We’re a nation of laws. There are laws for almost everything. Consider, for instance, laws just for travel: from speed limits on our streets and highways to jaywalking; to the use of smartphones to talk and text while driving; to operating a vehicle while impaired, to where we can park and for how long. We have laws for traveling by air, water, even by bicycle, scooter and skateboard.
We also have laws concerning the food we eat; things we drink; medicines we take; stuff to smoke if we wish to do so. There are laws about buying, selling and trading. Copyright and trademark laws for what we can copy or replicate. We’ve got laws to regulate hiring, firing, employment and compensation, vacations and leaves of absence. Laws tell us how to enforce contractual agreements.
Then we have the basic laws for common sense things, like not killing or injuring people, stealing things that aren’t ours, telling the truth (or not), borrowing, renting and leasing. When people are accused of breaking one or more laws, we even have laws directing how we’re to prosecute alleged lawbreakers. And laws for what to do with them if convicted. When someone says, “There ought to be a law,” lawmakers eagerly respond, “Okay!”
But what good are laws anyway? Speed limits, clearly visible on most roadways, don’t stop people from speeding. Every state has laws against driving under the influence, but some folks do it anyway. We have laws against shoplifting, but it still happens. Laws against murder, robbery, kidnapping, spousal abuse and every other wrong thing we can imagine have been enacted; yet those heinous crimes continue.
So again – what good are laws? We find an answer in the book of Romans. Speaking of the Ten Commandments as well as all other laws, the apostle Paul writes, “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). He’s saying even before formal laws were established, people were doing wrong – and they knew they were doing wrong.
Consider this analogy: A heavily traveled road in our part of town has a legal, posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour. Signs are visible at various intervals, and if a law enforcement officer catches you driving above that limit, you risk receiving a citation (or worse, depending on how fast you’re traveling).
One might say that if signs weren’t present and a speed limit hadn’t been set, we could drive the road 100 miles an hour or faster. But that’s not true. With the high density of traffic, along with the concentration of businesses and homes, it doesn’t take genius to realize driving 100 mph there is neither safe nor wise.
In this case the law serves as a reminder that driving well in excess of 40 mph puts ourselves and everyone around us at risk. Yes, had the laws not been created and signs posted, we couldn’t be prosecuted for breaking them. But common sense would still tell us, “Hey, stupid, it’s really not safe driving this fast.”
When God handed the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai – in the process originating the phrase, “Take two tablets and call Me in the morning” – the Lord was putting into writing what deep down mankind already knew: We shouldn’t murder. We shouldn’t steal. We shouldn’t be dishonest. We shouldn’t have sexual relations with someone we’re not married to. We shouldn’t covet or be envious of other people’s stuff.
Paul stated it this way: “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness…” (Romans 2:14-15). Somehow it seems, from the moment of birth or even before, the understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong has already been impressed indelibly on our hearts.
The other benefit of God’s laws, from a spiritual perspective, is they point us to Him. The first four Commandments presented in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, for example, speak directly of our relationship with the Lord: We’re not to worship other gods; not to create and worship idols of false gods; not to use God’s name in a disrespectful or blasphemous way; and we’re to set apart a Sabbath day for worship and refraining from our usual work.
Knowing God’s laws also enables us to arrive at a profound realization. Being born with what we might term the “sin gene,” a natural inclination toward rebellion against the Lord, we discover it’s impossible to “clean up our own act” and make ourselves right with Him. No matter how hard we try, we always fall short – missing the mark of God’s perfect standard.
I can identify with Paul when he wrote, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within [me]. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24).
Almost immediately, however, Paul tells us “who” can rescue him – and us: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Elsewhere he writes that we have a choice; we don’t have to break the law, just as we don’t have to break the speed limit. “…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus…. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:11-14).
No matter how many laws are written and enforced, amended and reinforced, they can’t force us to abide by the law if we choose not to do so. But through God’s provision, we not only recognize Him as the ultimate Lawgiver, but He also provides us the capacity for willingly and joyfully keeping His laws.