Thirty years ago my family and I lived in Virginia. We had a
friend who was a dietician. She once told of waiting in line in a cafeteria,
where there was, of course, a wide variety of foods to choose from. A young
teenager was just ahead of her in line with his mother. He was eyeing the
serving line eagerly. "Can I get whatever I want?" he asked his mom.
""Yes," his mom replied, "you can get whatever you
So, being a dietician, our friend observed what food choices the
teenager made. He started off with a Caesar salad with extra dressing, then got
fried chicken tenders. As side dishes he got french fries and macaroni and
cheese. For dessert he got chocolate cream pie and to drink sweet tea.
Our friend told us, "Cafeterias give you lots of choices, but
the rules of healthy eating are always in effect. If you make bad choices of
what to eat you will pay the price down the road."
Good choices yield good results, bad choices yield bad results. In
the truly important things, what is good and what is bad are not just matters of
personal opinion. Life has rules. There is a definite relationship between
making good choices and the rules. Both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, for
example, have a law. The Boy Scout law has twelve commandments, that a Scout is
Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful.
Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. Adhering to the Scout law is what makes you a
Scout. Simply joining a troop, pack or den does not make you a Scout. Just
wearing a Scout uniform does not make you a Scout. Those things are only choices. But living according to the law is much more than a choice because the law
sets standards that Scouts have to follow if they want to be a Scout
rather than just pretend to be one.
So let’s look at the relationship between law and choice and
freedom. My kickoff passage is a brief one from the Gospel of John, 8:31-32.
Jesus said to the people who had believed him, "If you hold to my
teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the
truth will set you free."
Now, we’re all for freedom. But we need to ask ourselves, freedom from
what and freedom for what?
Freedom is one of the central themes of both the old and new
testaments. The story of the children of Israel being freed from chattel
bondage in Egypt is still the formative story of the Jews around the world. Yet
simply leaving Egypt did not give them freedom although it did relieve them of
The children of Israel came to understand that they became free
only when they received the Law at Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the rest of
the Law that followed. When Jesus, a faithful Jew, said that holding to the
truth about his teachings would make his followers free, he was not talking
about being freed from the law. Christian people often believe, erroneously,
that we are freed from the Law because we have a new covenant in Jesus Christ.
After all, we have a "New Testament" while the Jews, who do not
confess Christ, are still stuck with the old one. So we tell ourselves.
But it's not so. First, it’s not clear that Jeremiah’s prophecy
of the New Covenant is terribly different from the covenant made concrete at
Sinai and explained in the books of Moses. Jesus claimed the New Covenant as
his own, embodied by him personally, at the Last Supper. But morally and
ethically, there is no difference between the covenant at Sinai and the
New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
Second, Jesus said explicitly in Matthew 5.17-20,
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the
Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say
to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not a letter or a dot will pass from
the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least
of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in
the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called
great in the kingdom of heaven."
Seems clear. Paul picks up on this theme, especially in Romans, by
insisting that the Law is freedom because it is through the Law that he – and
we, too – understand what sin is because the Law explains it. "If it had
not been for the law," Paul wrote, "I would not have known sin. For I
would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall
not covet.’" For Paul, the great benefit of the Law was that it revealed
the greatest means of the grace of God, and that is Jesus. So for Paul, knowing
the Law meant knowing what is right and what is wrong and being able to
perceive the meaning of Jesus.
I want to hammer this point home some. The Law of Moses that Jesus
fulfilled was revealed to humanity. We did not make it up. So far
removed from these events are we that we think that morality, as we understand
it, is the natural way that people live together. Few people today know that
the societies around the ancient Jews and early Christians was brutal. The
Romans considered mercy, charity, and forgiveness to be vices, evidence of
weakness, not virtues. Human morality absent divine commandment is base and
filled with vice.
Morally, our capacities are weighted toward the negative side of
the scale. We intend greater good than we ever achieve. Treaties, alliances,
aid organizations, political parties, civic groups, even churches – all begun
for good reasons to accomplish good things, and all fall short of what their
founders intended. And, as Paul said, we often achieve evil even while trying
to do good. In fact, we even have a name for it, the "law of unintended
Hence is the necessity of
God giving the moral law. My friend Rabbi Daniel Jackson wrote, "There are
obvious logical elements of the Law of Sinai that might be deduced logically
(or rationally). Yet, much of the Scriptures is based on directives and rules
‘that we would not have known’ if the Scriptures did not tell us so."
What we think of a normal morality has been revealed to us by God.
The freedom of God’s Law is freedom from the baser demons of our being so that
we may discover the better angels of our nature.
It is a choice to obey God’s law or not. And yes, we frequently
fail because of our own inability or giving in to temptations. Every choice to
depart from God’s Law chips away at our integrity as persons belonging to
Jesus. But there is no good reason to do a bad thing. Integrity matters!
During his time as a rancher, Theodore Roosevelt and one of his
cowpunchers lassoed a maverick steer, lit a fire, and put a branding iron in it
to heat. The part of the range they were on was actually owned by Gregor Lang,
one of Roosevelt's neighbors. According to the cattleman's rule, the steer
therefore belonged to Lang. Roosevelt saw his employee, the cowboy, raise the
glowing branding iron toward the steer, but it was Roosevelt's brand.
"Wait, it should be Lang's brand," he said.
"That's all right, boss," said the cowboy. "Lang
will never know."
"Drop that iron," Roosevelt demanded, "and get back
to the ranch, get your things and get out." Roosevelt later explained,
"A man who will steal for me will steal from me."
Integrity, says Webster’s, is "adherence to moral and ethical
principles; soundness of moral character; honesty." And that takes the
willingness and ability to cleave to a standard, whether you call it the law or
a code or something else. Roosevelt knew that integrity is a cloth woven from
the whole of a person's life. To break that trust anywhere cheapens whatever
good one might do elsewhere.
It does not work to make up your own code of conduct and think
that integrity will follow. When I was in the Army, I heard another officer
described this way: "He fails to achieve even the low standards he sets
for himself." Rare is the man or woman who does not fall short of even
their own standards even though many people set their own bar pretty low. Even if
we do meet our own standards, we still fail to become what God intends us to
be. Perhaps that's why poet Robert Browning asked, "Oh that a man's reach
should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?"
Choices matter, and the choices we make are not isolated from one
another. Charles Swindoll told the story of a fellow in Long Beach, California,
who went inside a fried chicken place and bought two chicken dinners for
himself and his lady friend late one afternoon. The woman working the counter
accidentally gave him a bag containing the day's cash proceeds instead of his
bag of fried chicken.
After driving to their picnic site, the man and woman opened the
bag and discovered more than $800! The man quickly put the money back in the
bag. They got back into the car and drove all the way back to the store. He
walked into the chicken store, where the manager and counter girl were
searching frantically for the money. The customer handed the manager the bag
and said, "I came here to get a couple of chicken dinners and wound up
with all this money. Here, take it back."
The manager was thrilled to death. He said, "Oh, let me call
the newspaper. I'm gonna have your picture put in the local newspaper. You're
the most honest man I've heard of." To which they guy quickly responded,
"Oh no, no, don't do that!" Then he leaned closer and whispered,
"You see, the woman with me is somebody else's wife."
The man did the right thing to return the money, but was he really
a man of integrity? I report, you decide.
It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.
The issue is more acute for young people than for our generation.
It sounds trite to say but it’s nonetheless true that I grew up in a different
time than they. The advice to "do your own thing" was unknown
to us and we would never have even thought of agreeing that something may be
right for you and wrong for me, or vice-versa, depending on our own
inclinations, points of view and what we simply want to believe.
I think the heart of the problem today is that to be a modern man
or woman of today’s culture is to believe in nothing. Or more accurately, to
believe in nothing in particular. Modernity prizes personal autonomy so much
that the spirit of this age gleefully embraces that nothing underlies
fundamental reality, making, in the words of David Hart, "a fertile void
in which all things are [claimed] possible, from which arises no
impediment" to our desires – and therefore we may decide for ourselves
what is right or wrong and what we choose.
Which is to say that modern America as a whole no longer believes
that there is an objective criterion by which to judge our choices because
there can be no higher good than being able to make a choice in the first
place. Therefore, all judgment, whether divine or human, infringes on choosing
– and being able to choose apart from any standards but one’s own exercises
"an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns."
This is a purely an idea of our day. In centuries past, even
before Jesus was born, true human freedom was emancipation "from whatever
constrains us from living a life of rational virtue" and that led to our
intellectual and spiritual flourishing. Freedom was the ability to overcome
"our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices."
"In this view of things [wrote Hart], we are free when we
achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented ... and whatever
separates us from that end – even if it comes from our own wills – is a form of
bondage. We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have
For to choose poorly is to enslave ourselves to the impermanent,
the irrational and eventually the destructive. Simply choosing, unconnected
from divine guidance and godly standards, is to choose ultimately to reject
freedom, to be enslaved to the bondage of the self, to what Paul called the
body of death, and finally to choose to perish rather than attain everlasting
The role of God’s law is to enable human beings to be released
from the shackles of spiritual and mental bondage that prevent us from being
saved in this life and the next. Through the teachings of the so-called
"Old" Testament, we are guided to the divine goodness, which we can
then perceive embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s advice of Romans 12 holds true: "Do not be conformed
to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing
you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and
Jesus understood that a life of choosing rightly is not easy.
"Enter through the narrow gate," he said, "for the gate is wide
and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.
For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are
few who find it."
not easy to live rightly to remain free. It is bondage to death and sin that is
easy. But we can break those chains if we hold fast to Jesus’ teachings. Live
up to God’s law. Then we will be free indeed.
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 21.