As we commence a new year in 2021, I am sure that many of us look forward to the suppression, if not elimination, of the Coronavirus which has threatened lives and livelihoods. We welcome the imminent distribution of some of the vaccines that have been developed and are currently in use in other parts of the world, and I am grateful for so many who have offered prayer each night at 1900hrs for COVID-19 research.
Our prayers have been answered. We praise God for this, as we do for our governments who have managed the pandemic in Australia in far more effective ways than other Western democracies.
2020 was a challenging year for many of us, as we found new rules and regulations imposed upon us. While we may have chafed at some of the restrictions, our responsibility was not to evaluate how proportionate the Government’s response was to the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Rather, our response as Christians, as well as citizens, was to follow the Government’s directions, as I have argued in previous issues of Southern Cross.
This does not mean that our Government’s response is above criticism, though I acknowledge that the intention of each Public Health Order proclaimed throughout last year was for the public good.
Human laws are usually made with good intentions. Yet, God’s law is more than good intentions, it is perfect for our world. The Old Testament word for “law” is the Hebrew word torah, which essentially means instruction. It is God’s instruction for his people as to how they should live as his image-bearers in his world.
God’s law is more than good intentions, it is perfect for our world.
Although there is a common misconception that law for Old Testament believers, let alone New Testament believers, is something harsh and unforgiving, this is not the witness of Scripture (Psalm 18:21-23; Luke 1:6). Even a casual reading of Psalm 119 will reveal this to be the case:
“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Psalm 119:97).
Even before Mt Sinai, Abraham joyfully kept God’s law (Genesis 26:5). Keeping God’s law, for Abraham, was a response to God’s grace. Abraham knew his sins had been forgiven and that God had accounted him righteous in his sight (Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s obedience was the outworking of his faith and the response to God’s grace – what we might call the “covenant dynamic” of grace/response.
“The law of the Lord is perfect”, as King David declares, “reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). Jesus did not come to abrogate the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). Hence, the apostle Paul can describe God’s law as “God’s law as “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). Indeed, he declares the law is “spiritual”, which is a reference to the Holy Spirit’s identification with the law and God’s guidance of Israel to Mt Sinai and beyond (Nehemiah 9:11-20; cf Isaiah 63:11ff).
The freedom that the new covenant brings is that the judgment for breaking God’s law has been borne by Christ Jesus on our behalf. We are no longer “under the law” (that is, under the judgment of the law) but “under grace” (Romans 6:14).
While Christians are not under Mosaic Law, with its regime of ceremonial and civil laws for the nation of Israel, God’s moral law (as Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles puts it) is still binding upon Christians. This distinction can be seen from Paul’s arguments about Jewish identity markers, such as circumcision, where he intriguingly teaches the Corinthians that:
neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God (1 Corinthians 7:19).
It is intriguing because circumcision was part of God’s law, yet Paul sees no obligation to keep this requirement. Nonetheless, there are clearly commandments of God that should be kept. This will require discernment by Christians as to which of God’s commandments in the Old Testament are mandatory and which have been fulfilled and no longer binding upon Christians.
Cranmer’s answer to this question may be seen in his introduction to the service of Holy Communion, where the Ten Commandments are read by the minister, with the response from the congregation after each commandment being:
Lord have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to keep this law.
And, after all the commandments are read:
Lord have mercy upon us and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.
It is lamentable that the Ten Commandments are so rarely read in our churches, presumably to save time, replacing them with Jesus’ summary of the commandments. Yet we should not be beguiled into thinking that Jesus’ summary is a replacement, let alone an abrogation, of the Ten Commandments.
I recognise that some Christians differ on the applicability of the Ten Commandments under the new covenant. I also recognise that while some may consider all things to be permissible, Scripture teaches us that not all things are edifying. In all or our behaviour, therefore, our aim should not be to seek our own good, but the good of others, for thereby we shall glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:23-31).
Hero Image is from Pitt Town Anglican, in a pre-Covid service.