The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”—Isaiah 29:13
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”—John 18:36
When our children were little, Carey and I focused our disciplinary efforts on shaping their behavior. We wanted them to learn to say please and thank you, not to take things that didn’t belong to them, not to hit or bite other children, etc. At first, we didn’t spend a lot of time on why certain things were right or wrong. You don’t debate ethics with a two-year-old, you just say “stop doing that.” We rewarded good behavior and punished bad behavior, because we were trying to train them up in the right way to live.
To a certain extent, this continues today in their teenage years. We still have rules, and behaviors we won’t tolerate. Sometimes we still say “because I said so,” because ultimately we are the authority in their lives right now, and some things are important enough that they need to obey whether they understand and agree or not.
But we spend a lot more time than we used to explaining why. When we tell them not to lash out in their frustration or to handle a conflict in a certain way, we explain that we’re helping them develop the relational skills they’ll need as roommates, employees, and spouses. We show them the connection between the rules and what’s best for everyone involved, and we talk about how God fits into it all. We want them to do what’s right, but we know that ultimately the goal is for them to want to do what is right when they are out from under our control.
In the Bible, God uses two different tools to get people to change their behavior. The first one is the Law, the rules He gave Israel through Moses in the Old Testament. This includes the Ten Commandments, as well as a number of other regulations that were intended to shape them into a people who were a glory to Him and a blessing to themselves and their neighbors. The second tool, which shows up in the New Testament, is the Holy Spirit. When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, he made a way for people to be purified of their sins so that the very Spirit of God could come and dwell within them, giving them supernatural power to live lives that were pleasing to Him.
Guess which one worked better? When you read the New Testament books of Romans, Hebrews, and Galatians, it becomes clear that God knew all along that the Law wouldn’t be enough. Without transformed hearts, sinful people were never going to live holy lives just because they knew the rules. God knew from the beginning we would fail to keep the rules. He needed us to see how insufficient the Law was, so we would be all the more grateful for the Cross and the Spirit. At the same time, though, the Law was an entirely good thing, because it described the standard God wanted us to live by, which only Christ could help us attain.
Last week, Christians across our country celebrated a significant legal victory. The Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe vs. Wade, the 49-year-old legal decision that made abortion a federal constitutional right. As I understand it, this new situation opens the door for states to make their own decisions about whether or not to legalize abortion. It has sparked heated debates, protests, and celebrations around the nation.
Now, hear me clearly: I’m celebrating too. I’m glad to see the value of unborn human lives being upheld in our legal system. I’m glad to see the Supreme Court making decisions according to their best understanding of the law, even when those decisions are unpopular. In the past couple of years, during all of the COVID controversies, we’ve heard a lot of encouragement to “follow the science.” Well, if we follow the science, an unborn baby is a living person, and taking its life is murder. I’m sickened by the terms like “reproductive rights” that abortion advocates use to distract from what it is they’re really defending: the freedom to define sexual morality differently than God does, and to violently end a human life when it creates an inconvenience.
At the same time, I know that abortion is a complicated issue. I know about the rare cases of rape pregnancies and ectopic pregnancies (which are not in the same category, by the way). I also know that most of us probably know someone who has been touched by this issue in a personal way, even if we don’t realize it. Within our own church, we have women who have had abortions in the past and have tremendous guilt. They wonder if God can forgive them, and they need the reassurance that the cross was more than enough to cover their sin, that God loves them and so do we. We probably also have women who have had much more exposure to the lies of the world than the truth of God’s Word, and as a result believe that abortion is in fact a mother’s right. We probably know men who have encouraged abortions out of their own selfishness.
In my experience, people seek help from the church after they’ve made a bad decision much more often than they seek counsel to make a good one. We may get a few opportunities to help people avoid the damage and regret that comes with abortion, but we’ll have many opportunities to help people live with the reality of something they can’t undo. More than having our arguments prepared to discuss the issue in theory, we need to be prepared with compassion, grace, and wisdom for the hurting people God brings across our path.
When it comes to that larger issue, though, here is what I really want to say: do we all understand that overturning Roe vs. Wade wasn’t the endgame? Do we understand that we just changed a law, not human hearts? The real problem is that we still have a nation full of people who want to have abortions. And we have a God who is in the business of changing hearts. When the issue of gun violence and gun rights is raised, conservatives are quick to say that it’s not a gun issue, it’s a heart issue, and I agree. The problem is sin. The Bible and experience teach us that the law can limit sin, but it can’t cure sin. Can we see that the same is true when it comes to abortion?
I’m glad the law has been changed. It’s an important step in the right direction. But when Jesus walked the earth, died on the cross, and rose from the grave, He changed hearts, not laws. People in our country still want abortions, and they’re going to find ways to get them, because people in our country still need Jesus. While the law has been changed, the church’s mission has not. We are still in the business of introducing people to the One Who can cleanse their hearts and come to live there, Who can teach them to see life, and sex, and others, and themselves, as He does. Right behavior is good, but transformed hearts are even better. My prayer is that the people of God in our nation would not place their hope in the law, but in the Spirit, that we would share with those around us not just the truth of God’s Word, but the hope of new life in His Son.