12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
(Romans 5:12-14 (ESV)
“For sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.” It’s such a perplexing passage. Sin, death, and the law, all work together. But even where there is no law, sin and death reign.
It’s hard to imagine no law, no commandments. Today there is often a tendency to think of Christianity in terms of nothing but law. And the church does Christianity no favors in this regard often getting hung up in culture war battles to do nothing but pass laws. From Adam to Moses there was no law. That isn’t to say that societies didn’t have law. If you read Genesis you see from the curse of Ham, the Lament of Lamech, the life of Abraham and all the patriarchs that there was indeed a sense of right and wrong. Rulers encoded laws of their own, it wasn’t as if the Hittites and Canaanites were lawless societies. But God had not given his law to the Jews, and this is who Paul is writing too. But then even when God gives his law, he gives it to the Jews, this is a point often missed. It wasn’t given to the people surrounding Israel, it wasn’t given to the Romans, the Egyptians, the Greeks or the Hittites.
This actually has huge bearing on how we Christians approach the law ourselves, how we interpret it. I once got into a discussion with a friend who thought we shouldn’t have crosses or crucifixes in our churches because these would be considered graven images and thus break the First Commandment. We Lutherans believe the bit on graven images is commentary on “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” and not a commandment that stands alone as the second commandment. The reason is as I tried to explain to my friend, God couldn’t possibly mean we weren’t supposed to have any images whatsoever in our churches, but that we aren’t supposed to worship the images. He asked why I said that and I said for the simple reason that on the very next page after God gets done delivering the commandments he gives Moses instructions for building the tabernacle and later on the Temple, and that the instructions were chock-full of images that were to be made encompassing all of God’s wonderful creation, from a Bronze Sea held up by twelve oxen to the Cherubim seated above the Ark of the Covenant. God meant for these images to enhance the worship of the people of Israel, but not to be the objects of worship. This is what a crucifix does for us by giving us a visual depiction of Christ suffering his victory over death for us. Great pieces of art in the sanctuary become sermons communicating in image the ineffable mysteries of God that cannot be communicated in words, and the beauty sears them into our minds. But my friend tells me, well God gave those instructions to the Jews, not us. And I told him, the same can be said of the Ten Commandments, we dare not pull them out of context to give them a meaning separate than they would have had for the Israelites. Neither dare we become slaves of the law.
The law holds no dominion over us. We are free. The law has been fulfilled by Christ, but it has not been abolished. It can no longer condemn us, but it can still accuse us, reprove us, correct us and direct us. Freed from slavery to the letter of the law we are inspired to celebrate the spirit of the law. Perhaps we see this most acutely with circumcision which though many in the west are routinely circumcised today for medical/hygienic reasons, it is still seen as a spiritually indifferent manner. Yet, I think we see it even more greatly in the propensity of Christians to worship on Sunday rather than Saturday. Saturday is still the Sabbath. The day in which God rested did not change. In fact, all the more after he suffered his victory over death for us, he rested on a Saturday, took the dirt nap for us and concretely fulfilled that law for us in a way we could never imagine, only to shatter the stone upon which the commandments were written as he rolled away the door to his tomb. And all this he did out of love for you, love for us, and now we love because he first loved us. We no longer hold to the commandments out of fear. For God has freed us from a spirit of fear. We no longer hold to the commandments for fear of our salvation. But now in them we see a blueprint of love, the ultimate expression of selfless love, a template for loving our neighbor that our neighbor would be loved by Christ who lives in this world through his church, through you whom he has loved in the waters of baptism and brought out to walk in the newness of life. It was by fulfilling the commandments that Jesus loved us, and so it is that in his love and for the love of neighbor we live the commandments because love fulfills the law. It doesn’t abolish the law, but fulfills it. But because it was a Sunday Morning when Jesus rolled the stone away, the stone the sealed our death with the condemnation of the law, well now it is a Sunday morning that we celebrate the life and love we have in Christ Jesus our Lord, dancing in the face of our accuser because he can no longer condemn.