Nature of the Law (Part 1 of 2)

 Ellet J. Waggoner 

The Signs of the Times : January 21, 1886 

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 Psalm 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.” Romans 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.” Deuteronomy 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. Then 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 Psalm 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 Hebrews 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.” Matthew 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 looks 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 Ecclesiastes 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 Matthew 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, “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 Matthew 23:25-28 —
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee; first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
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 as effectually breaking the sixth commandment as though they had actually taken human life.

Go to Part 2