Growing up, there was a popular set of expressions that went something like this: “Christianity isn’t about following a bunch of rules. It’s about a relationship with Jesus.” This was said so often, in so many different ways, by so many different people, that I never once consciously thought about it. It was a dichotomy I believed without ever questioning, and I was far from the only one.

It wasn’t until years after being repulsed by the feminization I saw everywhere in the church and the effeminacy I saw in men at places like The Gospel Coalition that I began to realize that this idea was far from neutral. Jesus said quite explicitly that “if you love [Jesus], you will obey [His] commands” (John 14:15). The dichotomy, as it turned out, was false. Not just false, but dangerously wrong.

Loving the Law

Given how long the Book of Psalms is, it’s very easy for a church to hear sermons about various passages for a long time without realizing entire portions of the book are being skipped. The imprecatory psalms come to mind in particular but Psalm 119 has to rank up there, too. The entire song is about loving the law, and about how good the law is. Christians can read this passage and see the law fulfilled in Christ and skip over the uncomfortable bits like “I hate double-minded people, but I love your law,” and focus on the nice parts like “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path,” and see what they want to see, but an honest reading of the whole song makes it clear that loving God and loving God’s law are intrinsically tied together. And, perhaps surprisingly for Christians, God’s law is an expression of His love. And not just in the sense that Christ died to fulfill it and thus it played an essential role in our salvation. The law is not praised in Psalm 119 because of a future hope but because it helped people presently. The law is a guide for good living.

This post is not about breaking down the different portions of the law to see what might still be applicable today. Suffice to say that anything related to the temple system or sacrifice was totally replaced by Christ, while the rest is a little more difficult to pin down. However, two things become immediately evident when you try and study the law.

First, the law is actually law. As in, a legal system. It’s far beyond a list of “rules” as we like to refer to it. It’s an entire case-law system that was used by an actual government to render actual legal decisions.

Second, the law details what it looks like to love God and love your neighbor. These are summaries of the law, but the particulars of how we do this are in the law. That means there’s no contradiction between hating sexual depravity and loving your neighbor. In fact, there’s no contradiction between punishing gross sexual immorality with extreme legal consequences and loving your neighbor. Far from a contradiction, it’s actually directly connected. If you love your neighbor and if you love God, you will seek a legal system that punishes evil, including extreme forms of depravity. The West, near universally, practiced this for thousands of years until our lifetimes and in that time, Christianity dominated the world.

How We Fix Things

What ever happened to the old respect for God’s law that has all but disappeared? I think two things help explain it: the feminization of the church and the total misunderstanding of legalism.

The church being an effeminate caricature of itself is something I’ve written on before. Women generally don’t have the same sort of reverence for law that men do. This is something that’s going to cause a bit of a catastrophe in the American legal system:

When coupled with the feminization of the church and the effeminacy of men in the church, you have disdain rather than reverence.

However, there’s a more noble reason – relatively speaking anyway – for diminishing the importance of God’s law, and that’s to avoid what people call “legalism”. Legalism, in Biblical terms, is adding content to God’s law. The Jews did this in the centuries before Christ in order to avoid yet another foreign conquest as a result of God’s discipline. Despite their noble intentions, these extra rules just made it harder for people to live godly lives, and Jesus excoriated the rulers of His day for their hard-hearted insistence on these extra rules as if they were God’s law. Importantly, He never condemned them for faithful obedience to God’s law; it was their extra rules that got them in trouble. This, technically speaking, is what legalism is.

But that’s not what most Christians mean by legalism. We usually mean either works-based righteousness (that your obedience to the law saves you) or a sort of inflexibility, lacking all mercy and grace; in a word, being a jerk. Both of these really are problems, but both are not really legalism. Regardless, neither of these is the result of taking God’s law too seriously, either. Even the inflexible jerk is not really being obedience to the law, which in Christ’s – its author’s – summation includes mercy and grace.

We need to drop the effeminate hatred of hard things like rules, and we need to understand that the rules exist to love God and our neighbor. These two things will enable us to love God’s law as the Psalmist does, and to obey it, showing that we love God, too.

Why We Need to Fix Things

Consider two men in different situations.

The first is convinced that his sin isn’t a huge deal, if it’s really “sin” at all. He attended a local church after being invited to some big potluck outreach and they told him in the obligatory mini-sermon that God loves him just the way he is and that if he’s been hurt in the past, the church wants to apologize. Being a man, he’s a bit repulsed by the language of “being hurt”, but he eats his free food and is otherwise content to hear how good he is. The pastor eventually says something about how we all fall short of perfection, and that’s why we need Jesus.

The second man feels guilty. He’s ashamed of what he’s done. Invited to attend a different church’s slightly different outreach event, he sits in the back and listens to the preacher talk about how our sin makes us unworthy of God’s love. The man agrees; if God exists He’d surely hate what he had done. The preacher isn’t finished, though. God does love the unworthy, to the point of taking the penalty for sin on His own son. We can be forgiven of our sin.

Which of the two men is more likely to repent?

Which church is more common?

The answer to those questions is not the same.

An intuitive understanding of God’s law is in each of us because God made us, but hearing God’s law reinforces this. Understanding God’s hatred of sin and having cultural pressure that makes us feel shame and guilt “leads to repentance” (2nd Corinthians 7:10).

The real cost of not fixing this backward view of God’s law is that it makes it harder for people to come to repentance.