Principles Of Divine Law


Laws are of two kinds. First, there is arbitrary law, or law based on the will of the lawmaker, or upon his caprice or whim. Such laws are not based on considerations of right or justice; they are based on authority. They may be just or unjust, or partly just and partly unjust. Such laws as these have characterized tyrants in all ages of history. In making them men have consulted only their own wills or their own pleasure. There is another kind of law, that is, reasonable law, which is based upon the principles of reason and justice. Such laws embody the principles of right; they are based upon right, not upon authority.

God being a God of justice, his laws embody the true principles of justice and righteousness. They are not arbitrary in their nature. God does not command things just because he has the authority; back of every requirement is a just and adequate reason. In speaking of God's law in the New Testament, Paul says, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation ... for therein is the righteousness of God revealed" (Romans 1:16, 17). From this scripture we see that in giving his law (the gospel) God had no selfish purpose. He did not give it as the result of a mere whim or caprice. He has no desire to command things just to show his authority. His law reveals his righteousness. It can do so only if it is truly just and reasonable. Some people seem to think that God is a tyrant and that he requires of us some very unreasonable things, even impossible things. He does command things that are not acceptable to us in our sinful state, but when we are once saved, we can say with him of old, "O how love I thy law!" (Psalms 119:97). John said, "His commandments are not grievous" (I John 5:3). This is the testimony of every one who is of a willing heart to serve him. Micah puts it in this way: "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8). God's laws seem extreme and harsh and rigid only to those who have not the spirit of obedience in their hearts.

God is a being of the greatest benevolence. God is love. His highest happiness, like ours, must come from unselfish purposes. There is a sort of selfish happiness, or a happiness that we may have and still be selfish or that may flow from selfish purposes, but that happiness is a very low form of happiness. The higher and truer form of happiness can come only through unselfishness; therefore it must come largely from the happiness of others. Our truest happiness comes from making others happy and having their happiness reflected in our own life. This is true of God as well as of man. He finds his happiness most truly in making others happy. Any laws, therefore, that he has given his creatures are for the purpose of making them happy. Every law that he has made for us is for our good and is necessary for our safety and wellbeing.

His laws are not intended merely to restrict us nor to prevent in any measure our happiness. On the contrary, all restrictions are wholly with a purpose to increase our happiness by preventing that which would be fatal to our highest happiness. He requires us to give up nothing but what is harmful to us. He never requires anything from arbitrary selfishness. He requires us to give up sin and the follies of this world because they work destruction to our own happiness, to the happiness and good of others, and to our eternal interests. Selfish happiness is the lowest type of happiness; so he forbids it that we may be more happy. He does not place a single restriction upon us unless that restriction is necessary in its very nature. To secure felicity for us is the chief object and purpose of all his laws, and all his working for us, and all things that he requires of us. He knows that in order for us to be happy we must be holy; so he requires us to be holy and to give up all that would prevent our being so. True happiness can come only from correspondence with God, so he requires this of us. So long as our own happiness is the end in view in our lives, we can never be truly happy. If our own happiness is the thing we seek, our purpose is purely selfish and can never result in real happiness. God never seeks his own happiness as an end. He would be selfish if he did, and so could not be truly happy. True happiness always results from unselfish and pure purposes and acts. If we are righteous for righteousness' sake, happiness is the result.

The New Testament is not a book of rules, but a revelation of principles. God deals not with technicalities, but with principles. In the Old Testament most of the laws were specific, as was necessary for the time, and revealed the principle only through some special application. In the New Testament the principle is usually revealed and the application of it to the details of life left to us. In every case we are to endeavor to get a correct understanding of the principle involved. "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). As already stated, the New Testament is not a book of rules, though many persons have looked upon it as such. This has led to many and serious errors. This view is a prolific source of fanaticism and extremism. Every command of the New Testament is based on some broad principle of righteousness. We need to go back of the letter of command; we need to get the principle. If we are technical in our interpretations, we shall almost invariably miss the principle involved, and when we miss the principle, we have only the empty shell without the kernel. There is a "why" back of every requirement, and until we learn what this is, our fulfillment of the requirement will be only a blind submission to authority.

People often adhere very rigidly and literally to some precept or teaching while they freely violate the principle in other things. This is well illustrated in the case of certain monks in a monastery in Europe. They are said to have had a prolonged controversy among themselves as to who could obey in the most Christian way Christ's command, "Whosoever shall smite thee on they right cheek, turn to him the other also." So one would smite another on the cheek, and the one smitten would bear it with all the equanimity possible. Then he in turn would smite the other upon the cheek with all his might, and that one would bear it as well as he was able. After much contests of stoicism they would fall to quarreling most violently as to which one had shown the most Christian spirit. While they were doing literally what Christ commanded, they were really violating its principle in the most open manner. How careful some people are to keep the Sabbath holy (?) who during the week can lie, steal, cheat, or do almost anything of the sort without troubling their conscience! Only when we learn the principles involved and then apply them in all the activities of our lives are we truly Christ-like, truly obedient.

To illustrate what I mean by the principle and the precept, or the difference between them, I call attention to Matthew 6:17, 18. In warning the disciples against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in their fastings, Jesus gave directions how a person should fast. Here is the precept: "But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face." But here is the principle: "That thou appear not unto men to fast." Today, under changed conditions, we must either violate the precept or the principle. At the time and in that country it was common for people to anoint their heads every day; at this time and in this country there is no such custom. If, therefore, we should carry out the precept now, anointing our heads when we fasted, it would appear to all men that we were fasting; if we would not appear unto men to fast, we must not anoint our heads on that special occasion. The principle is the thing of importance; and if we have learned that and apply it in our lives, it will fit all occasions and all customs. If we cling to the letter of the law, we shall oftentimes find ourselves missing the real intent and purpose; we shall have the shadow without the substance, the letter without the spirit.

God's laws are flexible in their nature, except where moral principles require rigidity. They are adapted by infinite wisdom to man's state and need in all ages, climates, states of society, and stages of enlightenment. The sacred books of other religions are adapted only to the nations, the geographical location, and the state of society existing where they were given. The New Testament is different. It is a revelation of broad principles; therefore it is applicable to every time and in every place and to every condition. It says that we shall love one another, but it does not mention all the variety of ways in which that love will manifest itself. It does not enumerate all the things that love will lead us to do, nor describe all the feelings that love will cause us to have. It says, "Do good to all men," but it does not explain fully to us what this means; it leaves us to make the application ourselves when we once learn the principle. It teaches us that we should dress in modest apparel, but it does not tell us all about what modest apparel is. It does not give us a list of all the things that may be worn and say, "This is modest" and "This is immodest"; in fact, it has very little to say as to what is and what is not modest. It leaves to each age and time and place the formation of a definition of modesty. The principle, however, applies in all ages and to all people from the king upon his throne to the ordinary citizen and even down to the slave. It teaches us that we should not steal nor swear nor lie, but it leaves to us to formulate a definition of these things; and if we are willing to regulate our lives according to his will, he will help us to find a definition that is satisfactory both to himself and to us.

God's law is flexible. An absolute rigid code would defeat its own end. If God had required men to measure up to an absolutely perfect moral standard, the result would have been that no one could have been saved. For that reason, his law must be flexible. It must fit all conditions, all times and views and circumstances. Under the Mosaic law God permitted divorce for many causes, even though it was contrary to the true principles of marriage. Under the New Testament he tolerated polygamy, also slavery and the moderate use of intoxicating liquors. These were evils that could not be extirpated immediately. The leaven of Christianity must work until the people were raised to a height of understanding where they could see the evil of these things and lay them aside. This flexibility of the law is shown in the case of Naaman. Though he promised to serve the true God only, he was permitted to return and to go with his king to worship in the idol's house and even bow down with the king. He was required by his position to do this, and the prophet did not ask him to surrender his position. See 2 Kings 5:18, 19.

As nations or individuals become more enlightened, they become able to apply the law in a more perfect way. Things are wrong to some that are not wrong to others, since some are more enlightened and can better apply the principles. We are never justified in doing a thing just because others have done it or are doing it. Each of us is required to live to his own highest standard. Slavery, once esteemed all right, is now considered a great evil. Society has come to see a higher standard of human rights. Science has taught us the evils of the use of alcohol and narcotics, and so a higher standard has come to prevail in regard to their use. God overlooked what he could not at the time prevent, and his law by its flexibility was adapted to the needs of the age. Its flexibility now makes provision for our failure to understand and apply it perfectly to our own lives, but that accommodativeness can never cover willful disregard of duty. The Bible, not the fathers, is our standard. It may pass over our ignorance, but never over willful wrongdoing. God is ever as lenient as he ought to be, but never more so. His law was made to be kept, not to be broken.