The Meaning of Law

In my first post in this series, I defined law as something that ultimately comes from God and is given to humans for them to live by for their own good. The refrain of scripture is all power and authority belongs to God so any form of law that exists among people ultimately originates from him. Law is therefore something good for society (Romans 13; John 18:33-38.) Later on we shall take a closer look at this, as we unpack the very dense definition of law I initially gave.

Law is relational. It is about how people should act among themselves. It’s a vertical and horizontal relationship by which I mean it is from God and given among humans. As we understand and obey law we are really examining and practicing relationship. On account of this relational quality of law it is the bedrock upon which human society is built, with its many facets and dimensions.

For volitional creatures to co-exist in an environment you need law. A volitional being is one that makes cognizant decisions, that is, they makes choices being self-aware. This is an idea I will explore in a later post but I think the reason why choice exists, something that really should be brought in the discussion of predestination, is for volitional relationships. That is to say the power of choice exists so we can be in relationships of our own accord and enjoy it. In a relationship there is an “us” but every “us” is made up of at least a “you” and an “I”. This relational quality is embedded in law which says how “you” is supposed relate to “I” among “us”, recognizing and affirming both community and individuality. Law allows both individuals and groups of people to exercise the power of choice. Right from Genesis the Bible tells us that humans were made to be in relationship. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbour as yourself. This not only places law as an ordering and directing force among us, but an intrinsic part of what it means to be human.

As I have already said, law tells people what to do, so it is by definition authoritative. Now if God created all people equally in his image no one can claim to have any form of implicit authority over the next person. However, we are all equally accountable to the one whose image we bear. So if any person claims to speak or act on some kind of authority it must ultimately proceed from a transcendent source. The human understanding and practice of authority is God given. People therefore can only act as mediators of transcendent authority. No one is truly autonomous therefore human power is always limited. Again all power and authority belongs to God. Since we can only act as mediators of power, we equally held accountable for how we use it. As the scripture says, God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11.) The authoritativeness of law is never unqualified. It includes accountability, equity, justice and many other things which make the application of law meaningful.

Not only is the law authoritative it is beneficial. We can speak of many specific things that makes law good. In the biblical worldview the goodness of God’s law is bound up in the goodness of God and his creation. I earlier hinted at this in this post when I concluded that law is an intrinsic part of being human. In fact I believe it is the way to be fully human. I said that within law we have relationship between God and humans. However a vertical relationship is not only transcendent, it is also imminent. God does not give law to humans and then leaves them to do whatever what they want with it. God is not a detached, uninvolved lawgiver, he is present within law itself. This is best exemplified in the Torah which was an incarnational symbol among the Jews. It was a symbol through which they had access to God’s manifest presence. This harks back to the Garden of Eden where obedience to his commands gave them access to God’s presence. God has a continued and active role in the world he has made. It is not an automaton that runs on its own. The Creator is also the sustenance of what he has made. In the creation narrative God’s creative word is also his life-giving law that births and nourishes creation. God’s law at work in the world is a sign of God’s continued presence and activity. That relationship between word and law is evident throughout the course of scripture. Perhaps, this relationship is most famously expressed by David in Psalm 119, an acrostic poem about God’s word.

The relationship between word and law is made even more obvious by the simple fact that laws are communicated through words. In the Bible God’s law is an expression of his creative word. The goodness of law is that it is the means by which a good God makes and sustains a good creation. The Lord God is completely sovereign over his creation therefore his word is law. Through this law he expresses and enacts his commitment to creation’s existence and continued flourishing. He did not make the world simply to harm it. That would be cruel and sadistic and would be against his nature as a creator. He is a wise and caring ruler whose decrees are just therefore his laws are always for the benefit of his creatures. Our good creator is our king and lawgiver.

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. – Psalm 19:7-11 ESV

Next post ⇒ Types of Law in the Bible

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