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The Law

Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun,
I fought the law and the law won.chaingang

Beside fascists and Calvinists, does anybody really like the law?

This, then, is the story of how I came to love the law. Not the Jewish Torah, which is loveable, and might better be understood as “way of life,” or “teaching,’’ than “law”—but nonetheless often gets saddled with all our baggage about law. And really, my love or change of heart is less for “the law” per se, and more the role and place of the law in Reformed worship.

Many of you know that Reformed worship typically includes a prayer of confession quite early in the service. Basically, if our initial reaction to the presence of God is praise—“Oh, wow!” our next reaction is confession—“Oh #$@%!

Then, in usual practice, the prayer of confession is followed by something often called the “declaration of pardon” or “assurance of forgiveness.” If we were more clerical, we would call it the absolution. We receive the Good News. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. That pretty much wraps up this portion of worship in most Reformed churches, except perhaps for celebrating the grace of God with a song or psalm.

Somehow, (I believe I inherited it upon arriving in this congregation) the next step in worship here was “The Law of God.” If you know a bit about Reformed doctrine, this is the so-called “Third Use of the Law.” Once we know ourselves to be forgiven, the Law is no longer a burden that accuses us, it becomes a guide to instruct us. Traditionally, the Ten Commandments have been recited here, or sometimes Jesus’s double-love command. I’ve been told, but have never actually seen it, that once upon a time in certain Reformed congregations, the Ten Commandments were recited prior to the prayer of confession—sort of a template or measuring stick for how you’ve screwed up.

Optional digression, #1: I don’t want to sound hostile to the Ten Commandments, but I especially love Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 4. Right early in the Catechism it signals a wonderful direction and surprising turn. The question is “What does God’s law require of us.” I would guess that if you did one of those silly things you see on TV, where a comedian would take Question 4 and go walking around on the street asking people to answer it, most people would answer something like “The Ten Commandments” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The question itself feels heavy, like a set-up to lower the boom of guilt and shame.

The answer, however—or the very first word of it—is perhaps the most beautiful and compelling of all words. Christ. (“Christ teaches…” and it continues with the double-love command from Matthew 22). Where you might expect the gavel to come down, to be body-slammed by the Decalogue, the Catechism gives you Jesus instead. What does God want from us? How do we know how to live? Jesus! Not primarily through ten heavy duty commandments, but by watching, listening to, following, and loving Jesus. I wish this was a turn and a trait found more often in Reformed theology in general. Wanna know God? Wanna know what it is to be human? Look at Jesus. Again, no disrespect to the Ten Commandments or the Old Testament, but it’s about Jesus. (Of course, the Decalogue finally does appear near the end of Catechism, in the closing “gratitude” portion.)

Optional digression #2: Shouldn’t all those Christian zealots who want the Decalogue inscribed on the courthouse or some massive monument in the town square, instead, according to the Heidelberg, be pushing for the monument to be of Matthew 22, “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself”? Even better, if Jesus is the new lawgiver, then aren’t the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), his version of the law? Wouldn’t the beatitudes on a courtroom monument be sweet?

Okay, if you’re still with me, in our worship bulletin we soften “The Law of God” by calling it “A Guide to Grateful Living.” I’ve also seen it called “A Call to New Discipleship.”

Here is the little twist that made a huge impact on the way I look at and use “the Law” in worship. Somewhere I heard or read, “Any ethical directive from scripture may be used from time to time, in place of the Ten Commandments.” This changed my outlook on the Law in worship. For the congregation I serve, “from time to time,” is probably ninety percent of the time.

There are all sorts of wonderful and beautiful ethical passages in scripture, and we use a lot of them in worship.

God has shown you, o people, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

My little children, let us love not in words and chatter. Let us love us in deeds and action. 1 John 3:18

Segments of the Sermon on the Mount, portions of Romans 12 (inasmuch as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people…) or Hebrews 13 (some in their hospitality have entertained angels unawares…). About every letter of Paul closes with some directives (Do not worry about anything…Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility… Do not use your freedom as license for self-indulgence… Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…) If the parameter is simply an ethical passage, the opportunities are almost endless.

This variety, both in tone and topic, makes it much easier for the Law to seem like a gift, not a burden. A life of gratitude comes into clearer focus. Without capitulating to modern psychology, can I say that these various ethical statements seem to sit better with today’s psyche?—especially a congregation like mine, where the trauma of past oughts, musts, and shalt-nots is just below the surface.

Finally, one more way I’ve come to love the law in worship. It means that a clear ethical component is always present in worship, so I don’t feel as much need to preach ethics. A colleague observed, “The more the other portions of worship do, the less work the sermon has to do.” Perhaps this explains, even exonerates, Catholic and Anglican preaching, which Protestants always feel a need to disparage. If I could feed my people the actual body of Christ to eat, it would sure take some of the pressure off preaching.

I’m not saying that’s a law, just some guidance.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Jerry VanSpronsen says:

    Thanks for this, Steve. Your analysis reveals some disciplined perception into an item of worship long overdue for revision. The Anabaptists continue to wonder how we have overlooked the “new law” which
    Christ tells us is our guide and our “thank you.”
    In the CRC, the law was to be preached on eleven of the fifty two Sundays in the annual cycle through the catechism. After eleven sermons each year from this “guide for grateful living,” the most grateful part was that it was over for another forty one weeks!
    Jerry VS

  • I really like “A Call to New Discipleship.” I often wrestle with much of the terminology.

  • alberto says:

    Excellent call to discernment and a fresh look at the law in worship. The kingdom of God is the fulfillment of the Old Testament law, it gives a clearer telos to the law. What you are digging up here is the frequent divide in focus between atonement and the kingdom of God that plagues us Protestants, even/especially in our worship.

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