What We Believe
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Delighting in the Law of the LORD: God’s Alternative to Legalism and Moralism, by Jerram Barrs. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013, 247 pages, $25.00.

Sanctification is one of the most challenging doctrines for Christians to grasp in a biblically robust and balanced way. It is even more challenging to pursue sanctification without wandering from time-to-time into legalism, moralism, or both. So when an experienced pastor and professor at Covenant Theological Seminary pens a book on delighting in God’s law this should be a cause for celebration.

Delighting in the Law of the LORD is organized into twenty-four chapters written in a conversational style that is easily accessible to those without formal theological training. The opening three chapters focus on our need for God’s law, while the final five chapters interact with questions of practical application that arise from trying to live in light of God’s law in a secular society. Christ’s relationship to and use of the law constitute the main body of the book. Each chapter concludes with a set of “questions for personal reflection and group discussion.” One of the drawbacks to crafting a book fit for group study is that the repetition, which serves as the mother of learning when chapters are read a week apart, becomes the grandmother of tedium when the book is read over one weekend. Those reading this book on their own would have been better served if it had been edited into a much shorter work.

However, the chief shortcoming of this book is neither its length nor repetitiveness but its own failure to demonstrate delight in God’s law. Instead of closely reading the biblical text, comparing Scripture with Scripture, Barrs points the reader toward generalities along the lines of “be more generous” and “be kinder” and risks falling into the very moralism that he wants to help the reader avoid. For example, commenting on the gleaning laws, Barrs writes:

Harvesting by hand leaves a lot of grain behind, and so from a purely economic viewpoint the command not to go through the fields a second time was very costly. However, rather than thinking of their own economic advantage, the farmers were required to leave the excess for the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the alien in the land....

We should notice that there are no statements in these laws about whether the poor are the “deserving poor” (as some speak about such matters of charity). Whether a person was poor because of tragedy or because of sin and laziness is not an issue for consideration in these commandments. A lazy or otherwise sinful man has a needy wife and children quite apart from his own needs. (105)

There are portions of God’s Word, such as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” which teach that we ought to help any and every person under some circumstances without regard to how they fell into such hardships. Yet it seems odd to suggest that the gleaning laws required giving aid to the lazy man without regard for his laziness, when such laws offered him the backbreaking work of harvesting by hand in a field that had already been picked over, rather than simply a handout of food. Shouldn’t we notice that the gleaning laws maintain both the dignity and necessity of work and fit hand-in-glove with the Apostle Paul’s admonition, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”? (2 Thess. 3:10). In a similar vein, readers of this book might imagine that the law of the LORD forbids providing or withholding diaconal assistance to widows based upon their good works, hospitality, and service to the saints, but this is the very thing that the LORD commands through the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5:9–10. Actually delighting in the law of the LORD means paying attention to its details and holding everything the Bible says on a subject together rather than using it simply to illustrate our own preferences.

This book also truncates the law of the LORD by talking almost exclusively in favor of those aspects of the law that a liberally educated Westerner would be happy to have his or her neighbor practice. For example, it condemns without qualification a woman for insisting on modest swimsuits at a church youth group pool party because unbelievers invited to such a party “would think we are crazy to have rules like that” (196). The book consistently encourages Christians to act in a manner that is attractive to unbelievers. Without any qualification Barrs writes:

Unhappily, sometimes we are taught not only that we are to separate ourselves from sinners, but also that we are openly to condemn their behavior and to challenge them with the requirements of God’s law. (274)

Granted that there is a wrong type of separation from sinners (1 Cor. 5:10) and that Christians sometimes unwisely condemn sinful behaviors rather than ministering God’s grace and truth in other ways, but Barrs fails to mention that it is God who calls his people to separate from sinners (2 Cor. 6:17; Rev. 18:4) and that there are ample examples in Scripture of righteously condemning sinful behavior. It may prove salutary to remind ourselves that Jesus likened his disciples to salt and light rather than to sugar, and spice, and everything nice. Even the book’s treatment of the application of the law to unbelievers is strikingly man-centered and therapeutic. Barrs writes: “In seeing the loveliness of what God intends for human life, people become aware of how deep the damage is that they have done to themselves by ignoring God’s commandments in favor of what will give them pleasure” (277). The emphasis falls entirely on the harm sin causes the sinner rather than the offense it is before a holy God. This is a far cry from Paul’s treatment of the law in Romans 7 which culminates in the cry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25).

Those seeking to grow in their understanding and delight in the law of the LORD will make far more progress by meditating on the Sermon on the Mount and the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments than by reading this book. Not recommended.

David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, October 2014.

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Ordained Servant: October 2014

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Also in this issue

John Knox and the Reformation of Worship[1]

The Sursum Corda is Catholic, Part 1

How to Pray at Prayer Meetings: Some Practical Suggestions

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part Four)

Holy Sonnet XV

Do Presbyterians Lack Joy?

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