Recently a pastor of a megachurch declared that “God broke the law for love” when our sins were atoned for on the cross. The preacher's motives were good—he wanted to express the wonder of the gospel in terms people can understand—but his theology is terrible. In fact, there is direct biblical evidence that undermines his claim. Additionally, even without the direct claims of Scripture, God breaking the Law would undermine centuries of orthodox understanding of the nature of both God and the Law.
More significant than knowing who made this theological blunder is understanding why it is incorrect. It is easy to bash someone for being in error. It is more important to explain why they are in error, because it is much more likely to edify the body. The purpose of this post is to explain how we know that God did not break the Law.
When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that action did not break the Law. He fulfilled the Law by bearing the punishment for the sins of others. He paid our insurmountable debt as a substitutionary sacrifice once and for all. Taking the penalty for others did not, in itself, violate the Law.
Where do we get this in Scripture? For one, Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Assuming we accept that all three persons of the Trinity are equally God, we have pretty good evidence here that the God did not break the Law.
Rather than breaking the Law, Christ fulfilled it. Failing to keep the Law is sin. We know that Christ was tempted just like we are but he did not sin.
He did this in his life and ministry by keeping Law in every way, though he sometimes kept the Law in a manner that confused many of the religiously wise of his day.
In some cases, the way that Jesus lived out the Law was different from the way that it had been interpreted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the religious elite of his day. Thus, they got upset when he healed on the Sabbath and had contact with people that were taboo.
In these cases, Jesus points to the Law and explains how he is fulfilling it. In most cases, he points to the principle behind the particular expression of the Law. For example, when Jesus’ disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath, they are accused of breaking the Law. Instead of telling his accuser that the law didn’t matter, he explained that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)
In other words, Jesus explains that the Law still applies, but that the practices built around the Sabbath had a different function than what was commonly understood. The point of Sabbath was not to enforce inactivity, but to offer rest and remind the Jews that their financial well-being depended on God. The Sabbath was a gift from God, it was not meant to be an onerous duty.
Looking back at Matthew 5:17-20, we get a fuller picture of the relationship between the Trinity and the Law and it does not point to God breaking the Law but to the continued force of the Law for true worshipers:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We know simply based on the words of Christ that God did not break the Law, because heaven and earth have not passed away. Until that happens, Christ calls his followers to teach and follow the Law, though how that is fleshed out in contemporary Christianity is a topic for another post.
God Can’t Break the Law
The clear evidence of Scripture shows us that God did not break the Law when Christ paid the penalty for our sins. But we didn’t need that evidence (though I’m glad we have it) because the very nature of God and the Law prevent God from breaking the Law.
This goes back to a famous philosophical dialog in Plato, which is referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ll leave you to read that on your own.
To summarize the dialog, however, the two horns of the dilemma are whether the Law is good because God declared it to be good or whether the Law was given because God recognized it as good. In both cases, there is a good God and a good Law.
However, neither explanation of the goodness of the Law and the goodness of God is sufficient.
In the first case, if God arbitrarily declared certain things to be good, then the Law is no longer grounded in the moral order of the created order or in God’s character. In other words, there is little reason to expect that obeying God would naturally result in better ordered societies and greater peace with universe. At some point in the future God could change the Law so that a new set of things is good.
For example, though God has declared not murdering to be good, by this logic he could have just as easily declared murder good. If this explanation of the relationship between God and the Law is accepted, then the Law is arbitrary and God may be capricious.
In the second case, if God merely recognized the Law as good and chose to communicate it to his people, then the Law precedes God and God himself is bound by the Law. This is problematic because it implies that there was something that exists prior to God. Additionally, in this understanding of the relationship between God and the Law, the Law becomes the supreme norm of the universe instead of God. In theory, God could sin in this second understanding. Indeed, according to the megachurch preacher’s statements, God did sin by violating the moral order of the universe. (However, it is unlikely that the preacher actually believes this implication.)
Both of these explanations fall short of orthodoxy. Neither describes a God who is worthy of worship in the way that Christians recognize. Thus, a third explanation of the relationship between God and the Law is needed.
This third option is that the Law is good because it reflects the character of God. In this solution God is self-existent, logically and temporally prior to all else, and wholly good. The Law reflects his character, in part. By conforming to the Law, the Israelites were communicating something about God to the surrounding peoples and to each other. Thus, the Law was never about earning salvation it was about worship and evangelism.
There’s another way to explain this. God is the ultimate good in the universe. He is essentially good and there is no mixture of evil in him. God wants his creation to be good, like him. Therefore, he tells his people to be holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44-45). To show how to do this, God gave his people the gift of the Law. The Law reflects his character, so that by obeying the Law—by embodying the Law—his people were acting consistently with God’s character.
Based on this logic, then, God cannot break the Law. To break the Law would be to deny his very character. It would, so to speak, unGod God. He would cease to be good and thus cease to be worthy of worship. The view that God can break the Law is questionable. The view that God did break the Law draws close to blasphemy, if the speaker rightly understands the import of his words.
This third view of the Law is consistent with the Reformed understanding that has been passed down through the ages. It is part of the foundation of argumentation from Natural Law in other traditions, as well. There is nothing new under the sun, so in this case, being aware of historical theology could have saved confusion for many.
As I began by stating, the bad theology that God broke the Law was proclaimed for a very noble purpose: to illustrate the astounding reality that the God of the universe took action on our behalf to redeem us. This is part of the gospel message, and an important part. I am thankful that the earnest preacher is trying to communicate that message.
However, logic and sound theology don’t become unnecessary when we try to preach the gospel. It is important to preach Christ and to preach Christ rightly. Understanding the relationship between God and the Law is important, and particularly important because this third understanding requires stability in moral norms throughout history. It is, in fact, the basis for the claim to objective morality within Christianity.
Obviously, there is more to be discussed about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and Christianity. However, that is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that there are reasonable answers to that question. In the meanwhile, we should never say that God broke the Law because that is logically impossible and contrary to Scripture.