God’s Law: and Human Tradition

What is the alternative to God’s law?  When people reject God’s standard for behavior, what do they put in its place?  Since human beings first fell into sin, it has been our tendency to want to replace God’s law with our own opinions: whether they stem from cultural tradition, majority opinion, or subjective feelings.  But God alone as our Creator and Judge has the right to make the rules which govern our behavior, and He will hold us accountable to His standard and none other.  It is arrogant, sinful, and foolish to disregard God’s law in favor of our own opinions of morality (Proverbs 12:15).

The Pharisees and scribes at the time of Christ’s earthly ministry were characterized by this sin.  They had substituted their own standards—their traditions—for the law of God.  They criticized Jesus by saying, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” (Matthew 15:2).  Jesus rebuked them: “And He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (Matthew 15:3).  Notice that Jesus is not criticizing the Pharisees and scribes for having traditions.  Rather, He rebukes them for following traditions that are contrary to the law of God, and teaching those traditions as law.

Jesus then gives a specific example of how the Pharisees and scribes were teaching human commandments in place of (and contrary to) the law of God.  In Matthew 15:4–9, Jesus states:

For God commanded, saying, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.”  But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God’—then he need not honor his father or mother.” Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

The Pharisees and scribes were teaching that it is acceptable to take the money that should have been used to help their elderly parents, and give it instead to the temple, as “a gift to God.”  In doing so, they were violating the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother…” (Exodus 20:12).  Jesus quotes the fifth commandment and shows how the Pharisees and scribes were transgressing that commandment and replacing it with their sinful tradition.  They were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

Notice the basic form of Christ’s rebuke: “God said [one thing].  But you say [something else].  Hypocrites!”  In violation of Deuteronomy 4:2, the scribes and Pharisees were trying to subtract from and add to the law of God.  In doing so, they had “emptied” the law of God; they had made it “of no effect.”  Their worship of God was insincere: honoring God with their lips, but their heart was far from Him.  So it is with all those who make no attempt to honor the law of God (Luke 6:46, Luke 7:21-23).

The Pharisees and scribes were using their own arbitrary tradition as if it were the standard for correct behavior.  In doing so, they were in violation of God’s law which is the true standard for correct behavior by which God will judge us.  And Jesus rebuked them for it.  The Pharisees and scribes were like the Israelites in the time of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).  They had replaced the law of God with their own arbitrary opinions of morality.  Is our society today all that different?

13 Responses to God’s Law: and Human Tradition

  1. Great stuff Dr. Lisle, I always enjoy reading your work. I personally own the Ultimate apologetics DVD series and book and I use it quite regularly on the streets of down town Olympia, WA when witnessing. It has been a great tool and resource. Thank you.

  2. trey weir says:

    thanks for the article…..nice read….keep it up, you are a blessing !

  3. Linda says:

    This reminds me of Christmas. I don’t keep Christmas because of it’s pagan origins and often have to explain this, primarily because I am a teacher and don’t participate in the so called “holidays”. “Jesus is the reason for the season,” they say. I know it’s not in the bible but I’m doing it to celebrate “Jesus’ birth.” Despite the fact the God they claim to worship said, “take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods?” I also will do likewise.” “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abomination to the Lord which he hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” Deut. 12

  4. Mcloud says:

    Thanx Dr. Your article has helped me understand today’s SDA sabbath school lesson. I will teach with confidence tommorow. Thanx once again!

  5. Josef says:

    Hi Dr Lisle,

    I was hoping to get your insight on something. As a believer in eternal punishment, I’ve often accepted the concept that a sin against an infinite God would require infinite punishment. However, I have heard a prominent annihilationist make the claim that this line of reasoning is unbiblical. His reasoning was that the retaliation system in the Bible was the same regardless of who the person was. E.g. if an middle-class citizen were to strike the eye of a peasant, the most the peasant would be permitted to do is strike his offender’s eye with the same amount of force. Likewise, if this were against a high-ranking official, at most the high-ranking official would only be permitted to strike back with equal force as his offender. In other words, the position of authority doesn’t make a difference. The annihilationist argued that the concept of, “the greater the authority, the greater the consequence” is a modern concept.

    However, could it be that this is so because ultimately all “authorities” are human, meaning we’re all equal in nature?

    Of course, I believe the real reason for eternal punishment is because we can never work our way out of sin. Since salvation means that we’re saved from God’s judgment, and salvation can’t be earned, then suffering in Hell for a finite period of time would imply that the person has just suffered long enough to no longer deserve God’s judgment, i.e. he has earned his salvation. And of course, this wouldn’t make sense, as if this were true, then we wouldn’t need Jesus, we’d just need suffer God’s judgment for a finite amount of time.

    So my view of eternal punishment doesn’t change regardless of whether or not the “infinite authority” argument is a good. But I’d still like to know whether or not you think the annihilationist has a good point.

    • Dr. Lisle says:

      I think you’re basically right. It’s not “authority,” but the intrinsic value of the offended that is relevant. And all humans have the same intrinsic value before God, regardless of our societal position. In contrast, a sin against an animal (e.g. Deuteronomy 22:6) did not invoke much of a penalty.

      • Josef says:

        Hi Dr Lisle,

        I’d like to get your insight once again regarding Hell. This is from Isaiah 45:17 (ESV): “But Israel is saved by the LORD with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.”

        Do you believe that this verse could be used to support eternal punishment?

        It sounds like it to me. But I am a little hesitant because I’ve never seen anyone use this verse for that purpose. Dan 12:2 is the most obvious OT reference to eternal punishment; but to me, Isaiah 45:17 sure sounds like eternal punishment would be the alternative to eternal salvation.

        Every commentary I have read on this verse also doesn’t seem to talk about eternal punishment, but instead focus on the eternal salvation part.

        • Dr. Lisle says:

          Isaiah 45:17 is certainly consistent with the doctrine of eternal punishment and I do think that a natural reading of the verse implies just that. I wouldn’t use it in isolation as conclusive proof. But it goes along with many other verses that teach the same – Matthew 25:46, Jude 1:7.

  6. Zach says:

    Hey Dr. Lisle, does the Bible support polygamy, i am not planning on getting married any time soon, i just want to clear this up.
    This is a major site that says the Bible condones polygamy:
    I’m sorry for using this hyper-link, however i can’t talk about all the points made in this passage.

    • Dr. Lisle says:

      I just don’t have the time to do a point-by-point to outside articles. But the Bible does affirm that marriage is defined as one man and one woman united by God for life (Genesis 2:21-25). Jesus affirms this in Matthew 19:5. Notice that both the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm that marriage is two people – one man and one woman – united by God. It’s not three or more. Is there a law against polygamy? In fact, there is. Leviticus 18:18 affirms that a man may not marry a woman in addition to her sister while one is still living. This seems to be a case law where “sister” is used in a generic sense (e.g. another woman – we are all related), just as “brother” need not mean an immediate brother (e.g. Genesis 13:8, 1 Corinthians 15:31).

      People sometimes get confused because there is no civil/public penalty for polygamy. But God has only authorized the government to punish certain sins – not all. There is no civil penalty against coveting either, but it is still a sin (Exodus 20:17). Also, the fact that certain patriarchs committed this sin does not make it less of a sin. The Bible is honest in recording the flaws of otherwise faithful people.

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