A “Timely” Defense of Lex Semper Accusat

The other night, as I was preparing dinner, I heard a loud exclamation come from the television. “Yay! Now I’ll never be late again!” My kids were watching Super Why!, a computer animated cartoon about superhero children who teach grammar lessons. And in this particular episode, a little girl had difficulty waking up on time so they realized she needed an alarm clock. Admittedly, when I first heard her say, “…I’ll never be late again!” I scoffed and responded, “Yah right! That won’t guarantee anything. You’ll still be waking up late!” It’s okay. You can say it. I’m a jerk who yells at little cartoon girls. But it got me thinking about the law of God, and specifically the theological term, “Lex Semper Accusat” (or the Law always Accuses); a term I adhere to. Some people view the law the way that little girl viewed her alarm clock.

This little girl had an issue; she couldn’t wake up on time. And apparently, she needed to because she had obligations that were being unmet. Her solution? Keeping an alarm clock next to her bed. It would be that mechanism that would constantly demand, “WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” She believed that the solution to her problem would be this constant reminder. But if you’re anything like me, you know all to well what it’s like to wake up, only to realize that the alarm clock had no effect on you. We’ve all loomed over our alarm clocks with scowls of regret because we had either totally ignored its promptings or hit the snooze button 10 times. Additionally, we seldom ever enjoy the sound of its screams. We reluctantly awake because we know there will be repercussions if we don’t.

It is often argued that in order to inspire Christians to do good works, we must preach the law to them. The law in Scripture is that which God commands us to do. They are those imperatives in the Bible. They bite our consciences because we know that we don’t do them perfectly despite God commanding us to. They include, but are not limited to, what are commonly called the Ten Commandments. Some examples of the law are, “Don’t lie, don’t covet someone else’s stuff, don’t commit adultery (which includes lust), love your wife like Jesus loved the church by giving His life for her, don’t anger your children, honor your parents, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain as though it was just another common word, don’t be lazy, and don’t murder anyone (which includes hating others).” We’ve all broken these plenty of times, especially when we consider that God expects us to keep this law perfectly. There are no suggestions provided. It is “Don’t lie” not “Try not to lie. Give it your best college try.”

So, like this girl, everyone has an issue. We constantly break God’s laws in the things we say, do, and think. We always have, and we daily continue. Sometimes we feel horribly about it, and many times we don’t. There are many instances when we aren’t even conscious about things we’ve done to break His laws, and are probably still unaware of them at this moment. The solution oftentimes prescribed is a reminder of what we’ve done wrong. As though hearing what we’ve done wrong over and over and over again is going to inspire feelings of wanting to change. It actually tends to create bitterness and anger within us, just like hearing an alarm clock continue to go off when you already know you’re late. “WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” with its condemning and unswerving screech. “I KNOW ALREADY!!! I’M LATE!!” we yell as we scramble for any button on this machine that might silence it. Those who are looking for a way to satisfy a conscience that is already broken by the awareness of their law breaking and personal wretchedness are not looking for a reminder of what they’ve done wrong. They already know it.

The way to inspire someone to be conscious of these things and not do them is not by reminding them of God’s law and what they’ve done wrong and then telling them to do better. It is by preaching what God has done for law breakers. Humans are both beings (humans) and persons (your name and personality). God is a being (God) and three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). God the Father sent His Son to this earth to become a man in the person of Jesus. Jesus was born of a virgin, conceived by God the Holy Spirit. And as He grew, this man, Jesus, although still God, was under the obligation of keeping those laws just like we are. The only difference is, He actually followed them perfectly. He was then wrongfully accused of blasphemy against God, and put to death on a cross. This wasn’t a surprise to Him. This is the reason He had even come in the first place. It was at that moment that the anger and wrath that would have been poured out on believers for their law breaking was poured out on Jesus. God the Father treated Jesus as though He had committed the sins of all those who would believe in Him. He was punished in their place so that when they would eventually die and stand in front of Him, they would not be judged and punished for those crimes.

Shame and guilt, though appropriate reactions to acting sinfully against God, need to be soothed with the good news that shame and guilt are removed by the work of God. That shame and guilt that we feel is the result of knowing we’ve done horrible things against God and we know what we deserve as a result. But God, in punishing Jesus on behalf of believers, does not condemn those who trust in Him because He’d done something about our sin problem. Therefore, we can look at those things which God tells us to do without the fear of doing them “OR ELSE.” On the contrary, we can delight in God’s law knowing that the “or else” of the law has been taken care of by Jesus our Savior.

This brings us to the term, “Lex Semper Accusat” or “the Law Always Accuses.” This theological term is a way of explaining the nature of the law of God. Whether or not you are under it, or have been set free to delight in it, the law still accuses. Arguments against the position have shown a misunderstanding on the part of those making them. For instance, some have argued that the law can’t “always” accuse because Christ fulfilled the law, and wasn’t accused by it. But Lex Semper Accusat has a very specific meaning. It means that the law always accuses our consciences as law breakers. And even if we trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, we still break His law daily. We won’t be punished for our crimes past, present or future. But we still commit them. Where we lust, the law says “Don’t lust.” Where we covet, the law says, “Don’t covet.” It accuses us because we are guilty and it is ultimately a reminder that we desperately need saving. Another argument is that the law can’t always accuse us because we are able to delight in the law. But is this true? Here’s where that old alarm clock illustration got the cogs in mind turning (pun intended).

The alarm clock, like the law, serves the purpose of always accusing us. It only has one message. The alarm says, “You are in a state of sleep! Wake up! You are there and you must be here!” The law says, “You are in a state of sin! Wake up! You are there and you must be here!” It is always the same resounding information. But, the way in which we deal with that tone depends on one very important thing: whether or not it is attached to an obligation. So, if you know that you have to be at work at 6 am, and the alarm starts blaring at 5:00 am, the horror of knowing you have no choice but to get up begins to terrorize you. We know that if we don’t wake up there will be repercussions. “Get up or else.” So we normally wake up reluctantly with visions of how amazing another few hours of sleep would be, or perhaps we might even say, “I don’t care! Let the repercussions come!” And we unplug the alarm and try to ignore the fact that what we are doing is a really bad idea. On the other hand, if that alarm clock should sound on your day off, it is met with pleasure. Sure, you might decide to sleep in, but knowing that there are no obligations that day easily causes us to spring out of bed and make the most of the day – basking in the glorious freedom we have. Nothing delights me more than waking up at 4 am on a day off so I can start enjoying my day off. The alarm, that reminder, is welcomed.

This second argument against Lex Semper Accusat shows that the presupposition held is that the law ONLY accuses. That isn’t what the term means. Always and only aren’t the same. The alarm’s sound hasn’t changed. It’s function is still the same – to remind me to wake up. The law is the same. When I look at it, it is still plain to me that I don’t keep it perfectly. The information is still there. But the fact the the obligation of it has been taken care of by Jesus changes the way I interpret its tone. Now that I have been set free by Christ and am no longer counted a law breaker on account of His fulfilling the law on my behalf, I can delight in God’s law without feeling like if I don’t do it perfectly I will suffer the consequence. It is the accusatory nature of the law that continues to make the good news of Jesus so good.


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