“Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:23-25).
The great Protestant reformer, John Calvin, who contributed so much to our present-day understanding of Scripture, undoubtedly had James in mind when he wrote that the Law of God acts as “a kind of mirror.”
Calvin continued, “As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.”
There are far too many unbelievers who suppose that the Christian life is nothing more than slavishly obeying a list of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots.” Their view of God is one of a cosmic, curmudgeonly tyrant who is determined to take all the “fun” out of life and whip His people into fearful submission. I could write an entire book rebutting this tragic misconception, but for now let me make three quick points that you can use to kindly and confidently explain to a skeptic that they have missed the intent of the Law altogether.
- Do you really believe that God is a curmudgeonly tyrant?
He who gave His only begotten Son to die on a cross so that we can live with Him in Paradise for all eternity is . . . a tyrant? This God heard His Son’s agonized cry from the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet He turned away from His beloved Son in order that He might open His arms wide to you and me. That sounds much more like a loving God of amazing, almost incomprehensible grace, who has bestowed on us an indescribable gift!
- Calvin interpreted James’ explanation of the law beautifully.
It’s true that the Law encapsulates a list of “dos and don’ts,” but the purpose is not to produce slavish and soulless submission. Rather it is designed to make us realize that we simply cannot do this — as Calving said, we are utterly impotent to “Be perfect… as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The apostle Paul, who knew as much about the Law as any man who ever lived, looked at his own face in the mirror of the Law and cried, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Paul was convicted by the Law to recognize his utterly sinful condition; and he had, by grace through faith, come to an understanding of the only solution for his terrible sin problem: “Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
- Finally, the Law is designed to bring us to the point of honesty and humility before God and man.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of whom went into the temple to pray.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
The Pharisee looked into the mirror of the Law, but he did not have eyes to see. He reminds me of Snow White’s evil queen, who preened in front of the magic mirror and asked, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The Pharisee, who exalted himself, was blind to the truth that there was One infinitely fairer than he, the sinless Lamb of God, who kept the Law perfectly. All the actions of the Pharisee were, by comparison, filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
The apostle Paul, on the other hand, looked into the mirror of the Law and concluded that he was “the worst” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul had no time to look down on sinful men because the Law had graciously revealed to him that he, too, was a very sinful man. And so all Paul could and did do, as an ambassador of Christ, was plead with other sinners to “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20) through faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we see in the passage from James that opened this article that God assures us that, far from enslaving us, His perfect law “gives freedom” (James 1:25) to live in harmony with both God and men.
You are probably familiar with the derisive tale of the preacher whose notes for a Sunday sermon included this reminder to himself: “Argument weak; pound pulpit here.” Christian, when you are confronted by skeptics or even hostile atheists who question, criticize or sneer at your faith, you have no need to get defensive or angry — never feel that you must “pound the pulpit” because your argument is weak.
My spiritual father, Dr. D. James Kennedy, used to frequently remind his congregation that we are not called to blind faith but to a reasonable, rational, intelligent faith. And because of that, we are richly equipped to obey the biblical command to “gently instruct” those who oppose us and to “be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” We do this “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
My goal for these articles in the Good News — indeed, for everything I write and teach — is to help Christian believers act as kind, gentle, patient ambassadors of Christ, so that many in our community will come to a knowledge of the truth and be set free to live in freedom and joy in Christ Jesus.
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. Never forget that… Amen!
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.