FRIENDSHIP AND GOD’S USE OF LAW
If you could ask God just one question, what would it be?
“I’d ask him to make me rich!” giggled a pretty teenager, as she stood with her friends outside Barry’s butcher shop in England.
“How to find a cure for cancer,” “How to make everybody well,” were the choices of two others.
“Is there one question you’d like to ask?” I inquired of the busy butcher himself.
“Yes. I’d like to ask God why, if he’s so powerful, he doesn’t feed the hungry people of Ethiopia.” But Barry had already told of his
disillusionment with a god who never seemed to do anything to help. “So I really don’t believe in him anymore.”
I talked with a man in a village nearby who still was a firm believer. “What question would you like to ask God—especially if you
could ask only one?”
“I would ask him please to spell out more precisely what he wants me to do and how he wants me to do it.”
Sharing a quadrangle bench at Cambridge University, I visited with a scholar who makes no secret of his great admiration for
God. “What one question would you like to ask God?”
“I know he’s already answered this,” he began. “But I’d like to hear him explain even more clearly why he has chosen to do things the way he
has. Was there really no other way? And if so, why?”
In recent years, several religious polls have included this query about the most important question people would like to ask God. The responses have ranged
from requests for material things—especially instant health and instant wealth—to most thoughtful inquiries about God himself.
The questions the disciples asked often reflected their selfish concerns, such as which of them was the greatest.1 They were still arguing about this
during their last supper with Jesus before he was crucified!2
On an earlier occasion, two of them, who were brothers, had presumed to ask the Son of God if, in his coming kingdom, they could sit beside him in the
most honored positions. They even brought their mother with them to intercede, to help persuade the Lord to give them the answer they wanted.3
The request was not granted, but the other disciples were angry with the two brothers. Not that they were above making such a request for themselves!
What Would You Have Asked?
If you could have been with Jesus and his disciples that last night in the upper room, and you could have asked the Lord one question,
what would it have been?
If Paul had been there, I wonder what question he might have asked. A few years later, in his epistle to believers in Galatia, he posed a question that
would have been so appropriate for one of the disciples to raise that last night in the upper room. Paul’s question was, “Why then the law?”4
Many of us have joined with Paul in considering this question. We love what Jesus said about freedom, friendship, love and trust.
We also know from experience that none of these things can be commanded. Why, then, did God make so much use of law? Why would he order his
children to love him and love each other—under threat of dire consequences if they failed to obey. Isn’t this much more likely to produce
trembling, sullen or even rebellious servants, rather than loyal and understanding friends? Why would God choose to run such risk?
Some of us also enjoy what Jesus said about speaking plainly and clearly. There is so much “dark speech” when people talk about God and salvation.
But if God prefers simplicity and understanding, why did he tell Moses to establish such a complicated system of ceremonies and sacrifices, with
all the strange symbols and figures of speech. Isn’t all this mystery and pomp more likely to increase the distance between the Father and his
children and make it more difficult for them to think and talk about him clearly? Why would God be willing to run this risk?
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul offers an answer to his own question. “Why then the law? It was added because of
transgressions.”5 This is the translation of the New International and the New Revised Standard versions.
But the Greek word translated “because of” can also mean “for the purpose of.” So the Good News Bible says that the law was added
“in order to show what wrongdoing is.” And the Revised English Bible explains that “it was added to make wrongdoing a legal offense.”
One thing seems clear. If God’s people had not been misbehaving, there would have been no need for the added law. As was explained to
young pastor Timothy, “laws are made, not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful, for those who
are not religious or spiritual, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the immoral, for sexual perverts, for kidnappers,
for those who lie and give false testimony or who do anything else contrary to sound doctrine.”6
Phillips translates, “The Law is not really meant for the good man, but for the man who has neither principles nor self-control.”
God added the law because he knew we needed it.
How Can One Find the Right Meaning?
Even after Paul became a friend of God, he still was accustomed to using more than a little “dark speech” in his theological explanations—
though not as dark, in my opinion, as it may appear in some translations.
Following his remarkable display of eloquence and erudition at the nearby city of Athens,7 Paul informed the believers in Corinth that from
then on he was going to speak plainly and simply when he talked about God.8 Even so, the apostle Peter observed—very respectfully—that
Paul’s letters contained “some obscure passages, which the ignorant and unstable misinterpret.”9
For this reason, when reading Paul’s writings, I believe it is particularly important to read whole sections at a time, even whole letters or
“books,” in order to give Paul a fair chance to make plain his intent.
Paul’s consistent emphasis is on the truth about God that is the basis for peace and freedom, love and trust, a trust like that of God’s friend
Abraham. Paul is now well aware that such precious things are not produced by might or power, as God told the prophet Zechariah. Nor can they be
enforced by law. They can only come in free response to the gentle but long-lasting persuasiveness of truth. In this same letter to the Galatians,
Paul explains that such things as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” all are
“the fruit of the Spirit.”10
While the Spirit of Truth has patiently continued his work of enlightenment and conviction, God has used many and various measures to control
and protect his children as they are given opportunity to learn the truth. He has especially made use of law.
Our “Attendant” on the Way to Christ
The law, Paul goes on to explain in Galatians 3, has served as a “custodian” (RSV), a “disciplinarian” (NRSV), or,
in the old King James Version, “schoolmaster.” It was “put in charge of us” (REB) “until Christ came” (NRSV), or
“to lead us to Christ.” (NIV)
In his American New Testament, Goodspeed leaves room for the various possible meanings of the Greek by the simple translation,
“So the Law has been our attendant on our way to Christ . . . But now that faith has come, we are no longer in the charge of the attendant.”11
Those who have grown up with the King James Version are accustomed to the explanation that “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto
Christ.” When the King James was first printed in 1611, the words “to bring us” were printed in italics, to indicate that they had
been supplied. The Greek says simply, “the law was unto Christ.” In what sense the law was “to Christ” must be learned from reading
Paul’s explanation in the surrounding verses and in the light of all the rest of Scripture.
“Schoolmaster” may be a somewhat misleading translation, depending on one’s understanding of what a schoolmaster’s duties include.
At the boy’s school I attended—named formally in Latin, Schola Grammatica Watfordensis—our teachers were called “masters.”
As our “schoolmasters,” they not only taught us but also exercised very firm discipline. Their primary function, however, was to teach.
If Paul had meant us to understand that the law was added to serve primarily as our teacher, he would have used another word, such as
didaskalos, the source of our English “didactic.” The term Paul chose, however, is paidagogos. Since this is the source of our English
word “pedagogue,” you can see how it could easily lead to the translation “schoolmaster,” the choice of most other English versions that
appeared earlier than the King James, going clear back to Tyndale. In 1534 he spelled it “scolemaster.” The Catholic Rheims New Testament,
translated from the Latin in 1582, simply left it “pedagogue.”
The Greek term paidagogos, literally “boy-leader,” actually referred to an attendant, usually a slave, who was put in charge of children.
One of his duties was to accompany boys to and from school, to protect them and keep them out of trouble. He was not the teacher.
The teacher was at the school. When the children became old enough to act responsibly and look after themselves, they were no longer
kept under such supervision—presumably because it wasn’t needed.
Paul is explaining that God added the law to perform a service similar to that of the “child-leader.” But which law did the apostle
have in mind? God has given many laws. Which law was to be our attendant on the way to Christ? The moral? The ceremonial? Any other?
Paul doesn’t say.
But of one thing we may be sure. The God who gave all the laws is the one who made the offer of friendship in John 15:15.
Some say it is none of our business to even wonder why God would make so much use of law. That’s the way servants tend to talk. But the Sovereign
himself has invited us to understand, something friends want to do.
Failure to understand God’s law can lead to the unthinking, rote obedience that God deplored in the book of Isaiah:
. . . these people draw near
with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a
learned by rote.12
Compare the translation of the Good News Bible: “These people claim to worship me, but their words are meaningless, and their hearts are somewhere else.
Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized.”
In the Bible, the heart is often referred to as representing the inner man, the place where a person does his or her thinking, as well as the seat of
emotions and attitudes. For example, the Gospel of Mark mentions that some scribes were “reasoning in their hearts.”13
The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to the day when God would fulfill his promise: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their
hearts.”14 When the law of Ten Commandments was given to Moses to be passed on to the people, God wrote the ten precepts on tablets of
stone. If God wanted only blind, unthinking obedience from his people, he would hardly be promising to write his law on his people’s hearts,
their centers of reasoning and intelligence. He would simply leave it engraved there on the stone, to go on spelling out his requirements.
The apostle Paul was a man of considerable intelligence. He was eager to understand and explain the meaning and purpose of all God’s laws.
As the friend of a friendly God, he knew he was free to raise the question, “Why then the law?”
The more Paul studied the Ten Commandments, the more he came to admire them and agree that they made good sense. He told the believers in Rome,
“I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.”15 The law engraved on the stone was being written on his heart.
The Ultimate Purpose of the Ceremonial Law
What about all the laws of offering and sacrifice, the “dark speech” of ritual and ceremony? Are these to be included in Paul’s explanation that the
law was added to be “our attendant on the way to Christ” and his plainer, clearer representation of the truth about God?
Frequently Old Testament prophets explained that if all the performance of prescribed religious services did not result in the people coming to know God and
being kinder to each other, all those sacrifices and ceremonies had failed to meet their purpose. They were not indicating that these activities should stop.
It was God who had prescribed them. They were simply emphasizing that nothing was more important than the knowledge of God.
Speaking for God, Hosea wrote this message to the people:
It is true love that I have wanted, not sacrifice;
The knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.16
“I would rather have my people know me than have them burn offerings to me,” is how the Good News Bible reads.
Jeremiah predicted that when God’s law has been written on the hearts of people, “no longer shall they teach one another,
or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.”17
In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words translated “know” can mean more than being merely acquainted or informed. Depending on the context,
to “know” someone can imply an attitude of appreciation and approval, a relationship with someone who is specially valued. Paul told the Corinthians that
“anyone who loves God is known by him.”18
God knew Abraham, and Abraham knew him. This is why they could be such good friends. When God says he wants to be known by us, he is
inviting us also to be his friends.
God’s Laws Are No Threat to Friendship
Would you find it possible to be friendly with a god who imposed arbitrary laws, just to show his authority and test our willingness to obey?
Would you want to know him? Would you want to live with such a god for eternity?
I recognize that some devoutly religious people believe it is important for God to impose at least a few arbitrary rules. How else could he know
if we are obeying him or not, they say. Perhaps we’re only doing what seems sensible and right.
If it’s true that some laws really don’t make sense, then there’s no point in our trying to understand their meaning. We should just bow our
heads and like unthinking servants, simply do what we’re told.
Yes, I’m willing to bow my head. But I bow it in awe that our infinite Creator, who indeed has a perfect right to be arbitrary, has chosen
instead to be just the opposite.
When a man bails out of his plane at 5000 feet, he doesn’t have to release his parachute. There’s no one there to make him do it.
He could say to himself, “I’m sick and tired of being told what I have to do!” Here is his chance to show independence of the rules.
But if he wants to live to fly again another day, it makes very good sense to release that parachute!
Consider the law of Ten Commandments. Some speak of those rules as if they were arbitrary restrictions of our freedom. But if we really kept
those commandments, in the way Jesus demonstrated, in what respect would we be less free? James calls those rules “the royal law of liberty.”
Jesus and Paul agree with Moses that to keep the Ten Commandments means to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.
Paul sums it up like this: “He who loves his neighbour has met every requirement of the law. The commandments,
‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and any other
commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour;
therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”20
To be sure that we understand what it means to love, Paul explains the meaning in his letter to the church in Corinth.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable
or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”21
Imagine living in a community where everyone behaves like this. Everyone can be trusted, no one ever takes advantage of anyone else,
and women and children can safely walk the streets alone at any hour.
But consider further the tenth of the Ten Commandments. The words “You shall not covet” actually prohibit any kind of evil desire.
Now imagine living in a community where people not only never do anything wrong; they don’t even want to! No one has to order the people to
stop lying, stealing, murdering, being impatient or selfishly insisting on having their own way. The Ten Commandments are not posted on any wall.
Everyone is already convinced that it makes good sense to follow the way of life prescribed in those age-old rules.
Obedient Servant or Obedient Friend?
If you are a believer and are eager to do God’s will, what makes you willing to obey?
Would you say, “I do what I do because God has told me to, and he has the power to reward and destroy”? Is this why you
don’t murder and commit adultery, because God has said you musn’t? Are you saying that you might do it otherwise, but you can’t
afford to incur his displeasure?
This is the way a trembling servant talks. It might be all right for a beginner or a little child. But it suggests that God’s laws are
arbitrary and don’t make good sense in themselves. This kind of obedience does not speak very favorably of God himself.
Would you rather say, “I do what I do as a believer because God has told me to, and I love him and want to please him”?
Is this why you don’t steal or tell lies? You see nothing wrong or harmful about doing these things. It is just that you want so much
to please God. For some reason he does not like it when you steal or lie, and since he has been so generous, you feel under some obligation
to please him. It would only be grateful and fair.
Again, this is all servant talk. And again, it might be all right for a beginner or little child. It might even be some progress beyond
the obedience prompted only by fear of punishment and desire for reward. But it still implies an arbitrariness in God’s commandments and
doesn’t speak very well of his character and government.
There is another possible approach to obedience. Could you say this? “I do what I do because I have found it to be right and sensible
to do so, and I have increasing admiration and reverence for the one who so advised and commanded me in the days of my ignorance and
immaturity. And being still somewhat ignorant and immature, I am willing to trust and obey the one whose counsel has always proved to be so
sensible, when he tells me to do something beyond my present understanding.”
This sounds more like the way an understanding friend would talk. And it speaks well of God, as an admirable, trustworthy Friend.
When God asked his friend Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham knew God well enough, first to recognize his voice, and then to obey
at once so incredible a command. But on the long journey to the place of sacrifice, Abraham respectfully questioned, “Why?”
As he thought it through in the light of his knowledge of God, he came to the conclusion that God would either provide a substitute or
resurrect his son. God’s old friend was right!22
On the sad day that our Great Dane died, we comforted ourselves by bringing home an Old English mastiff puppy. Though she already weighs
close to 150 pounds, she is still very much a pup, and her etiquette around the house needs considerable refinement. This is especially true
in the garden, where Molly, as we named her, quickly developed a keen appetite for the large red flowers of the hibiscus bush.
Molly soon discovered that we were not at all pleased to watch her running around the pool with remnants of several of the
beautiful blossoms hanging from her muzzle. Eventually it was established that she must not even touch those tempting flowers.
Molly is a very loving dog and seems most eager to please. She appears quite depressed when she senses that she has incurred our displeasure.
This was apparently enough to keep her from breaking the rule. That is, as long as she thought we were looking! But when she saw us disappear
into the house, she felt free to go right back and attack those lovely flowers.
When we observed this through one of the windows, we would hurry out and reaffirm that prohibition. We didn’t have to repeat this often
before Molly became aware that though she could not see us watching, whenever she disobeyed we would somehow suddenly reappear.
Had she perhaps caught a glimpse of us behind the glass?
Only occasionally now do we see her at the hibiscus bush, sitting there on her wide haunches—but with only a glance at those tasty flowers.
She is looking back over her shoulder, earnestly peering at each of the windows to see if we might be watching after all.
We are not expecting Molly to think this through and decide for herself that it doesn’t make sense to destroy those flowers.
It’s enough that she obeys because she loves us and wants so much to please.
But surely it would be very disappointing to God, if his intelligent children should only give him the obedience of a loving, well-trained dog.
Why Do You Brush Your Teeth?
When I was a boy, I shared a large bedroom with two of my brothers. Every night Mother would come to tuck us in. As she stood by my bed,
she would often ask, “Did you say your prayers? Did you read your Bible? Did you wash your neck? Have you brushed your teeth?”
If the answer was No, Mother would insist that the matter be taken care of before I went to sleep.
In those days, the main reason why I brushed my teeth was that Mother told me to. I loved her and wanted her approval. Besides, if I had
shown a rebellious attitude, it might have meant another session at that bottom stair.
But now that I’ve grown up a bit, no one has to order me to brush my teeth. It makes such good sense to do so, and I know what happens when
I don’t. Whenever I visit the office of my friendly periodontist, I read again the irresistible message he has posted on his wall:
“You only have to floss the teeth you want to keep.”
If my mother could appear beside my bed tonight and ask those same questions again, do you think I’d grumble: “There we go, back under law?”
No. I’d love to hear her ask me again, “Graham, have you brushed your teeth?” I’d like to thank her for the years when she made us
brush our teeth. That’s why we still have some teeth to brush.
And I’d like to thank her for helping us understand why, in our ignorance and immaturity, God had to make so much use of law.
1. See Matthew 18:1; Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46-48.
3. See Mark 10:35-45; Matthew 20:20-28.
20. Romans 13:8-10, REB; see also Matthew 22:36-40; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18.
21. 1 Corinthians 13:4-6, NRSV.
22. See Genesis 22:8; Hebrews 11:19.