The underlying assumption made by a legalistic theology (approach to understanding God), or more accurately, hermeneutic (approach to interpreting the Bible), is that God wants his children to be law-keepers, and the Bible is his law book. Neither can be further from the truth.
That is not to say I am antinomian (against law) or lawless, nor am I afraid of absolutes. I have not fallen prey to the shifting sands of moral relativism in the slightest. I will confess that I am very much afraid of imposing an absolute that God hasn’t, however, because that is adding to the Word, and speaking where it is silent.
My understanding of the Bible soared and it became a joy to read when I came to realize that it was not a law book to be dissected, cross-referenced, and argued like a book of legal regulations. The Scriptures, when properly understood, bring life and hope. They are not proof-texts for pre-packaged arguments, they are writings written in a certain place and time for a certain purpose. Outside of that place and time and purpose, we have to use the brain and the Spirit God gave us to make the appropriate applications to our lives.
A little thought-experiment for you
For those of you who are skeptical of my claim that God is not most concerned with rule-keeping, and think I may have fallen prey to a feel-good doctrine from the “religious world,” let’s try a little thought-experiment.
Let’s say your kids dutifully recorded written notes of every conversation you’d ever had with them, and had the ability to search through those conversations. One child compiled a concordance to use for such an exercise. Another one entered it all into his computer to make it easier to search your words. Your kids could pull up any previous conversation, even assembling snippets from many conversations you’d had with them or with family and friends over the years, at different stages of their lives.
They could also annotate those conversations with their own notes and cross references, assembling them into an argument for or against anything. By applying good logic of “command, example, and necessary inference,” they could dissect your words and shred their true meaning to pieces.
It turns the tables on legalism when you are suddenly faced with your own words being interpreted by a bunch of lawyers, doesn’t it? Do you see the train wreck of miscommunication that would result? You think your kids can “lawyer up” and twist your words now, just wait until they try this approach to understanding and obeying you.
The meaning imparted in your words, and the intent behind them, and the context of them, would be virtually lost. Your kids could have the most sincere desire to “understand your will,” but if they honestly thought that this methodology for “understanding your will” was what you wanted, wouldn’t you be shaking your head and shedding a tear saying “no, guys, you’re missing my point entirely!”
Your kids could follow all your “commands” dutifully, including the time you “commanded” the potty training little sibling to flush the toilet every time she left the bathroom. If the older siblings took from that that they need to flush the toilet every time they exited the bathroom, even if it was just to retrieve a piece of paper they left there, you’d think that was ludicrous, wouldn’t you?
On the other hand, another one of your children may have a heart that seeks to please you, although she messes up understanding some of your instructions from time to time. She really attempts to know your heart, and lovingly comes alongside her siblings who don’t yet “get it,” trying to help them “get you.” Yet her siblings castigate her for not following all of their parents “commands” as diligently as the others think they are–like flushing the toilet every time they leave the bathroom, whether it needs it or not.
Your legalist “command-following” children would want to apply all of your words consistently in all circumstances to all the kids, when you intended no such thing. How many parents have experienced the reality that one instruction was intended for one particular child, but another child doesn’t need it because they’re in a different place in maturity? “But you told Sally she could ____.” That’s what you hear from the legalists, right?
But this is where the heart comes in, doesn’t it? I may have a rule of “absolutely no secular music artists on the iPod” for a child who struggles with discernment and self-control. Yet I may not impose that rule on another child because I know she would never select songs for her iPod that had immoral messages. Am I inconsistent? Absolutely! Do I want my kids to argue with each other and iron out that inconsistency between themselves? Of course not. I want them to apply what they know and understand in their own lives. They are misinterpreting my words when they try to apply them like laws to their siblings who are at much different maturity levels, and in ways I never intended. This was the Pharisees’ greatest mistake, wasn’t it?
This thought experiment shows that the heart is really the heart of the matter. Under the New Covenant, God said he was going to write his laws in our hearts and in our minds:
Jeremiah 31:33 – “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
This is confirmed in the New Covenant scriptures in Hebrews:
Hebrews 8:7-13– For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said:
The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
So what is the big difference between the Old Covenant and the New? Is it just a new set of books to be added to our Bible so we can continue arguing legal precedents? Did Jesus suffer and die on the cross so that we could finally grasp the “deep things of God,” i.e., new regulations about red lipstick, wearing nylons on Sunday, and other dress codes? God forbid! He died to get rid of the Old Covenant and its form of bondage:
Romans 2:27-29 – The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.
There is a fundamental shift in the two covenants, from one where righteousness was measured by law-keeping, to one where righteousness is measured by conformity with the heart of God. The Old Covenant of legal codes and regulations was nailed to the cross:
Colossians 2:14 – Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
Words, like laws, are imperfect vehicles of our thoughts and intents. They can’t be understood properly without understanding the context in which they were said, and the spirit in which they were meant. That goes for me communicating to my kids, and God communicating to his.
As Christians, we are not expected to be good lawyers to figure out God’s will, with advanced understandings of logic and argumentation, nor do we need a perfect knowledge of the Bible in order to accept the gospel and respond to it. We just need to get our heart in tune with His. Yes, that starts with reading his Word. But how we approach the reading of the Word can make the difference between being a really good lawyer, and a man or woman after God’s own heart.