When debating the nature of sin, LGT (Last Generation Theology) proponents will often appeal to John’s words “sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:4) They will also supplement this with Ellen Whites statement that “we are given no other definition of sin in the Bible then that it is the ‘transgression of the law.’” From here, the LGT proponent will argue that the case in Scripture is clear. Sin is transgression of the law. Plain and simple. Therefore, sin is a willful act in which we choose to break the commandments of God. End of discussion.
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But this supposedly airtight defense is the very thing that demonstrates the true fault in a theological system like LGT. So as we begin our exploration, I would like to ask a question to the LGT proponent. Sin is the transgression of the law, yes! But, what is the law?
Law is a very complex topic with lots of spinning gears and variables, but for the sake of our discussion allow me to focus exclusively on meta-perspectives. That is, if we traced the origin or ontology of law down to its source, what would that source be? Does the law of God originate in some sort of heavenly congress? Or perhaps we can go a step back and suggest that the law of God originates in a decision God himself made—that is, at some point in eternity God willed that certain things were allowed and others not. From there, God used his legal and imperial authority to ensure that those laws were obeyed. Any deviation was strictly punished and compliance was rewarded. In this sense, if we trace the ontology of the law we would arrive at a divine logic—a decision in the mind of God to enact and impose an expectation upon his creatures that originated within his consciousness for reasons only He truly understands. To put it simply, the law of God—in this meta-perspective—is something God concocted out of thin air and imposes upon the universe by virtue of His authority and authoritative leverage.
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There is a good case to be made for this model of the law which we can refer to as the “Strong-Arm Model”. After all, God appears to strong-arm a number of times in Scripture. For example, there is the punishment of Adam and Eve after their rebellion. We think also of the displacement of the Canaanites in which God poured his wrath out upon a society he deemed worthy of judgment. These narratives lend credibility to the idea that the law of God is a law constructed in the mind of God and enforced by the imperial authority of God. We think also of Uzzah who was killed for disobeying the command that specified that only a Levite could touch the Ark of God, of the unnamed man whose stoning God commanded as punishment for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) and of the New Testament account of Ananias and Sapphira. Each of these stories, plus many more, seem to suggest that the law of God is a legal code that He demands His creatures keep and which He enforces using His governmental authority as emperor over the created order.
However, when we dig through scripture a bit more we discover a vision of the law of God that seems to contradict the “Strong-Arm Model” entirely. This other model we can refer to as the “Heart-Beat Model.” The Heart-Beat model basically sees the law as originating, not in something God has randomly willed for reasons only he understands but as something originating in the very heart and character of God. God is love. His character is love. Therefore, his law is an outflow of that love. In this model, the law is a photocopy of the heart of God.
In the Heart-Beat model, we begin with the character of God as an eternal heart composed of other-centered agape love. This other-centered love is the ontological root or source of all that exists including the law of God. God designed reality to reflect his heart of other-centered love which means that God’s law, rather than being something God willed and then enforces with his unquestionable authority, is the natural flow of reality. In other words, God created a reality that operates according to the rhythm of love. The rivers give to the ocean. The ocean gives to the clouds. The clouds give the water back to the earth. It’s an other-centered cycle of giving that reflects the heart of God. This is the rhythm of love.
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And the law that governs creation is a law of love. It is the design of giving not taking. This perspective is also reflected throughout Scripture. For example, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22) Paul said, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” These perspectives are also echoed by Ellen White who said, “The law of God… is a revelation of the will and character of its Author. God is love, and His law is love.”
Because God’s law is a reflection of his character of love, the biblical writers speak of the law romantically, poetically and intimately. For example, David said, “I delight in Your commandments because I love them.” Psalm 119:47 and John declared, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) In doing so, John echoed Jesus himself who said, “If you love me keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) It’s clear then that in scripture the law cannot be understood as merely a legal code that humanity must comply with but as a mirror into the heart of God. A law of love reflecting realities design of love which is an expression of God’s eternal heart of agape love.
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So then, which is it? Is the biblical model of the law a “Strong-Arm Model”? Or is it a “Heart-Beat Model”?
The honest student cannot pick either or, rather we must be willing to embrace both in paradoxical tension. To that end, we must hold the two models in tension and allow the tension to provide us with a coherent resolution. That resolution is found in a bird’s eye view of scripture which reveals a narrative arc in relation to the law of God that is as significant as it is messy. If we were to simplify the arc, the story would begin with God’s heart of love from which creation and its inherent agape love design flow. Thus, the law of God emerges early on as this expression of his divine essence and not as a coercive checklist thought up on a whim and enforced with punitive power. Thus, when all things were in harmony, the law of God did not function as an imposed set of rules but rather as the natural design of all things. In the end, this pattern will be restored which is why Ellen White concludes her Great Controversy book by envisioning a universe in which “one pulse of harmony beats through the vast creation… God is love.”
However, the fall of man broke the design. The heart of man, intended to beat in harmony with the heart of God now beats in opposition to it. Self-preservation and self-promotion take the place of other-centered living. The depths of selfishness are so intense that, were it not for God’s intervention, the human race would annihilate itself. So God acts with judgment to preserve what he can of humanity and, throughout this messy story, he imposes his law at times in order to communicate to fallen humanity the seriousness and transcendence of His will and His way. In other words, God’s coercive acts in Scripture are concessions. God assumes certain postures and acts in certain ways in order to accomplish the redemption of the human race but at no point is the coercive approach to the law its original or ontological intent. To the contrary, the law is meant to work naturally, in harmony with love. And it is to this design that God is constantly pointing his people to even when He is temporarily operating in a Strong-Arm Model. Thus, in the midst of the Old Covenant, replete with a Strong-Arm approach, David could capture the beauty of God’s law with romantic overtones. Even in the midst of all those imposed rules, there emerges an idea—a current if you will—in David’s perspective of reality and existence in which his eyes widen as he perceives for the first time that the law of God is actually beautiful, romantic and harmonious. And of course, that Old Covenant in which the law was imposed—written on stone and enforced with the arm of government—is done away with. And what is its replacement? Jeremiah reveals that its replacement is not the doing away of the law but a return to its ontological design. No longer is it written in tablets of stone, imposed from the outside in, but “I will write my law in their hearts” the prophet declares, symbolizing a restoration to the law operating from the inside out. The Strong-Man approach is fading away, the Heart-Beat is making a comeback. And in the end, heaven will be inhabited not by those who are willing to comply with the law’s demands but by those who have allowed the grace of God to restore them to harmony with the law’s spirit—creations original design an extension of God’s own heart of love.
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With this exploration out of the way, I return to the original contention in which the proponent of LGT argues that sin is the transgression of the law. What exactly is the law? I repeat. In other words, what is meant by “transgression of the law?” Does the apostle here imply that we are breaking a legal code? A failure to comply with a Strong-Arm law which God imposes and coerces on us all? Or does it mean something deeper? If the law is fundamentally and ontologically a law of love, does the transgression of the law then simply mean that we, as collective humanity, are transgressors of love? Breakers of the heart of God? The meta-perspective on the law of God, as seen throughout scripture, would suggest the later. Transgression of the law is, therefore, not a willful behavioral act alone. Rather, when we transgress the law we transgress love.
And this, of course, begs the question why? Why does the human race transgress love? To which the Bible clearly affirms that we are born under the law of sin. Sin is the breaking of the design of love. It shatters the harmony of other-centered living. Sin is self. Therefore, each of us is born under the law of self to live out its oppressive demands in a perpetual state of self-promotion even when it destroys our communities, families and even ourselves. To this end, the apostle Paul leaps forth with good news when he declares that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2) That is to say, in Jesus, we are brought back into harmony with the law of other-centered love and set free from the oppressive law of self-centered indifference.
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But what happens when a person sees the law of God as a Heart-Beat rather than as a Strong-Arm? The short answer is—everything changes. We will see exactly how in the next and final article of this series.