‘The Missing Jewel: Love for God’s Law’
Jan 22, 1989
Series on Hosea, No. 10
If there is a verse in all of Hosea that more than any other verse brings the prophet’s stern and solemn preaching home to our own day and our own lives, surely it is verse 12 of chapter 8.
God gave his people his law, but they had come to think of it as a strange, a foreign thing; far removed from the real interests and issues of their lives; something at most to be tolerated, certainly not to be loved, and pondered, and followed with all the heart as David thought or as Jesus Christ himself would later think and practice and preach.
Israel had lost all true regard for the law of God and all true interest in keeping God’s commandments as her rule of life. She had made a life’s work, as Hosea says in verse 1, of rebelling against that law, defying it at every turn. And now a life of obedience to God’s law was so foreign, sounded so strange, so impossibly contrary to what were now her customs and ways, that, as Hosea says in 9:7, the prophets who were demanding that she return in obedience to the law of God were considered fools and maniacs! People who asked the impossible and expected what was ludicrous!
A. Just imagine how great an upheaval would have been caused by a serious attempt on Israel’s part to return to the law of Moses.
1. It would have been an economic catastrophe for the great many craftsmen whose business it was to supply idols for Israel’s idolatrous worship.
2. It would have meant economic ruin for many business men who had built their fortunes on the exploitation of the poor.
C. And, in the church, the priesthood would have had to be culled root and branch of the large majority of priests who had betrayed the covenant and led the whole nation to do so. AND, WHAT IS MORE, ISRAEL AND HER KING WOULD HAVE HAD TO SURRENDER THEMSELVES TO JUDAH, TO GIVE UP HER SOVEREIGNTY AS A NATION, IN ORDER, ONCE AGAIN, TO BE ABLE TO CALL JERUSALEM HER CAPITAL AND HAVE FREE ACCESS TO THE ONLY TEMPLE THAT THE LIVING GOD RECOGNIZED AND THE ONLY WORSHIP BY SACRIFICE WHICH WAS ACCEPTABLE TO HIM.
Absurd! Impossible! The very thought is outrageous! How unfair! God would never require any such thing of us! SO ISRAEL THOUGHT; AND SO SHE RESPONDED TO HOSEA AND AMOS AND THE OTHER PROPHETS, UNTIL THE VERY DAY GOD UTTERLY EXTINGUISHED ISRAEL FROM THE FACE OF THE MAP.
Oh, how like that Israel is the church today! And oh how like her are we!
We live in a day when obedience to the law of God counts for little; when many compliments we might pay to someone would count for more than that he is a man or she is a woman who keeps the commandments of God and who loves the law of God. And, what is worse, we hardly know of whom we are liable to think such a thing; anyone who is conspicuous for his devotion to God’s holy law and for his manifest earnestness in striving to keep the commandments of God, each and every one of them, willing to be out of step with everyone else if only he might be in step with God’s law!
There are two factors which contribute to the particularly low esteem we have for obedience to God’s law in our day.
1. The first is that we live in a day, almost like no other in history, for its resolute and forthright and public disavowal–in virtually every society in the world nowadays–that there even is such a thing as a divine law, that there are such things as absolute rights and wrongs, that it is possible to judge a person’s life according to some unchanging standard of behavior.
Paul Johnson, the British historian, begins his magisterial history of the twentieth century, with the following words:
‘The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.’ He is referring, of course, to the experimental verification of Einstein’s theory of relativity. And Johnson’s whole book is about the terrible tragedy which overtook human civilization as a result of the fact that almost immediately, to Einstein’s own dismay, relativity in physics was identified with relativism in ethics and religion and it became the fashion and remained the fashion to believe that there is no such thing as ‘the law of God’; no standards to which all human behavior must conform to be right. Johnson’s great book is a long essay in how the world has reaped the whirlwind of that gigantic error in the 20th century. How our world has suffered and is preparing to suffer much more because now everyone is a law to himself and does what is right in his own eyes; and everyone feels free to pass judgment upon the behavior of others while refusing to acknowledge anyone’s right to pass judgment upon his own.
‘It was right,’ Trotsky said, for him to have murdered the Czar’s children, but it was not right for Stalin to have murdered Trotsky’s children.’
It is not difficult to demonstrate that in our immediate moment in history and in our nation and society, relativism, the denial that God has written a law–inflexible and unchanging–both in the hearts of mankind and, more comprehensively in his holy book, is the chief article of faith for most men and women of influence.
It is perfectly true to say that, though God has written for them many things of his law, to these media types, and university professors, and writers, and teachers, and corporate heads and political leaders and clergymen and theologians, such laws are as something alien, foreign, incredible. And we in the church breathe that atmosphere every day we live, every time we turn on the television or read a book. There is in our day and time no doctrine more widely or tenaciously or religiously held than the doctrine that no one including God has a right to tell me what I should do.
2. But, bad as that cultural antinomianism, that societal rebellion against the law may be, it is magnified many times by its acceptance to a great degree in the church.
Here in the church, we hear so often–even from many who, without a doubt are genuine Christians–the overtones of Israel’s thinking in Hosea’s day.
They expect God to forgive the sins of all who ask him too, but resist with determination the idea that believers are under a continuing obligation to keep God’s commandments.
1. Some defend this point of view with a measure of sophistication, arguing that the law of God is abolished in the New Testament, or that calling upon Christians to keep the commandments of God betrays the Bible’s great message that salvation is God’s free gift and cannot be earned or deserved by anyone.
2. Many others, like Hosea’s contemporaries, don’t much care about the theological arguments, they just want to be forgiven and still be able to live as they please. Like those Hosea is speaking of in v. 11, they want to keep their sins, but they don’t want to have to pay for them.
But let us be in no doubt whatsoever how directly this attitude defies the Lord’s teaching in Scripture. Hosea promises doom to Israel for her disobedience though all along she claimed to believe in God! Jesus said that not one jot or tittle of the law would ever pass away; he said that those who really loved him would show that love by keeping his commandments; Paul said that the gospel, far from abolishing the law, rather establishes it and he warned most sternly against the inevitable tendency of people to turn God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ into an excuse to sin:
To think to themselves: if by believing in Christ I am forgiven of all my sins, then I can sin as I want and still go to heaven at the last.
It was Paul who said that we were all called as Christians to fulfil the whole law; it was Paul, the great champion of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, who taught that the thing that matters in the Christian life is keeping the commandments of God; It was Paul who said that the law of God is holy, just, and good; and that Christ saved us so that the law’s righteous requirements might be met in us who walk not by the flesh but by the Spirit. John teaches in his first epistle that one good way of telling who the real Christians are is to see who carries out God’s commandments: ‘Those who obey his commands,’ John writes, ‘live in Him.’ And so on throughout the whole Bible from beginning to end.
It is absolutely true that no one can ever be saved by keeping the commandments of God; but it is as true that everyone who is truly saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, will practice obedience to the commandments of God. It is absolutely true that no one should ever keep God’s commands in order to be saved; but it is also completely true that every one who is saved ought to strive to keep all of God’s commands. It is true indeed that no one is saved by obedience, but it is equally true that everyone who is saved, is saved to obedience and for obedience to the law of God.
Jesus saved us in order to sanctify us, to make us holy; and by holy, he means, obedient to God’s holy law. He saved us to make us zealous for good works, and by good works he means above all the works which we do in obedience to his commandments. The law first teaches us we cannot save ourselves, we must trust Jesus Christ to do it; but then it shows us how to live as Jesus Christ would have us live. When once the fiery law… Now, then, I put the question to you: Do you love obedience? And do you love the law of God? And do you think of your daily life in terms of obedience or disobedience to God’s law? And do you strive and is it your goal in life more and more to obey God’s commands? Are you striving to be the very antithesis of Hosea’s contemporaries; do you want the law of God with all of its many commandments to be–not alien–but the lamp to your feet and the light to your path; your guide and help; as sweet to you as honey in the honeycomb and more to be desired than gold, yea than much fine gold? The Scripture says that it pleased God to make his law great and glorious? Has it become so and is it ever becoming more so in your hearts?
I hope the answer to all those questions is a resounding ‘Yes’ genuinely and sincerely uttered in your hearts. And that it may be so and more and more so, consider briefly these facts:
I. First, obedience to the commandments of God, is what the Almighty demands of you.
It is not as if you have a choice in this matter; as if you can obey or disobey God as you please, without consequence. Hosea puts it as bluntly as it can be put in v. 13: Israel has chosen for herself the path of disobedience to God’s law, and God is now preparing her doom. ‘Without holiness, without obedience, no one will see the Lord.’
Throughout the Bible it is proclaimed from the rooftops that those who are truly the people of God, will love and obey his law; and that those who will not, whatever they may protest to the contrary–and Israel was protesting her faith in God to the bitter end–will not be numbered among God’s children at the last and will not be spared his wrath in the judgment day.
Again and again Hosea says this: Israel calls upon the Lord to save her, but she will have God only on her own terms; she has no intention of living according to the commandments of God. She wants his forgiveness and his help, but she does not want to be ruled by him and by his law, and, says Hosea, God will not listen to the prayers nor will he accept the sacrifices nor will he count as his own children people who will not do what he says.
II. Second, obedience to the commandments of God is what God desires from you.
Yes, as the Almighty, he requires it; but as the loving and tender Father of his people he desires it, he wishes for it. He is not indifferent to whether you keep his commandments or not and whether he, therefore, condemns you to judgment or not. He wants his people to do right, he wants them to obey his commands; he wants them to have a living faith in Him, a faith which recognizes that when one receives forgiveness from the hand of the Almighty, one is obliged to live according to his laws! It pains him deeply when his people rebel and refuse to keep his commandments.
How many times already have we heard in the Lord’s voice, speaking through Hosea, that sadness, that poignant wish for an obedient Israel that he could reward instead of punish: As, e.g., in 6:4:
‘What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?’
Or, as he had said long before when in Deuteronomy he prophesied of these days: ‘Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever.’ [5:29]
You and I must think often of this, beloved, especially when we are wrestling with the many temptations which each day beset us and would turn us away from obedience to God’s law: The God who has been so kind to us, so generous, so merciful; has done us such good in spite of our ill-desert, in spite of our ingratitude–our loving and compassionate Father in Heaven wants us to keep his commandments, wants us very much to do his will and to live according to his law. AND HE DESERVES THAT WE SHOULD.
III. Third, we must remember that obedience to God’s commandments is the best way for us to live; the most safe way and the healthiest way and the way calculated to bring us the largest measure of peace, joy and love in this world and the only way calculated to bring us true life in the world to come.
Hosea is full of this simple and happy truth, so sadly mistaken by the Israelites of his day; and it is a matter of such importance that it is the very last thing he says in his book: ‘The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.’ Which is only Hosea’s way of saying that while the ways of the transgressor is hard, in the keeping of the commandments of God there is great reward.
Now we are always tempted to believe the opposite. The Devil would always try to convince us that the commandments of God are unreasonable, that they are oppressive, and make for a life which is hard, and dull, and unfulfilling, and uninspiring. Sin, disobedience, seems to be so much easier, and so much more fun, and so much more satisfying.
1. But in just that appearance, the Bible says, lies sin’s deception.
2. Simone Weil, the European philosopher, put it in this beautiful and pointed way: ‘Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. But with fantasy it is the other way round. Fictional good is bring and flat while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, and full of charm.’
3. God gave us his commandments because he loves us and knows what is best for us and knows how we must live if we are to find true fulfillment in our lives, both now and forever. The only absolutely reliable plan for the achievement of happiness and self-fulfillment is the plan for living which the Bible calls the law of God.
IV. And, then finally, we must remember that obedience to God’s commandments is not as difficult as you think.
Oh, for an unbeliever, obedience is actually impossible; it is contrary to his nature to keep the commandments of God. Israel then thought and our society thinks that keeping God’s commandments would mean absolute disaster. It would mean undoing the customs and the ways which had become fixed in the life of the nation. And, they think that obedience to God’s law would make for an unbearable life for everyone. The things they most enjoy they could no longer do and what the law demands they have no taste for at all. It would mean turning everything upside down. What a triumph for the Devil, to have a whole people thinking that obedience to God’s law would be so unbearably difficult and make for such an unpleasant life that they have no taste even to attempt it.
But how different for the Christian, who has a new heart, and who trusts God to rule wisely, and wants to please his Father and his Savior because they have done so much for him. He wants to keep the law; indeed, in his best and clearest moments, he admits even to himself that he would not want one, not even the least of God’s commandments changed. He wants his life to be brought to the law of God not to have the law of God brought to his life. [Halyburton]
He doesn’t find obedience a great burden; on the contrary, it is what he most loves and desires for himself. Because Christ has taken away his sins he need no longer fear the law’s threatenings, and now can listen happily to its counsel and direction:
A rigid master was the law,
Demanding brick, denying straw;
But when with gospel tongue it sings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.
And because he knows it from his own experience that the commandments of the Lord are not burdensome, he can and does enthusiastically tell others:
Take his easy yoke and wear it
Love will make obedience sweet.
I say that is what it should be for a Christian; I do not say it always is; I know Christians sometimes too think that the commandments of God are too hard, too high, too heavy for them–but when they think that, they are not thinking like a Christian at all, sin and unbelief have momentarily got the upper hand and left them muddleheaded! Obedience is what the Almighty requires of us; it is what our Father desires from us; it is what is best for us; and it is not nearly so hard as the Devil and our flesh would have us think!
Now, brothers and sisters, what is the case with you? Do you love obedience and the law of God? Do you love to obey and hate to disobey the commandments of the Lord? Do you willingly say in your soul that you would not want a single one of God’s laws to be altered for you in any way, but that you want to keep them all for the Lord’s sake and for your own.
1. Well let me be more specific. Are you now hard at work in your life putting on obedience to some commandment of the Lord which to this time you have not obeyed as you know you should? Are you anxious to rid your life of all the disobedience to God’s law you observe in yourself? That is, do you love the law only in your speech, or do you really love it and want to be conformed to it and work hard to be conformed to it in every way?
2. Well, let me be still more specific, on this Super Bowl Sunday. Do you love the fourth commandment, the law of the Sabbath day; or do you find it a bothersome constraint on what you would like to do on the Sabbath day; do you wish that you could enjoy your Sunday football watching or other activities which have nothing to do with the Christian Sabbath, with a clearer conscience. Do you recognize here too that God demands and desires your obedience; that it would be far better for you to keep the Lord’s Day holy as God commands than to enjoy the passing pleasures of disobedience. Do you admit in this also that it is not really so difficult to keep God’s commands, that they are not really burdensome, if you have faith in God and a heart for Him? That to spend the Lord’s Day in worship and in Christian fellowship and in good works and in all that refreshes our souls in the Lord rather than in the work and play which ordinarily fill up our days is really only what every Christian needs and should deeply want; that if the commandments of God are really to be preferred to gold, then they are surely and easily to be preferred to the Bengals and the 49ers!? Or the other things you wanted to do on the Lord’s Day.
What a strange phenomenon it was to see the Christian world agog over the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ and its portrayal of Eric Liddell’s sturdy obedience to God’s law, refusing to defile the Lord’s Day even at such cost to himself; when that same Christian world had almost no intention of keeping the Lord’s Day holy itself and, if in Eric Liddell’s shoes, would have run the 100 meters on Sunday or watched the race on TV without a moment’s thought!
How rarely does one ever hear Christians say to others, or to family members, or to friends, that they cannot take part or cannot come because it is the Lord’s Day, because they have a commandment to keep, and because their God demands obedience and desires obedience of them and deserves their obedience, and because obedience is what they love and what they know is best for them.
Luther once said, ‘If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefields besides, is more flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.’
Well? Where is the battle being joined in your life today? We can so well see the disobediences of others; but where is the world, where is the Devil attacking and testing your obedience? Is it the fourth commandment–for some is surely is, for many it is, for all of us to a degree. Be sure of this, in making Sunday the day for sport, our society is surely heeding the call of the Evil One; the Devil knows what a victory he has achieved if he can either keep folk from church altogether, or, drive right out of their hearts all they said and all they heard there by sending them straight home to arose a whole new set of passions before a TV set.
Well, beloved, you will do what you will do. But, it is my duty to remind you, from Hosea’s so solemn sermon, that you must not expect, do not think, that it is a matter of indifference to God whether or not you keep his commandments; do not think your life will be the same, or enjoy the same measure of the presence and favor of Christ whether or not you live according to his law.
Oh may the Lord never in poignant sorrow say of any of us what he had finally to say of Israel:
‘if only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river, your
righteousness like the waves of the sea.’