What if your church’s elders passed down a fiat that members couldn’t take more than 1,999 steps on the Lord’s Day without facing church discipline? Just one more step would represent a long trip—a no-no on the day God set aside for worship.
What if they said you could not carry your Bible to church, since such heavy lifting would too closely resemble work? Anything heavier than a dried fig is strictly taboo, they say.
Or what if they added a clause in the constitution and bylaws that members must not leave a radish in salt, since that vegetable might become a pickle, and pickle-making is work?
And what if they added subparagraphs to the constitution prescribing disciplinary action for those found guilty of other activities on the Lord’s Day, such as carrying a pen (lest you be tempted to write), carrying a needle (lest you be tempted to sew), helping those sick with non-life-threatening maladies (it can wait till Monday), looking in the mirror, and removing dirt from clothes?
You get the picture.
Such boorish legalism would make a congregation miserable and would get the elders fired. Yet these were merely a few among dozens of Sabbath laws that the Pharisees added to the Torah.
Ironically, the Pharisees and their scribes were the theological giants of the day, yet in Mark 2:25–26 and other passages Jesus asks them, “Have you not read?” In other words, don’t you understand the Scriptures? In John 5:39, Jesus tweaks the Pharisees with similar words: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
In the Mark passage, the Pharisees are watching Jesus—a rabbi—to see if he breaks their rabbinic laws related to the Sabbath. They charge him with spiritual criminality, since his disciples pick heads of grain while walking through a field and eat the kernels to satisfy their hunger. Jesus points out that David and his band of brothers ate the showbread in the tabernacle with divine impunity while on the run from Saul (1 Sam. 21:1–6). At the outset of Mark 3, Jesus heals a man with a lame hand—in direct violation of the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees.
Of course, the Pharisees are infamous for encrusting the moral law of God with hundreds of manmade traditions. And we get the idea from the New Testament that trying to obey those laws as a means of salvation made them a miserable people.
Pharisees Alive and Well
While few of us today seek to follow the Pharisaical model, this level of misery is alive and well among those who misunderstand the complementarity of law and gospel. Such persons seek God’s favor through misappropriating his law to extrapolate personal convictions—often banning certain modes of dress, music, movies, and so on—that become a system of expected norms to which they hold both themselves and other Christians. The legalist’s slogan, Charles Spurgeon once quipped, is “you cannot be spiritual unless you are uncomfortable.”
Indeed. The law of God as a ground for salvation, as a means of accruing merit, leaves the worker exhausted, miserable, and lost. The law wrongly applied is a terrible taskmaster.
No wonder discussions of law and gospel remain vital and deeply practical. After all, Paul wrote, “The law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). But how can he say the law is good? It once held us captive (Gal. 3:23); sin came alive through it and killed him (Rom. 7:11). If the law kills, if it holds us captive and consigned the Pharisees to shriveled up lives of box-checking, then how is it good?
God’s Law Is Not Bad
I think Paul gets at it in Romans 7:7: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
The law exposes our sin. It shows us the holy, spotless character of God. It produces holy despair—not a hopelessness that leads us to forego attempting to merit any favor with God and drives us to the only place it can be found—in union with Jesus Christ, in his person and work.
The law bruises; the gospel heals.
Rightly appropriated, the moral law of God unmasks our self-righteousness and exposes us for who we really are: sinners devoid of the righteousness necessary for salvation, sinners hurtling headlong toward just destruction at the hands of a holy God, sinners in desperate need of a mediator before God.
The law shows us that we have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, revealing our desperate need for grace—both before and after salvation. The law bruises; the gospel heals. John Calvin saw three good functions for the law: it’s a mirror (clearly exposing our sin); it reveals God’s will (as a guide to sanctification); and it restrains evil in society (we’re not as bad as we could be).
The law left the Pharisees and their disciples miserable because they viewed it as a vehicle to glory, a means of salvation. They used it unlawfully, and the result was a shrunken, joyless, bitter existence.
This is the result when we misapply Scripture and replace grace with legalism. But, rightly understood, the law of God is good, unmasking our self-righteousness and exposing our depravity. It sends us running for cover in the righteousness of Christ, won at Calvary. It liberates us to rest from our labors at keeping the law, and it leads us to green pastures of deep and overflowing joy in Christ alone.