OceanSide church of Christ
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THE “SPIRIT OF THE LAW” ARGUMENT (3)
Victor M. Eskew
There are some who teach that man is free from the letter of the law today. It is interesting that they still practice some of the letter of the law. They will demand it from time to time. They affirm that man must now submit to the spirit of the law. One advocate of this position is Al Maxey. He defines the spirit of the law as “the intent of the lawgiver.” We are told that there are times when the letter of the law can be dismissed, as long as the spirit of the law is being upheld. We are told that there are several examples of this in the Scriptures. In this article, we will examine some of these examples.
One example involves a king by the name of Hezekiah. Here is what Mr. Maxey says about this Old Testament example.
“Even under the old covenant there were glimpses of this spiritual freedom to express the intent of the lawgiver over the regulated forms of a written code. A good example is when Hezehiah and the people of Israel “ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed…not according to the rules” (2 Chronicles 30:18-19). Indeed, after celebrating this feast (which had been neglected by the people of Israel for many years), they were so uplifted by the experience that they de- cided to celebrate the whole feast over again (2 Chronicles 30:23)! And yes, they did so with God’s approval, even though they had completely violated the ‘pattern’ as prescribed in the Law of Moses!”
Note that Mr. Maxey has Israel “doing as they please” in violation of the “written code” of the Law of Moses with Jehovah’s full approval. This is very interesting. Israel had not observed the Passover “of a long time in such sort as it was written” (II Chron. 30:5). According Mr. Maxey, they did not observe it “as it was written” this time either, but God was well-pleased. Not observing the “written code” is what this position is really all about. If a man wants to set aside any specific law of God, he can as long as he can justify his behavior by appealing to the spirit of the law.
It is best for us to go back to the text itself and read it for ourselves. Hezekiah did call for the Passover to be celebrated (II Chron. 30:1). It had to be done in the second month because the priests were not sanctified during the first month and the people had not gathered themselves together (II Chron. 30:2). Exceptions for celebrating the Passover in the second month were allowed by the Law of Moses (Nu. 9:9-11). After sending out news of the celebration, the people came together for the feast. “And there assembled at Jerusalem much people to keep the feast of unleavened bread in the second month, a very great multitude” (II Chron. 30:13). The violation of the Passover happened because some of the people who had assembled “had not cleansed themselves, yet did they eat the passover otherwise than it was written” (II Chron. 30:18). It is at this point that Mr. Maxey tells us that these individuals were in violation of the letter of the law but were observing the spirit of the law. Thus, we are told that they were acceptable to God. The text, however, reveals to us some very important information. “But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, the good Lord pardon every one that prepareth his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he be not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary” (II Chron. 30:18-19). Why did Hezekiah pray for their pardon? If they were not in sin, there was no need for them to be pardoned. If the Lord accepted their actions based on the spirit of the law, they were fine. There was nothing to be forgiven. Dear readers, Hezekiah knew they were in violation of the Law of Moses. Thus, he prayed for God to forgive the people. The text continues with these words: “And the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people” (II Chron. 30:20). God healed the people. Healed them of what? According to Mr. Maxey, they were not guilty of anything. Yet, God healed them. In order to be healed, they had to be in violation of God’s will. The law of God was violated. Intercessory prayer was made for them. And, God forgave them. The letter of the law was not overlooked for the spirit of the law. God granted mercy to people who were guilty of sin.
Another example that is used in an attempt to prove that various individuals in the Bible lived by the spirit of law instead of the letter of the law involves an incident in the life of Christ. It is familiar to most who have studied about Jesus. It involves the woman who was caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3-6a). The Jews asked Jesus if she should be stoned according to the law. Instead of immediately answering their question, Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground (John 8:6). When they continued to press Him, “he lifted up himself, and said unto them, he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her” (John 8:7). It is interesting to see that Jesus did not oppose the application of the law on his occasion. Any one of these men could have thrown a stone if he had desired. Jesus’ statement, however, caused all of the accusers to leave (John 8:9). “When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10-11). Those who hold to the spirit of the law argument believe that Jesus overlooked the letter of the law in order to extend mercy to this adulterous woman. They believe that if Jesus had fulfilled the letter of the law, He would have condemned her to death by stoning.
There are several factors that these individuals overlook from this account. Let’s consider just one. The fact is that Jesus was upholding the letter of the law. In order for someone to be condemned to death, there had to be two or three witnesses to make the charge. “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death” (Deut. 17:6). All of the woman’s accusers had departed. Even if Jesus were counted as a witness, he could not put her to death because he was only one witness. It is interesting that Jesus did not neglect her sin. He told her to “go: and sin no more.” He followed the letter of the law. Much more could be said about this situation, but this is enough to overcome the argument made by those who advocate the spirit of the law position.
One more example is also brought up that involves Jesus. This incident is recorded in Luke 6:1-5. Al Maxey believes that Jesus’ disciples violated the letter of the law on this occasion when they “plucked the ears of corn, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands” on the Sabbath day. Jesus, however, did not condemn them because He knew they were adhering to the spirit of the law, we are told. The reality is that the disciples were NOT violating the Sabbath day at all. Preparing and eating a meal was not a violation of the Sabbath. They may have violated the traditions of the Jews, but they did not violate the Law of Moses. Jesus knew the law. He had given it to man. “And he said unto them, that the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5).
In this account Jesus brought the example of David to the minds of the Pharisees. “And Jesus answering them said, Have ye not read so much as this, what David did, when himself was an hungered, and they that were with him; how he went into the house of God, and did take and eat the showbread, and gave also to them that were with him; which is not lawful to eat but for the priests alone?” (Luke 6:3-4). Jesus knew the Jews were well aware of this event in David’s life. He brought it up in order to expose their hypocrisy. David definitely did that “which is not lawful.” Those are the words of the Christ. The Jewish leaders, however, did not condemn David. Think about that! They condemned Jesus for violating their traditions. They, however, did not condemn David for violating the law. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy. My friends, Jesus did not allow the Sabbath to be violated in any fashion on this occasion.
Mr. Maxey accused me of setting aside the letter of law because I do not greet others with a holy kiss (See Rom. 16:16). First, there are times when I have greeted others by a simple kiss on the cheek or forehead. Second, Mr. Maxey believes the only greeting authorized in the New Testament is a holy kiss, but it is not. In Galatians 2:9, we read about the apostles extending the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and Saul following Saul’s conversion. Thus, this is another method of greeting found in the Scriptures. It is much like the position of prayer. One can stand, kneel, or lie down. There is no single posture or action authorized as one obeys the command to pray or the command to greet one another.
One day all men will stand before the Lord and will be judged by the words of Christ (John 12:48). Jesus did not say we would be judged by the spirit of the law but by the words of the law. If our Lord commanded it to be done, it must be done. If our Lord forbids something from being done, it must not to be done. Saul was commanded to utterly destroy the Amalekites and all they possessed. Saul did not do it and was rejected. David was forbidden to commit adultery. He did not obey, and he was punished. Solomon was right when he said: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13).