January 7, 2009

Why Freedom Demands Law

2009 1501 page29 capunny how you can read texts for years, only to have something suddenly scream out as if the words themselves sprang off the page, their curves and lines and dots carrying ideas that were always there, but only now, for some reason, appear so obvious.
Take Genesis 2:16, 17: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”* What a powerful discourse on human freedom and the need for law.
Why would the Lord have told Adam not to eat of the tree if Adam didn’t have free will and the capacity to use that free will? Had Adam been preprogrammed in a way that would have automatically kept him from eating off the tree, the command would have been superfluous, unneeded—as silly as someone ordering their Volkswagen not to sing an arietta, or their pet reptile not to read French. But because Adam, in the perfection of an unfallen creature, was created free—with the capacity to make his own moral choices, then to act upon those choices—the command was given.
2009 1501 page29All of which leads directly to the question of law. What would be the purpose of God’s moral law—a law pointing out moral right and wrong—were humans not free? Free beings need a moral law; non-free beings, with no capacity to make moral decisions, don’t.
Ever heard of the Ten Commandments being applied to gophers, or to laptops? Why not? Human beings can make those choices; which is why they need a law to guide them as they do. And what better law than God’s law?
Imagine a society of free beings who were guided by no law. Would you expect harmony, concord, peace; or anarchy, chaos, and confusion? Freedom without law seems almost self-contradictory. Freedom itself demands a law to define what choices free beings must make in order to maintain their moral integrity.
No matter how popular the notion, our own ideas of right and wrong are not good enough. “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8), especially not when “every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 21:2). After all, our eyes can be very deceiving. If they can give us a totally skewed and distorted picture of physical truths—earth looks motionless, sun looks as if it moves from horizon to horizon, tables and chairs look solid, etc.—how much more can they deceive us regarding moral ones? However marvelous eyesight is, the disconnect between what we see and—after it’s processed by our brains—how we interpret what we see can be ghastly.
The irony is apparent. So often people view law as something that restricts freedom. Yet law is the only thing that makes freedom possible, or at least workable. Sure, law can be unjust, harsh, and cruel, often reflective of a harsh, unjust, and cruel law-giver. Nazi laws, for example, revealed plenty about the character of their law-makers. But what kind of law is going to be created by a loving, self-sacrificing Creator? It’s hard to see how a loving God would create anything other than a law that reflects that love.
As long as we believe in human freedom, God’s moral law must be present. Moral freedom is inseparable from moral law; for without it how would free creatures know how to use the costly and risky God-given gift of freedom, to stay within the bounds of what God Himself deems right and wrong? The idea, then, that the law has been abolished is, on the face of it, untenable.
Though we don’t often think of those texts in that manner, Genesis 2:16, 17 provide evidence why the law can never be abolished, at least as long as God keeps us free. Free beings need law, for law defines what freedom really is. 
*Bible texts in this column are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.