On Being Confronted by the Law

In the middle of a global pandemic, when all we seem to hear is bad news, it’s helpful to be reminded of some good. When we’re constantly being told what we need to do, it’s helpful to be reminded of what has already been done.

One Father’s Day a few years ago I went, along with the family, to visit my Dad. I was driving along the North Devon Relief Road, happily minding my own business when, all of a sudden, I noticed a police car following along behind me.

‘So what?’ you might ask. Well, the thing is, not only was it following along behind me, it was also flashing it’s lights at me – you know the ones – the rather striking blue ones. ‘I’d better stop’, I thought to myself, ‘and see if the police officer wants any help with his enquiries.’ And do you know what? He did. In fact, so keen was he to have my assistance, that he invited me to step out of my car, and join him in his.

Now I should point out that at this point I had no idea what he wanted to talk to me about. I hadn’t been speeding and, as far as I was aware, the car I was driving was in good condition. I was at a total loss. Perhaps, I thought to myself, it was simply because he was rather proud of his car and he therefore wanted to show me just how much better it was compared to mine!

Once I was seated comfortably, the police officer began. He started by asking me some rather easy warm up questions, my name, where had I come from, and where was I heading, all of which I answered without any great difficulty.

And then he told me two things:

The first thing that he told me was the law and how I was guilty of breaking it. He told me I was guilty, guilty of driving too close to the car in front of me and, what’s more, that I had been doing so for the previous four miles. He told me that ‘only a fool, breaks the two second rule’ and, in so doing, though I hadn’t realised it at the time, I now appreciate that, by implication, he was saying that that was exactly what I was – a fool. He went on to tell me that my crime of ‘driving without due care and attention’ was worthy of a court appearance and six points on my licence.

Gulp.! Now the law is the law and, having broken it, I realised that I had no complaint, no argument. And so I acknowledged that it was the proverbial fair cop, there being no point in my trying to argue my way out of it anyway since he had it all on film. His rather fancy car really was better than mine, it even had an built in camera! The truth could not be denied, I was guilty.

I was, of course, sorry for what I’d done but being sorry didn’t change the fact that he had me, as they say, bang to rights. And so I found myself hoping that he’d show me leniency, that he’d spare me the punishment the law required, that he’d treat me, not as one who’d broken the law but instead as one who’d been driving safely. That is I hoped he’d be gracious to me, that he’d show me mercy and not treat me in the way the law demanded, in the way that I deserved.

But before I had the chance to beg…or cry…he went on.

And he told me the second thing.

He told me some news – some good news. He told me that he had decided to let me off! I don’t know why he chose not to punish me, it certainly wasn’t because of anything in me. It wasn’t because there were other drivers who were driving even more dangerously than me that day, it wasn’t a result of a promise on my part to never do it again, it wasn’t even because I’d expressed sufficient remorse. It was simply because, though I was guilty, he had chosen to be forgiving.

And that news was good news – it was gospel.

As a result of the policeman’s kindness I kept a clean driving licence that day. Not because I wasn’t guilty of any driving offences – but rather because I wasn’t counted as having done so. And no record was kept!

And that, it seems to me, is a good illustration of Law and Gospel.

Recorded in the Bible there are many laws, the most famous of which are contained in the Ten Commandments. They can be summarised by the command that we should love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbour as ourselves.

However, like the Highway Code that I broke all those years ago, this is a command I have not kept. Over the years I have been repeatedly guilty of breaking God’s law and so, like that Sunday afternoon, because the law condemns me and declares me guilty before God, I am left conscious of my need for mercy.

But, as was the case from the lips of the police officer that day, God also has some good news for me to hear. The Christian gospel announces to me that I am acquitted. It tells me that I am forgiven – but not because of any good in me. It’s not because there may be people who have done worse things than I have, not because I’ve promised to do better in the future, not even because I’ve been sufficiently contrite. Rather I am forgiven simply because, despite my guilt, God has chosen to be gracious to me.

Because God is, by nature, gracious, that characteristic of his by which he decides to treat us better than we deserve. Rather than punishing us as the law demands, he chooses, by way of Jesus’ death on the cross, to pay our debt on our behalf and welcome us into his family as his adopted sons. He chooses to treat us as if we’d never done anything wrong, as obedient children who had always behaved the way we should.

The law tells us what we need to do to be acceptable to God. And it crushes us.

The gospel tells us what God has done to make us acceptable to God. And fills us with joy.

Now don’t misunderstand. The law is good, everything about it is right. The rule that says that we should not drive too close to the car in front is an excellent rule, one that I fully agree with. But as my actions proved, just as the rule itself didn’t stop me from breaking it, so too the very good command to ‘Love God’ does not cause me to do so.

But here’s the funny thing. Since that encounter with the policeman, I sometimes think of his kindness when I’m driving and, though my driving is still not perfect, it has, as a consequence, improved a little. I find myself wanting to drive better. The law didn’t change my behaviour, but the policeman’s kindness did.

And so it is with the gospel. God’s law does not have the power to change us, but the kindness of God revealed to us in the gospel can. Because that gospel is very good news indeed. You see, not only is Jesus counted as if he was guilty of all the wrong things we have done, but we are counted as if we had lived the perfect life that Jesus led. It’s a wonderful exchange by which Jesus dies for our sin and we become God’s adopted children. That’s what the Bible means when it tells us that, ‘For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ [Corinthians 5:21]. And the thankfulness we feel as a result of all that has been achieved by his kindness draws from us a love for God that the simple command to love Him could never do. We find ourselves wanting to be better.

Whether written, as is widely believed, by John Bunyan or, as is perhaps more likely by the English hymn writer John Berridge, the words of this short rhyme make the distinction between law and gospel clear.

‘Run and work the law commands

But gives us neither feet nor hands

Far better news the gospel brings

It bids us fly and gives us wings’

Inevitably, over the coming weeks there will be more bad news, and for some it may be particularly heavy to bear. Even so, we must not forget the good news, we must not be ashamed of the gospel ‘for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’ [Romans 1:16].

Whilst the coronavirus continues to affect us, there will be much that we will be told we need to continue to do both to protect ourself and others as well as to support those who continue to care for us. Even so, we must not forget what God has already done for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Because, ‘when the cares of our hearts are many’, it is knowing that God is far, far kinder than even the most benevolent of police officers, ‘that will cheer our souls’. It is knowing that ‘in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting [our] trespasses against [us]’ [2 Corinthians 5:19] that will allow us to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’. And it is knowing the good news of the gospel that will sustain us through the bad news of the coronavirus.

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