Nov 16, 2009
The New Law-Written On Our Hearts
by Aiden Swan
THE NEW LAW -
I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:33b-34
In considering both the Old Testament Law’s application to the present day and the law that Jeremiah talks about, the law that would be written on our hearts, it is essential to look at them in light of the Old and the New Covenants, for neither law could exist without its corresponding covenant. It was within the confines of the Old Covenant that the written Law was given; in other words, the Law was given to the people of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant (speaking primarily of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants) preceded the giving of the Law, and the only requirement of Abraham and his descendants prior to the giving of the Law had been circumcision (no little requirement).
Likewise, the promise that God would write His law on the hearts of His people was given only as part of the promise of a new and better covenant. Furthermore, it was through the same work of Christ dying on the cross that both did away with the Law as well as established the New Covenant. As the written Law was essentially the codification of the Old Covenant, it had to be done away with before the New Covenant could be made. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul states that God actually nailed the Law to the cross, rendering it dead:
And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:13,14
When the Law was taken away, we were made righteous, because as Paul tells us in Romans 5:13, sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. So without the Law, our sins are not counted against us--basically, they have no effect on our spiritual state whatsoever. Because we have been made righteous apart from the Law, our sin can never be held against us (Romans 4:6-8).
The writer of Hebrews relates this act with the giving of the New Covenant. The terms of the New Covenant involve both our perfection and the placing of God’s law on our hearts:
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
"This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,"
Then he adds,
"I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more."
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Hebrews 10:14-18
The writer of Hebrews is quoting from Jeremiah, who prophesied to those still under the Old Covenant concerning the giving of a new and better covenant:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34
God basically told His people that their covenant was defective, and implied also was that the written form of the Law was also defective. In the better covenant the law would be placed on the hearts of God’s people, with no need for an external witness to God’s laws. The writer of Hebrews has already pointed this out, having quoted again from Jeremiah:
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:
"The days will come, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah;
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord.
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach every one his fellow
or every one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
for all shall know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more."
In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:6-13
In comparing these two covenants, the New Covenant is definitely better than the Old. In these texts, some important differences between the two covenants are noted. First, the New is better than the Old because it is based on better promises. The Old Covenant could be broken, and was broken, by the Jewish people. The New, however, can not be broken as it has already been perfectly kept by Christ. Jeremiah addresses this as well in the following passage:
Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. Jeremiah 32:37-40
A second difference between the two covenants is what was done to remedy the sin problem. The Old Covenant could not totally eradicate sin; offerings had to be done yearly for their sins (Lev. 9:7), and also to remind them of their sin (Heb. 10:3,4). The Law, given under the Old Covenant, actually caused their sin to increase (Rom. 6:20, 7:5). However, under the New Covenant, sin became of no effect. We still sin, but it can no longer be held against us. In other words, God will not remember, or record, our sin.
Let me take a small diversion here to talk about what happens to our sin -- for we do still sin; both the New Testament and our experience tell us this. However, our sins are not counted against us. There has been an understanding of forgiveness in the Church that when we are "saved," our sins are forgiven, but we have to continually seek forgiveness of any "new" sins, much like the Jews having to offer yearly sacrifices. Many church traditions have confession of sins and a pronouncement of forgiveness written into their weekly liturgy. However, what does the Bible say about our sin under the New Covenant? As referenced above, Paul states:
So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
"Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin." Romans 4:6-8
The NIV translates the passage as, "blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him." A good illustration of this point that I stole from Ken Blue is that many of us have been taught the "blank slate" theory; that is, when we are saved our "slates" have been wiped clean. However, we need regular confession and forgiveness to keep the slate clean. But what Paul is saying here is that God does not "wipe our slate clean," He destroys the slate! Our sin can never be counted against us again! Remember, it was the Law that caused sin to be counted against us (Rom. 5:13). The Law, then, was the "slate." When the Law was nailed to the tree, there was no longer any way for sin to attach itself to us. A true understanding of the Gospel must lead us to the realization that once we have been united with Christ and brought under the New Covenant, even deliberate sin will not be held against us.
We are then lead to the exact point Paul makes in Romans 6:1, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" and in Romans 6:15: "What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" Paul then continues to explain why we do not sin -- it is not longer an issue of obedience to the Law, but one of freedom vs. the bondage of sin.
So what then of confession of sins? Again, I think we must go back to Paul’s answer in Romans 6. It is no longer an issue of obedience or disobedience, but of freedom or bondage. Sins are no longer a "count" against us that must be canceled out by confession and forgiveness, because they have already been canceled out and forgiven by the perfect sacrifice of Christ and the nailing of the Law to the tree. We once were slaves to sin, but now we are slaves to righteousness. Sin, bound to us under the Old Covenant by the Law, brought death (Rom. 7:11). But now, without the Law, sin lies dead (Rom. 7:8).
Sin has, therefore, no effect whatsoever on our standing with God. We are, and remain, perfect and righteous before God. However, we know that all of us is not yet made perfect. Likewise, while sin has no effect on our spirit, it certainly has a profound effect on the quality of our daily lives and the lives of those around us. For example, I can punch my neighbor, breaking his nose, without fear that this will in any way impact my state of righteousness or perfection. I can do directly from this altercation and teach a Bible study, pray for the sick, receive ministry and take communion, and be perfectly assured that I can go boldly before the Throne of God as if I had never sinned, because my sin is not held against me. However, such an act (sin) has a marked effect on my neighbor, who now has a broken nose. It could also affect the quality of my life, as I have lost a friend, and could end up in jail for assault and battery. So in a spiritual sense, our sin simply does not matter, although in the realm of our daily lives, sin has pronounced negative effects.
No video tapes of our lives will be played on judgment day, because no videos or any other recordings of our sins were ever made. There is therefore no need to confess these sins to God. What if we do go before the Throne of God to ask forgiveness? What happens? The answer, according to the New Testament, appears to be, "nothing." When God sees us, He sees no sin, because it has never been held against us. For one thing, just the act of appearing before God’s Throne implies that we are without sin. One mistake, and the old High Priest of the Old Covenant would have been struck dead and he would have had to have been pulled out from the Holy of Holies by a rope tied around his ankle; sin is not tolerated in God’s presence.
However, when the curtain was ripped in two at the crucifixion, it signified that we have now been made righteous, and no longer kept from God’s presence by our sin.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:19-22
A third difference between the Old and New Covenants is the place of the Law. When God gave the Law to the people of the Old Covenant, it then became central to the Old Covenant. The Old Testament Law was written law -- the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God in stone, and the balance written by Moses in ink. It was an external, physical law. You could touch it, feel it, smell the parchment, read it, even hit someone over the head with it. However, this Law was put to death on the cross with Christ. The New Covenant, however, was to have a new kind of law, a law of the Spirit, one which was to be written on the hearts of God’s people. Reading through the Jeremiah 31 passage, it seems almost too good to be true today. Do we really have God’s law written on our hearts and minds? Is there no further need for a man to teach his neighbor about God?
If we read the New Testament passages which quote from Jeremiah, it is clear that yes, this prophecy was applicable at the time the New Testament was written, and is true today. We have the law written on our hearts. We have no need for anyone to teach us what the Law says, because not only is God’s law written on our hearts, but the Spirit of God Himself dwells within us. Then why do we continue to allow others to place the [Old Testament] Law back on us?
Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, makes it clear that he did not need to place any kind of law on them. Neither did he have the need to require anything from them to confirm to him that they were Christians or to validate Paul’s own ministry, because he had faith in this law which was placed within them:
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:2-6
Paul knew that to place any kind of law on those he taught or pastored would be to bring them death; he was a minister of the New Covenant, and was confident in Christ in them. You see, it all comes down to trust. The real reason why people resort to the Law is that they don't really trust the Holy Spirit that lives in us.
So what does it mean to have God’s law written on our hearts? Neither Paul nor the writer of Hebrews feels the need to explain this concept, so we will take it at face value. We no longer have a need to refer to the written code (which brings death) to know what we are to do. Our evil hearts have been "sprinkled clean from an evil conscience" and God has placed in us the knowledge of what is right. We are now slaves of righteousness. We cannot help but begin to act out of the knowledge of God’s law that has been placed in us.
The law that is written on our hearts is not a law that we can research, as the old Law was. We cannot look up chapter and verse in our heart; rather, we need to live by faith that it is God who lives and works in us. We need to trust that God has indeed cleansed our hearts, has placed both His Spirit and His Law in our hearts, and continues to work through us. Paul tells the Philippians:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12,13
In other words, they were not to look to Paul or anyone else to direct their Christian lives (not that training is of no use), but they had to begin to work it out for themselves, just them and God. Reliance in an external Law brings spiritual death. Only the law of the Spirit -- relationship with God -- can bring life. The work of keeping the law that is written on our hearts is to be obedient to what is in our hearts, knowing that it is God who is working in us. Another way of looking at it perhaps is that we are to allow God to do His work in our lives, keeping the New Covenant, as opposed to the Old Covenant, when it was our work to keep the Law.
We have acknowledged that we still sin. How do we trust our hearts, when we know that there is still so much evil inside us? But think a minute -- just our realization of the sin which dwells within us is proof that God’s law is written on our hearts. If we did not have God’s law in our hearts, how could we know what is evil? For us to give up our reliance upon the written Law to guide us, we must know and trust that God has indeed placed His law on our hearts.
Furthermore, we need to accept that we are now slaves of righteousness. This is hard to do, especially when our eyes are fixed on ourselves. We can easily, through our own experience in battling the desires of the flesh, develop a faith that is based on our own experience rather than the Word of God. Remember, we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Paul states in Romans:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. Romans 6:17-19
When we were slaves to sin, we didn’t have to work at all to become obedient to sin. It all came pretty much naturally. Now that we are slaves to righteousness, the same is true of the acts of righteousness. We don’t have to work at performing acts of righteousness; in fact, we cannot help but perform them! However, most of us are more conscious of our failings than we are in God’s successes (since we are not doing the work, we cannot take the credit). We still live in a fallen world, in imperfect bodies, in the midst of a great spiritual battle. However, God has told us that He is working in us, and works of righteousness will result. As Paul goes on to state later in Romans:
But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. Romans 8:10,11
Think of it this way: once our bodies were alive and our spirits were dead; now, because of what Jesus has accomplished, our spirits are alive but our bodies are dead (because of sin). The life that has been given our spirits (remember, the Holy Spirit Himself is in us) is slowly permeating our dead bodies bringing life. The fruit of the Spirit is growing in us, and we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds.
There is one similarity between the Old Law and the law that is on our hearts, and that is that just as the Old Testament Law could not make people righteous, neither can the law that is on our hearts make us obey that law, or in other words make us righteous. Think about this for a minute, then keep reading.
This may come as a shock to some at this point, but Paul tells us that even the Gentiles have had the law of God written on their hearts, as evidenced by their natural inclination to do what is right:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Romans 2:14-16.
Since the Gentiles were never given the Law, and were not under the Old Covenant, one would not think that they would be given this benefit of the New Covenant. Obviously, having the law written on our minds or hearts is not a result of salvation, as it appears Paul is talking about Gentiles who have not yet become Christians. Rather, it appears that the placing of the law on our hearts is related to Joel’s prophecy, that God will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28), which happened at Pentecost.
It is also interesting to note that prior to this point, people did not have the law written on their hearts; there was no internal witness to the law of God. We need to keep this in mind when reading the Old Testament, as we have a tendency to assume that these people had the same knowledge of God that we do. Obviously, from the Jeremiah 31 passage, this is not the case. The folks of the Old Testament (including those we meet in the Gospels, as that was before the giving of the New Covenant and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) had no internal knowledge of God’s law, and only a handful were blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a different life back then.
So what keeps us obedient to the law that is on our hearts if it is not the law itself? As we have already mentioned, we are now slaves of righteousness. Our spirits have been made alive (Rom. 8:10), we have been joined to Christ (1 Cor 6:15), we have been made perfect (Heb. 10:14), and the Spirit of God that has made our spirits alive is also making our mortal bodies alive as well. The great thing about having the law of God written on our hearts is that it also comes with the Spirit of God Himself! Remember, the written Law brings death, but the Spirit (with the law written on our hearts) brings life.
Let’s go back to talking a bit about the issue of confession of sins, which as mentioned earlier is a mainstay of traditional Christianity. When we sin (act contrary to the law on our hearts), it has no effect on our state of perfection or our relationship with God, because it does not count against us. But, if our faith is not in the work of Christ in us and is rather in our keeping the written Law, we have problems. We then somehow believe that we should have been able to keep the Law, that we should have been able to refrain from sinning, which is pure self-righteousness. And, if we think we somehow should have been able to keep the law, then failure to do so is all our fault. We then carry a sense of guilt and failure and self-condemnation, not to mention the condemnation coming from the enemy. Sometimes we even attempt to cover-up our sin, or hide it from those who we think would have expected us to be able to resist the temptation to sin.
This, as you can imagine, creates quite a spiritual dissonance, or conflict, within us. We have the law on our hearts directing us to do good, the Spirit of God reminding us of our relationship with God, and now we have guilt and condemnation. These opposing forces cannot peacefully co-exist in us.
I think that this is perhaps behind James’ admonition to confess our sins to one another, that we may be healed. For if we acknowledge that our actions are not in accordance with the law on our hearts, accept the fact that this sin cannot touch us, we can then dump all of this guilt and shame, with its accompanying physical effects. There is therefore now no condemnation . . . (Rom. 8:1).
There is also a spiritual dissonance created by sin, even when we have not tried to keep the external Law, just because we have acted contrary to the law on our hearts. Our consciences tell us when we are not acting according to the law in our hearts, not so that we can be forgiven, but so that we can repent. Now most of us think of repentance as more or less synonymous with confession. However, to repent is simply to stop doing wrong, and start doing right. It’s like those little reflective bumps that they place on the freeways between lanes. If we start to drift too far to the right or the left, our tires hit the bumps, and we are alerted to the fact that we need to repent -- we need to make a navigational correction, to straighten out.
This brings us to another point, which we have already touched on in part. As God has placed His law on our hearts, we now have an internal law, as opposed to the external written Law. God has placed in our hearts the knowledge of right and wrong -- of good and evil. Now if you think like I do, you will make the connection to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and become completely confused. Why did God first command man not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and then turn around and place what appears to be a similar knowledge in our hearts and minds?
The first answer may simply be that it is not the same thing at all; the knowledge gained from the Tree may not have been anything like the law that is now in our hearts. However, there are similarities. When Satan tempted Eve, he told her that after eating the fruit she would become like God, knowing good and evil. Now, God has placed His law in our hearts, which should clue us in to the same information. So what is the difference now? Why would something that was once forbidden now just be given to us? And to make matters more complicated, there is another question: if we, through Adam, already have the knowledge of good and evil, why did God have to write it on our hearts?
I suspect that the answers have to do with how the knowledge was obtained. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree, the knowledge they obtained was outside of their relationship with God. They did not go to God for that information, they went to the Tree. Through the act of eating of the Tree, their relationship with God was broken; they had chosen to go somewhere besides God for their knowledge of what was right and what was wrong.
The fact that with the arrival of the New Covenant, God put the knowledge of right and wrong in our minds and hearts raises this question: could it be that it had been God’s will all along for man to have a knowledge of good and evil, only it was to have come through relationship with Him? If so, Adam and Eve made the same error that Abraham made years later when he fathered Ishmael; rather than accepting what was to come from God, they took an alternate route. This error caused God to enact a plan which would eventually make it possible for Him to place His law, the knowledge of what is of God (good) and what isn’t (evil), in our hearts.
The knowledge of good and evil that came from the tree was from an external source, much as the Law of Moses was. Both brought death. However, the knowledge of good and evil that comes from a relationship with God (which as part of the New Covenant involves the Spirit of God dwelling inside us) brings life.
There is one last comment that I would like to make concerning the law that is written on our hearts, and it has to do with the place of the Old Covenant Law in the New Covenant. It is the belief of some that the written Law still has its place, which is in relation to the flesh. In other words, our spirits have been made perfect and have been freed from the Law. However, our bodies have not yet been made perfect, so the Law still applies to our bodies.
I disagree. Paul teaches that the Law itself has been nailed to the cross; I presume that it is now dead for all purposes. Paul also teaches that the Law had its place, but is now no longer needed:
Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. Galatians 2:23-25
There also appears to be confusion concerning what Law is being spoken of. When Paul speaks of the Law, he is referring to that which was given by God through Moses to the Israelites. I do not believe that he is referring to the Roman laws, or laws in general. He is not speaking, for example, of the rules that we teach our children, or the exhortations that he gave in his letters to various churches (which at times sound a lot like laws). It is entirely possible to raise children under the New Covenant, teach them that their sin has no effect on their righteous standing before God, and still expect that they will eat their vegetables if they want dessert. Likewise, we can preach grace to our churches, and still tell our brother he has to stop sleeping with his step-mother. There is no conflict here whatsoever.
When you teach your children not to write on walls, you are not teaching them that by obeying this rule, they will somehow achieve a state of spiritual perfection, or that by disobedience they have broken communion with either you or God. The truth is that children need a custodian (tutor), as do immature believers, such as Paul was speaking of in Galatians. Children are not able, for the most part, to recognize the law that God has placed on their hearts. To be certain, it is there. If God placed His law in heathens, he placed it in your children. The rules that we give them are not an end in themselves, but rather the goal of our household laws should be to train our children to recognize the law that is already in their heart as well as to teach them how to live a successful life on Earth. At that point, they should no longer need a custodian, but be able to trust their internal law and the Spirit of God that dwells in them.
Immature believers as well require training, not to assist them in achieving perfection, but again to assist them in growing in their relationship with God so that they can better recognize God’s law that is placed in them, and learning to trust God’s Spirit which lives in them. The death of the Old Testament Law in no way prevents either parental or pastoral discipline; however, the point has changed. Back to what we said some time ago, neither obedience nor disobedience can change our spiritual standing; it can, however affect the quality of our earthly lives. The more we begin to learn and rely upon the law that God has placed in us, the better off we will be.
To live the New Covenant life, we must begin to believe that God has written His law on our hearts and minds, believe that our righteousness is not affected by our ability to obey that law, and trust that God knows what He is doing. We can then live the New Covenant life as slaves of righteousness, knowing that God Himself is building His kingdom inside of us.
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