Free in Christ – Chapter 2, Law and Principle

by Cecil Hook


Why do we have so many commands and directives from God? Does He have some kind of divinely selfish interest that is fulfilled by His burdening us with requirements and restrictions? Does He have an ego problem which would cause Him to demand, “You people on earth, I command you to sing praises to me”?

The legislators of Texas passed a law that each automobile licensed in the state must have an inspection sticker on the driver’s side of the windshield. They made that law because some of us are careless about keeping our cars in safe operating condition. The law is for the good of the owner of the car and for the others who might be jeopardized by its operation. So the law is for the good of all concerned.

Suppose that our legislators should pass another law requiring a green star sticker on the passenger side of the windshield. They explain the purpose of this law: “We made this law just to let you know that we have the authority to legislate. We want you to get this sticker simply because we say for you to get it.” That would be an arbitrary, despotic law. And after the next election, there would be some new faces in the legislature!

Law must originate from authority in order to have validity; yet just laws are not arbitrary expressions of authority.

Laws are designed for the benefit and protection of the governed. Each law is based on some good or moral principle. A command without a principle is arbitrary, only satisfying a despotic whim.

God’s laws are not arbitrary expressions of authority. His commands are not for the satisfying of the whims of an egocentric deity. His laws are based on the principle of what is good for man and just with God. A command expediting a principle may contain some element of arbitrary choice like God’s choice of the seventh day as the Sabbath. Commands only direct and expedite the application of the principles involved. Rather than initiating rituals of sacramental value, God’s commands direct man in the receiving of grace and growing in grace in the spiritual realm and in the living responsibly with his fellow man in the moral realm.

The principle is broader and greater than the command. Man’s tendency has been to emphasize the lawful demand and to minimize or fail to discern the principle. This is a facet of legalism.

The Ten Commandments, for instance, were not arbitrary laws, but were based on principles even though the Jews interpreted them as being arbitrary. In the first three, God is saying, “I love you and want your full fellowship.” In the fifth through the tenth, He is saying, “Love and respect each other.” The fourth command, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” might not seem to fit with the nine. However, it is the pivotal command. It points both directions — to God and man. In it, God is saying, “Remember your spiritual relationship with me and remember the dignity and purpose of man.”

The Jews accepted the Sabbath command as a most absolute and arbitrary expression of God’s will. They sought to define all the legalities relating to this command while minimizing or failing to discern the principles it was designed to promote.

Law in Perspective

One man defied God and was put to death for gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36). But Jesus put the law in true perspective. He considered mercy shown to a sheep to be more important than the Sabbath law (Matt. 12:9-12). He also explained, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). Law was made for the benefit of man. Man was not made to comply with arbitrary law.

There are two levels of responsibility. One person passes a school with reduced speed and great caution because of concern for innocent children. Another person speeds by with no concern. For this reason, a sign must be posted which defines fifteen miles per hour as the speed limit and a policeman must be around to help enforce it. Since the second person does not accept responsibility out of concern, he must be forced to accept it by law. Paul explained that “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…” (1 Tim. 1:9). The first person needed no law. Law was made for the second.

There are two levels of obedience. A man has two sons who go out on their dates. To each he says, “Come home early; please don’t stay out late.” The more mature son realizes that his father and mother won’t sleep a wink until he comes home and that he himself must go to school the next morning. So he comes home at a very reasonable hour. The less mature son comes in at two o’clock. When confronted about it, he exclaims, “Dad, you did not say how late late is and how early early is!” For this son, the father must make a rigid law: Ten o’clock or you will be punished! One son is guided by principles; the other is guided by legal specifications.

We see both levels of responsibility and obedience in God’s family. Our immaturity has been evident. We often search earth and heaven to find all the legal requirements and limitations. We discuss, wrangle, debate, judge, and censor to the point of alienating and dividing while missing the principle that God had in mind. Often where authoritative specifications have been lacking, we have formulated our own by specious logic. And, in case all else fails, we have devised elder authority to define and bind lawful specifications. That is the ultimate legalism. Such an approach will keep us confused, enslaved, and divided.

Jesus spoke out against those who sought justification by keeping legal requirements. The scribes and Pharisees were so scrupulous about keeping the law of the tithe that they would not overlook the sprigs of seasoning herbs in their gardens — mint, rue, and dill (Matt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42). God’s directive concerning tithing was not given because He had need of food or money, nor because God wanted to lay a burden on man to test him. God wanted this to be given for the welfare of His people. The Pharisees were looking for specifics as to how to keep the technicality of the law when they should have been using what they had to promote love, mercy, justice, and faith which the tithe was meant to promote. They were seeking to be justified by keeping law when they should have been seeking to accomplish its purposes.

We should not perform just to obey commands, but also for the value to be received from what was commanded. It is truly a trust in legal justification that causes a person to obey commands simply because they are commands. The person who has mercy, justice, faith, and love as his concern fulfills the principle and does not need a law to tell him how much of his resources to use in accomplishing these. He is free from lawful requirements because he has the principles written on his heart.

God wants us to gather for mutual edification (1 Cor. 14:26). In assemblies, we pray for each other, teach each other, teach and admonish one another in singing, give to help each other, and proclaim the atonement to each other. But in too many cases the thing stressed is the importance of assembling in response to a command rather than fulfilling the purposes God had in mind. To make the lawful case stronger, appeal is made to elder authority to specify the lawful time of assembly. Providing uplifting services will more nearly fulfill the purpose than demanding attendance will.

Not Many Commands

Really, there are not a great many authoritative commands directed to us. We are directed into action in at least these seven ways: (1) explicit order, (2) entreaty, (3) exhortation, (4) rhetorical questions, (5) statements of personal acceptance, (6) statement of conditions, and (7) advice of expediency. None of these bind a condition or restriction on us unless they foster some principle for the benefit of man which is expedited by the statement or instruction.

There are many directives given in the New Testament. Surely we do not follow them all. How may we judge which ones are demands upon us? It is not always easy to judge, so we must not be too dogmatic. We must look for principles. It is not imperative for us unless the teaching or command is directing the accomplishing of a practical purpose.

This all leads us to a striking and exciting conclusion: It is the principle that should rule our conduct rather than the command. A “command” promoting no principle is not really a command. The immature in perception may still prefer the command approach, seeking legal specifications. But the more mature will be seeking to accomplish the good fostered by the directive rather than trying to gain a score of righteousness by keeping the technicality of the law. The difference in approach will determine whether we gain the approval or denunciation of our Savior.

Since many sincere interpreters contend that incidental historical details, which they have considered as examples, have the same authority that commands and laws have, it is appropriate here to ask which examples are binding.

Which of these nine examples of details concerning the Lord’s Supper are binding? It was eaten (1) at night, (2) upstairs, (3) in midweek, (4) during another meal, (5) with no women present, and there was (6) one loaf, (7) of unleavened bread and, (8) one cup, (9) of Passover wine which could not have been fresh grape juice at that season. Which exemplified details are binding?

Incidental Details

No examples are binding!

An example shows how a command may be obeyed or how a principle may be fulfilled, but an example does not necessarily illustrate the only way. The authoritative quality is in the command, not in the example. For instance, Philip’s immersing the eunuch is not a binding example of immersion. It only exemplifies the meaning of baptizo, the Greek word used in the command to baptize.

There are many actions recorded that are not binding examples because they illustrate no command or principle. Philip’s running to the chariot is not bound on us as an example of how to fulfill the “go” of the Great Commission. Those who bind examples are very selective in the examples they choose to bind.

All that we have been covering in this lesson can be illustrated very well in regard to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This is no arbitrary command. It has a purpose. The purpose is not to flatter Jesus or to take a census of the faithful. It is to keep the atonement, the basis for our hope, ever fresh in our minds. We eat it, not to fulfill a command or for a sacramental grace that it might impart, but to strengthen and express our faith in the atonement. In so doing, we show forth His death till He come and we discern the oneness of the body.

If its purpose is to make us think on the atonement, then what difference does it make at what hour or on what day we do it, or if we do it twice on a day or several times weekly? What is the concern about whether the cup be fresh or fermented, or whether the bread be leavened or unleavened? How could sequence be of importance — whether we break the bread before or after the prayer, whether the bread be taken before the cup, or whether they both be served at the same time? Such details have nothing to do with the purpose of participation. If a person derives the benefit of this remembrance on Wednesday instead of Sunday, does it suddenly become a curse instead of a blessing?

Many prayers at the Lord’s Table include: “May we partake of it in the way that is acceptable and pleasing in Thy sight.” What do we mean by that? I think that generally we mean that Jesus commanded a lawful procedure of the right elements to be taken in the right order on the right day with the right people, etc., and our prayer is that we have not slipped up on any technicality so as to eat and drink damnation to our souls. Such expresses an effort to fulfill legal requirements by obeying commands rather than to fulfill the purpose of refreshing our memories.

“But we are commanded to break bread on the first day of the week,” we hear someone protest. Where is that command? Jesus could have made such a stipulation very easily, but He did not! It took our legalistic logic to come up with that command. Surely, we are not left to piece together vague clues to build up our case on such an important matter.

But what about Troas? It says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…” (Acts 20:7f). First we assume that this breaking of bread is the Communion rather than a love feast or fellowship meal. Although there is no proof of it, we will grant that it was the Communion for argument’s sake. Assuming that they met to commune, it does not indicate that they had been doing so previously or that they continued to do so the next week and thereafter. There is no indication that this was done except on that one particular weekend. This is the only time the breaking of bread is mentioned in connection with the first day of the week!

There is no clear example of the Lord’s Supper ever being eaten on the first day of the week. At Troas, if they met according to Roman (and our) manner of reckoning time, they met to eat it on our Sunday night but did not partake until Monday morning because of Paul’s long discourse. If they followed the Jewish calendar, they met to partake of it on our Saturday night. Would we be right in participating on Saturday night or Monday morning? If we were trying to be righteous by keeping legal specifications, this would be a vital matter. If we wish to accomplish the purpose of the Communion, these details fade into insignificance. We do not commune to obey commands and follow examples but to remember that Jesus died for our sins.

Not Nit-Picking

I know that I am attacking sacred cows. Please do not judge me to be irreverent. I am exposing our intellectually dishonest use of fallacious arguments to support claims to legal righteousness. All of our traditional procedures have not been based on commands which expedite principles or on examples based on commands.

This is not just nit-picking. Sincere Pharisees were eager to keep the commandment to tithe in its most minute details. They gained a sense of rightness through it, but they missed the purpose of the tithe commandment. The purpose was to promote justice, mercy, faith, and love. This exercise, rather than just obeying the command to tithe, was what God wanted. Jesus pronounced a woe upon them for their misdirected purpose. He will not be any more pleased with us than with them when we follow their pattern.

I have been a disciple for fifty years, being brought up in “the strictest sect of the Pharisees.” I have taught all the old arguments for many years. My difficult struggle has been in facing the Scriptures honestly. I can sympathize truly with any who might be shocked by this discourse. Once the light begins to break through, however, many other points will take on new and richer meaning, and I can assure you that you will begin to breathe the fresh air of freedom in Christ.

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