Nature of the Law

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“Nature of the Law”

The Signs of the Times 12, 3. January 21, 1886

E. J. Waggoner

Having found that the law must be in force wherever the gospel is preached, it is very proper that we learn something in regard to its nature.

What we have already learned would teach us that it is just the opposite of sin, for “sin is the transgression of the law.” But we will see what the Bible has to say further on this subject.

We first quote the words of the psalmist, in Ps. 19:7, 8, 10, 11:-

“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; and in keeping of them there is great reward.”

This comprises all that may be said of the law; for nothing can be more than perfect. Nothing can be added to that which is perfect, neither can anything be taken away, without leaving it imperfect.

Therefore the testimony of David teaches us that when God spoke His law it was in just the form that He wanted it, and that He never designed that any change should be made in it. In perfect accord with the above testimony, the apostle Paul says: “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, and just, and good.” Rom. 7:12.

This being so, we would naturally expect that the keeping of the commandments would make the keeper thereof perfect and holy. This we find is the case.

Moses said to the Israelites:-

“And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us.” Deut. 6:25.

Observe how perfectly this agrees with what we find in the New Testament: Moses said that to keep the law is righteousness. Of course, the opposite of righteousness is unrighteousness, and John tells us that “all unrighteousness is sin.” 1 John 5:17.

Nature of the LawThen we must conclude that sin is just the opposite of obedience to the law; and that brings us to the original definition: “Sin is the transgression of the law.” 1 John 3:4. Unrighteousness means any deviation from that which is right; and since all unrighteousness is sin, we know that the slightest deviation from right is a transgression of the law.

To show that this reasoning has solid scriptural foundation, we quote Ps. 119:96:-

“I have seen an end of all perfection; but thy commandment is exceeding broad.”

And to show how broad and far-reaching it is, we have only to read Heb. 4:12:-

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

Thus we learn that the law is so broad that it takes cognizance of the very thoughts of the heart, and not alone the outward acts. As illustrating this, we have our Saviour’s words in the sermon on the mount:-

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment; but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Matt. 5:21, 22.

Again we quote verses 27 and 28 of the same chapter:-

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery; but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

Other instances might be given; but these are sufficient to show the breadth of the commandments of God. The sixth commandment may be broken by a single angry thought that may never be expressed, and the seventh may be as effectually broken by a single wrong desire as by the overt act. Surely the law of God is broad; and since in all its prohibitions and requirements it is perfect, we can readily and naturally accept the words of the wise man, in Eccl. 12:13:-

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.”

This statement, we repeat, is a natural consequence of what has preceded; for the keeping of a perfect law will make a man perfect, and nothing more than perfection can be required. There is no sin conceivable that is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments, and no righteous act or thought that is not commended and enjoined by them. Of course it would be impossible to go through the whole list of possible thoughts and deeds, in order to demonstrate this; but it will be found true in every case. Things may be mentioned which at first sight may seem to many persons to be outside of the Ten Commandments; but a little careful thought will show that nothing can be done that is beyond or outside of the perfect law of God.

We have not the slightest fear of being brought to confusion because of this statement. We repeat, Nothing more than the duties enjoined in the Ten Commandments can be required of any man. In this connection, it will be well to notice Matt. 5:20, which some may think opposed to the statement last made, but which strongly supports it. We quote:

“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”

This text would be opposed to the statement made in the preceding paragraph if it could be shown that the scribes and Pharisees kept the law perfectly, but not otherwise. Indeed, this verse could not teach that it is a man’s duty to do more than the Ten Commandments, without contradicting the 19th verse, which says that “whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven.”

It must be, then, that the scribes and Pharisees, while professing to keep the commandments, did not do all that the law requires. This we shall find was the case, if we read Matt. 23:25-28:-

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”

The scribes and Pharisees pretended to keep the law, and so far as their outward acts were concerned, they did keep it; but Christ, who “knew what was in man,” saw that in their hearts they despised the law, and that they grievously transgressed it, but yet in such a way that men could not know their wickedness. Such obedience, Christ taught, will not suffice to gain an entrance into Heaven.

Unless your obedience to the law is more thorough than that, you can in no case enter the kingdom of Heaven. Here we see the difference between obedience only to the letter and obedience to the spirit of the law. The law is spiritual, and therefore the spirit of it must be obeyed; but some people think on this ground to excuse themselves for disobeying the law. Say they, “The Lord reproved the scribes and Pharisees for their obedience to the letter of the law, therefore we should not think ourselves bound by the letter; if we keep the spirit, that is sufficient.” But mark, the Saviour did not say that our righteousness must be entirely different from that of the scribes and Pharisees, but that it must exceed it. To exceed means, “to pass or go beyond;” and by using that word the Saviour showed that we must keep the law as well as the scribes and Pharisees did, and a great deal better. Not only must the law be kept outwardly, but it must be obeyed from the heart. He did not reprove the Pharisees for refraining from open adultery; but He reproved them for the lust with which their hearts were filled, and which nothing but their love for the applause of men kept them from manifesting openly. Christ did not reprove them because they refrained from actual murder, but because they cherished envy, hatred, and enmity, thus effectually breaking the sixth commandment as though they had actually taken human life. E. J. W. (To be contined.)


“Nature of the Law (Concluded.)”

The Signs of the Times 12, 4. January 28, 1886

E. J. Waggoner

A moment’s thought will show any one the folly of supposing that the law may be kept in spirit and not in letter. Can a man worship gods of gold, or stone, or brass, and yet have a proper regard for the God that made heaven and earth? Can a man blaspheme the name of God, and at the same time have perfect love and reverence in his heart? Is it possible to wantonly violate the letter of the sixth commandment, by taking human life, and yet have no trace of enmity, but only perfect love in the heart? Will a man deliberately and persistently take the goods of others, if he has no covetous desires in his heart? And does not everybody know that the committing of adultery is only the outward manifestation of the lust that burns within?

There can be but one answer to these questions.

Even so there can be no spiritual obedience without obedience to the letter as well. The statement of the wise man, that to keep the commandments is the whole duty of man, and of Christ, that whosoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven, prepares us for the truth stated by the apostle, in Rom. 2:13-

“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.”

Since to keep the commandments of God is the whole duty of man, of course the one who keeps the law will be justified; a man can never be justly condemned, when he does his whole duty. We will not, at this time, inquire just how comprehensive the term “the doers of the law” is, nor whether or not there are any such. For the present we shall be content with the truth, which allows of no exception, namely, that “the doers of the law shall be justified.” In Rom. 6:23 we read that “the wages of sin is death.” But if a man never sins, he will never receive the wages therefore, consequently the doer of the law will live. And this, again, is no more than we find plainly stated in Rom. 10:5: “For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law. That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.” The man whom the law justifies-the one who is really a doer of all its requirements-will certainly live.

Now it is a selfevident fact that when God made a perfect, holy, and just law, He designed that all his subjects should obey it. And since the law, when it is kept, gives life, we can see the force of the apostle’s statement, that the law “was ordained to life.” Rom. 7:10.

As we shall hereafter see more fully, the law was given that man might ever keep in harmony with God’s will, in which condition he must necessarily have life.

There is just one more point which we wish to bring out concerning the nature of the law. Let the reader mark it closely; for in the future consideration of this subject it will often be referred to, as it really covers the whole ground; upon it everything else depends.

David says (Ps. 119:172), “My tongue shall speak of thy word; for all thy commandments are righteousness.” This is really nothing more than is brought out in Ps. 19:7, and other texts; but it leads to another text which materially widens the range of our view of the law of God.

In Isa. 51:6, we read:-

“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner; but my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.”

Abolish the righteousness of God? of course not; but what is the righteousness of God? The very next verse tells us of what the Lord, through his prophet, is here speaking. We proceed: “Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law.”

The conclusion to be drawn is very evident.

The people who know righteousness are they in whose hearts God’s law is enshrined; they know righteousness, because the law is itself righteousness (Ps. 119:172); and not only is it righteousness in the abstract, but it is the righteousness of God. This is an expression which the apostle Paul often uses in referring to the law.

What an exalted idea of the law of God does this give us!

To say that it is perfect may convey various ideas to different persons, for many would be apt to measure the law by their own standard of perfection; but when we learn that it is “the righteousness of God,” we know that it must be infinite in its breadth. The law is a transcript of God’s character, a photograph of character which is infinite in its perfection. It is His nature represented in words, for the benefit of his creatures, so that they may know what is required of them if they would be partakers of the divine nature.

God says to man, “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” 1 Pet. 1:16. But without some description of the holiness of God, it would be impossible for man to know how he should order his life; for “the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” Jer. 10:23.

Since the law is “the righteousness of God”-a brief yet comprehensive description of His Character-it may properly be termed the way of the Lord.

And so in Isa. 55:8, 9, we have an additional evidence of the exceeding greatness of that law:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The holiness of God’s law is just as much superior to any goodness that man possesses as God is greater than man. The law of God, then, is very justly called His way, and since those who become acquainted with God by walking in the way with Him, are at peace (Job 22:21), it follows that a proper term for the law is, “the way of peace.” It is the Ten Commandments, then, to which Paul refers, when, speaking of the universal wickedness of mankind, he says: “Destruction and misery are in their ways, and the way of peace have they not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes.” Rom. 3:16-18.

This idea is still further proved by Isa. 48:18:

“O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandment! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.”

Nature of the LawThe law of God is also called the truth. “Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth.” Ps. 119:142. It is the very perfection of truth, since it is the expression of God’s character. This point is brought out in Rom. 2:17-20. Paul there says:-

“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.”

In that justly celebrated work, “The Life and Epistles of the Apostle Paul,” by Conybeare and Howson, the last clause of the above text is thus rendered: “Possessing in the law the perfect pattern of knowledge and of truth.” This accurately describes the law, which is such a perfect pattern of truth that whosoever follows it will live a life of perfect truth. It is because it is perfect truth that it enables the one who is instructed in it to “try the things which differ” (see margin of verse 18), or, as Conybeare and Howson render it, to “give judgment upon good or evil.”

It is impossible for mortal tongue ever to express, or even for mortal intellect to comprehend the breadth, the beauty, and the perfection of God’s law. There is in it abundant food for meditation both day and night; and the more we learn of it, the more we can appreciate the psalmist’s glowing descriptions of it, and his exhortations to continually study it. But as man, by searching, can never find out God, so that he can fully comprehend all His attributes, so no man, even when glorified and made immortal, can ever exhaust the law of God.

On earth, as we meditate in the law, we can only exclaim, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” and in Heaven, even to the countless ages of eternity, as in the glory of His presence we are permitted to look with unvailed eyes upon Him whose character is portrayed in the Ten Commandments, our wonder will not cease, and we can only join with the angelic beings that support His throne, in saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. E. J. W.

Download this edition of the Signs of the Times 1886.


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