Friday, December 08, 2006

For What the Law was Powerless to Do


This past Monday on campus we had a well attended public debate between two students on campus. The debate centered on the role of Christians in American politics. One student asserted that we ought to promote Christian values through government, while the other student argued we should not. As I sat listening to the debate the thought suddenly popped into my head, “what the law was powerless to do.”

Those of you who are Christians are probably quite familiar with this verse. It is found in Romans 8:3 and in full says, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3,4)

This passage comes on the heels of Paul’s discussion in chapter 7 about the experience of a Jew under the Law. Romans 7:15-25 is often misused to assume that what Paul describes here is what he expects of Christian experience after conversion. I call this a misuse of the passage because the larger context makes clear that Paul believes Christians are set free from the sinful nature and are no longer slaves to sin. So in order for 15-25 to be an expression of Paul’s current experience would make Paul sharply contradictory with himself. Paul here undertakes the persona of a Jew under the Law using a rhetorical device in which out of context it appears as if Paul is speaking about himself.

The point I’d like to draw out is that Paul affirms that the Law is unable to free his fellow Jews from their slavery to sin. In fact, Paul says that in a sense the Law produced more iniquity. But, “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,”(Rom. 7:25) since “through Jesus Christ the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:2) It is the Spirit of life who sets us free. The Law does not have the capability to do so. This is one of Paul’s prominent points in this passage.

Interestingly, many Christians fully affirm Paul’s statements in these passages but pragmatically they don’t believe them. Some Christians have still decided that the way to change the world is by use of law. We have transported the first century debates into our culture and decided that through American government and law we will advance the Christian cause. So, many evangelicals vehemently fight for legislation that appears to reflect Christian values. We attempt to put “Christian” political leaders into office with the hope that they will fight for us and America can become a Christian nation. In all these efforts such evangelicals are unfortunately promoting the idea that people and society can and will be changed by use of law.

It baffles me why any Christian would not immediately see Paul’s admonitions relevant to these Christians’ current political agenda. Do we really think American law is more powerful than the Jewish law? If the Jewish law was “powerless” how can we think American law will be more potent? The fruit of these attempts has shown that our culture is not being changed by these efforts but is becoming more resentful towards Christianity. It is of no surprise that when Christians attempt to use contra-Gospel means to advance the Gospel the results are disastrous.

I believe Paul’s words ought to a great warning and we ought truly to affirm the powerlessness of law to enact the salvific change necessary in our culture. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man.” Thanks be to God.