We have come to a point in our discussion where we have ruled out a few of the more traditional ways of misunderstanding the role and function of the law in the life of the world. We have seen that the attempt to do away with the law as something that only applied “back then,” (a’la Marcion) rested upon a misunderstanding of its continued pedagogical role in leading people to Christ, i.e., its end. On the other hand, we saw how attempting to rescue the law from the Marcions of the world by boiling it down to a set of moral precepts actually lessened its radical claims and allowed for a sense in which people could seemingly fulfill the law by being “good.”
So, we’ve now come to the point where, having done away with these misunderstandings, we can get to the heart of what the role, function and purpose of the law has always been, namely, to reveal sin. However, this is not the revelation of sin primarily as action but, rather, the revelation that underneath all sinful human activity lies the real foundation of human sin, namely, unbelief. The law exposes the fact that on account of sin, human beings do not believe in God.
Now, this may sound somewhat simplistic, but when we look at the account from Genesis, we see that the initial sin was acceptance of the two great lies, that humans could be like God and would never die. On account of the acceptance of these great temptations, the history of the world is marked by the non-stop attempt at self deification and immortality through sacrifice, service and worship of the self. In this depiction of human history, every person, place, and thing, in the hands of the uncontrollably driven (i.e., all of us), become tools used towards the construction of giant temples to self. In modern parlance, this is called one’s “legacy,” but it’s vanity by any other name.
The one great hiccup in the equation for human beings is the fact that despite our best intentions, we have no answer to the ever dawning reality that we are not God and that we will die. We are beset by the gnawing fear that we just may not be “captains of our souls,” any more than we are self-determining; a quick self-reflective thought about the role your parents and their genetics plays in your life should suffice to prove this point:) This gnawing fear combined with the admittedly abstract but nevertheless real end of our own mortal existence results in a very, very volatile and unstable insecurity that lies at the heart of every single human being who has ever lived. We develop ways of dealing with these insecurities, of course, by elevating things that are not God to the level of God and worshiping them—things like family, country and career—and hope that these things will endure, but the vast literature written by those who have lived long enough to see through the immaturity of their youthful idolatry attest to the fact that eventually, all of these idols fail to prove strong enough for a lifetime of unrealized dreams and innumerable disappointments.
Enter the law. This is the very despair and futility that the law is intended to magnify and exacerbate. The demands of the law are intended to point outside of your own temple to self and reveal to you that these great lies upon which our lives are necessarily chained, have been exposed and answered by God in himself on the Cross. How one’s life looks after this exposing and diagnosis will be the subject of the next installment, but until then, I’ll leave you with Luther’s answer to “why then the law:”
Therefore this is a difficult question. Reason is brought short by it and cannot answer it but is offended by it in the highest degree. Because reason does not know anything except the Law, it necessarily deals with this and supposes that righteousness is attained through it. Accordingly, when it hears this statement of Paul’s, novel and unheard-of in the world, that the Law was given on account of transgressions, it judges as follows: “Paul is abolishing the Law, for he is saying that we are not justified through it. Yes, he is a blasphemer against the God who gave the Law; for he says that it was given on account of transgressions. So let us live as the Gentiles do, who do not have the Law! Let us sin and abide in sin, so that grace may abound. ‘Let us do evil that good may come’ (Rom. 3:8).” This is what happened to the apostle Paul, and the same thing is happening to us today. For when the rabble hear from the Gospel that righteousness comes by the sheer grace of God and by faith alone, without the Law or works, they draw the same conclusion the Jews drew then: “Then let us not do any works!” And they really live up to this. What, then, are we to do? This evil troubles us severely, but we cannot stop it. When Christ preached, He had to hear that He was a blasphemer and a rebel; that is, that His teaching was seducing men and making them seditious against Caesar. The same thing happened to Paul and to all the apostles. No wonder the world accuses us in a similar way today. All right, let it slander and persecute us! Still we must not keep silence on account of their troubled consciences; but we must speak right out, in order to rescue them from the snares of the devil. Nor should we pay attention to how our doctrine is abused by the vicious and wicked rabble, who cannot be cured whether they have the Law or not. On the contrary, we should pay attention to how suffering consciences are to be counseled, lest they perish with the wicked rabble. If we were to keep silence, the consciences that are so inextricably captured and ensnared in laws and human traditions would have no comfort at all.
Check back next week for the Persistence of Original Unbelief!