On the Right Side of the Law

I recently finished Philip Yancey’s Rumors of Another World*, where I found these gems:

… the average citizen of modern Europe perceives only one world, the here and now. She assumes that rational people make society’s rules based on a common good, not on any revealed or ‘natural’ law. (p. 164.)

The biblical view is at once more subtle and more connected. It presents reality as a seamless whole, with no neat divisions between sacred and profane or between natural and supernatural. There is only God’s world, a sacred world, which has been profaned by human rebellion. (p. 188.)

These two views, the spiritual and the secular (or, as Yancey puts it in more traditional terms, the sacred and the profane), have not just recently come into contrast of course. People have denied God’s existence almost from the beginning. In fact, I used to think the same as the hypothetical European Yancey mentions. (The Bible calls this folly in Psalm 14:1 and 53:1.) But what really came to mind in reading those passages is how the acknowledgment of God affects  people’s understanding of law.

Natural Law Theory

Natural Law theory holds that there is only one law, and that law applies universally. The way this played out in the English Common Law was that when a case was appealed to the high court, the court’s justices would discern legal principles and apply them to the case at hand. Sometimes the Court later overruled itself, rejecting precedent set by earlier justices and declaring the law to be different from what they said. This is where it gets interesting.

The Court would not admit that the law had changed. Instead they declared the earlier statement of the law to be error, and that the new statement is really what the law had been all along. It’s not a matter of old law and new law. It’s a matter of recognizing the Natural Law and getting it right.

That’s not how legal systems work now, at least not in most countries. Now we operate under the theory of Positive Law, meaning law that is posited by people in a particular society and not universally applicable. This leaves government free to change laws as it sees fit in order to govern best.

The Place for Natural Law

This does not mean that Natural Law is obsolete, though. We know that God’s law is the only true and eternal way to live. We also know that for those of us living under the New Covenant it is a law of love:

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10.)

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14.)

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. (James 2:8.)

Even those who have not yet entered into this New Covenant still have God’s law written on their hearts. (Romans 2:14-15.) This too is a Natural Law, one that is universally applicable.

So for the modern person Yancey mentioned, whether they know it or not there is more than the law posited by people. As he points out, the Bible teaches a nuanced and subtly connected understanding of how the world is governed, one that recognizes no neat divisions between the spiritual and the secular. There is only one world, and no matter how we profane it, it still belongs to our sacred and holy King.


*I won this book in a giveaway at Laura Martin’s blog, Enough Light.

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14 Responses to On the Right Side of the Law

  1. janehinrichs says:

    So many people, Christians too, divide the world and everything in it by secular and sacred categories. I think this is a lie planted by the enemy. If he can limit what we do and what we see as God’s, he limits it all.

    All of it is holy. All of it is God’s. And when we come to that realization what a wonder it is! What a marvel!

  2. David Ramos says:

    That sounds like an awesome read!

    • Tim says:

      I really liked it. This may be my second favorite Yancey book now, right after What’s So Amazing About Grace and just ahead of The Jesus I Never Knew.

  3. LLM says:

    Hi Tim! I enjoyed your thoughts from the Yancey book. I give away books frequently (in different settings) and often I have no idea if the book was actually read or appreciated. So it is really encouraging to see this post. Rumors had so many quotes or comments (whether by Yancey or Yancey quoting someone else) that challenged me.

  4. KSP says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this book. I never weary of thinking about Natural Law and all its helpful implications in our struggle to see His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

  5. The sacred and secular… Does Yancey talk at all about how some Christians also live in this dualistic way sometimes? Some believe that there are certain realms that are “secular” and other that are “sacred.” For example, I used to be an actress, but not in a Christian setting. I acted in the “secular” world and had Christians ask me ALL THE TIME when I was going to start doing “Christian theatre” (I always wondered why my dad never got the question: “Why don’t you do CHRISTIAN software engineering?” or my mom: “Why don’t you do CHRISTIAN nursing?”). There is a dualism there, instead of realizing that ALL things belong to the Lord, and we can redeem ALL places of the earth — not just the “sacred” realm. I know this is slightly off-topic, but I was just wondering if you ran across this in the book.

  6. I agree with Rachel, though I was one of those people who asked if she was going to act in Christian theatre (though I completely agree with her point).
    I really like Phillip Yancey because he is pretty open about his own past struggles and I enjoyed reading his book “The Jesus I Never Knew” this year.
    I have often struggled with the verse in the Bible that says that we have nothing in common with the unbeliever and shouldn’t be around them (where it mentions God and Belial [sp] being separate and having nothing to do with the other), while at the same time society always told me to use my love for Jesus through whatever field I am in and help transform lives that way, and Jesus Himself would enter places that people would never dream of going. I do believe if a person has a weakness and a longing to be like the people and are not set-apart FROM those people, they certainly shouldn’t be with them. Anyway, the secular world is pretty intense and scary, but if we don’t enter in, how can we expect the gospel to be portrayed to them?

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