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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Not a Rule Book

The claim is often made that the Bible is not a book of rules. I'm not at all clear about what that means. I mean, if God says, "Do this and don't do that", it's clearly not a suggestion. We don't have "the Ten Recommendations". The Bible, in fact, is full of commands from God. And if these aren't "rules", what are they? It is not rational to say, "The Creator and King of the Universe says to do this and not do that ... but He's okay with it if you don't follow that." If we define "rule" as "an explicit regulation or principle of conduct", there is no way that "God commands ..." cannot be understood as a rule. Now, if we understand that a "rule" is "a prescribed mathematical method for performing a calculation or solving a problem", then by all means we can agree that the Bible is not a book of rules. I don't think that's what's being said. So using the standard definition of "rule", it should be abundantly clear that the Bible indeed contains rules.

That having been said, I do need to point out that the Bible is not a book of rules. "Wait ... what?" Let's look.

The definition of sin is "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). Clearly, sin is the violation of God's law. Clearly, then, the Bible contains God's law. But, we know from Scripture that all sin (Rom 3:23) and that the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God (Rom 8:7). Obviously, those who are not of the faith are not going to concern themselves with what God commands. So saying, "The Bible says we are supposed to do or not do X" is irrelevant to those who don't care what God says. Using the Bible as a club to hit people over the head who don't care what God says is pointless. In that sense, the Bible isn't a book of rules.

Some will point out the "rule of love". Paul wrote, "The whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Gal 5:14) Of course, that is an oversimplification. Jesus said the whole law was predicated on the two great commandments -- Love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:37-40). But you get the idea. It's fairly straightforward. If you love God and love your neighbor, there is no need for rules. You're meeting them. In that sense, the Bible isn't a book of rules.

There is the whole problem of interpretation and application. For instance, God commanded Israel to stone adulterers. Do we interpret that to mean that we should do the same? Well, no. Why? Because that was to a theocratic Israel. The moral code -- "don't commit adultery" -- remains in place, but the civil consequences don't. Interpretation and application. Or take a silly example. The psalmist writes, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Psa 137:9) Well, now, all you anti-abortion folk, isn't that a contradiction to your view?! We are commanded to dash little ones against rocks! Not if you're paying attention, of course, because that is neither a command nor is it reasonable in the context of the passage. Interpretation and application. So taking the Bible as a cold, "Rule #1: Thou shalt ..." kind of book doesn't work. In that sense, the Bible isn't a book of rules.

Then there is the problem of intent. The Bible was not written to tell us what to do. Paul says, "If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin." (Rom 7:7) Now, you can deny to your heart's content that the Bible is a book of rules, but you would have to do so against all reason and evidence. The rules are in there. But what is their intent? Are they there to tell us how to be good, how to be right with God? As loudly as I know how to type, the answer is No! Very clearly "By works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight." (Rom 3:20) Why? "... since through the law comes knowledge of sin." The point of the Bible is not "live this way". The point of the rules is not "here's how you get along with God." The point of the Bible is Christ. Not "what to do" or "follow these 12-steps". In that sense, the Bible isn't a book of rules.

"Okay," you might be saying now, "so you agree that the Bible isn't a book of rules." No, I'm not. Clearly the Bible contains "the law". That's rules. Clearly this "law" -- the rules of the Bible -- give directions for what God wants. Very clearly, these directions demonstrate without chance of contradiction that we don't live up to what God wants. That's the primary point. Thus, we are brought to the need for faith in Christ. When we get there, we are declared sin-free and fully righteous ... apart from the law. And the life of the regenerate Christian is a life aimed at loving God and loving our neighbors not because it's commanded, but because that's what a grateful person does for such a gift. "So ... you're agreeing we don't need those rules?" No. If we knew perfectly what love looks like, I might agree. We don't. On the contrary, we are so sin-sick and misguided on what "love" means we desperately need guidance from God on what He means by "love God" and "love your neighbor". Left to our own devices, we could easily wind up with "You mean, have sex with our neighbor?" with our society's current confusion over the term. No, we still have God's rules available, not as a means of getting right with God, but as a guide to what loving God and loving our neighbor looks like. Is that a "rule book"? You can decide. But I would be remiss if I failed to point out that failure to seek to do what pleases God by following His commands has unpleasant consequences, ranging from loss (1 Cor 3:15) to eternal separation from God (1 Cor 6:9-10). So while the rules won't get you in, it's certainly not wise to set aside what God commands. And in that sense, the Bible certainly is a book of rules.

1 comment:

Stan said...

Sometimes we create our own problems here. "You know," you may have heard, "those commands in the Old Testament were commands to Israel. They aren't applicable to us." And ... poof! ... the Bible is not a book of rules. Because those commands were given to Israel, not us. But, of course, Paul wasn't writing to us nor was Jesus speaking to us ... or any of the rest of the texts. They were written to other people. Woohoo! We're clear. We no longer have a book of rules -- love your neighbor, that kind of thing -- but a nice list of things God wanted other people to do. We're on our own now and can decide what we want. God is full of grace and won't care what you choose. Yippee!

And we brought it on ourselves.