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God’s Law Is for Love, Not Self-Improvement

In recent years, it’s become commonplace for employers to put underperforming employees on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Though they’re often interpreted by the employee as a sign that termination is inevitable, PIPs crystallize job expectations and highlight the ways a worker is falling short. This covers the employer in the event of termination, and it removes cause for accusation on the employee’s part.

I thought about this modern practice when I read Old Testament scholar Stephen Dempster’s observation about God’s law in his book Dominion and Dynasty: “Israel is treated differently after [receiving the Ten Commandments at] Sinai. Pre-Sinai violations lead to reprimand; post-Sinai trespass[es] lead to death.”

Dempster wouldn’t call the law a PIP, but he observes one sense in which it functions similarly: it clearly reveals where Israel has fallen short of God’s standard. It shows them where they haven’t lived up to the performance God requires. But we’re in trouble if that’s our entire perspective on God’s law. When we look at the text, we find a bigger picture.

Our Poor Performance

God’s law is a perfect blueprint for human flourishing (Ps. 19:7). In this sense, God’s law is an encouragement to greater obedience. But it also reveals a massive problem: we can’t keep it.

Before they received the law, the Israelites grumbled and complained (Ex. 16). After the commandments were given, that attitude didn’t improve. What did change, however, was the severity of God’s response. God punished them with death (Num. 14).

God’s law is a perfect blueprint for human flourishing. But it does reveal a massive problem: we can’t keep it.

What’s going on here? Did God suddenly become stricter? God’s people’s performance before the law wasn’t any more stellar than it was after they received it. What changed? Before Sinai, God’s expectations hadn’t yet been written in stone. But after the people received their PIP, after expectations were clear, they tragically believed they possessed the inner strength to obey God’s demands (Ex. 24:3). So when the grumbling and ingratitude returned, some were literally terminated.

In Romans, Paul helps us understand:

If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. . . . I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom. 7:7, 9–11)

Like Paul’s, the Israelites’ sin lay dormant. But after the law was given and God’s metric was made clear, it was also clear how abysmal their performance was. The result was death. Though the commandments were good (v. 12) and promised life and flourishing if obeyed, the Israelites’ inability to obey the law resulted in their failure and God’s wrath.

God’s Faithfulness to His Bride

Thankfully, this covenant-of-works aspect of God’s law isn’t the whole picture. No matter how dark things got for God’s people, slivers of light pierced through in countless places. Viewing the relationship between God and his people as one of an employer to employees is insufficient.

To get the fuller picture, we need more context. Note the first words of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). The Decalogue’s language here is more like a wedding vow than an employee contract. God gave himself to his people like a bride and groom give themselves to one another when they enter a marriage.

Moreover, God gave Israel his covenant immediately after he delivered them. Before spelling out his expectations, he extricated Israel from their imprisonment in Egypt. Before the commandments were given, the early chapters of Exodus put his grace and power on display.

God rescued before he gave rules. He delivered before he demanded. He saved before they attempted to behave. He redeemed before giving regulations. Before he commanded Israel, God claimed them as his own. They were his people whom he rescued with his own hand. Despite all Israel’s shortcomings, he still desired to dwell among them (33:14).

God rescued before he gave rules. He delivered before he demanded. He saved before they attempted to behave.

Like Israel under Moses (and the Pharisees later), we’re too often self-deceived. We strive to keep God’s law in our own strength as a path to self-improvement or to moral one-upmanship. But when we come before God’s good and perfect law, it continually exposes us. It awakens sin in us, killing us by exposing the “vast beyond all measure” chasm that stands between us and what God’s perfect love demands.

Glory of the Groom

But God, our beloved Groom, gave us his law to expose that chasm. And he has continued to pursue us though we, like adulterous Gomer (Hos. 1), have wandered from him again and again. Despite our inability to keep covenant with him, Christ has continued to uphold his end. God hasn’t forsaken his marriage vows.

When Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2), it had a remarkable significance. He turned water into wine to signal he’d one day restore joy to God’s people. The six stone jars that held the water were used for ceremonial washing. But no amount of washing could cleanse his people from their habitual unfaithfulness.

With that miracle, Jesus hints that an hour was coming (John 2:4) when he’d pay the demands of the law with his own death (Rom. 6:23). He submitted to the law’s PIP and fulfilled its demands perfectly so his covenant with us might become one of love and grace. Jesus paid the full price that repeat offenders deserved to pay. He’d opened a way for God’s people to be reunited with their estranged spouse. In his death, the demands of the law were met to set free those of us who know the law is good (Rom. 2:15) but continually fall short.

So what’s left for us to do now? A Christian is compelled to do good works not so she might earn God’s favor but in response to receiving God’s favor as a divine gift. She puts that love on display by loving God and neighbor. Despite our inability to keep it, God’s law remains a perfect blueprint for loving God and neighbor.

When we fall short, as we undoubtedly will, we can run back to Christ (instead of running from him in fear). We’ll find mercy and grace to help in our time of need. He’s fulfilled the law’s demands so we can rest securely in him.

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