The Stiff Arm of the Law

By Rob Beames

It must be nice to be a highway patrol officer and always be so popular. Simply by entering a major highway, they cause all the other cars to gather around them. It appears that drivers everywhere want to be as close to them as they possibly can—without passing. As soon as we see a patrol car, we slam on our breaks, so we can drive right along side them. Yet, we don’t stay close to patrol vehicles because we are attracted to them in some way. The real reason we stick so close is to go as fast as we can without getting a speeding ticket.

Nothing out of the ordinary, I know. However, on my way to work a while back, I saw something really amazing. I merged onto the interstate and looked over my shoulder only to see a familiar gold-colored car, driven by a man wearing a wide-brimmed, black hat. So I joined his followers a safe distance behind the officer hoping he would take the next exit. We drove in a swarm at exactly 54 mph. Suddenly, a car (driven by someone obviously more desperate to get to work than I) sped past me. I watched as this car raced up directly behind the officer, and kept pace, surrounded by the throng of cautious drivers. The officer changed lanes and let the car pass him, only to flash his lights and pull it over to the side of the road. I couldn’t believe my eyes! It appeared the officer had pulled someone over for following too closely behind him. I couldn’t help but cheer on the officer. I have often wished that someone would get a ticket for bumper-riding—one of my biggest pet peeves (which I admit to doing when absolutely necessary. Oh, and before I reached the office, I repented for taking joy in the mishap of others.)
Maybe it’s not a direct correlation, but isn’t this how we sometimes view God’s law? When gazing right at the law in front of us, do we “hit the breaks,” so to speak, in order to make it look like we’ve been observing it all along? Do we come right up along side the law and keep pace with it, as if to demonstrate that His law is our heart’s desire? In realty, most of us really wish God’s law would take the next exit and get off the road. When the law pulls someone over with flashing red lights, do we cheer—at least in our hearts—believing justice was served by making the roads safer for everyone else?

In the third chapter of Galatians, the Apostle Paul seems to view God’s law as having an entirely different purpose. First, he explains a couple things the law did not do: it did not invalidate a covenant previously established by God, nor did it nullify the promise of a loving relationship with God through His Spirit. Then, Paul tells us the precise purpose of the law in verse 23, saying, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:23).
The word from the original language translated as “put in charge,” can be translated as “acting as a tutor,” and refers to a personal slave who served as a babysitter to a freeborn child. With this verse we see that the main purpose of the law is to lead us to Jesus, who fulfilled the law perfectly, rather than to chastise us due to our inability to fulfill the law ourselves. Its role is to drive us away from ourselves, even away from the strict letter of the law itself, and toward the person of Jesus Christ, so that we might be justified by faith. Now that we have faith in Christ, we no longer need the law to act as a babysitter to watch over us. We are redeemed by our faith in the way Jesus fulfilled the law, not by the law, itself.

Does this mean the law is no longer a rule for our lives? On the contrary, we now must keep an even higher law which comes from the heart, is guided by love and is empowered by the Spirit of Christ—even when we don’t see a spiritual state trooper on the road. For example, the law instructed us not to kill, but since we have been loved by God (even though we deserve His hate), He demands that we love others from our heart. Paul confirms this in Romans 13:10, saying, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” No, we cannot disregard the law; in fact, we have an added responsibility to deeply respect it, not just with an outward appearance of compliance, but with our hearts out of love for God and for others. This is a more difficult thing to do and we cannot succeed without the help of His Holy Spirit.

From the perspective of our sin nature, we have a distorted view of the law. We might think of it like the “long arm of the law” used to be in old western movies. The bad guy could run, but he could not hide. In this context, we feel doomed to get what is coming to us. Perhaps, without faith in Christ, that‘s an appropriate concept. However, for those of us who trust in Christ alone, it might be more beneficial to think of God’s law like the “stiff arm” of a running back on a football team. As a ball carrier often sticks his arm out to keep away a potential tackler, so God’s law could be seen as “stiff arming” us. Since it is a pointless endeavor to try to tackle God’s law ourselves, His law pushes us to Christ, so we can fall at His feet of grace. In this humble state, we start to obey, not out of a fear of punishment, but out of a heart that is free to pursue righteousness because of our love for Him alone. (I believe He wanted me to remind you of this!)

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