When my firstborn son was only eight months old, we often had deep theological conversations. Here’s how one of them went:
Me: “Calvin, look at daddy.”
Calvin: [no response]
Me: “Calvin, Calvin, hey Calvin, look at me.”
Calvin: [turns his head even further to the right, away from me]
Me: [Aha!] “Calvin, don’t look at me, don’t do it.”
Calvin: [immediately turns to me like a gun slinger ready to draw! Wincing and all!]
So what happened here? Why did my words not only fall on deaf ears but actually incite in my son the desire to do exactly the opposite of what I asked him to do? It’s simple really: the law, though good in itself, evokes its opposite in us.
When I rephrased the request and asked him to do the very thing I didn’t want him to do, what did he do? He did the opposite (which was what I wanted him to do in the first place). The same thing happens now with our second son. Each time we ask him to do something, he does the opposite.
Christian theology has an explanation for this in the doctrine of “original sin.” Here is a catchy way to remember what that means: In Adam’s fall, sinned we all. Since Adam’s disobedience to God in the garden of Eden, men, women, and children have had this problem with obeying the law perfectly. We can’t. No matter how hard we try, we fail and fall.
Now I’m not saying the law is bad. It’s not! It’s actually good! But we—as fallen image bearers—are really, really bad. We are so bad that when we hear a command, our first response is to do the opposite. That’s our default. We hear, “do this,” and we don’t want to do it. We hear, “don’t do that!” and we either do it or we really, really want to do it.
Spouse: “Honey, take out the trash.”
It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were given the ability to either obey what God said or disobey him and obey Satan. It was possible for them to obey God, but they didn’t. Ever since we have been unable to live by the law without breaking it.
The good news is that while we cannot obey the law perfectly, God sent a second Adam (Jesus) into the world to obey the law perfectly and pay the debt we owe for breaking the law initially. For all who look to Jesus and rest in this second Adam’s finished work, the forgiveness of all sins and everlasting righteousness is credited to them. All of his perfect law-keeping counts as our law-keeping before the judgment seat of God. That’s great news for sinners!
In summary: The law is good but we are bad, and so God sent Jesus to silence all threats of the law for all who look to him in faith.
My son, by doing the very opposite of what I ask him to do, demonstrates the universal reality of our relationship to the law of God. And though we—like my son—turn our heads away from God’s good commands and do the opposite, God has turned toward us in love. As Romans 5:8 says,
“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He gave us his Son who has met, for us, the condition “If you do all of this, then you will live.” Jesus turned that conditional clause into something entirely unconditional by his completed work: “It is finished!” Now, we are recreated and reenabled to begin doing the very things we could never do before. God is making all things—even us—new.
The law is good but we are bad, and so God sent Jesus to silence the law as a threat for us.