During a few weeks of each year, my back patio becomes a demonstration lab for one of the most famous laws of science: the law of gravity. Above the deck stand several large black walnut trees that produce thousands of hard, heavy walnuts. For a few weeks in the autumn, you relax on the patio at your peril, unless you’re wearing a hard hat! Only the squirrels are delighted.
Walnuts fell from trees for centuries before Isaac Newton formulated the law of gravitation (he used apples). Newton’s law doesn’t make the walnuts fall—it only explains why they fall. There are, in fact, hundreds of laws of science. You may have learned some of them in school: for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. You can know either the location of a particle or its momentum, but not both.
The laws of science differ from laws made by governments. A friend was driving above the speed limit when she saw the red and blue flashing lights of a patrol car in the car’s rearview mirror. She was so startled (it was her first encounter with the law) that by the time the patrolman asked her to roll down the window, she was weeping. He took mercy on her and gave her a warning instead of a ticket.
A person can sometimes get away with breaking the laws of a government. The laws of science, though, aren’t negotiable. They are invariable facts of the physical world. You would be very foolish to say, “I’ve decided not to follow the law of gravity today,” and then step off the edge of the Grand Canyon.
God’s Invariable Laws
God is the Originator of the laws of science, in that He created all that we describe by them. Because the laws of science never fail, they help us understand how the physical world works; we make use of them in order to fly an airplane, heat a house, or even hammer in a nail.
The God who designed the physical operation of the universe also created laws for human behavior. He designed us in such a way that certain moral choices will always result in certain consequences. These laws, too, are necessary for us to understand how the world works.
The story of God’s law begins with a deep, fatal wound in the spiritual fabric of the universe. In the beginning, God had designed human beings to live happily and peacefully—if we would follow His instruction. He gave Adam and Eve one rule: they could go anywhere or eat anything in their garden home, except from one particular tree.
Because God had created them with curiosity and freedom, they became especially interested in that forbidden tree! And with a little help from the devil, they did precisely what God had told them not to do. It soon became apparent to Adam and Eve, and to all who followed them, that one doesn’t defy God’s rules with impunity. The consequences were terrible and included death, toil, sickness, pain, and sadness.
The breaking of that rule changed something deep and fundamental. Sin became, from that point forward, a sort of universal systemic infection. There was no longer just one point wherein human beings could fail, but many. That’s why God gave His people ten laws by which to live. The spiritual history of human beings ever since has been our effort to follow God’s perfect, invariable rules, and God’s efforts to save us from our inevitable failure.
The Crucial Ten
A few of these rules are respected by all human legal systems: killing, stealing, abusing our families, and dishonesty are unlawful nearly everywhere. Governments know that a society where people could kill, steal, and lie with impunity would be a very unhappy one. For God’s other laws, though, human society is of little help. For example, God tells us to avoid sexual sin, while Western culture is saturated with immorality. “Don’t covet what you don’t have,” God says, though the world’s economic system is based almost entirely upon convincing us to desire more and nicer things.
Some of God’s laws are just between you and God. “Honor no other god before Me,” God says. “Don’t take personal advantage of the power of My name. Remember to keep the seventh-day Sabbath as your day of rest.” God asks us to obey these laws, though we have the freedom not to.
Following God’s laws, then, is more than just being a good citizen and staying out of court. If you want to capture God’s original intention for humankind, you’ll have to be intentional and purposeful about doing what God wants you to do, both in public and in private. And when you make that attempt, you’ll discover a couple of things.
First, you’ll discover that by following God’s law, you’ll become a happier, better person, in a happier, more peaceful family and community. Just as most cooks find that they have much tastier, more nutritious results when they follow a recipe, so we human beings are happier when we follow God’s recipe for living our lives.
The second thing you’ll discover, though, is that you can rarely keep God’s laws as consistently as you’d like to. Even with God’s assistance, we may still find ourselves, as Paul says, doing what we don’t want to do, and not doing what we want to do.
To Jesus, the Ten Commandments weren’t just rules, but principles. He summed them up in this way: “ ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” ’ ” (commandments one through four), and “ ‘ “Love your neighbor as yourself” ’ ” (six through ten). In saying this, Jesus closed the loopholes we might leave for ourselves.
While a person may never worship an idol or kill another (in fact, most of us haven’t done either), can anyone honestly say they are always as appreciative to God as they ought to be, or as kind to others as they might be?
Jesus used the sixth commandment as an illustration: “If you hate someone—if you wish you could kill him—you are also breaking this commandment as surely as if you did kill him.” Similarly, said Jesus, “If you really want to have sex with someone outside your marriage, you are breaking the seventh commandment as surely as if you had.”
This leaves us in a quandary, for it means that even the best behaved and best intentioned of us inevitably follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. “All,” insisted the apostle Paul, “sin and fall short of God’s glory” —if not in deed, then in thought.
Not one of us succeeds in following God’s law faultlessly. So while I “know that the law is spiritual,” in my heart I also know that “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” No wonder Paul wails, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
He answers his own question with confidence: “Thanks be to God— through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Without Jesus, God’s laws would be as certain and unforgiving as the laws of science. Paul said, “The wages of sin is death.” Pure and simple—as inexorable as the law of gravity to one suspended over the Grand Canyon. But through the intercession of Jesus, our sins can be forgiven and forgotten, as if they had been cast into the Mariana Trench! (the deepest spot in the worlds oceans.)
Please don’t suppose, however, that because He loves us, God really doesn’t care about how we act. I once watched a father try to control his badly spoiled child. “I know he’s naughty,” the father said, “but I love him too much to punish him.”
He wouldn’t understand that his love was misplaced until the boy grew into an undisciplined and lawless man. God is a much better Father than that. Sin is still sin, for the law of God is an invariable rule of the moral universe. God asks us to keep trying harder to love Him more completely, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But now, through God’s gracious gift of Jesus, we may be forgiven when we fall and we can be assisted by the Holy Spirit to do better. So while the wages of sin is still death, now we also have the comfort of knowing that “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish,
Truth is so:
That, howsoe’er I stray and range
Whate’er I do,
Thou dost not change.
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip,
Thou dost not fall.