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October 2nd, 2014
If you liken a film to a marriage, then the trailer is like the first date. That initial, compressed encounter can do two things. It can create great anticipation of learning more of the “subject” in its fulness. It can turn out, though, to be one big fabrication of the reality yet to come. Most trailers do the former; too many of them demonstrate the latter. (As for first dates, are they not a little of both?) You probably remember at least one film that had you at the green screen. The dollars in your wallet almost asked to be plunked down at the ticket counter. But having sat through the whole feature you wondered if the production company would have been better served if they’d let the trailer’s editor and the film’s director switch roles. At least my vote for greatest disconnect between trailer and film was last year’s Man of Steel.
(Who knows–maybe the sequel will redeem the original.)
For the last two weeks we’ve listened to the Apostle Paul try to dissuade the Galatian churches from relying on their obedience to the Law as their confidence in the favor of God. He’s made that case by, among other things, clarifying the nature and purpose of the Law so as to show that its demands are too high, and our natures too estranged, to ever think it could alone engender what it outlines.
But as we paused to mention last Sunday, the resplendent way so many of the biblical authors speak of the Law can come off like the trailer of a B-film given Paul’s later characterizations of the Law; the “breathtaking, stupendous, a must-see” adulation of the Law in the Old Testament seems to be damned by Paul’s faint praise in the New.
Case in point: if you only read Psalm 119, the lengthiest of the Psalter and the one which goes to the greatest lengths to extol the Law, you hear unqualified celebration of the Law’s excellencies:
In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. (v. 14)
Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works. (v. 27)
When I think of your rules from of old, I take comfort, O LORD. (v. 52)
Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning. (v. 54)
I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad. (v. 96)
Yet in his letter to Galatia, Paul, the former valedictorian of rabbinical piety, has cast the Law in the supporting roles of diagnostic tool (declaring and denouncing sin) and tutor (chiding and restraining against sin), neither of which is to be confused with the leading role of Redeemer. For all its putative glory, the Law is still a foil for the one Lawkeeper whose obedience can and does transform the heart.
So does the Old Testament sell us on a view of the Law which the New Testament then disappoints us with?
We responded to a perceived discrepancy last week; we’ll do so again here: the apparent divergence between views of the Law is in appearance only.
The Paul who in Galatians dials back those churches’ expectations of what the Law can do in them is the same Paul who in Romans regales the Law with the same passion as any Psalmist did; yet he simultaneously maintains his deeply humble anthropology, which only amplifies rather than diminishes the Law’s glory.
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death (Romans 7:12-21)
Paul’s not departing from the tradition of magnifying the Law but rather walking squarely in it. In fact, the last verse of Psalm 119 only anticipates the Pauline synthesis of appreciation for the Law with recognition of our inward estrangement from it.
Let my soul live and praise you, and let your rules help me. I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments. (119:165)
Paul knew an acute fidelity to the Law but knew later just how chronic his need for something more than the Law if he would ever live by the Law.
Jesus makes the same claim about the Law and then died to prove it. When Jesus declares, “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” (Mt 5:17), He reconfirms the glory of the Law. But His cross equally confirms how the Law alone can neither pardon us nor see to our alignment with it. That Jesus would have to die to reconcile us to God is the clearest indication that we needed something more than better teaching about the Law; we needed a heart to obey it.
Far from discarding the Law as a thoroughly out-of-touch code of expectations, Paul makes clear the Law’s abiding relevance so long as it’s seen in the context of the One who lived perfectly before it and died to remove its penalty from us: “He condemned sin in the flesh, and for sin, that we might fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law.” (Rom 8:14) Though the Law could not itself make us into law-abiding folk, the pardon of Jesus and the power of His Spirit in us frees us to follow the wisdom contained within the Law
So while we find both praise for the Law and exasperation before it, the two messages don’t represent “mixed reviews.” Rather they together speak with one voice a truth spoken from cover to cover of His word: the glory of His character in us will be known only by the glory of His grace to us.
That’s a wrap.
As far as films whose trailers told no lies go, this one with Steve McQueen lived up to expectations. (Though my kids prefer the…er…sequel.)
This Sunday we’ll come to the Table with two complementary questions.
- How do we escape from what feels like the inescapable impulse to make an impression, even if that means chronically misrepresenting ourselves?
- Moreover how can we escape from gnawing fear and into abiding love?
We’ll listen to an excerpt from a short story from David Foster Wallace that sets those questions in a human context, and then turn for an answer to Paul’s words in Galatians 3:26-4:7.
Spoiler: the way of escape is to become a son of God. (Fear not, ladies–we’ll give some time to thoughts about gender.) We’ll try to see what that means, on what basis that can be true, and by what strength we can live into it.
Two women’s groups studying Elizabeth George’s Loving God with All Your Mind begin next Tuesday. Just a few spots remain open in each group. Go to our Community Groups page for more details and to register.
- Don’t forget to keep tabs on the CtK Calendar, including the North Texas Presbytery’s Women’s Retreat this weekend in Fort Worth. Details can be found on the calendar here.
- Last week, we let you in on what music we’d be singing for the upcoming Sunday. Check back Friday for this Sunday’s songs.
Finally, as you pray, pray for these:
- for healing of Thomas Duncan and the containment of the virus
- for the protection and wisdom of health professionals and for peace in our city
- for peace in Hong Kong in the pursuit of justice
- for our new women’s Community Groups forming next week