Elisabeth Elliot, at Urbana 76, told of her brother Thomas Howard. Their mother let him play with paper bags she'd saved if he put them away afterwards. One day she walked into the kitchen to find them strewn all over the floor. Tom was out at the piano with his father singing hymns. When confronted, he protested, "But Mom, I want to sing." His father stated, "It's no good singing God's praise if you're disobedient."
Elliot is correct when she says that disobedient (sinful) actions get in the way of our true worship of God. But Romans 7 says that the greater problem than sins is Sin. Taking every opportunity it can, Sin creates disobedient actions in us. Sin is the disease; sins are the symptoms. The disease is broken relationship with God; acts of misbehavior are just the outgrowth of that disease. Thomas Howard’s sinful symptom may have been leaving the bags out, but Sin told him that he could get away with disobeying his mom as long as he were doing something that looked innocent. From the beginning, God knew that in order to save humanity, God needed to do away with not just the symptoms, but the disease itself.
The problem was that people didn’t really know that they had a disease. Like cancer that eats away from the inside without you ever knowing it, Sin was wreaking its deadly havoc before it ever showed symptoms that could be observed. God wanted to deal with the disease itself, yet there were no signs or symptoms. Oh yes—people did know that there was something wrong when brother killed brother or a man slept with his neighbor’s wife. But they didn’t understand that there was a much larger problem. So God gave the Law, which was sort of a spiritual test that revealed the Sin problem that lay beneath the surface.
I remember the first time I had horrible pain in my lower back. An MRI revealed kidney stones that I never knew about. I knew I had pain, but didn’t know what was causing it. Without the MRI, I wouldn’t have known about the stones. You might say that the stones are analogous to Sin, but in reality they are a closer parallel to sins. You see, stones weren’t the root problem; they were merely symptoms that needed to be dealt with. I needed to pass the stones—a painful process. But then, after that, I needed to have them analyzed. I discovered my stones were caused by too much oxalate—a waste product that could be eliminated by proper diet. People who never have their stones analyzed never deal with the root problem, so they keep having them. They treat the symptoms, but not the disease. But now that my stones have been analyzed, I can avoid oxalates and kidney stones altogether. The Law is like that medical testing—like the MRI and the stone analysis. It gets to the root cause of the problem and makes us aware not just of sins, but of Sin in our lives.
When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments that were written by God’s own hand, he gave the people the foundation stones of the Jewish Law. Yes, they were about behavior (do this, don’t do that). That means that they were about sins. But they were about more than that. God gave the Law as a sort of spiritual test to reveal the problem of Sin in the human heart. The first four indicate our fallen relationship with God, and the final six reveal our broken relationship with humanity. The purpose of the Law wasn’t to create a bunch of lawbreakers [where there is no law, there also is no violation (Romans 4:15 NASB)]. It also wasn’t to turn us all into a bunch of mindless rule-followers, because the Law has no power to save. The purpose of the Law was to show us where Sin resides in our hearts so that God’s grace can deal with the root cause. In Exodus 20:19-21 (NASB), after the Commandments are given, the people say to Moses:
“Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.
Even in the wake of receiving the Law which reveals their sins, the Israelites give powerful evidence of the Sin that still resides within them. Try as they might to keep just ten laws, they reveal their inherent problem of broken relationship with God. They want Moses to do the spirituality for them, showing that they are no more spiritually awake than the first man and woman who believed themselves to be separate from God. So instead of developing intimacy with the Creator as Moses did, the Israelites are content to keep God on the mountain or in heaven or anywhere they are not. They are content to try to keep rules and mitigate symptoms and sins, rather than allowing God to heal their disease and save them from Sin.
We believers have the same problem as the Israelites if we focus so much on the symptoms that we forget that Jesus gives grace that heals us of the disease itself. We get so hung up on our own sins, heaping guilt on ourselves for the things that we’ve done, that we ask God’s forgiveness over and over without realizing that we’re already healed. The sins that we experience aren’t the disease itself—merely the recurring symptoms from the Sin that has already been healed. Some diseases, once healed, are gone forever. But the sickness of sin leaves marks on our souls, just as our Sin left scars on Jesus when He bore it on the cross. This side of heaven, we’ll never be free from those scars—we’ll still fail and experience symptoms of the disease. Yet what peace we have to know that the root cause of Sin is gone forever—healed by Jesus, our Savior. What joy that when we reach glory, even our scars will be healed as we are glorified with Christ!
As we read the Law in the Word of God, we need to remember that it was never intended for us who have received the grace of Christ. It’s there to lead us to Christ—but once we receive His grace, we are freed from the need for Law. The Law never saved anybody. Jesus saves, and He saves entirely. Romans 3:20b-22a (NASB) says,
…By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe
If the righteousness of God has been made manifest apart from the Law, then we know it comes only through the gift of God, the grace of Jesus Christ. Salvation comes not through being good enough according to the Law, but by receiving the free gift of life from the only One who is good enough to give it. He is our Savior—the forgiver of our sins, and the healer of our Sin.