Chapter 10: The Law

Our Faith
by Emil Brunner

Chapter 10: The Law

Every Swiss knows what a law is, but no man, I fear, has as much trouble in understanding what the Bible calls "law" as the Swiss. In Switzerland the law is -- something that the citizen himself has made. For "the people is sovereign," which means, the people is its own lawgiver. But in the Bible law means not what comes from man but what is given to man. To understand this, let us think first of all of the so-called laws of nature. That a suspended object will fall to the floor when the string is cut is a law of nature; even the free Swiss burgher can do nothing about that. It is so because God has made it so. The earth takes 365 days to complete its course about the sun, this is a fact which not even a national election can establish or abolish. It is so because God has made it so. Or, take the laws of thought. That 2 and 2=4 cannot be altered even by a world school congress or the unanimous agreement of nations. It is so because God has made it so. Every man must submit to it. Every one knows that too -- even the most inveterate Swiss Democrat. Here is compulsion, there is no choice about it.

But are there laws of God only where there is no choice to be made? Many think so today. Man is free, he can do what he wants. Who will have the temerity to interrupt him? You know the tale of "The Fisherman and His Wife" as told by Grimm. It is the story of modern man. Man has discovered that he can do all things, he can convert a waterfall into electric power, and make the finest pigments out of coal; he has shaken off the Lords of the Middle Ages and become "sovereign." He pierces mountains, binds seas together, alters the face of the earth; he can do all things, nothing daunts him. He is his own Lord, whom shall he permit to interfere? He can even be his own God.

Can he indeed? He can of course try it, according to the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise, and the end is ever the same. Evil comes of it. Man always over-reaches himself. He can have a strong voice, but when he essays to drown out the thunder, his voice cracks, becomes ludicrous and ugly; and he may even lose it on account of the strain. So it is, too, when man tries to play God. Great as man is, he is not the Creator, and that will be evident one day when he is shut up between six boards and lowered into a hole in the earth, not so large as the tiniest hall closet. There he lies and decays, the would-be Lord God. Yes -- then there is no choice about that!

No, man cannot do what he wants. For he belongs to Him who created him. As great as man is, he does not possess this greatness in his own right. It is all borrowed, bestowed greatness, it is a "gift," and a condition is attached to the gift. The more man is given, the more is expected of him. By whom? By the one who has given the gift, as is to be read in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25). Man is no proprietor, but a tenant; therefore a reckoning will be demanded (cf. the Parable of the Vineyard, Matt. 21). And the account- ing will be demanded on the basis of what he should have done with his gifts according to the will of God. The will of God is the law. The law is what God desires of us.

Every man, Jew or Christian, believer or atheist, cultured or uncultured, has some knowledge of this law. Every man has the consciousness of "responsibility"; every one observes that he cannot do what pleases him or seems profitable, that there is a "thou shalt," and a "thou shalt not." And even if he claims to be ignorant of such things, his conscience gives him the lie, his con- science that accuses him when he does what he ought not, or does not do what he ought. There has never been a man without a conscience. The law of God is as though it had been engraved in the human heart.

But God found it necessary to reveal his law in an especial way. While lightning and thunder flashed and rolled upon the peak of Mount Sinai, Moses received the Law, and gave it on tables of stone to the people of Israel. Something of the dread of the holy majesty of God the Lawgiver trembles in the narrative of this event (Ex. 19:20-32), and rightly so. That is something to strike terror into our hearts when God the Creator, the Almighty, the Righteous, and Holy says to us, "Thus and thus shalt thou do, and thus and thus shalt thou not do." Not because He requires something should we fear. For He desires nothing but what subserves life; God's law is not arbitrary. In His law God tells us nothing but the natural laws of true human life, you must do so and so if you want to live a human life; as the physician says, you must live so and so if you wish to remain healthy. This counsel is nothing fearful, but God says, I desire that you should so live, human not inhuman, creatively not contrary to nature, and this "I desire" is what terrifies us. For when God says, "I desire it," we know what is at stake. God is in earnest, He is not mocked; whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.

God requires an accounting. He holds us responsible. And that is what strikes terror in us, for how can we bribe the judge in this case? Or thinkest thou that God will wink at evil? That is the (I must add it) cursed frivolity of our generation, that it thinks God does not take things seriously. He will not cast off any one be- cause of disobedience. Forgiveness has been misunderstood to mean indulgence. But the opposite stands in the Holy Scriptures. God will cast off the disobedient, for what men sow they must also reap. God is Holy, which means. He takes the Law seriously. God's law is as inviolable as the laws of nature. God is not an indulgent father, who cannot punish -- just as little as He is a moody or passionate father, who punishes in a fit of anger. God is a just God who repays according to deserts. And is not that cause for terror, dear friend -- that God holds you strictly accountable according to His law?