“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
God created man in his own image morally. There are, no doubt, other elements in man’s likeness to God, but a morally right character is primary. It is the basis of shared love and fellowship; it is indispensable to demonstrating in human life the glory (glorious character) of God. Mankind has ever neglected this aspect of God’s image and worked to attain likeness to God in his attributes of knowledge and power. This was Satan’s temptation to Eve: “You will be like God.” How? She was already like God in his moral nature. She rejected this likeness in order to reach for God’s infinities and from the outset lost both. All her descendants, save one, have followed in her steps. But God’s purpose remained the same: He wanted people to be like himself.
This is the purpose of the sovereign Lord, commanded through Moses at the beginning of the Old Covenant and through Jesus Christ at the beginning of the New Covenant: “You must be holy as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16), “you must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). It is not optional. Since it is a divine imperative, we properly call this will of God law.
It is wrong not to be like God morally. This wrong is not just a weakness or an unfortunate deviation from the norm. The Bible calls it sin. To be holy is to be separated from sin; to be right is to be in alignment with God’s character. This is the holiness required of men. It is an obligation, not mere instruction or advice. Without it “no one will see God” (Hebrews 12:14).
This most important use of the word law is often called the “moral law,” God’s expressed will concerning what constitutes likeness to God. Does the New Testament use the term in this way? When Paul speaks of the work of the law being written in the hearts of those who do not have the written law (Rom. 2:14-15), he is speaking of God’s moral law. This, then, is a common use of the concept of law in the New Testament as well as the Old: God’s expressed will that we be like him, commonly called the “moral law.”
For anyone who wants to know and do God’s will, it is of utmost importance to discover what that will is. Since both Jesus Christ and the apostles taught that some change had taken place in the relationship of God’s people to “the law,” we must be careful to discover exactly what that law is and what that change is.
All would agree that a change was long overdue from the damning idea that a person can gain acceptance with God through his own efforts. At least some elements of the Mosaic system of law were done away with in Christ’s sacrificial death and the institution of the church. But here agreement ends. Some hold that Paul makes no distinctions among laws and that the Christian is not obligated to any of the Mosaic law, including the moral law.
Because law is used in many different ways and often with several meanings overlapping, it is important to be sure from the context which meaning was intended by the author. Otherwise we shall be applying a teaching concerning the law that does not actually apply. For example, if we speak of being free from the law and use this to refer to the moral law of God when in fact Scripture is referring to the condemnation resulting from the law (Rom. 8:1-2) or the Old Testament system of sacrifices, we are making a great error. For the time being, we will use the term law in its primary meaning: law as the expressed will of God that people be like him morally.
This ultimate standard for the Christian is not merely a code of ethics or system of doctrine or a subjective feel for what is right. The standard for the Christian is God himself. This is exciting. It means that the foundation of our moral standard is not man, his wisdom, his fallen nature, his desires, his values, his traditions, nor his culture. These may be the foundation of man-made law, but not of the Christian standard of life. Since God himself is our standard, our standard is not relative, changing with each age or society. God’s law is absolute, perfect, unchanging, and eternal. Since God himself is our standard, the standard is universal. The moral character of God as a standard applies to all men of all ages. This standard is personal, living, and visible rather than a dead code. It is not something that God imposes on us arbitrarily. It derives from his own nature.
This truth also means that God’s character is not derived from the moral structure of the universe. Some would hold that God behaves rightly and lovingly because he is obliged to do so by ultimate “natural” law. Rather, we say that righteousness and love are good because that is the way God is. We do not, as some theologians, derive our standards from nature, setting up great cosmic moral hoops through which God must jump. Rather, we see these standards flowing out of the nature of our infinite, ultimate, personal God.
Thus, God’s will for man is that we be like him. We were created in his moral likeness, reflecting the glory of his character. His purpose in redemption is to restore that image, which has been marred. As you finish this year, which direction will you choose? Where will you go from here spiritually? How will you become transformed from one degree of likeness to another into His image?