, they might have laughed at the absurd self-contradiction of such a slogan. Their laughter might have stopped had they also considered the costs and consequences of imposing such a selective, self-contradictory, and self-defeating rule against all rules on themselves and on others.
Ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, there has been similar confusion over what is permitted or forbidden to Christians, and why. Or, why not. The conflict shows up early, in the letters of the New Testament, as the Apostles wrangled with two opposite camps troubling the first churches: legalistic Judaizers who would impose rules like circumcision and Levitical dietary restrictions on all believers, Jewish or Gentile, and antinomian Gnostics, for whom secret mystical knowledge and experience allegedly lifted them above and beyond the need for any obligations or restraints. Variations of these camps and conflicts have continued through the ages, and broadly define the extreme ends of the range of moral discernment for the church. As a result, we typically do much better at saying what law is not for, than what it is for.
One reason for our wrangling is because of the ways in which rules and laws are often put to uses for which they were never intended. Postmodern thought rightfully warns us of the ways in which law, morality and religion can serve the powerful to justify the oppression and exploitation of those less powerful, either when these laws are imposed upon them from outside and above, or when they are internalized and enforced from within. Or both. But this postmodern critique often goes on to locate the source of such injustice in law itself, instead of in its misuse, or in those who misuse it. As a result, postmodernism, like the Parisian protesters, can make rigid, ruthless laws out of lawlessness.
Perhaps the most famous example of religious and legalistic oppression, from within and without himself, would be Martin Luther and his years of anxious striving to please God by means of rules and regulations, before he came to understand that “the just shall live by faith.”
We often use Luther’s experience to pit law against love and grace, on the assumption that law is inherently loveless, and therefore, love is inherently lawless. The plot of most currently popular novels, movies and television series is the assumed conflict between love and law. That stands in contrast to plot lines before the late 1960’s which always resolved such conflicts in favor of law and virtue, (Compare Leave it To Beaver with Arrested Development, or The Waltons with The Simpsons), however clueless these shows, films and books might also have been about sexism, patriarchy, or racism. Follow this antinomian line of thinking toward its logical end and you not only become tolerant and capable of anything and everything transgressive, you become obligated. Transgression becomes the measure of love, and its practitioners the heroes and pioneers of love.
As with the slogan, “It is forbidden to forbid,” such an approach bears at least one fatal self-contradiction: Transgression can only be heroic, humorous, or even interesting if there actually are binding and universal rules and virtues to begin with. Otherwise, in a completely random and meaningless universe, total and complete anomie would soon become boring and pointless. In a world with objective values, however, performative iniquity and rebellion are back-handed compliments of every virtue they assault.
Though Luther risked his life on the belief that he was not saved by biblical law, he would have been aghast at the idea that we are saved from the law. He examined himself against the Ten Commandments as part of his daily devotions and would have been surprised if anyone had accused him of inconsistency for doing so. Skilled debater that he was, he may have asked, “From which law are we saved?” The trap would thus be laid for anyone who does not carefully define law, nor recognize the different categories of law, rules and moral principles, in life and in the Bible, and who lumps them all together for uniform observance or rejection.
A debate with Luther about law would require a common definition of law. In a sermon he preached, Luther said, “The law is the Word in which God teaches and tells us what we are to do and not to do, as in the Ten commandments.” That word is obviously in the Bible. But “law” in both the Bible and in society has different but overlapping meanings and applications which we must carefully define and distinguish. Within the Bible, tradition and scholars have long recognized and distinguished at least three categories of law: ceremonial, civil and moral. The basic, bedrock moral law of the Old Testament, as Luther noted above, is most famously encapsulated in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17). Jesus identified the supreme command in the Hebrew Bible as, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength,” and “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 36-40).
Ceremonial law in the Bible, also called, “ritual law,” has to do with sacrifices, cleansings, holidays, and other uniquely Hebrew religious rules, rites and rituals. Civil law applies the basic moral code of the Old Testament to distinct social and legal problems, such as what to do when you find your neighbor’s ox wandering loose, even when you and your neighbor don’t get along (Exodus 23: 3-5). Your mutual enmity does not entitle you to appropriate your enemy’s livestock; thus, sentiment is not the arbiter of conduct. Law, to be law, must be bigger than, outside of, and prior to ourselves, our feelings, our desires, or the behavior of others toward ourselves.
Ritual/ceremonial law likewise rested upon and reflected the nature of God and the moral law. Just as importantly, both kinds of law provided a protective cultural and spiritual hedge around the people of the covenant, impeding the infiltration of idolatrous and imperial beliefs, practices and values from neighboring peoples.
The basic, bedrock moral law, however, was understood to be universal, because it is rooted in and reflects the nature of a timeless, omnipresent God, and the nature and needs of all humanity. Even without divinely revealed law, Gentiles can grasp and observe much of God’s moral law, and often do (Romans 2:14-15).
It’s not always easy to distinguish the three types of biblical law. Current disputes over sexuality rest, in part, on whether biblical rules and laws about sex, and which ones, constitute civil, ceremonial, or basic bedrock moral law. Or are there deeper and more pressing moral laws and principles at stake than any particular sexual restraints? There are no captions in the original manuscripts saying, “This is just for the government,” or “Void where prohibited by the U.S. Constitution,” or “This case law expires after the 4th Century B.C.” Leviticus Chapter 19, often vilified for what may strike some people today as quaint and prudish regulations about food and sex, also contains part of Jesus’ Greatest Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We have no cause then to deny or denigrate any basic moral law of the Bible because of its textual proximity to any temporary civil, ritual or ceremonial laws. Being free to eat pork does not free us to bear false witness.
Jesus seems to have accepted and worked with some sort of distinction among laws, such as when he said, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7: 14-25) by way of slander, envy, indecency, abuse and more. The first part of that saying renders relative the purity code; the second part intensifies the moral law. Mark’s Gospel account of that saying adds, “And thus He declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Food rules, and other ritual and civil rules, must give way to the moral code if this Kingdom is to “be preached as a testimony to all nations,” and Jesus’ disciples are to “make disciples in every nation…teaching them to obey everything” he commanded them (Matthew 28: 18-20). Christians can therefore enjoy shrimp cocktail with their bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, because the reason and the need for the civil and ceremonial laws are no longer in force.
But the reason and the need for the basic, bedrock moral guidance of the Bible are still in force. If anything, Jesus intensified it for his disciples. For example, it is not enough that we simply avoid committing adultery. We must also put to death the interior personal fantasy life by which we objectify and exploit others visually, as mere sex objects (Matthew 5: 27-30). Nor is it enough to simply avoid killing someone physically; we must also avoid assaulting their reputations, their dignity and their self-respect, in thought, word or deed (Matthew 5: 21-22). Even in Jesus’ conflicts with other Jews over healing or hand-harvesting grain to eat on the Sabbath, he was not abrogating the 4th Commandment as much as he was showing a better understanding of it. Releasing someone from hunger or infirmity is more in keeping with the sabbath than is the work of hungering or hurting till the next day.
The apostles continued this simultaneous relaxation of the civil and ceremonial law, and the intensification of the moral law, in their ministries among the nations. In Paul’s letters, “the law that stood against us” (Col. 2:14) or “the letter of the law that kills,” is not the bedrock moral law, for he is always quick to reinforce that in his advice to the churches. Paul was referring instead to those aspects of the civil and ceremonial laws, like purity codes and dietary restrictions, that separated Jews and Gentiles culturally, and which impeded their life and love together in the church. In his famous “Love Chapter,” I Corinthians 13, Paul’s very practical descriptions of what love is and is not, in action and in attitude, can each be traced back to the Ten Commandments. They are like the case laws of the Old Testament, providing specific, relational examples of what loving God and our neighbors as ourselves looks like.
With their fellow Jews, Jesus and the Apostles regarded God’s moral law as a gift to humanity, not a burden. As for the civil and ceremonial laws of the Bible, they could be described sometimes as “burdens.” Yet they can still give guidance as to how deep principles of the basic, bedrock moral law find expression in individual cases. A prime example is when Paul applied the rule, “you shall not muzzle the ox that treads the grain” (Deut. 25:4) to the support of ministers (I Cor. 9:9). Another value of the civil and ceremonial laws is in the ways that they point ahead toward Christ, symbolically and in action. Having perfectly fulfilled these laws on our behalf, we are freed from the mere letter of the outward observances of ceremony and sacrifice, to get on with fulfilling the spirit of the law in the more strenuous and intense way of Jesus: not just loving others as we would like to be loved, but in the unmerited and sacrificial way that he loved us (John 15:12) .
Within two generations, most Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, were resolving their conflicts over food and circumcision in favor of greater liberty, while upholding, transmitting and sometimes intensifying counter-cultural Biblical moral standards about sex, money, peace-making, justice and loyalty to God and each other, sometimes at great social cost, sometimes even on pain of death. About food, of greater importance to the Apostles and the early church was that Jewish and Gentile believer should be able to eat together, than whatever it was that they ate. In which case, the moral law, “love your neighbor as yourself,” surprisingly required more restraint of the Gentile Christian than of the Jewish Christian. The former would desist from bringing pork chops or or blood soup to a love feast, not for the sake of his or her eternal salvation, but for the sake of table fellowship with his Jewish brothers and sisters.
Though we often make unfair caricatures of Jewish legalism, both Jews and Christians see the observance of the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandments as signs of a right relationship with God, not its price or precondition. A life reflective of The Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment testifies to the saving work of God in one’s life, more than it might earn it. Willful, continuous flouting of the moral law, by contrast, is a sign of rupture in one’s relationship with God, and not only its cause. It cannot help but rupture relationships within the church, family and community as well.
In the 1960’s, the school of Situation Ethics responded to the horrors of the Holocaust and of nuclear weapons by explaining and exploring all the reasons and ways in which we might violate all the Ten Commandments for the sake of love. The rare emergency might indeed occasionally put us in a moral dilemma in which one biblical law is at odds with another. Most famously, if the Gestapo were to show up at our door and demand to know if we were hiding Jews, and we were, then the 7th Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” appears to be at odds with the 9th: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” We are not gods, and should admit the limits of our understanding and our righteousness. But such dilemmas are extremely rare compared to all the other normal, daily trials and temptations we face with truthfulness, and which would better occupy our time in deliberation. Otherwise, we become absolutist about our relativism.
It is common among Christians now to pit Jesus and his life and ministry against the apostles and their moral teachings, especially those of Paul. Jesus is rightly held up as the supreme model and teacher of love. But to hear us sometimes, you’d almost think that Jesus was opposed to the law, and never said anything against license or immorality. Paul, by contrast, is often and wrongly presented as someone who took the new Jesus movement backward, back into moralism and legalism, as though he never said anything good about grace, faith or God’s love and mercy. That facile contrast overlooks, among other things, the differences in the contexts of their ministries. Jesus spoke most often to fellow observant, devoted Jews who often needed reminding that “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Paul, by contrast, was most often ministering in Gentile contexts, to those for whom idolatry, immorality and injustice were not only personal weaknesses, but civic and religious institutions, as was temple prostitution. The contexts of their ministries were very different: law without love versus love without law. Seen in that light, the continuities between the teachings of Jesus and the ministry of Paul emerge more clearly into view.
The basic, bedrock moral law of the Bible then is not only prescriptive, it is descriptive of a life filled with love, and empowered by grace. Biblical moral law therefore provides definitions, descriptions and benchmarks of love, both of God’s love for us, and of our love for God and each other. There had therefore better be some very good reasons why an act of love should appear in opposition to biblical moral law, and it had better be the exception, rather than the rule. That’s why most Jewish and Christian meditations and exhortations about love over the centuries have focused on virtues, values, choices and character, rather than on emotion, at least until we entered the “therapeutic age” about a hundred years ago. Then, love became whatever released us from the tension between desire and duty, usually in favor of desire. In modern capitalism, desire has even become a duty. Without the concrete and practical descriptions and definitions of love that we find in The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or in the moral exhortations of the New Testament Epistles, love degenerates into an empty shell of sentimentality. Sentiment, while a wonderful God-given component of human nature, can also be very useful for blackmailing and manipulating us into anything lawless.
Distinguishing law from grace is helpful when talking about the means of salvation. But to pit them against each other in the Christian’s life does violence to both law and grace. We often speak of grace as forgiveness, which it certainly includes. But sometimes we do so to the point of making grace a license for lawlessness. Luther’s dictum, sola gratia, sola fide (only by grace, only by faith) was not aimed against law, but against legalism, the misguided effort to earn from God the righteousness that God alone has, and which God alone offers, and freely. The deadly error in legalism is our misguided confidence in our own virtue, merits, wisdom and power to obey the rules, rather than in God’s mercy and Christ’s merits. Legalism is based on fear, rather than on faith. It is a vain quest for self-justification rather than trusting in the Christ who justifies us. Because it requires constant comparison between ourselves and others, who must fulfill our needs for scapegoats and inferiors, legalism and self-justification constitute a violence of the heart which leads to violence of the hand.
Rightly understood, grace is not opposed to law, but empowers us for lawfulness: “ For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
In the words of Titus 2: 12-14 above, we have not a contrast between law and grace, but between law and legalism. While law is God’s gift to us, legalism is the effort to make of law and lawfulness our gifts to God. But law itself, in both scripture and experience, proves that not only impossible, but pointless as well. Reflecting God’s holiness rather than ours, divine law will always be greater than ourselves and our capabilities. Law thereby does us another favor: it shows us how much we need God’s grace. That may be why, in the historical timeline of biblical revelation, “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s opening meditation on cheap grace and costly grace in The Cost of Discipleship, we cannot get to true, costly grace from the starting point of the self: self-indulgence, self-justification or self-worship. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves,” wrote Bonhoeffer. We only get to true and costly grace from divine law, from its demands on us and our delight in it. Divine law is the plow that God uses to “break up the fallow ground” of our hearts to receive grace. Divine law not only points us to divine grace and our need for it, it describes grace in its expression in life. Biblical, bedrock moral law is even a means of grace, whenever we let it challenge, humble, inspire, instruct and guide us. The less we value law, the more we cheapen grace, for without law, there is no need for grace.
In the world’s current downward spiral toward ever greater lawlessness, of the political and social left or right, of revolutionaries or reactionaries, populists or progressives, nativists or cosmopolitans, the church is tempted to join one side or the other in the false hope that cheap grace and lawlessness will spare us the wrath of our increasingly transgressive world. But in our headlong rush, we and the world are actually and ironically becoming more legalistic, judgmental and punitive, like those who marched in the streets of Paris proclaiming, “It is forbidden to forbid!” A healthy dose of biblical law, perhaps by comparing ourselves daily to The Ten Commandments and Christ’s Supreme Commandment, rather than to each other, is indispensable if we are to know and to show the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.