Love, Mercy and Law

By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.

Frequently, we hear from brethren who seem bent on freeing us from the shackles of “legalism” or “phariseeism,” as they perceive it. To these people, viewing the New Testament as a rigid standard for moral and religious conduct makes one a “legalist” – the chief of sinners, a Pharisee of Pharisees, without love and having no mercy in the world. So, these folks are trying to restructure brethren’s thinking on how to view and apply the New Testament so as avoid “legalism.”

Frankly, if one wants to charge me with “legalism” (“strict, literal adherence to law”(1)), then I will plead guilty as charged. I unashamedly take the “legal” (“authorized or permitted by law”(2)) approach to religion. Contrary to what some think, the New Testament is a system of law – with ordinances (or commandments) to obey or rules to be followed. No, I do not believe one can earn his salvation by law or any other means. Even if one were to do all things commanded, he still would not have a right to boast of having earned his salvation the Bible (Luke 10:17). Still, the Bible does teach strict and literal adherence to God’s law.

Freedom from the law (of Moses) enjoyed in Christ is not freedom from all law, contrary to what some would have us believe. The New Testament clearly teaches that Christians are not “without law toward God, but under law toward Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). While we are not justified by the law “of works,” we are justified by “the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27 with context). Christians are subject to the “law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25). They are expected to be doers of it. They will be judged by it (Jas. 2:12), to the point that if they offend in one point, they are guilty of all (Jas. 2:10). It was the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that freed us from “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

Since the early days of Christianity, there have been heretics, assuming for themselves a superiority in spirituality. They believe that they experience a degree of fellowship, knowledge, and love that lifts them above a system that burdens one with commandment or rules keeping. The gnostic influence upon some in the early church produced such heretics. 1 John was likely written to counter this heresy. It is evident, from reading 1 John, that these folks considered their superior (?) knowledge of God (Gnostic means “knowing one”) and love for him and his children as lifting them above a system that burdened people down with commandments and rules. John has to remind them of what is required of true fellowship, knowledge, and love. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But, if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:6-9). “Now by this we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says, ‘I know him,’ and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in him” (2:3-5). “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (5:2,3).

A more recent device for relieving the burden of strict commandment keeping is the “love and mercy” rule. While professing respect for divine law, some would set it aside by their method of applying law to life. We are told that since God’s law is really based on “love and mercy” (who among us would deny this), we can know that our application of law is wrong if it does not show proper love for God and mercy toward our fellow man – despite what the law may say. Sounds good, so far, doesn’t it? Who can be against love and mercy? So, as we are told, the Pharisees really had a great respect for the law and wanted to do what the law said about the Sabbath? The law said, “Do no work.” The Pharisees, being the conservatives that they were, really wanted to do God’s will. Why, then, were they wrong in condemning those who “worked” on the Sabbath in the New Testament? Of course! It was because they did not apply the “love and mercy” rule. Unlike the man killed in the Old Testament for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, those condemned by the Pharisees were acting out of love for God and mercy toward their fellow man rather than rebellion. You see, according to the “love and mercy” folks, they could work – if they did it out of a heart of love and mercy, even though the law said “do no work.”

By applying this rule, we can solve (?) other pressing problems. What if a couple has been married several times without having divorced for fornication? The Bible seems to say that they are committing adultery (Matt. 19:9) and that Christians must quit committing adultery (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Applying the law strictly would create an undue hardship. It would mean that this couple would have to separate and then live celibate. Their children would be without both a father and mother. Would not “love and mercy” demand that we have compassion upon them? Then our application of Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that says they must dissolve the adulterous relationship must be wrong. Why? Because it would be unloving and uncompassionate to break up that “home.” After all, the law rests upon love for God and mercy toward our fellow man. Still sounds good, doesn’t it? So, the conclusion to the whole matter is that love and mercy are the overriding considerations in applying God’s commandments – regardless of what the text of the commands may plainly say.

Now that we have our rule of application firmly established (?), let’s get on with applying other points.

God’s law plainly says, “You shall not murder” (Matt. 5:21). A dogmatically conservative legalist might read that and think that murder is wrong under any circumstances. However, the “love and mercy” rule puts it in a different light – if one kills out of love for God and mercy toward man. After all, is that not the underlying principle upon which divine law rests? So, euthanasia or “mercy killing” must be acceptable. If not, why not?

God’s law plainly says, “And the man that commits adultery with another man’s wife, he that commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). The New Testament also forbids adultery. A legalist would probably think that such fooling around with the neighbor’s wife is always wrong – because he takes the text for what it says. Being fallible in his application, and unwilling to invoke the “love and mercy” principle, he would likely be too harsh.

For example, a brother’s wife becomes permanently ill and must be put into a nursing home. His neighbor, about the same time loses his mind and must be institutionalized. The couples have been good friends for years. Both the good brother and his neighbor’s wife are still young with needs to be fulfilled. So, since their partners can no longer fulfill those needs, they turn to each other. Now, remember, they are only doing it out of love and compassion for the other. Do you think that would work?

God’s law says, “You shall not steal” (Rom. 13:9; cf. Eph. 4:25). Hurricane Hugo recently did much damage in South Carolina. Suppose a brother, envisioning himself as a modern “Robin Hood,” had looted the damaged stores and homes of the rich and given it to the poor and needy. Remember, he knows what the Bible says about stealing, but he has also heard about the “love and mercy” rule of application. Should he be held accountable for his stealing?

Brethren, seriously now, we should take a long look at the consequences of adopting a rule of application that allows us to set aside plain Bible statements in the name of love and mercy. The results are staggering. It is just situation ethics in a different garb.

Oh, yes, what about those who did certain things on the Sabbath day and were defended by Jesus, but criticized by the Pharisees? “Do no work” did not forbid all activity on the Sabbath. Even the Pharisee recognized this fact (Matt. 12:11-13). The things Jesus and his disciples did the were not the “work” prohibited on the Sabbath or they would have sinned. The “work” was what we call working for a living or occupational work. It is much like the word as used by Paul. He accused some of “working not at all,” yet they were busy-bodies (2 Thess. 3:11). They were not inactive, yet they were “working not at all.” He defended the right of preachers to “forbear working” (1 Cor. 9:6) even while they were very busy preaching the gospel. None of those defended by Jesus violated either the “spirit” or the “letter” of the law. Not once did Jesus say, “I know they may have worked on the Sabbath, but. . . ” They were guiltless because they did no work on the Sabbath, despite what the Pharisees said.


1. Webster’s New Reference Library and Encyclopedia.

2. Ibid.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 7, pp. 195-196
April 5, 1990