Forging the chains of our own bondage
BY JOHN RICHARDSON
THE UGLEY VICAR
January 10, 2013
Preparing to teach on 'Wisdom' and the wisdom literature yesterday at TEAM in Cambridge, I came across (and subsequently used) this quote from Martin Luther: This I do know, that no state is governed successfully by means of laws. If the ruler is wise, he will govern better by a natural sense of justice than by laws. If he is not wise, he will foster nothing but evil through legislation, since he will not know what use to make of the laws nor how to adapt them to the case at hand. Therefore, in civil affairs more stress should be laid on putting good and wise men in office than on making laws; for such men will themselves be the very best of laws, and will judge every variety of case with a lively sense of equity. And if there is knowledge of the divine law combined with natural wisdom, then written laws will be entirely superfluous and harmful. Above all, love needs no laws whatever. (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, LW 36:98) Luther, I think, understood better than most (certainly far better than most Christians today) the 'oil and water' nature of law and grace. For Luther they were both aspects of God's dealing with humankind, but they were not equal 'goods'. On the contrary, the law, ultimately, was the antithesis of human good, since it addressed us in our sinful state and brought only condemnation.
The gospel, by contrast, was a blessed relief from not just moral or ceremonial law, but law as a principle. And whilst Luther recognized the continuance of two 'kingdoms of God' in this world - one under the law, magistrates and the sword, and the other under the gospel, charity and the word - he was adamant that we must keep the two distinct in our thinking and our practice and that we must esteem the second more than the first.
The New Perspective approach to Paul has, I think, muddied the waters on this as on so many other things. I was struck yesterday, however, by the words of Galatians 3:19: "Why, then, the law? It was added because of transgressions ..."
This word 'transgressions' refers not simply to 'boundary markers' of the community but to the adherence to God's ways and ordinances (cf Dt 17:19-20). The law was not only there to identify 'members of the covenant community' but to identify and limit their sins and sinfulness. And this was as much a moral as a ceremonial matter.
When Paul speaks of the law which most identified his intractable sinfulness he picked on the commandment not to covet - a moral law if ever there was one. This was the law that killed him, and this was the law to which he died in Christ. And so we must see that all law is, in principle, a sign that we are not yet living under grace.
Were Christians to grasp this understanding better, and were they to apply it as radically in their approach to society as Luther did in his, we would perhaps have something more interesting to say, beginning with this: the more society departs from the grace of the gospel, the more it will live under man-made laws which, because of our lack of wisdom (Rom 1:22) will increasingly do more harm than good.
Without either the gospel or a knowledge of the laws of God, we will forge the chains of our own bondage.
For information on changes to VOL comments, please see this FAQ entry.
comments powered by Disqus
Follow VOL on Social Networks: