As anyone who knows me well can testify, I love Law and Order! I particularly like Special Victims Unit, but the original with Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy does the trick, too. There’s just something about solving the puzzle and catching the bad guy that gets me hooked – no matter how predictable a formula it may be. I love these shows so much that when I was studying abroad and couldn’t watch them, I had my younger brother, who is also a fan, put the phone up to the television in the States so I could hear the opening theme!
In Law and Order, the lawyers and cops don’t always see eye-to-eye, even though they are supposed to work together in order to achieve justice. Sometimes, the individual characters are personally affected by the crime, the victim or even by the criminal. These interactions and encounters color their decisions and actions, even if they know that they’re not following standard protocol.
In one episode of Special Victims Unit, for example, Casey, the D.A., doesn’t want to take a mentally ill man to trial because her ex-fiancée was seriously mental ill. Olivia, the detective, wants the man to be punished for what he has done, especially because he had injured her partner, Elliott. In both cases, Casey and Olivia act based on their personal feelings about the situation, causing tension and strife between them. Since it’s a television show, this quarrel was put to rest by the end of the episode and a reasonable solution was found. Both Casey and Olivia wanted a solution to the problem, but they approached it from different experiences and angles, coming to conflicting conclusions.
The concepts of Law and Gospel, like Law and Order, can also seem at odds with one another. They are both, however, working toward the same goal: to bring people to life with God, to instate peace, usher in justice and the kingdom of God on earth. The law was given to Moses and Israel as a covenant between God and His people to serve as a road map on how to live so that one might live a life pleasing to God. Did this use of the law work for God’s people? As Paul so eloquently writes:
9What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13″Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16in their paths are ruin and misery,
17and the way of peace they have not known.”
18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:9-20)
Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “no.” No one could live up to the law – all turned away and fell short of achieving the law. Not even Paul, the author of this letter to the Romans, could uphold the law, though it wasn’t for wont of trying. As he stated in his letter to the church in Philippi:
4If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Paul had done everything the law prescribed, including persecuting the early followers of Christ in pursuit of righteousness. Still, he could not attain righteousness or perfection through upholding the law. If no one can live up to the law, how on earth can we attain all that the law tries to lead us to – life with God, peace, justice, salvation? The answer to the riddle, Paul explains, is Christ.
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:21-31)
This is the gospel. In Christ crucified and resurrected we find the hope, peace and redemption we could not and cannot acquire through our own works or the law. It is God’s love, mercy and grace, shown on earth in the person of Jesus Christ that brings us once again into life with God. As John writes in his gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). Jesus brings salvation, not condemnation, to the world.
What then of the law? Do we throw it out the window? No. The law continues to guide and shape our lives, pointing out those areas where we have fallen short, not in order to bring us to despair, but rather to bring us to Christ that we may begin anew each day. God is at work through both the law and the gospel, that good news that Christ’s death and resurrection have brought forgiveness and healing to a world broken by sin and death. Whereas the law outlines how we should live our lives, the gospel proclaims the love of God to and for each and every one of us. The law seeks to destroy the sin in each of us, while the gospel sets us free from bondage to sin and leads us to become new creations in Christ.
When we hear the gospel proclaimed and hold firm to its promise, we walk in the light of Christ. Walking in this light, we seek to follow and uphold God’s law – as Scripture explains it, we seek the face of God. We long to follow Christ, our Savior, and in this longing, we seek to hold to the law as He did. Thus, law and gospel work together to bring us into life with God.
The acclaimed show Law and Order begins with the following narration: “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”
In law and gospel, God, in effect, narrates the following to us: “In the world I have created, I speak to people in two separate yet equally important ways: through the law, which convicts people of their sins and guides them to my son, and through the gospel, which proclaims the good news of my love and mercy in the person of Jesus Christ. This is my story.” In spite of my love of the television show, I believe without a doubt, that the narration God offers, the truth that it contains, and the divine mystery of God’s love for us are far better than fiction.
© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.