What Are The Basic Principles Of The Law?
I want to start discussing what are the underlying principles that one finds with God’s law. By the way I don’t claim I am covering all the issues involved, only two specific ones.
Two of the most important themes underlying the Law are God’s justice and His love. Both are needed, for law to be functional. Even in our legal system, we talk about the letter of the law being tempered with justice. In God’s system, justice is carried out in love. Christ made this abundantly clear when He capsulized the Decalogue in two commandments.
“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Matthew 22:35–40 ESV).
Justice refers to respect for rights - with the first commands, God’s rights and with the latter, men’s rights. With love, we are talking about caring first for God and second for men. While the commands are “thou shalt not … ,” we will also look at them in terms of “thou shalt …”
In the week ahead, I want you to read over the commandments and try to trace them to the teachings of Christ. This is one of the things we will be doing as we look at each one. Also think about the issues of justice and love, as you are doing your studying.
For Israel, I suspect, the primary issue was with God’s justice, though He provided the sacrificial system out of love. I think our primary focus needs to be on the love and how we will apply God’s love in law, so we are aware of the rights of others. Christ focused on the love of the law, when He recapped it in two commandments in Matthew 22.
Now, let’s talk a little more specifically about the two principles of justice, or rights of others and love. Much of this has again come from Smedes. 4
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 ESV).
As you go through both the law and the teachings of Jesus, you will see an overwhelming concern for justice. It is often demonstrated by the need for the protection of the oppressed, children, orphans, widows, and the poor. Much of the law related to debt, slavery, etc. was to protect the helpless. It also taught justice as it related to property and other material rights.
Justice is about rights, and the recognition that if one has rights, someone else has an obligation to honor those rights. Justice is also impersonal. Law should be carried out regardless of who is involved. If God treated us as we deserved, we would be in big trouble. That is why we are grateful for His love that paid the price of His justice. Please note, God paid the price of His justice, because of His love. He did not ignore justice because of that love. This is the answer to those who say that God will judge no one, because He is so loving. The justice of the law is retributive, but justice has been met, for Christ has paid the price.
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, alt- hough the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteous- ness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:19–28 ESV).
This is where love comes in, where the rights of others become more important that our own, for we are trying to become more Christlike. This principle of God’s justice, as opposed to men’s, is shown in this parable:
““For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you. ’So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what be- longs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my gen- erosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”” (Matthew 20:1–16 ESV).
But for us believers, with the issue of justice and peoples’ rights should come concern for love and peoples’ needs. As Christians, we are not to live for ourselves. But as Christ did, we are to live for others. This is an area we will be considering as we examine the commandments. We carry them out by living not for ourselves, egocentricity, as the world tells us - but to live first for God, and as an outgrowth of that, secondly for others.
All this runs contrary to what the world defines as self-love, which is seen as the highest good. But we, too, can demonstrate self-love, if we mean by that striving for the goal of true fulfillment, which is being what God wants us to be. Smedes notes that we can seek as a goal of self-love, joy, which the Westminster Confession defines as our true destiny: “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” 5
Consequently, we are to obey God’s law of justice in a way which demonstrates His love for us. This was made most clear when He, taking on human form, came to pay the price of His justice for us with His death and resurrection. Now we can stand before God justified, covered with Christ’s righteousness. As has often been said “justice is the tough side of love.”
God’s commands cannot be ignored because of the need to be loving. But they can be carried out, as God would have them, because of love. The call to love is often the call to love the unlovable. After all, from God’s perspective, I would certainly think we qualified as unlovable, and yet He loved us. And so, we must love others with that same love.