Listening to a Podcast on the way to work this week, I heard Tim Keller use an illustration that I found helpful. He used a wax seal to illustrate the impact of Biblical law upon the heart of a man (or woman).
To seal a letter, some wax is melted onto the letter and then a seal is pressed into the wax to show the identity of the one who sealed the letter. To do this properly, the wax had to be softened to take the impression of the seal.
Without softening, the seal would have difficulty in making an imprint upon the wax. Either the seal would leave a superficial impression on the hard wax, or the seal would crush the wax into pieces.
Without the Gospel, the Biblical law will have a superficial impression on a man or it will crush him. If a man does not operate under the good news of the Gospel, if he does not acknowledge his moral failure and helplessness to change, the law will either crush him or make him proud.
The result of a superficial application of the law is spiritual pride and intolerance. I saw an example of this recently when a well known comedian applied the ten commandments to his life in such a way as to prove that he keeps the Ten Commandments even though he doesn’t believe in God. To make his proof he had to offer a very superficial understanding and application of the commands. The result was that this comedian comes off as a bit condescending to those who have a different understanding of those commandments.
But non-believers are not the only ones who experience a superficial application of the law. Some who claim to believe the Gospel have also demonstrated this. They may even make every effort to live up to their understanding of the law and may genuinely believe that they are pleasing God by what they do and that they are in the right for the way that they live. The most extreme example of this can be found by following the misguided activities of the folks at Westboro Baptist Church. Their antics display the shallowest impression of the law upon their hearts and a law devoid of any Gospel.
On the other hand, if the law is applied without the softening of the Gospel, a man may be crushed by it. A proper understanding of the law will lead to the correct conclusion that no man can or will completely live up to the standard presented in the law. Any attempt to do so will end in disappointment or despair. If you doubt this, just think about how far into January the average person makes it with his New Year’s resolutions.
Prior to his understanding of righteousness coming as a result of faith, Martin Luther was a man that was crushed by the law. The best example of this is a line from the movie Luther, where Martin says to his superior, “I am too full of sin to be a priest.” Martin understood how far short of the Biblical standard he fell and was overwhelmed by that understanding until he discovered the Gospel.
When Christianity is presented as simply a moral code or philosophy of living, it is not good news, there is no Gospel in such a presentation. The only result will be pride or despair.
But, with a proper understanding of the Gospel, and how much we are loved by God, then the law becomes a tutor (NASB) or guide (ESV) to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). When we understand that Jesus has satisfied the law on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21) we are no longer bound by the standard of perfect law keeping. Jesus kept the law for us.
Because Jesus has done this for us, we have no basis for pride or condemnation of others. An ever deepening understanding of Scripture leads to an ever deepening understanding of how much we have been forgiven.
Also, when we understand how much we are loved, we will not be crushed by the law. Jesus loved you and I so much that he was willing to endure the cross (Heb. 12:2) so that we might be in relationship with him. An ever deepening understanding of Scripture leads to an ever deepening understanding of how much God loves us and how far he has gone to bring us into relationship with himself.
Under the Gospel, our hearts experience the softening that allows for a proper understanding of the role of the law (Tweet this).
My guess is that each of us, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, will gravitate toward one or the other of these superficial applications of the law. Either we will be drawn toward pride over our law-keeping or we will be overwhelmed by our inability to live up to the standards in Scripture. Personally, I am easily sucked into the vortex of the latter.
The antidote to both reactions is a proper understanding of the Gospel, which I like to summarize in two lines (this is a quote/paraphrase from Tim Keller). The Gospel tells me:
I am more deeply flawed than I ever dared to believe
I am more deeply loved than I ever thought possible
That is indeed good news.