It happened again. A popular preacher said something in a sermon, it made its way to social media, and lots of people got upset. This happens quite often, doesn’t it? I rarely pay attention to these things and comment on them infrequently. However, I am making an exception for the latest one because I suspect quite a few people who saw it on their Facebook timeline are saying, “Hang on! What’s so wrong with what he said?” It’s one of those things that is just close enough to the truth to be confusing. So let’s turn it into an opportunity and consider how and why what he said is problematic.
Let me give some context: Last summer Steven Furtick preached a sermon at Elevation Church that was based on 1 John 4:7-12 and titled “It Works Both Ways.” Though the sermon was 40 minutes long and preached all the way back in July, he recently shared a 2-minute excerpt on Facebook. It is that excerpt that has been passed around and widely discussed. In it he makes this claim: “God broke the law for love.” God gave us a law, then, as a great display of his love, broke that law.
Furtick illustrates by using the example of a child who has suffered a terrible injury after falling from the monkey bars. As a parent, you scoop up your child, run to the car, and race for the hospital. All the way to the hospital you pass by signs declaring a speed limit, but out of love and concern for your child you ignore them, breaking the law for the sake of love. The implication is that you are justly breaking the law for the sake of love. Furtick then turns the illustration from an earthly parent to a heavenly Father:
What will really turn your heart to God is not when you hear his laws—which were given for our good, by the way, but they were powerless because there wasn’t enough leverage in our actions to keep the law. So what God did when he sent his Son—and this is why we get excited in church, and this is why tears fill our eyes when we think about Jesus, and this is why the gospel is still good news in the world today—cause God broke the law for love. I said to every sinner, God broke the law for love. I mean that he scooped you up in his arms, I mean that he’s carrying you in his grace, I mean that what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature God did by sending his Son in the likeness of a sinful man.
Did God break the law for love? It might seem like he did or like he had to. After all, he has made sinners right before a holy God. Ah yes, but not by breaking the law. The mystery of the cross is how God could satisfy the demands of the law while offering mercy to those condemned by that very law. The miracle of the cross is that God actually does this—he justifies sinners while keeping every demand of the law.
When Furtick says that God breaks the law, he seems to indicate that the way God releases people from the law’s demands is by breaking it and he uses the parent-child illustration to prove this. But while the illustration is effective on an emotional level, on a scriptural level it muddies rather than clarifies. Where the child has had an innocent accident, we have willfully committed cosmic treason against our divine king; where the child is physically injured, we are spiritually dead. Of even greater importance, God’s law is not a speed limit, a list of rules drawn up to govern human behavior. Rather, the law is God’s revelation or manifestation of his own character. For God to break the law he would have to act opposite not only to a rule but to his own character. He would have to insist that he is one way but that he acts in another way. God cannot break the law without entering into an impossible and absurd self-contradiction. The illustration actually contradicts the truth.
There is another problem here. Furtick means to show that God demonstrates the magnitude of his love by his willingness to break his own good law, as if God says “I love you so much that I will break my own law to save you.” But God can and does give a much greater demonstration of his love—he keeps the law! At the cross God demonstrates his love to us “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God displays the magnitude of his love not by breaking the law but by satisfying the law. He satisfies it in the most painful way possible, by loading upon his very own Son the complete weight of our sin and then pouring out his wrath on him. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This is what he does for our sake. Why? Because this is what his law demands. His law, his righteous and holy character, demands that justice be satisfied. “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3–4). The greatest possible expression of God’s love is not breaking the law but keeping it. The cross is definitive proof that God is not a law-breaker but a law-keeper.
Here is one final problem: If God breaks the law, the law is still in effect because there has been no justice, and that is the worst possible news. If the law is still in effect, I am condemned by it and God is downright evil for promising a false hope. If I have committed murder and a judge tells me I can go free anyway, I remain guilty. His decision to break or circumvent the law has no bearing on my guilt or innocence. The same must be true of God. In Romans 3:30–31 Paul explains that God does not break the law (even for love) and does so with the language of “uphold” and “overthrow:” God “will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” So, when God justifies the wicked, he does not overthrow the law or find a way around it. To the contrary, through the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Christ, God upholds the law. Every sin is paid. Justice is served. The law is upheld. The Judge is satisfied. Those who were guilty are rightly, truly, fairly, eternally declared innocent when they put their faith in Christ.
Could God break the law? No, he could not and would not contradict himself. Does God need to break the law in order to save us? No, thank God, he does not need to show mercy only at the expense of justice. Does God break the law? No, he does something far, far better. He upholds it while Christ fulfills it. In all of earth and heaven there is no greater demonstration of love than God keeping his law.
I am considering this article complete, but am adding a short appendix to it.
The Whole Christ
Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ is relevant and helpful to these matters of love, law, and gospel. He makes the important point that antinomianism (opposing and rejecting God’s law as Furtick does here) is—oddly, paradoxically, yet truly—an expression of legalism (earning your righteousness through God’s law apart from Christ). He says they are “nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.” He explains that “Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both.” Furtick wants to show that love or gospel is much greater than law, but he goes wrong when he pits them against one another.
What’s wrong with these approaches of legalism and antinomianism? They both “[separate] the law of God from the person of God.” Each is “a distorted view of God as the giver of his law.” “Love is what law commands, and the commands are what love fulfills. … Love requires direction and principles of operation. Love is motivation, but it is not self-interpreting direction.” We need to be careful that we never put God’s love in opposition to God’s law. The law is “holy and righteous and good” and “spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). Sin is the problem (Romans 7:13), not the law. Perhaps you can consider this another good reason to add The Whole Christ to your reading list.