The Law in the Pandemic

In the church we are used to speaking about the ramifications of the law and its impact in our lives. We speak about how God uses the law to show us our sin, to punish our sinfulness and to be a guide as we make decisions and chart a course forward. The law, in this way is all around us, our lives are saturated in it. Sometimes it hits us more deliberately than others, but it is always there.

Preachers of the Word have long known that one of the realities of the law is we do not have much control over it. I can intend it to be used in one way but that does not mean when it enters the ears of the hearer it will be understood in the way I intended. I may want to guide or gently instruct with the law, but it just might condemn and even drive to despair the one who hears it. I have heard it said the law is like walking with a wolf on a leash. It can be a powerful force to shock and terrify evildoers all around. Then again, it might just turn around and attack the one who holds the leash.

Yet, in these days of regular updates to county health orders and the systematic appearances of encroachments by new laws on liberties previously taken for granted, I have noticed something about the law I never much considered. That is, the law is brutally unresponsive to individual responsibility and it cannot seem to allow for any kind of discussion about the equality of the law itself.

For example, in California we have a standing health order prohibiting the in person gathering for worship on Sunday morning. You can gather some people to set up and record prerecorded services or live stream options but no normal church gathering is permitted. Church here, as I have said before, is not considered an essential service and, therefore, cannot operate in its usual way. The members of my congregation can go to the grocery store right down the street and adhere to the social distancing standards and go about their usual activity, but even if the church building is twice the size of the local Trader Joe’s with half as many people in it, we cannot follow the same standards and meet together.

The law does not care. The law makes its decrees and that is the end of the discussion. There is no inviting the officials to inspect the worship space and see for themselves the difference. There is no reasonable discussion about how we might safely gather; non-essential, end of story.

I think this is a good reminder for the Church. The law is not good at making concessions. It does not much care about whether you perceive it as just or unjust, it just is. You can rant, rave and complain but it remains unmoved.

Now, when it comes to God’s use of His Law it is helpful to remember this as we seek to apply it as individuals. As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession puts it:

“The Law worketh wrath. He does not say that by the Law men merit the remission of sins. For the Law always accuses and terrifies consciences. Therefore, it does not justify, because conscience terrified by the Law of God flees from the judgement of God. Therefore, they err who trust that by the Law, by their own works, they merit the remission of sins.”- IX.38.

Responsive comfort to despair and terror will not be found in a law that can only accuse but in a categorically different word. Hope and healing will always come apart from the Law. Though the Law continues to increase our longing for such a word, it will forever remain unable to deliver it.