Getting Out from Under the Law
I know, I know: there’s nothing more irritating that a pastor using his kids as illustrations in a sermon. My kids agree. But, lucky for you, this is a blog and not a sermon. Plus, it really is remarkable how raising children can teach you about the nature of sin, both in the world and in yourself.
Take a recent game of kickball we were playing in the front yard of our house. My oldest son told us he played the game at school and proceeded to tell us how the game worked and what rules we needed to follow. We played parents vs. kids. As the game went on, my wife and I were “letting” the kids win. But, my son began to grow a bit cocky. So, Team Parent started to play a little better to humble him a bit. At this point, my son made three moves to keep us from coming back. First, he began to overly enforce the existing rules. Second, he created new rules to keep us from winning. Third, he began to break the rules to give himself an advantage.
Now, listen, we aren’t mean parents (all the time), and we were totally going to lose the game, but we had to stop him from changing and breaking the rules. The rules that we started the game with were the rules that continued to guide the game. And, if the rules don’t work to your advantage, that doesn’t mean you get to change them. Nor do you get to use them in overly nuanced ways to give you a greater advantage. We had to enforce the rules. Though he tried, my son could not get out from under the rules.
It struck me in this little game of kickball that my son was the perfect example of how we sinners try to get out from under the law of God. God’s Law is a death sentence for us sinners. There is no winning beneath the Law of God. When it is exposing and accusing you of sin, there is no way out, nowhere to turn. Beneath the Law, sinners are dead where they stand.
But, that doesn’t stop sinners from trying to find a way out. After all, we sinners don’t want to die. So, we’ll employ all kinds of tactics to find our way out from under the Law’s accusations. Like a seven year old who’s about to lose at front yard kickball, we seek to change the rules or we try and turn the rules on others. To put it theologically, we seek to get out from under the Law by either antinomianism or legalism.
Antinomianism is the idea that we don’t need the Law anymore, or that the Law has nothing to say to us as Christians. Gerhard Forde draws a helpful distinction between overt and covert antinomianism. Overt antinomianism is the rejection of the Law in the Christian life altogether. It says something like “Christ is the end of the Law, therefore Christians don’t need any law at all anymore.” It ignores both the guiding use of the Law and, perhaps more dangerously, the reality that we Christians are still beset by sin and still in need of repentance. We try to get out from under the Law by pretending the rules don’t apply to us. As Jude writes of such people, they are, “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4)
But, what I fear is happening more and more in our culture, is covert antinomianism. This is where the Law is watered down, or even changed, to fit our cultural preferences. An old Far Side cartoon depicts a group of guys sitting around in the flames of hell with a speaker saying, “The thing I’m here for isn’t even a sin anymore!” Forde writes, “Under the guise of concern for ethics, morality, and justice, law is watered down and blunted to accommodate our fancies.” Or, we don’t like the rules of kickball, so we change them. We are moving against the law by rewriting it to make us more comfortable with our particular brand of sin. Of course, we’ll do it in the name of love or justice, but really, were just trying to get out from under the accusation. The prophet Isaiah calls such people those who “call evil good and good evil.” (Isaiah 5:20)
The other route we’ll take to get out from under the Law’s accusing gaze is legalism. Now, this may sound strange as legalism is often viewed as an embracing of the law. However, the legalist will take the Law of God and use it against everyone else, but not apply it to him or herself. Dr. Gene Veith gets at this as he blogged recently about the difference between being moral and moralizing. Being moral includes judging yourself and others as an act of love and driving toward repentance. Moralizing, however, gets you out from under the Law’s accusation by putting you in charge of the Law and putting you (not the Law as such) on the attack.
Veith writes, “It would seem that “moralizing” comes from the perspective of moral superiority. It includes the sense of “self-righteousness.”” How can I be accused if I am the one in charge of the rule? I make the rules, I enforce the rules, I am above the rules. Why worry about any accusation against my eye-plank when I’m so busy searching out the specks in your eyes?
But, of course, as Paul writes, “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law…” (Galatians 6:13) And that verse from Paul actually helps expose the problem with both overt and covert antinomianism as well as legalism: no matter what move we make, the Law hasn’t changed. It hasn’t moved. You can try to change, ignore, or control the Law. It is still exposing our sin, it is still accusing. We can try to silence it in any way we can, but the rules aren’t working to the advantage of the cheater.
The reality is that there is no way out from under the Law for the sinner. To draw my analogy out one step too far: The rules weren’t going to change for my kids’ team. They needed someone to come and win the game for them. What they needed for victory was someone who would both obey the rules for them and out-play the opponent. Someone who kept the rules would need to come along and give the victory to their team.
So it is for sinners under the Law. There is no hope for us getting out from under the Law’s accusations, unless someone comes in from the outside to silence the Law for us. And, this is of course what Jesus has done for you and for me. He was “born under the Law to redeem those under the Law.” (Galatians 4:4-5) This is truly the most remarkable of victories as it comes not only by Jesus keeping the Law perfectly for us, but by Him paying the penalty for our sins under its accusations. He is accused in your place and He shed the blood the Law demands in your place. He follows this up by then granting you the victory. He became sin under the Law’s condemnation so that you and I might become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:21)
Jesus is the end of the Law’s accusations against us. He is the only way out from under the suffocating accusations of the Law. Any effort we make to get out from under the Law, be it antinomian or legalistic, is an exercise in futility. In keeping the rules, Christ has done all that is necessary to fulfill the Law for you! You are so free that you can now play by the rules without having to change them at all! Just enjoy the game! Now you are free to get out there and play!
 Gerhard Forde, “Fake Theology: Reflections on Antinomianism Past and Presnent,” in The Preached God:Proclamation in Word and Sacrament. Ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI. pgs. 214-225
 Ibid. pgs. 220-221