In the name of the law!

Of all discussions that arise from the Bible, none is more controversial or polemic than the subject of the law. Perhaps not everyone knows, but the best legislations in history have had their roots in the biblical concept of the law. The reverse is also true: In the name of this law, many abuses have occurred, holy wars have been fought, slavery has been justified, family planning is condemned, women have been held subordinate, figurative arts have been excluded, and blood transfusions forbidden.

How did law—a fundamental element in God’s order for life—become such a controversial issue?

The unlawful use of the law

Our difficulties with God’s law come not only from our transgression of it but also from our errors of perspective concerning its functions. Many of these problems can be traced to what George Knight calls “our unlawful uses of the law.”1

Despite the fact that it is holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12), God’s law may be used in a way that is bad, unholy, and unjust. It may be employed for purposes for which it was not given. In fact, one of the constant temptations of the believer is to use God’s law in a wrong way. For example, in the name of the law, a group of men brought before Jesus a woman caught in adultery—not so much to uphold the law but to trap Jesus in a theological and legal tangle (John 8:1-11). “Should He acquit the woman, He might be charged with despising the law of Moses. Should He declare her worthy of death, He could be accused to the Romans as one who was assuming authority that belonged only to them.”2 The rabbinical plea to the law in this instance was a mere pretext for condemning two persons. But Jesus took the incident and turned it to expose the hypocrisy of the rabbis, to stress the sinner’s need of the forgiveness of divine grace, and to point in the direction of a new life.

To Jesus, holding to the letter of the law is not enough (Matthew 5:20). True respect for the law requires respect for the spirit behind every precept. Thus the commandment “not to kill” requires also not to hurt or attack even verbally (Matthew 5:21-26). The precept concerning adultery speaks not only against the physical act, but also the thought and the look (Matthew 5:27, 28). What this suggests is that the only right way of understanding the law is seeking for the principles behind the precepts.

Another unlawful way of using the law is to find in its obedience the means of salvation. Many Pharisees were guilty of this. The Galatian heresy had to do with such misrepresentation of the law. Paul knew well this problem. Having lived as a Pharisee until his encounter on the road to Damascus, he prided himself in legalism—blameless in respect to the keeping of the law (Philippians 3:4-6). But when he accepted the good news of Jesus, Paul understood that legalism cannot save a person, and that salvation is possible only through faith in Jesus (Romans 1:16, 17; Ephesians 2:8). The law in itself has no power to save, and to attribute such power to it is a theological farce that does great damage to our understanding of God’s appointed way of redemption.

But, then, does not the law have a role in the life of a person saved by God’s grace? One of the most common and most serious confusions in salvation history “is the failure to make a clear distinction between what one must do to be moral and what one must do to be saved.”3 That was the blunder of the Pharisees. Their optimistic view of human nature led them to an erroneous perception of sin. They thought that any human being could overcome sin on the same basis as the unfallen Adam. They believed that everyone could still live according to God’s will by faithfully keeping the law. This limited view of the power of sin (Romans 3:9) affected the Pharisees’ understanding of the purpose of the law, by advocating that obedience to the law was God’s appointed way to obtain righteousness.

Although Paul and the Protestant Reformers demonstrated the fallacies of this belief, this optimistic view of humans and this distorted view of the law are still alive among Christians of all denominations, including Seventh-day Adventists.

We need to realize, as Ellen White wrote, that “it was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin, our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law.”4

The intended use of the law

If our sinful nature is unable to fulfill God’s requirements anymore, what, then, is the purpose of the law? Paul mentions several.

The first function is juridical. Like any other code of laws, God’s law has a “civil” role. Paul says that the law was given “because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19, KJV)*. The first goal of the written law is to limit, avoid or prevent human transgressions as much as possible, in order to restrain evil. In this sense, “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient” (1 Timothy 1:9).

The second function of the law is theological. “By the law,” Paul wrote, “is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). He further argued that were it not for the law, he would not have known that he was a sinner (Romans 7:7). One of the most humiliating realities of life is that we are not always aware of our shortcomings. In this context, the law functions like a mirror (James 1:23), revealing us as we really are. The mirror reveals our blemish and our need for improvement, but it is unable to remove the blemish. So it is with the law of God. It reveals our problems, it tells us we are sinners, but it cannot bring about any change. It accomplishes an important role—that of revealing sin—but it cannot remedy the situation. For the remedy, we must turn to Jesus.

The Lutherans have traditionally tended to deny to the law any other role than the civil and the theological. Whether the law has a third function has been much discussed among Protestants. The third role is a spiritual one. If the law comes from God and if it is the transcript of His character, it must necessarily reveal God’s will for us. If God commands love and condemns injustice, it is because He Himself is loving and just. Paul observed that “the law is…holy, and just, and good” (Romans 7:12, 14). The law shows that God’s ideal for every human being is to reflect His character. And since God does not change, the principles of His law are also the permanent standards of judgment, from Eden to the end of time (Romans 2:12-16; Revelation 14:6-12).

No wonder the New Testament affirms that Spirit-led believers are those who respect God’s will (Revelation 14:12). According to John Calvin, this “third use“ is the “principal use of the law among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns…. Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire.”5

None of the three uses of the law has anything to do with our justification. While the law does not provide salvation, it does offer ethical and spiritual guidance for the believer. “The law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us to the law to be regulated.”6

On the one hand, the law always points to the gospel for assurance of salvation, and on the other, the gospel always invites us to a more sensitive respect of the law. That is why Paul could state that faith establishes the law (Romans 3:31).

The insufficiency of the law

The law itself points out its own limitations. The entire sanctuary system of the Hebrew dispensation teaches us that. The law shows the transgression and convicts the sinner of that transgression. But the law cannot do anything to expiate the transgression. Until Jesus came, the sinner had to turn to the services of the sanctuary. In the name of the law, the sinner was invited to seek salvation outside the law (Romans 3:21). Expiation for sin is God’s affair (Leviticus 16). The blood provided for expiation was to be given by God (Leviticus 17:11). It is God who justifies. It is God who sanctifies (Leviticus 20:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24).

The New Testament shows that all redemptive work, shadowed in the earthly sanctuary, was accomplished through Christ (Romans 3:27-31). Thus “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4). In Him culminates the law as revelation, and through Him all that the law demands becomes a reality.

As Ellen White states, “Through the imputed righteousness of Christ, the sinner may feel that he is pardoned, and may know that the law no more condemns him, because he is in harmony with all its precepts….By faith he lays hold of the righteousness of Christ and responds with love and gratitude for the great love of God in giving His only begotten Son, who died in order to bring to light, life and immortality through the gospel. Knowing himself to be a sinner, a transgressor of the holy law of God, he looks to the perfect obedience of Christ, to His death upon Calvary for the sins of the world; and he has the assurance that he is justified by faith in the merit and sacrifice of Christ. He realizes that the law was obeyed in his behalf by the Son of God, and that the penalty of transgression cannot fall upon the believing sinner. The active obedience of Christ clothes the believing sinner with the righteousness that meets the demands of the law.”7

Human resistance to the law

Despite the fact that the principles of the law reveal God’s will for us, we tend to see the law mainly as an obstacle to freedom. While we recognize the advantages of respecting a certain order, our human nature resists any restriction. We expect others to respect the law, but we find it hard ourselves to submit to its discipline.

The need for the law is clear and logical, but we tend to minimize its obligations. Nature demands the presence of the law, and human nature knows the need for it. But knowing is one thing, and doing is something else. Human happiness is the instructive function of the divine law. The law is meant to focus toward that which is good, to show the difference between good and evil, respect and violence, justice and injustice. The law draws a security line between these polarities, and provides us with a fence to keep us secure. The law’s imperative mode is nothing but God’s expression of love.

Law’s didactic function

Paul compares the function of the law to the task of a schoolmaster who prepares the child to follow the instructions of a higher teacher. He says the law was “to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

In the Bible, often prohibitions precede orders. For instance, the commandment “‘You shall not murder’” (NKJV) comes before any development about love toward our fellow men. For we could not realize the value of life if any previous prohibition did not oblige us to refrain our violent passions. The prohibition of killing stops our aggressive impulses and obliges us to meditate on the consequences of our decision.

While life constantly obliges us to choose, the law helps us to choose well. It teaches us that failing to choose is a dangerous option and that asking for God’s guidance means more, not less freedom. This is the reason why the Bible calls the law “the perfect law of freedom” (James 1:25, Jerusalem Bible).

In its didactic function, the law teaches us where our values are. Each prohibition and each command asserts a specific value: not lying reminds us of the value of the truth, not committing adultery underlines the importance of faithful love, not using violence highlights the uniqueness of life, etc. The law tells us that the lives and feelings of our fellow human beings are as precious as our own lives and feelings. The mission of God’s law is, in this sense, more didactic than imposing, more revealing than legislative.

Realizing the profound values of the law, but also its definite limits, helps us to see it no longer as an obstacle to our freedom, but as a precious help in our journey. It guides us, like a map or a chart, but the way itself is no other than Jesus. He Himself has clearly stated that in these troubled times of history, true believers will remain faithful to both God’s commandments and their trust in Jesus (Revelation 14:12).

Roberto Badenas (Th.D., Andrews University) is dean of the seminary and teaches theology at Saleve Adventist University, France. His latest book is Más allá de la ley (Madrid: Safeliz, 1998). His address: Boite Postale 74; 74165 Collonges-sous-Saleve Cedex; France. E-mail:

* Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible texts in this article are quoted from the King James Version

Notes and references

  1. George Knight, The Pharisee’s Guide to Perfect Holiness (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1992), pp. 59, 60.
  2. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 460, 461.
  3. Knight, p. 65.
  4. Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), p. 62.
  5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:7,12
  6. B. W. Ball, The English Connection (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1981), p. 133.
  7. Ellen G. White, The Youth’s Instructor, Nov. 29, 1894, p. 201.