Delighting in the Law of the Lord

Jerram Barrs. Delighting in the Law of the Lord: God’s Alternative to Legalism and Moralism. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 352 pp. $25.00.

With cultural insight, theological integrity, and the heart of a gentle evangelist, Jerram Barrs expounds a biblical view of law in his Delighting in the Law of the Lord. Combating both legalism and antinomianism, Barrs shows how the proper Christian attitude toward the law is neither fearful dread nor casual dismissal, but rather delight and wholehearted consecration. Delighting in the Law of the Lord will help believers cry out with Paul, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law” (Rom. 7:22), and with the psalmist, “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps. 119:97).

Barrs, professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, served for nearly two decades with L'Abri Fellowship in England prior to his teaching ministry. His years in the field, influenced by the ministry of Francis Schaeffer, bring to the book a pastoral freshness and insight that makes for a spiritually and practically helpful read. Delighting in the Law of the Lord is a book for real life settings—for pastors and church leaders wanting to reach the postmodern generation more effectively, for lay Christians who feel ill-equipped to speak with their unbelieving neighbors, and for small groups wanting to understand the role of God’s law in their lives and society (note the discussion questions concluding each chapter). I especially wonder if those involved in leadership at Christian schools may benefit from Barrs’s work, given the temptation to moralism in such settings.

Barrs’s work is as much cultural analysis as it is biblical exposition. The first three chapters outline the decline of Western civilization into postmodern uncertainty and pessimism, and this backdrop is never far from view throughout the rest of the book. Thus Barrs does not merely analyze a biblical view of law and morality, he also applies it to our cultural drift into moral relativism. The result is that in Barrs’s helpful portrait, God’s law isn’t merely an authority over the Christian, but a resource to the Christian seeking to be salt and light in an increasingly anti-authority, relativistic culture.

The early and middle chapters trace the motif of law throughout the biblical narrative, for instance at Sinai (ch. 5) or in Christ’s overcoming the curse of the law at Calvary (ch. 11). Especially helpful is his discussion of the relation between the law and our status as God’s image bearers (chs. 6-7), where he argues the law defines what kind of behavior images God, drawing from God’s repeated assertion “I am the LORD” after his commandments in Leviticus (cf. 99). Perhaps the greatest theme of the book, particularly emphasized in these chapters, is that God’s law is beautiful because it reflects his beautiful character. Love for the law is therefore a necessary implication of love for God. “The more we love the Lord himself, the more we will love his commandments” (187).

Two particularly powerful moments in this section are (1) Barrs’s personal testimony of becoming a Christian after contemplating suicide (54-58), and (2) his sharing about his father-in-law’s generous character to illustrate obedience to “the spirit of the law” (116-123).

Law Versus Legalism

Chapter 13 is important and transitional, as Barrs delves into different understandings of the law throughout church history, arguing vigorously against views that downplay the law as though it has no role in the life of a Christian. After exegeting Lutheran, Dispensational, and various Reformed views on the law, Barrs presents John Calvin as a more reliable guide on such matters. One of Barrs’s admirable burdens, explicit in this chapter and implicit throughout the book, is to oppose the antinomianism that has become commonplace in many evangelical churches and seems to be encroaching even on many Reformed circles. Barrs demonstrates that, far from being at odds with a gospel emphasis, a high view of the law is an indispensable component of true gospel preaching: “We may be sure that where the law is not deeply taught and loved, there will be little appreciation for Christ and his work; and there will be little transformation of life and little genuine discipleship” (181). Barrs encourages readers to see the law as the Bible sees it: as a light to our feet (Ps. 119:105), refreshment to our soul (Ps. 19:5), and the object of our delight (Ps. 119:24).

In chapters 14-16, Barrs hammers away at the corrosive dangers of legalism. He’s already argued the primary motivation for obedience to the law has always been God’s grace and mercy (79, 87), and that the law was never given as a means of meriting God’s favor (77, 101, 113, 127-128). Now Barrs directs his attention to Jesus’ attack on legalism, demonstrating that legalism doesn’t arise from too high a view of God’s law, but too low a view. Absolute, unyielding submission to the authority of God’s law is liberating, for it drives us to Christ for his grace and mercy and to the Spirit for his supernatural help. Conversely, when we have a low view of God’s law we tend to rely on more manageable, humanly constructed laws. Thus, delighting in God’s law is not legalistic; it is, paradoxically, one of the best means of fighting legalism.

Beyond Culture Warfare

In the final chapters of the book, Barrs addresses how God’s law ought to inform Christians’ role in society. Drawing from the doctrine of common grace as well as the example of Christ, Barrs calls believers to display gentleness and respect in their relationships with unbelievers in the culture around them (e.g., 255-261). He advocates that the entire law provides principles for how Christians can serve the societies in which God has placed them, while nevertheless faulting theonomy for too flatly identifying the mission of Israel with the mission of church (315). Barrs contrasts Jesus’ use of the law in various interactions, such as with the rich young ruler (ch. 17), Zacchaeus (ch. 19), and the sinful woman at Simon’s home (ch. 20). He notes Jesus most often used the law to humble the proud and self-sufficient, not to condemn those already aware of their desperate need, and suggests likewise that Christians should be most zealous in applying the law to themselves. After this, the law should be used to humble the religiously self-confident, not to simply condemn the irreligious and wandering. “The school of the law is for the proud” (277).

The approach to cultural issues modeled here is faithful to Scripture while also humble, winsome, and compelling. In fact, Barrs demonstrates that unyielding, wholehearted obedience to God’s law does not make one culturally aloof or morally superior. Rather, true obedience is always beautiful. A person who passionately delights in God’s law isn’t generally difficult to be around, but actually attracts sinful, lost, and despairing people. This, of course, is the example of Christ, whose life epitomized and fulfilled the deepest meaning of the law.

If more Christians were taking their cues on how to respond to our surrounding culture from Jerram Barrs than from Bill O’Reilly, perhaps we’d see more unbelievers rejoicing and giving thanks to God over our lives (Matt. 5:16, 1 Pet. 2:12).

Outstanding Resource

Overall, Delighting in the Law of the Lord is an outstanding resource that will challenge readers to love and obey the law of God more beautifully in their lives. I have nothing critical to say about the book, but readers might be helped in two areas to know more about its purpose.

First, the book appears to be written primarily to a Christian audience. Some might assume that because Barrs is an evangelist, this book could be given to their non-Christian friend to help them understand a Christian view of law. Perhaps it could, but readers should be aware that he isn’t primarily doing evangelism; he’s helping fellow Christians join him in the task. Second, Delighting in the Law of the Lord is a thorough treatment of its topic, approaching its subject from a wide range of biblical, historical, and practical angles across its 24 chapters. Some readers might find the book’s style and structure a bit repetitive at times, and may benefit from jumping around to explore what particular topics interest them.