If it’s Not About the Rules, Then Why Have Rules At All?

You’ve probably heard the evangelical saying, “It’s not about the rules, it’s about the relationship.”  But have you ever seen a healthy relationship without rules?

Don’t try invoking the “not about rules” thing in a marriage.  Unless you want to end up single.

The saying has its limits.

The Law of God is composed of rules.

Historically speaking, Christians have had a hard time knowing what bucket the Law goes into.  That’s why some of us think salvation comes from believing in Jesus and keeping the Ten Commandments.  But when we mix law and grace, it makes your will power and the grace of Jesus joint Saviors.  Under those circumstances, who gets the glory?

Let’s establish something basic.  The most sincere efforts in the world to keep God’s law cannot save anyone.  “A person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).  You will never be able to say, “I have perfectly measured up to God’s standard, therefore I do not need the grace and mercy of His cross.”

Then why does God even bother with rules?  Why complicate the issue by giving them to begin with?

In order to answer this, try looking at it through a tri-focal lens.

1.  The Law expresses God, like any law expresses the character of its legislator.  The law of God is “Holy and righteous and good” (c.f. Rom. 7:12), therefore the maker of it is holy, righteous, and good.  What we see in it inspires us.  Old Testament saints like the typically morose Jeremiah, said, “Your words were found and ate them and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart”  (15:16).  The suffering Job said, I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my portion of food. (23:12).

David said, “I delight in your law” (Ps. 119:70), not because he was a compulsive legalist, but because God’s very words provided a portal into God Himself.  David thus prayed, “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (v. 18).

Typically we hunt for the “golden” verses of the Old Testament to celebrate the goodness of God, yet even the threatening ones that portray a righteous, wrathful God are nourishing to the godly soul.  God delivered to Ezekiel prophetic warnings and rebukes for the rebellious nation of Israel.  These passages were among some of the most caustic warnings in all of Scripture.  Yet the prophet described the experience this way:

2:9 And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.  3:1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. 

2.  The law protects like a guardian (Gal. 3:24-25). 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”  For those who have not met Christ, the rule of law sets boundaries so we don’t wander into abject darkness, a bottomless pit that will lead to complete moral destruction on every level, not to mention the social dimension as well.  If you choose to wander away from it, you’ll suffer real world consequences.

Josh McDowell writes about a teenage boy whose neighbor had an in-ground swimming pool enclosed by a high wooden fence.  The boy had never swum in the pool and barely knew the family.  One night while they were gone, he and his girlfriend scaled the fence for a late night swim.  In the pitch black he got up on the diving board and dove.  But he hadn’t realized the neighbors had drained the water out of the pool.  The boy landed on his head in the bottom of the pool.  The injury paralyzed him for life from the neck down.  The fence he’d climbed hadn’t been there to keep him from having fun.  It was there to protect him. 1

God is not a cosmic killjoy.  He gives laws to preserve joy, because he knows when sin runs loose, misery comes with it.  Law is God’s guardian against total loss for a sinner in that time before he meets Christ.

3.  The law exposes sinners. Just as it expresses the lawmaker, it confronts the law-breaker.  Loving the law of God is like hugging a mirror.  You will see yourself as you really are.  As much as it describes the glory of God, it reveals the absence of that glory in your life.  Paul was a devout Jew who loved the law of God, and testified that “If it had not been for the law I would not have known sin.  For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7).

As a young man, Paul apparently had thought coveting was normal.  It seemed an automatic response to the world around him.  In fact, he had felt it from his earliest memory.  And so he thought (like we all do), that if we are born with drives and tendencies, that must make them okay.

The law showed him he was wrong.

The more Paul loved and handled God’s law, he found that “nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18).  The closer he stood to the law, the worse he seemed.  The more he tried to obey it, the more he got opposite results.  The law didn’t make him worse.  It merely showed him what he already was—deeply, profoundly ruined.

Finally, he cried out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).  Paul gave up looking for success and started thinking in terms of salvation.  Who became paramount (as in who will deliver me), and not what (as in what technique or practice).   The hopelessness of his sentiments fairly bleed through those words.

But then he writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25).  Deliverance from sin comes through Jesus Christ, not greater will power.  The law provokes us with our own shortcomings and failures to give up trusting ourselves and to then look to another.

For sure it’s not about the rules.  But imagine the difficulties without them.

(Part 1 of 2)

1 McDowell, Josh. Right From Wrong: What You Need to Know to Help Youth Make Right Choices, p. 109.

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