The Burden of the Law

by M. N. Jackson
August 23, 2021
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From my anecdotal perspective, 7 out of 10 Christians believe the Law to be a burden that Christ has liberated us from. And they are correct. Any dispute with that is a dispute with entire books of the Bible; and not just a few proof texts, but the comprehensive context of those books. However, most of them are only nominally right, that is to say, that they are saying the right words, but they fail to comprehend the actual meaning of those words.

It is true that the Law is a burden, but the burden of the law is not what many think it is. I suspect that the majority of Christians inuit that the burden of the law is that it has too many rules. Too many commandments. That is not the burden of the law. Others might propose that the burden of the law is that it is too demanding, too harsh, too severe, too judgmental, too condemning. That also is not the burden of the law. By those criteria, the law is not burdensome at all. 

The true burden of the law is the exact opposite of those. The burden of the law is that it has too few rules and is too lenient. Obviously this is counterintuitive, or perhaps more accurately, it is unconventional. For a very long time evangelicals have told themselves that the Law is severe and impossible, all the while contrasting that with grace, that they also tell themselves is kinder and easier. It is a common gospel-preaching trope to paint the law as the unattainable righteousness of God, and grace as the attainable righteousness — which is arguably true but only in a very superficial sense, however not in the way that it is commonly conceptualized. More to the point, as it plays out practically, this sentiment is not only completely wrong and unbiblical, it is profane.

It really doesn’t matter which iteration or version of the Law we refer to. The burden of the Law is that it has too few commandments. The 10 commandments are far too few. The 613 mitzvot commandments are far too few. The thousands of rabbinical rules are still far too few. If we were to ask how many too few, the answer is: Infinity. There are an infinite number of commandments too few. And not only the scope of the Law is infinitely too small, but the weight of the Law is also infinitely too light. Its penalties are infinitely too lenient. Therefore, the real burden of the Law is not that we cannot keep it. The real burden of the Law is that we can keep it.

I realize that many Christians will immediately object to the statement that the burden of the Law is that it is too easy to keep. Evangelicalism has propagated the myth that the Law is an impossible standard that will thrust everyone into desperation and despair if they so much as even fancy trying to keep it. But we have to wonder which Law they are reading? Are we talking about the same 10 commandments? What do we call people who don’t keep the 10 commandments? Pagans, Murderers, Adulterers, Perjurers, Thieves, Usurpers. Are these really that hard? I don’t think so. The local, state, and federal laws that we live under every day are far more in number, and far more difficult than these; I hardly ever hear anyone whining about how impossible it is to keep those laws. They don’t like them, but they don’t moan everyday about their impossibility. 

The response to this often is pointing out the many people who don’t keep the Law, including themselves. But this doesn’t prove that the Law cannot be kept, only that it is not kept. People that break the Law, don’t do so unwillingly. No one is committing adultery unwillingly. They might regret it after the fact, but adultery can only be committed willingly; as is the case for all the 10 commandments. Do people want to break the Law? Of course they do. Are they required or constrained to break the Law? Absolutely not. Sin is a choice. If you have no choice, you have no sin. In fact, if you have no knowledge, you have no sin. (Read Romans 1 and John 15.)

Therefore it is inappropriate to evangelize people that they need Christ because they are incapable of keeping the Law. To do so is, in effect, to say that the burden of the Law is that it is too much and too heavy. And it is to say that Christ came to relieve them from the heavy burden of the law and give them the lenient burden of grace. So very lenient is the typical neo-evangelical version of grace that it requires nothing at all, threatens nothing at all, demands nothing at all. It is so lenient that it is impossible to offend it. This version of grace stands like a withered, old maid, desperately grasping at even the slightest indication of interest from the sinner; and no matter how many times the sinner leads her on, grace holds out hope. The truth is quite the opposite. 

We need Christ precisely because we can keep the Law. Not only because we can keep it, and yet we don’t. But even more acutely when we can keep it, and we do keep it. If that is difficult to comprehend, then think of someone like Paul, who could say he was the “chief of sinners” at the same time that he was “blameless” concerning the righteousness of the law. That is a person who desperately needs Christ. Paul didn’t need Christ because the law was too hard for him, he needed Christ because the law was too easy. Paul didn’t need Christ because the law was too severe. He needed Christ because the law was too lenient. Paul needed to be saved from the Law. But not “from the Law” in the sense that the Law was an unattainable righteousness that only served to condemn him. Rather in the sense that the Law was a weak and beggarly attempt at righteousness that even the “chief of sinners” could satisfy. In other words, it was no righteousness at all. He needed to be saved from the Law the way a morbidly obese man needs to be saved from an excerise regimen that consists of sitting on the couch, watching TV, while bench pressing Cheetos into his mouth.

The profanity of this is portraying Grace and Christ as desperate, second-rate alternatives only for the most lazy and pathetic sinners. The Law is not, I repeat, NOT!!!, harder or more severe than Christ. The central thesis of Hebrews is that Jesus and the Gospel and Grace are infinitely more demanding, more severe, more condemning, more intolerant than the Law was ever imagined to be. Think of how hard you thought the Law was… Now multiply that by infinity to the power of eternity… you haven’t even begun to understand how hard Jesus is. To put it in binary terms: The law is possible. Jesus is impossible! You can keep the Law. You cannot please Jesus. You can attain the righteousness of the Law. You cannot even imagine the Righteousness of Christ, much less fulfill it.

Jesus did liberate us from the Law, but not because we couldn’t keep it. He liberated us from the Law precisely because we could keep it and hence it was useless. The only righteousness we actually need is that righteousness which we cannot achieve. To paraphrase the great philosopher and theologian, Groucho Marx, only a Law that we cannot keep is worth keeping at all. This is why Paul considered his blamelessness touching the righteousness of the Law as dung; not because it was unattainable, but because someone so wicked as him could so easily keep it. He realized that he must discard that placebo righteousness and be found in Christ having the true righteousness that is only by faith that he could never, even in his wildest imagination, merit. Think about that for a moment. Paul turned down a righteousness he was blameless in, to receive a righteousness he was infinitely unworthy of. He didn’t seek to be found in the grace of Christ. Nor the mercy of Christ. Do you realize how frightening that is? Why would anyone do that? Because the righteousness we can attain is rubbish. The only righteousness that is of value is that which we can never have claim to.

M. N. Jackson is a founding elder and teaching pastor of Free Born Church. He was a missionary in Mexico for over 20 years where he was part of a team of church planters. After being deported from Mexico for preaching the gospel, he returned to San Antonio, and continued ministering the word.

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