Is Salvation a Legal Matter?
It was Thanksgiving Day. Three months had passed since my dad’s death from cancer. We were driving to see my dad’s brother, to spend some quiet time in reflection on the year’s events.
Moving along with what I thought was the natural flow of the traffic, I was startled to see a state trooper changing direction on the divided highway, only to pursue me with his lights flashing. According to his measurements, I was 12 miles per hour over the speed limit, an offense that would not result in a mere warning on this holiday. I felt defeated. I hadn’t received a traffic ticket for over 20 years.
After the citation was issued, and we were getting back up to speed, my wife said, “We can get Tom to have the ticket reduced.” Tom was one of the attorneys at the law firm where my wife worked. Apparently, getting traffic violations reduced or dismissed was a routine thing for him. I was completely unaware of this procedure.
As some of you know, the cost of a speeding ticket only begins with paying the fine and court costs. The information of the event is often passed on to your insurance provider, who raises your rates, causing you to effectively pay the fine many times over.
In the State of North Carolina, where my Thanksgiving Day speeding infraction took place, the insurance company is notified only if you’re speeding 10 miles per hour or more above the posted speed limit. A provision of this statute allows for you to request to have your violation speed reduced to 9 miles per hour above the speed limit, provided that you’ve not had any other traffic violations within 3 years. The court costs and fine remain the same, but your insurance company never receives notification of your offense.1
What an interesting law! The State of North Carolina gets its money for your indiscretion, but prevents the insurance company from gouging you many times over—only if you are a safe driver! What’s more interesting is that as soon as you cross over into another state, everything changes about this situation. The statutes that prevail in this country vary widely from state to state. They differ even more as you move from country to country. Statutes are usually conceived as being what’s best for the people, but people’s opinions vary. Even what we might call an inalienable right in this country, which is written into our Constitution, might be an unfamiliar idea in another country.
What, exactly, is a law? How do laws come into existence? How do we arrive at laws that override other laws? Is there anything in this world that is true and appropriate for all time and all situations? How about in the universe at large?
How do we define law?
Law: the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision. (Dictionary.com)
Law: a binding custom or practice of a community; a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority; the whole body of such customs, practices, or rules. (Merriam-Webster)
Law: a system of rules that are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior… The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people. (Wikipedia)
The earliest evidence of law dates back to about 3000 BC in Egypt. Goddess Ma’at was the personification of truth and justice. The oldest written records, containing if/then statements, come on the scene about 2200 BC in Sumer, modern-day southern Iraq. By about 1760 BC, King Hammurabi in Babylon, inscribes his law in stone, and disperses copies throughout the kingdom.2 These first laws for which we have evidence are associated with deterring greed and injustice in economic matters. These earliest laws set precedence, influencing all legal systems that would follow, including our modern court system.3
Let’s consider, for a moment, how the legislated legal processes work in our culture. A hurtful behavior is observed by society—an event of which society feels is unjust. The ensuing public outcry reaches the ears of elected legislators, causing laws to be written and passed that are aimed at preventing repeat occurrences.
When a serious violation seems to have occurred, the alleged perpetrator is formally charged by law officials and is incarcerated, or sometimes released on bail, while evidence is collected to confirm the violation. A court is eventually convened, evidence is presented, and a decision is reached as to the guilt or innocence of the alleged perpetrator. If the decision is guilty, then a sentencing process occurs that aims at delivering a penalty in accordance with penalty laws, and, that will be seen in the public eye as appropriate for the violation. If the public consistently perceives such penalties as being too lax or too stringent, the public outcry reaches the ears of elected legislators, and laws eventually get modified to better suit public opinion. On occasions, laws are completely changed by public opinion through a popular vote. Marijuana legalization for recreational use, voted by referendum in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and California, serves as an example.
In contrast, let’s consider how natural laws work. (With this term natural law, I’m broadly referring to relationships that are observable in the realm of science and psychology, not any specific definition in the realm of philosophy.) A person accidentally slips from a high precipice. In accordance with the law of gravity, the person is accelerated toward the earth and has a fatal collision with the canyon floor. Public opinion is irrelevant. There are no law officials to enforce this natural law. There is no court, no evidence presented, and no verdict rendered. This law is never really broken. Natural laws, like the law of gravity, are simply a description of reality. If A occurs, then B will occur—nothing personal. There is no exemption from natural laws, no privileged groups, no pardons given. Although natural law constitutes a system, it is never referred to as a legal system. Natural laws are simply a statement about what is.
How is our understanding of God’s law related to the process of salvation? Legal metaphors and legal terminology abound when discussing salvation. Is salvation a legal matter? How this question is answered varies considerably, depending on whether we see God’s law as legislated, or as natural. Let’s assume the former, and analyze how well everything matches up. Then we’ll do the same for the latter.
If God’s law is of the legislated variety, like the laws we have in society, then there is necessarily an element of variability about it. We’ve all crossed a state line on the interstate and have noticed a change in the speed limit, even though the terrain remains unchanged. This variability is due to safe speeds being a matter of opinion, rather than an absolute fact. If God’s law is legislated, like speed limits, then we’d expect that it could vary, depending on our location in the universe, or on the context in which we find ourselves. Do you see love for God and love for others as a subject-to-opinion sort of thing? How would someone objectively measure violations of failing to love God or others?
If God’s law is legislated, then we’d also expect the need for a law enforcer. If there is no natural consequence for violation, then someone has to continuously look for violations and then prosecute the violators. Many have painted such a picture of God The Father—the Ultimate Cosmic Policeman, who has the dash camera constantly running on his police cruiser. Along with this viewpoint is the understanding that Jesus somehow manages to erase the dash cam video of His followers before it is ever submitted as evidence in the courtroom, thus prohibiting their prosecution. In place of this erased video is footage of Jesus acting graciously toward others, which convinces the Judge that there is nothing to prosecute in the cases of Jesus’ followers. Among all of this, neither the Judge, nor any of the courtroom observers seem to realize that the evidence has been tampered with. The only ones who seem to know the truth are Jesus and the defendant, both whom remain silent on this issue. Is this how the investigative judgment unfolds? I’ve heard it described like this before by earnest, well-meaning, preachers and writers. Are God The Father and the rest of the on-looking universe duped into thinking positive thoughts about us due to evidence that’s been tampered with?
If God’s law of love is legislated and enforced under pain of death, how do we reconcile this idea with the impossibility of demanding genuine love? For love to mean anything, it has to be freely given. If you doubt this, try demanding genuine love from that significant other.
As these questions process in your thinking, let’s consider the alternative—that God’s Law is a natural law, like the law of gravity. If God’s law is natural, then we’d expect it to be consistent, universewide—no exemptions. We’d expect God’s law to be always an accurate description of reality—past, present, and future. It would also mean that there is no need for a Cosmic Policeman to ensure its enforcement. It simply describes what is.
If God’s law is natural, enforcement is accomplished by our own choices. When we choose to be selfish, we necessarily withdraw from the Unselfish One, who repeatedly claims to be the Source of Life. If we remove ourselves from this source of life, being the mortal creatures we are, there is only one possible end result: we eventually cease to live. If selfishness occurs, then death will eventually occur—nothing personal. Our actions and our eventual fates are determined by our choices.
One might look around in the world today, as well as consider events throughout history, and readily conclude that the natural law premise can’t possibly be correct. Nobody seems to be dying due to removing himself or herself from the Source of Life. Yet we Christians still have this echoing in our thoughts: “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’” (Genesis 2:16-17) Does this verse convict God as a liar, since we don’t observe immediate death? Or does this necessarily push us to accept the legislated law premise, forcing us to read this verse as saying: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, I will be obligated to eventually kill you?” Are we to conclude that we rebels could live on throughout eternity without any problem if it weren’t for God, the Cosmic Policeman, enforcing His arbitrarily conceived, legislated law?
Clarifying evidence emerges only one chapter later. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Why would God need to put enmity, to put hatred, between Satan and humanity? Doesn’t Satan hate us enough already? Or, could this be referring to something that is instilled within humanity, something that keeps us from plowing headlong into total rebellion, along with Satan? Could this “hatred” be something that slows the cause-and-effect flow of events, which would occur under the natural law premise? Could this enmity for Satan be related to our conscience, which whispers morality into the thoughts of every human?
If the enmity, the distain, announced in this verse is none other than the direct work of God on our innermost thoughts, then it’s understandable why we don’t go downhill immediately when we choose selfishness over other-centeredness. God is simply trying to keep us alive long enough for Him to fix the problem we’re in. If it weren’t for His intervention, we’d fall like a rock off of a cliff, meeting our demise by choosing to disconnect from the Source of Life.
Jesus’ death seems by many to be the most climactic event in His life. How does the death of Jesus look when viewed through each of these perspectives?
If God’s law is legislated, then Jesus is dying to satisfy whoever legislated the law, “paying the penalty” for a broken law. We can only assume that this unnamed entity receiving the payment is God The Father, as many well-meaning Evangelicals understand it. The view held by some of the early church fathers, that Jesus’ death was paid as a ransom to the devil, simply lacks the supportive evidence within the Bible. Attempts to place distance between The Father and the payment by saying that the payment was made to satisfy the law—these attempts only lead full circle back to The Father, since the law is a transcript of God’s character. Is Jesus’ death satisfying, placating, appeasing The Father in any sort of way?
Let’s step through the event sequence under the legislated law premise. God’s law is enacted by Him. Sometimes it is simple, like “don’t eat from the tree…,” while other times it is more detailed, like what we read in the Ten Commandments. At other times, it is exceptionally detailed, like the book of Leviticus. The details of His law could be otherwise, but He is God and we are merely creatures made by Him, so who are we to question or make suggestions for improvement? God announces that failure to abide by His law will result in Him having to eventually terminate violators. (That’s an extremely harsh penalty to pay for a single, selfish thought.) But Christianity’s response often seems to be, “Okay, if you say so. After all, you are God.”
In order for the legal premise to work out, there has to be very accurate record keeping. Not only is every action we ever take recorded, but also every thought we’ve ever had as well. All of this recorded evidence is made available during our judgment, our time in court. In addition, though, all of this incriminating evidence is erased—blotted out—for the sinner who is cashing in on God’s offer of salvation. Not only is the written record destroyed, but also the memories of the events would seem to need erasing. These memories are recorded in the minds of untold numbers of intelligent observers throughout the universe. Moreover, the memories of the events must also be erased from the mind of The Father—The Cosmic Policeman—else prosecution and conviction of the sinner could still go forward.
According to how some people view the legal premise, the record of Christ’s life—all of His good deeds and gracious actions—are pasted onto the record sheet for each sinner. Furthermore, Christ’s death, the legal penalty for our wrongdoings, is recorded on our record-sheet as well, showing that each sinner’s debt to the broken law has been paid in full. But wait a moment. If this is the way it will happen, then the record sheets of the saved will show kind, gracious thoughts and actions (those of Christ), resulting in the payment of death for these actions (that of Christ). What a strange picture this paints! This puzzling account of the sinner’s past will remain on the record books throughout eternity, just in case someone questions the sinner’s legitimacy in God’s kingdom.
Accepting the legal premise requires, to a greater or lesser degree, that you accept the picture of The Father as The Cosmic Policeman/Judge/Jury/Executioner. This view sees The Father being responsible for the death of the Son. This is absolutely necessary for this viewpoint to be consistent, for if Jesus is dying the death of the sinner, he must die at the hand of God in the same way. This viewpoint sees the lost at the end of time dying at the hand of God. I’ve heard some who embrace this viewpoint describe with glee how God will inflict slow, painful death on those they feel have wronged them personally, or have wronged society at large, like Adolf Hitler did. Of course, this all gets a little awkward if a dear family member has wronged someone, and the wronged person is anticipating with delight the slow, painful destruction of your kin. Imagine this being a son, a daughter, or a spouse.
A facet of the legal premise that is most taxing to the intellect is the concept of transfer of guilt and payment by a third party. Something like this would be unheard of in any legal system on this world. Yes, a third party might offer to pay a fine being exacted from a guilty party, but to serve a prison sentence or die in one’s stead—this would never be acceptable. No observer would feel that justice was being upheld. Yet the transfer of guilt, as if it were a commodity being traded on the markets, is a central tenet of the legislated law premise: Our guilt was transferred to Jesus, and he died in our place, paying the penalty for our breaking of the law. Intellectual stretches like this, urged as a core doctrine of Christianity, have more than a few walking away from the whole belief system, forcing them to say, in essence, “I no longer believe in fairy tales.” Moreover, is heaven to be populated by a large number of ex-convicts, ones who have simply been pardoned and have never developed a change of heart? I hope not!
Does the natural law premise do any better than this when looked at analytically? Let’s see.
As mentioned earlier, if God’s law is natural, enforcement is accomplished by our own choices. When we choose to be selfish, we necessarily withdraw from the Source of Life. If we remove ourselves from this source of life, there is only one possible end result: we eventually cease to live. If we get infected by selfishness, then death will eventually occur—nothing personal. Our actions and our eventual fates are determined by our choices.
To say it in other words, consider this: A genuinely happy, selfish person is oxymoronic. You will never find anyone like this. Selfishness necessarily keeps a person stuck in an endless loop of seeking more and more. There is no escape from this loop. There is no long-term satisfaction in life. It is a chronic infection of the soul, for which there is no cure apart from God’s intervention. Yet God, respecting our personal freedom of choice, will never unilaterally step in and correct the problem. He continually requires our permission, our enabling choice, our cooperation in this process. Furthermore, the process doesn’t happen in a day, or a week, or a year. Based on our genetic heritage, we all come into this life prewired with an overwhelming bias toward selfishness, and the subsequent years of practicing self-centeredness builds countless more of these neural circuits. Yet as impossible as this situation seems, God can work with a cooperating person to slowly rewire these existing traits into ones that are other-centered. All He needs is an invitation (something that theologians call justification), and a continual, humble, willingness to listen and learn (what theologians call sanctification).
There is no flash of light, no smoke and mirrors, when viewing salvation from the natural law premise. God simply works alongside the cooperative person in the process of rewiring our neural networks, little by little, bit by bit. This is what David is referring to when in Psalm 51:10 he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” This is what God is meaning when He says the following through Jeremiah:
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
But wait! If this is the way it works, what is the role of Jesus’ death in this process? Wouldn’t God be able to heal us sinners without Jesus having to come and die? Why does anyone need to “die because of our sins” in the first place?
In short, without Jesus death, Satan’s false assertion at the tree in the garden—“You will not surely die”—goes unanswered. Without Jesus’ demonstration of how the second-death experience of disconnecting from the Source of Life actually plays out, we’re all left wondering if God is trustworthy in what He says. We’re all left wondering whether or not Satan’s approach of living a self-centered existence actually might work. Jesus’ death demonstrates beyond doubt, to all who might be interested in the matter, that when humans disconnect from the Source of Life, they perish. His death also demonstrates the lengths to which selfish creatures will go, like Satan and Jesus’ lynch mob. In addition, Jesus’ death demonstrates that evil isn’t overcome by brute force, but that other-centeredness will prevail over selfishness in the end. Without Jesus’ death, there would always be lingering doubt about God’s trustworthiness, doubt which would interfere with our transformation into being other-centered, like Jesus demonstrated with His life while here on Earth.
In a very real sense, we are the ones who need to be satisfied about the natural effects of selfishness—that is, the natural results of sin. God doesn’t change His opinion about anything because of Christ’s death, but our opinions can change. God says, “For I am the LORD, I change not;” (Malachi 3:6) As for us, God says, “Come now, let us reason together…Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) We are the ones whose opinions need changing. We are the ones who need an attitude adjustment—not God.
The Bible leaves us three examples of people who were healed of selfishness and taken to heaven before Jesus came to die. If the legislated law premise is correct, then we must genuinely puzzle over the salvation status of Enoch, Moses, and Elijah prior to Christ dying to pay their penalty. The three of them already being in the hereafter long before Christ even came to Earth prompts us to ask, “Were they bought on credit? Was the payment for securing their salvation done with an IOU to The Father?” And if this credit card purchase arrangement is an acceptable procedure to The Father, we’re forced to ask why more didn’t qualify. Why not Abraham? Why not Joseph? Why not Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Daniel? Was the limit on the credit card insufficient to purchase their early salvation, too?
As we look around among the followers of Christ, we see genuine, well-meaning people espousing the legal premise, as well as godly people promoting the natural law premise. When considering salvation from both perspectives, one is eventually forced to ask, “What difference does it make to embrace one perspective over the other? As long as I humbly seek out God, strengthening my trust in Him as our relationship develops, does it really matter how I view the mechanics of salvation? What is so wrong about thinking of God’s law as an arbitrary speed limit, as opposed to viewing it as a natural law of existence for created beings?” The answer for a humble, learning person might be, “No, it doesn’t matter so much.” As for the hundreds of people in life who will be influenced by your opinion, the answer is, “Yes, it definitely does matter.” Why? There is an inseparable connection between viewing salvation as a common legal process, and that of portraying the character of God The Father negatively.
Ellen White barely gets off of the first page of her classic treatise on getting to know God, Steps to Christ, when she writes, “…the enemy of good blinded the minds of men, so that they looked upon God with fear; they thought of Him as severe and unforgiving. Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice,—one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. He pictured the Creator as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men, that He may visit judgments upon them. It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men.” (Steps to Christ, p.10.3)
Yes, it does matter how we portray God to others. Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
Getting to know God aright is a big deal. Jesus said: “Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” (John 17:3-4) Jesus came to Earth and demonstrated to humanity through his own behavior what God The Father is like. If we wonder what kind of person the Father is, we have to look no further than what Jesus revealed about Him to us. And in doing so, changes begin occurring within us. “All of us, then, reflect the glory of the Lord with uncovered faces; and that same glory, coming from the Lord, who is the Spirit, transforms us into his likeness in an ever greater degree of glory.” (2Corinthians 3:18 TEV)
So, is God’s law like the laws of North Carolina, Tennessee, or California? I hope not. Is our relationship with God to be one where we are constantly preoccupied with our legal standing before Him? Once again, I hope not. Or, is salvation that of acknowledging and repairing our broken relationship with God, realizing that selfishness separates us from The Source of Life? The prodigal son was certainly preoccupied with his legal standing as he was returning home, but notions of legal standing were completely absent in the mind of The Father.
Whether or not salvation is in some way a legal matter depends, to some extent, on how you define legal. Does salvation entail satisfying the unchanging Law Maker? Does it involve us becoming satisfied as to the true nature of sin and law? And what about the onlooking universe? Do they need to be satisfied to some extent? After all, we are their future neighbors. After what they’ve seen here on Earth over the millennia, how could there not be some measure of concern.
I hope that after reading this you will accept the challenge to roll all of this over in your thoughts, to process this issue of legislated law versus natural law. The next time you hear a legal metaphor used, or sing legal-sounding lyrics in a song, ask yourself: Is God’s law of the legislated variety, possessing the attributes of legal systems here on Earth, or, is God’s Law of Love a natural law, an intrinsic design parameter necessary for intelligent life to exist in our universe? We are promised that The Spirit of Truth will help us with this analysis.
Like it or not, we become like the God we worship and admire. So, as you ponder all of this, I’d like to ask, “Into whose likeness are you being transformed?” A person, “whose chief attribute is stern justice,—one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor,” or are you being transformed into a person whose focus is primarily on helping others who are in need? Jesus is the personification of humility, forgiveness, and other-centeredness, which means that The Father also is the personification of humility, forgiveness, and other-centeredness. My prayer is that we are all becoming more like Jesus, more like The Father, more like the soft-spoken Spirit. Amen.
3 Sheldon, J. (2013). Servant God. Loma Linda, CA, US: Loma Linda University Press.