Commandments and rules are good. They are not God, and they do not redeem. However, they come from a good God who has ordered all things for His glory and the good of His people. Of course, commandments, laws, and rules do not always feel good in the keeping of them, but the fact remains: they are good.

This bare assertion about the goodness of God’s commandments has come home to me again and again over the last year in ministry. I work with men in a Christian residential rehab organization. Most of the men have legal troubles that attend their substance abuse woes. In many ways, they have lived autonomous, lawless lives before entering residential rehab in a highly regulated and law-abiding environment. So, staff members find themselves often explaining and justifying the various rules to the clients. On certain occasions, the men have even argued among themselves that living under institutional rules and commandments is a contradiction to our freedom in Christ, that the gratuity of our justification means we are free in every sense from all law.

Leaving aside the more crass antinomian (literally, “against the law”) arguments employed to underwrite libertine freedom—arguments that are clearly and forcefully refuted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 6—what can and should be said to the men about the goodness of divine commandments and the discipline of rules that we may derive from those good precepts? Or what do you say to your young child who, longing to play outside without restraints, receives the parental imperative “Stay in the yard, son”?

First, God created commandments for our deepest good. Consider the very first commandment to man found in Scripture: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Notice, first, that this is indeed a command, not an optional extra. Our first parents were under obligation to obey this word. Second, notice that the command-rule comes as a blessing: “And God blessed them” (Gen. 1:28). Far from being a grievous curse, the command to fruitfulness comes as a gift from the hand of God Himself that serves the best interests of mankind. Obedience serves the basic interests of preserving and propagating life. If man engages in marital fruitfulness, the human race will survive. If he does not, mankind will not persist from generation to generation, let alone live in ways that promote the deepest and truest order of human design. One only need note the bitter national fruit of rejecting this good command in places such as Japan1 and a number of European countries to see the good of this divine imperative.

This life-sustaining quality of divine command is not unique to this one imperative. All our Creator’s commands (and their proper application) tend toward life and serve the best interests of the creature. The psalmist speaks broadly of God’s good world-ordering precepts: “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Ps. 119.93).

All our Creator’s commands (and their proper application) tend toward life and serve the best interests of the creature.

So, when we command people to clean their rooms and bathrooms every day and to show up to their obligations at the appointed times, we are instituting rules that are ordered to the spiritual and physical health of people made in the image of the God who has ordered the universe and gives commands to us for our life-giving good and His glory. The parent who commands his child to “stay in the yard” is preserving and promoting the freedom to live by keeping the child away from dangerous street traffic, thus allowing him to grow and prosper in life.

That the way of true human freedom in large part comes through keeping good rules can’t be stressed enough. We are created to carry out the commands of our Lord and His delegated authorities. Jay Adams illustrates well how law gives us liberty when he writes: “When is a train most free? It is free only when it is confined to the track. Then it runs smoothly and efficiently because that is the way its maker intended for it to run.” Commands, laws, and rules are good and freeing.

But our sin-tainted souls don’t always experience created goods as truly good. His commands in particular and rules in general feel burdensome. In fact, the natural man has a hostility toward and thorough inability to keep God’s good laws (Rom. 8.7). The appeal to our design in creation and the inherent life-affirming value of a divinely given rule of law is insufficient to undo our fallen sin-tainted bent to autonomy. A redemptive work that fundamentally changes our disposition toward rules is needed.

Second, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), He gets to the transformative heart motive for Godward and manward obedience to His commands and rules. In its fullest sense, commandment keeping is animated by a redeemed relationship with the Commandment Giver, the One who has made us and rules us for Himself. We best obey when we look beyond bare adherence to rules to the Rule-giver, whose saving love toward us has birthed a response of obedient, rule-keeping love in us. While there may be an external form of obedience absent love (for there are many naturally compliant, but not supernaturally converted people), there is no true love to Christ where there is no concomitant obedience from the heart. This kind of love energizes dutiful attendance to good rule.

What was it that motivated Jacob to effortlessly serve Laban for seven years, years that “seemed to him like a few days”? It was “the love he had for [Rachel] (Gen. 29:20). Love in the heart lightened the labor of his hands. What led Christ to perfectly obey His Father and give Himself up for His bride, the church? It was love (Eph. 5:25). So it is with us. Looking at a good law won’t enable us to live joyfully under said law. It will be an unrelenting burden to us. We need to know the law-giving Lover of our souls. That is where the inherent life affirmation of law meets the joyful obedience that delights in the law after the inward man. We are not attorneys. We are adopted sons of God. Where lawyers make legal calculations, lovers offer loving compliance. Lovers outwork lawyers.

When good creational commands and rules are obeyed with love from a redeemed heart that has been reconciled to the Command Giver, pious precepts are obeyed with pleasure. And in the end, we find that behind commandment keeping is not only the promise of personal life benefit but a person—Jesus Christ—whose redemptive, self-giving love and complete obedience to the command-word of His Father brings forth a people of love. This is the kind of command keeping done by slaves who’ve become sons and are growing in experiencing dutiful rule keeping as delightful choice.

  1. Sasha Ingber, “Japan’s Population Is in Rapid Decline,” NPR, December 21, 2018, accessed December 16, 2019, ↩︎

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