In my Sunday afternoon group (homegroup) we’ve been going over various Christian ethics questions and trying to discern the Biblical worldview. I noticed a few times through the course of the lessons a dangerous and unquestioned assumption: if it’s legal, it must be good, or at the very least, not bad.
For Christians, this is one of the most pernicious and harmful assumptions we can make in our time, so I’d like to flesh out this basic distinction a bit. We’ll start with defining the two terms, legality and morality, and then we’ll compare and contrast them. Finally, we’ll talk about why it matters.
Legality is what is considered legal, as in, not against the law. What things does a human government tell it’s citizens is permissible in their country and culture? What things has a specific society deemed appropriate and inappropriate? Note that this is a human endeavor. These are rules and strictures that some group of humans at the top have enforced on humans beneath them.
In our country, what is “legal” is supposed to be determined by a complex system of proposing a bill in congress, that is then voted on by representatives of the people in various contexts, and then signed into law and enforced by the president and executive branch. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand or agree with this definition anymore. We won’t get into the fact that both the executive and judicial branches of government have been progressively shirking their actual duties in favor of writing laws. That’s a topic for another time.
What I’m saying is that our government has a process of determining what is deemed appropriate by society. Every country has a system of some kind, whether it’s one guy who makes decrees as they pop into his head while he’s on the toilet, or it’s a group of 535 people who come closer to representing what’s in the toilet, some system is in place.
It is not, in our society, determined by God. It was in ancient Israel under the Mosaic Law. That was a time in human history when legality much more closely reflected morality, as the author of both was the same being. In our time, legality is a human invention and it determines appropriateness in society.
Morality, on the other hand, is not a human invention. It does not determine appropriateness in a society. Instead, it reflects rightness for humanity. Morality is a thing that says whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, what you should do and what you shouldn’t do, and it comes from God’s very nature, not from man. Many greater men than I have demonstrated this fact much better than I am able, so to see the argument behind this fact I suggest you look there. (In particular books such as Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and What We Can’t Not Know by J. Budziszewski are excellent starting places.)
Morality is set in stone, so to speak. It’s written on the hardened and calloused stone of the human heart. It can be seen, in writing, in the Bible. It can be felt every time you shout at a driver on the road for doing exactly what you did five minutes ago. The “Moral Law” is inescapable. It tells us what should be done, particularly when we know we haven’t done it.
Morality does not, and will not change, because it’s nature is sourced in an unchanging God. What’s right is what he says is right, what’s wrong is what he says is wrong. He won’t change his mind.
Compare and Contrast
Note that these two things have two different sources, God and man. One is higher than the other (God is higher than man). Note that these two things have two different purposes, morality says how things are (i.e. what things actually are good and what things actually are bad) whereas legality says how we see things (i.e. what things we perceive as good and what things we perceive as bad). Until now, I used the term “appropriate” when discussing legality, so as to avoid confusion, but here is the great similarity: legality should be trying to imitate morality. (Note the moral word “should” in that statement. You can’t escape morality, but you can escape legality.) Legality should be trying to say the same thing as morality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always. The question then is “Why not?”
The answer, as is so often the case, can be found in the Bible in Genesis chapter three. Why don’t morality and legality match perfectly? Because mankind is involved with legality, and mankind is inherently sinful (literally, it’s inherited). “Sin” in it’s simplest definition means “missing the mark.” Man inherently misses the mark; Man naturally doesn’t get a bullseye. So when man tries to imitate God’s law with his own laws, he will usually fail. He will usually come up with laws that don’t quite line up with God’s law.
Why It Matters
Christians aren’t only inherently sinful, we are also graciously regenerated. We are freely forgiven. We have two natures at war within us, the sinful and the righteous, the latter imputed by God Himself. All humans have a responsibility to strive to live morally. All humans will fail. However Christians have an added responsibility of not only striving to live morally, but striving to conform their legalities to God’s moralities. Christians have inside information and are thus responsible for getting the word out. Christians have seen the rule book and are thus responsible for keeping order on the playing field. Christians have experienced grace of a sort that non-Christians have not, and so must take on the unhappy task of being misunderstood by those who have not experienced that grace. Christians are responsible for both morality AND legality in this life, and we will be freed from those responsibilities in the next by the bestowment of a new and sinless nature. Non Christians will only be responsible for morality in the next life, and they will have only their sinful nature to bank on. That nature will miss the mark then also. They need grace.
Grace is the key factor in morality. As Shakespeare put it in my favorite play of his, “earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.” He got it from James who said, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” God’s morality includes a thing called grace, because His nature includes a thing called grace. Praise him for it, because if you do, that likely means His grace has been bestowed upon you.
All that to say this to Christians: Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s good. Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s bad. The two may line up but then again they might not.
It is definitely good to praise the triune God in any and all places at any and all times, but it is not legal to do so. It is definitely bad to murder unborn children in the womb of their mothers, but it is legal to do so.
It is definitely good to stop homosexuals from heaping condemnation on themselves by claiming to join a God-ordained institution, hopefully to spare them from greater penalty for their sin, but it is not legal to do so. It is definitely bad to become drunk with any substance so that you loose self-control, but it is legal to do so.
Legality is not morality. Where man-made laws do not line up with God’s laws, God’s laws win, and the personal cost to you for following God may be great.
This is most easily summed up in a quote from Peter when threatened by the Sanhedrin not to preach the name of Jesus in Acts 5, “We must obey God rather than men.” The Jews wanted to kill them for such a statement.
But this is the Christian way.