Nature of the Law (Part 2 of 2)

 Ellet J. Waggoner

The Signs of the Times : January 28, 1886 

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 Romans 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, “the doers of the law shall be justified.”

the wages of sin is death

In Romans 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 Romans 10:5: “For Moses describes 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 self-evident 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.” Romans 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 (Psalm 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 Psalm 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 Isaiah 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 (Psalm 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 holy, for I am holy.” 1 Peter 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 walks to direct his own steps.” Jeremiah 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 Isaiah 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.” Romans 3:16-18. This idea is still further proved by Isaiah 48:18: “O that you had heeded My commandment! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.”
The law of God is also called the truth. “Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth.” Psalm 119:142. It is the very perfection of truth, since it is the expression of God’s character. This point is brought out in Romans 2:17-20: —
“Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and 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 unveiled 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.”