December 20, 2005

The Irony of It All

1550 page22 caphen the laws of England, heavily influenced by Rome, wouldn?t allow England?s King Henry VIII (1491-1547) to divorce his wife, what did he do? He changed the laws, that?s what. According to The Oxford History of Britain, ?Henry and Parliament finally threw off England?s allegiance to Rome in an unprecedented burst of revolutionary statute-making: the Act of Annates (1532), the Act of Appeals (1533), the Act of Supremacy (1534), the First Act of Succession (1534), the Treasons Act (1534), and the Act Against the Pope?s Authority (1535).? Henry didn?t change his actions in order to meet the demands of the law; no, he changed the demands of the law in order to meet his own actions.

That was a real kingdom. Imagine a fake one, called Antinomia. The king has a son, a hopeless reprobate who vandalizes a famous statue in the capital. The law demands strict punishment for this crime: five years in jail, no exceptions. What does the king do? He changes the law so that it?s no longer a criminal act to vandalize the statue. That way his son, who should have been punished, isn?t, because his act is no longer a crime.

1550 page22Imagine the same scenario, only with one difference: Suppose the law was so sacred that the king himself won?t change it. He could but doesn?t. The law demands punishment, but the king loves his son so much that he doesn?t want him to face punishment. What does the king do? He takes the punishment himself. He substitutes himself for the son in order that (1) the demands of the law were met so justice was done and (2) his son is spared punishment.

This story (second version) is analogous to the gospel, the self-substitution of God in our place. Jesus paid for our violation of the law, so that the demands of the law were filled while we, as violators of that law, are not punished.

Now, wouldn?t it have been so much easier if God did what Henry VIII or the king of Antinomia (first version) did--that is, change the law to meet the transgressor where they were, in their transgressions? When you think about the cost of the cross--God bearing in Himself the sins and the suffering and the guilt of all humanity, wouldn?t it have been less costly to just ?lower the bar,? to modify the law in order that acts once deemed violations of the law no longer were? How much easier for God Himself to have changed the definition of sin to meet humanity in its sin rather than to bear, in Himself, the penalty for that sin?

Let?s be reasonable. If God didn?t change the law before Christ died on the cross, why do it after? It would have been like the king of Antinomia changing the law about vandalizing that statue after he had already paid the penalty for its violation. Why not change it beforehand and save himself the punishment? In the same way, Jesus? death shows that if the law could?ve been changed, it would?ve been before, not after, the cross. Nothing, then, shows the continued validity of the law more than does the death of Jesus, a death that occurred precisely because the law couldn?t be changed.

Some argue that Christ fulfilled the law, and then changed it. That would make sense for a bad law, but not for one that Paul--the New Covenant?s greatest inspired teacher--called ?holy, . . . and just, and good? (Rom. 7:12), a law that the New Covenant itself ?establish[es]? (Rom. 3:31).

All this is interesting in light of the arguments that the New Covenant somehow changed the law--i.e., nullified just the fourth commandment (all other nine appear intact). But, again, the question arises: How could the death of Christ change the law when that death proves that the law can?t be changed? Thus the one thing that beyond all else proves the immutability of the law (and hence the Sabbath) is the one thing used to try to prove its temporality.

The irony of it all.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, The Mules That Angels Ride, is a collection of his columns for the Adventist Review and is available from the Review and Herald Publishing Association.