It is common in Reformation Theology to speak of the first use of the law as a curb; the law keeps a general order in society. “The first use of the law,” says one Todd Wilken (the Oprah of Lutheranism, “Toprah”), “is to keep us from killing and eating each other.” The first use of the law governs behavior, prevents destructive sin, keeps order in human society. But how does it do that?
I’d like the help of you, my five blog readers, thinking through this. I think there are three manifestations of the curb of the law, three ways that the law influences and manages our behavior.
First is the legal code, the written law of the place where you live. Drive this fast, pay this much tax, don’t go there or do that, and if you do we, the state will fine you or arrest you or put you in jail or kill you. I’m not saying anything new here.
Second, though, is societal norms, the behavior accepted by our peers and neighbors. This, I am convinced, is a manifestation of the first use of the law, and perhaps the strongest of all three manifestations discussed here. There is an often unwritten code that is enforced with shame. The question “will this alienate me” governs almost every action we make. Anthropologists, I think, will tell us this is because there is a level of shame in each society, and that our own society is moving to a shame society. Exegetes, I know, will jump on this bandwagon, and talk about how we don’t understand the Bible because we grew up in a guilt society and the Old and New Testaments are shame cultures. Fine. The point here is that peer-pressure (in all it’s varied forms) is a manifestation of the first use of the law.
The third manifestation of the first us of the law is our conscience, the internal referee that has a general sense of right and wrong from its original creation by God.
There, I’ve placed before you what I think are the three manifestations of the law’s first use. Here are a few further thoughts to poke around at why it matters.
First, the law, in each of its uses, is good. We can look at the legal code, the norms of behavior and our conscience as a gift from God to keep our sinful flesh from hurting our neighbor.
But, second, the first use of the law is “natural law,” that is, law found in nature, not the law revealed in the Scripture. This means that the various manifestations of the first use can be wrong. The legal code, societal norms and your conscience can all be wrong. This is important.
As a society (or culture or people or place or whatever you want to call it) moves farther from a right understanding of natural law that place’s legal code begins to contain more and more errors. Things that are right are forbidden and, especially, things that are wrong are permitted. Consider, if you are in the United States, how abortion is legal, adultery and divorce are legal (in most cases), and homosexual ‘marriage’ is being recognized as good by many states. We don’t need the Bible to tell us these things should not be. Natural law tells us that life is good, that the family is good, and that these things should be afforded the protection of the legal code.
The same thing is true of social norms. They can be wrong, sometimes terribly wrong. We see this most easily with the gang of teenagers that have no regard for authority. We know instinctively that their little society and its norm of rebellion hos overcome any sort of curbing affect that the legal code would enforce, and that all sorts of illegal and immoral activity will surely result. But consider other examples. It is now considered good for couples to live together before marriage (and bad for them to enter into marriage with chastity). Deviant sexual behavior is becoming more and more mainstream. Divorce is normal. Petty theft is acceptable. You watch T.V., you can finish this list.
Many of the older members of Hope remember the time when there was a higher moral code in society. It might have been legal to get a divorce or live together, but it was not acceptable. They lament the change, and they are right to do so. It is difficult enough to keep our sinful flesh in check; we need all the help we can get. When the legal code and our social norms fail us, only the conscience is left.
(It is an interesting aside that the place where natural law is most often perverted or misunderstood is with those laws governing sexuality. The sixth commandment is the first one to be marked off the legal code.)
(As a second interesting aside, it is important to note that just because a society has a good sense of right and wrong built into its cultural fabric does not mean it is a Christian society. “Everyone behaves pretty well” is not the same things as “Everyone believes in Jesus.”)
We, then, live in a culture (or society or place or whatever, you know what I’m talking about) in which the curb of the law is crumbling. We need to be aware of this. (This is the third point of concluding matter.) The norms that keep us from outward good works are crashing down around us. It is important for the Lord’s people to do what we can to right the legal code and the social norms, but these take time and great effort with no promise of success. We especially must give attention to the conscience. This is the last place that the natural law exercises its good influence over our behavior. (Are you paying attention parents? Pastors who work with young adults?)
Fourth, the church as a place (or culture or society or whatever) has a particularly difficult tightrope to walk. The culture, because it is a manifestation of the law, will always accuse (lex seimper accusat, the theological ‘curb-stomp’). The church is instituted by God for the forgiveness of sin, the covering of shame. The church is to be a place of refuge for sinners, a place of relief for those crushed by the law. As the world trends toward lawlessness, the church has a tendency to tighten things up. “Divorce is acceptable out there, but not in here.” This is right, so far as it goes, but we must remember that “social norms” are a use of the law, even inside the church. The accusing voice of the law must always be followed by the comforting voice of the Gospel, that our sins are forgiven. Good behavior is good. Forgiveness is better.
Reactions? I think we need to do a lot more thinking about the first use of the law, and the way it functions in the world and our congregations. Thanks, dear reader, for considering this with me and jumping in on the conversation.