Lex Rex

By Zahl, Paul F. M. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Lex Rex


Zahl, Paul F. M., Anglican Theological Review


The relation of law and grace, or better, the relation of law, sin, and grace, is a core theme in Christian theology. In 1910 Henry Wace, the dean of Canterbury, wrote these words:

In the hearts of the great majority of men and women there is one aching pain and one yearning need-the pain of a sense of sin, of things undone which shall have been done, and of things done which should not have been done, and a craving for the forgiveness of those sins, and for deliverance and purification from them. The reason why the Apostles directed all their exhortations, no matter whom they addressed, to this proclamation of repentance and remission of sins, was because this is the one universal craving of humanity.1

The relation of law, sin, and grace constitutes, at least for me, the central subject or message of theology. This brief paper seeks to spell out the relation of the three. It then relates this relation to the Sermon on the Mount. I present an old view here, that the Sermon on the Mount represents the "theological use" or usus elenchthicus of the law. It is neither an "interim ethic" nor an owners manual to the Christian life. Rather, the Sermon on the Mount expresses God's unconditional, hammering demand on the human race to be "perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). This demand, to be perfect, shatters all human attempts at moral improvement. It creates conscious brokenness, or repentance in traditional language. One, single, deconstructing accountability exists in the text. No compartmentalizations allowed!

I will then seek to apply the single accountability of the Sermon on the Mount to civil disobedience and litigation in the North Ameri-can context, to "same-sex unions," and to globalization (Americanization) in the light of September 11th. A final word will affirm the overriding, overruling character of God's grace in relation to his lex rex.

Law, Sin, and Grace

St. Paul's teaching on law, sin, and grace is focused sharply in Romans, chapter 7, verses 8, 9, and 11. Here Paul unmasks the universal human experience of compulsion:

Sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all lands of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead.

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.

For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me.

The idea here is that sin, which is human nature in its intrinsically flawed DNA, "comes alive" in experience the moment it hears God's No! to it. Sin and the law exist in a gruesome-twosome relation of intense, hair-trigger volatility. Law fuels sin. Thus Paul observes in the fifth chapter: "Law came in, to increase the trespass" (v. 20). We observe this phenomenon, incidentally, in life, whenever someone tells us not to do something. From that instant, we instinctually desire to do it, and urgently.

The human being, then, slammed between legal negation and reactive sin, exists in an impossible situation.

But Paul is also drawn to say, from the gospel, that "there is now no condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus" (8:1). The grace of the One forgives the sin of the person, inflamed geometrically by the law. The oscillation of human sin and divine law that characterizes every second of human existence is over at the cross. Or, as stated in the focal third chapter of Romans, "Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (vv. 21, 22).

The result of God's grace expressed through the cross, ending the force of the steel vice constituted by sin and law, is: the Christian life, the life of spontaneous loving, identified by Soren Kierkegaard with the works of love. Thus Paul writes in chapter 6: "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart [author's emphasis] to the standard of teaching to which you were committed" (v. …

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