GRACE DISTINCTIONS #7 – by Jack Cottrell
VII. LAW COMMANDS vs. LAW PENALTIES. Another distinction related to law is the distinction between the COMMANDS of the law, and the PENALTIES prescribed by the law when its commands are not obeyed. It is crucial to understand this distinction, in order to properly understand the work of Jesus Christ.
Any set of laws (any law code) contains both commands and penalties. See again Isaiah 33:22 and James 4:12: God is both LAWGIVER (giving commands) and JUDGE (enforcing obedience via penalties). As the former, in his role as Creator, God sets forth the commands he requires his creatures to obey. As the latter, also in his role as Creator, God sits in judgment on his creatures and applies the penalty of hell upon the disobedient.
As far as we creatures are concerned, we are considered RIGHTEOUS when we obey the commands of the law. (Righteousness by definition means conformity to the relevant norm, and the relevant norm for human beings is the Creator’s law.) If we maintain perfect obedience to our law code, we remain in fellowship with the Creator. But if we sin, we are no longer “right with God” in terms of the law’s COMMANDS.
Does the law then become dysfunctional and disgraced when we sin against it? Does it fall apart in dishonor and impotence? No! The law is prepared to deal with lawbreakers. The application of its PENALTY maintains its honor and its ability to function. And with the application of the law’s penalty, even the lawbreaker remains “right with the law” in the sense that he satisfies its required penalty. (As an analogy, we say that a criminal who serves his assigned term in prison has “paid his debt to society.” In the case of God’s law, however, the payment of the debt—eternity in hell—never ends.)
What does this have to do with God? Why does God’s law include both commands AND penalties? It is a matter of God’s own RIGHTEOUSNESS. Since God is the origin of the law, our response to that law reflects on God himself. Thus for God to maintain his own honor, he must see to it that his law is respected and upheld. I.e., for God to be true to himself (i.e., righteous), he must make sure that either the law’s COMMANDS are honored and obeyed, OR that the law’s PENALTY is strictly applied and followed. When the commands of his law are violated by human sin, it is God’s nature to see to it that the law’s PENALTY is satisfied. Either way, God is righteous.