The Exception and the Rule

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Over the years, many have approached me in order to ask what I believe the Bible teaches on some particular theological or ethical subject. In many cases, no sooner have I finished answering them that I'm met with the reply, "But what about...?" All of us are eager to find an exception to the rule. When I first started noticing this pattern among Christian, I mentioned it to our assistant pastor, who said, "Let's be honest. Most people love the idea of the exception and almost no one loves the idea of the rule. When I served in large evangelical churches, it was always about the exception. No one cared about the rule." Sadly, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not just endemic to those in large evangelical churches--it is a problem associated with fallen human nature. The love of the exception--as over against that of the rule--seems to be prevalent in Christian circles in our day, especially when discussing the moral law, God's requirements for worship, the government of the church and the means of salvation. 

Christians confess that Scripture is the only rule for life and godliness insomuch as it contains everything necessary for those things. God's will revealed in His moral law is unchangeable because He is unchangeable. On account of that fact, we must proceed with the utmost care and caution when insisting on the exception without necessarily emphasizing the rule. Granted, Pharisaism was founded on the idea of preserving the rule to such an extent that the Pharisees built an elaborate system of man-made rules and regulations around God's law in order to protect it from what they perceived to be lawless abuse. Ironically, they too were doing away with the rule by adding to it. While insisting on upholding the rule, the Pharisees offered man-made exceptions for themselves to make the rule more attainable. This was especially the case with regard to the Pharisaic emphasis on the fourth commandment. In a very real sense, the Pharisees set themselves up as the Sabbath police and set the other nine commandments on the fourth commandment and their subsequent additions and subtractions. This is one of the reasons why we find so much about the Sabbath in the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. The application of the fourth commandment serves as a prime example (and case study) of the exception/rule principle when seeking to understand what God requires of His people. 

In what is arguably the greatest explanation of the fourth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) states: 

"The sabbath or Lord's day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God's worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day."

Note the important parenthetical statement: "except so much of it as it to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy." According the members of the Westminster Assembly, the two exceptions to the rule of the fourth commandment are mercy and necessity. So, how are we to determine acceptable exceptions and how are we to view them in regard to a right understanding of the rule set out by God? 

The divines, no doubt, highlighted what they believed to be biblically defined exceptions to the rule of the fourth commandment based on their understanding of the accounts recorded in Matthew 12. There, we find Jesus walking through the grain fields and plucking heads of grain with his disciples on the Sabbath. When challenged by the self-appointed Sabbath police, Jesus referred them to the account of David and his mighty men in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, the fact that the priests had to work on the Sabbath day and the principle of mercy over sacrifice from Hosea 6:6. Jesus' appeals to the exceptions were based squarely on exegetical insight. 

Jesus knew that he was the great anti-type of David. As David had asked for the showbread for himself and his mighty men when they were hungry--though it was unlawful as far as the rule was concerned--Jesus and his disciples walked through the fields and plucked heads of grain on the Sabbath. In David's case, his action was an act of mercy and an act of necessity. In this sense, it served as the exception to the rule. In Jesus' case, the law allowed the poor and the sojourner to pluck heads of grain from the fields of strangers (Lev. 23:22). Nevertheless, he was guided by the principles of mercy and necessity on the day that typified the mercy and rest that he would himself provide through his atoning death on the cross. 

Jesus also understood that there were some who, by virtue of their vocations, had to work on the Sabbath day. Since worship is to take place on the Sabbath day, the priests had other option than to work on the Old Covenant Sabbath. Today, pastors have to work on the Lord's Day. Someone might make the case from the "ox in the ditch" principle that some doctors, nurses and law enforcement may also have occasions on which they have to work on the Lord's Day. Those are all biblically defined exceptions, however. As a rule, God commands His people not to engage in their regular weekly vocational labors on the Lord's Day. Instead, the rule is that we are to delight ourselves in Him in worship, rest and service throughout the entire day. 

Finally, Jesus corrected the Pharisaic misunderstanding regarding ceremonial commandments--explaining that God cared vastly more about His requirement of kindness and compassion as He did about outward religious adherence. Regarding Christ's appeal to Hosea 6:6, John Calvin explained: 

"God declares aloud, that He sets a higher value on mercy than on sacrifice, employing the word mercy, by a figure of speech, for offices of kindness, as sacrifices include the outward service of the Law. This statement Christ applies to his own time, and charges the Pharisees with wickedly torturing the Law of God out of its true meaning, with disregarding the second table, and being entirely occupied with ceremonies....

...External rites are of no value in themselves, and are demanded by God in so far only as they are directed to their proper object. Besides, God does not absolutely reject them, but, by a comparison with deeds of kindness, pronounces that they are inferior to the latter in actual value...

...as believers, by practicing justice towards each other, prove that their service of God is sincere, it is not without reason that this subject is brought under the notice of hypocrites, who imitate piety by outward signs, and yet pervert it by confining their laborious efforts to the carnal worship alone"

Perhaps the chief reason why so many of us are drawn to exceptions rather than to rules is the fact that we know that none of us has ever kept the rule as we ought. All of us have fallen so very far short of the glory of God by transgressing every single one of His commandments many times. As the members of the Westminster Assembly so clearly state in Larger Catechism 149: "No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed." The Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, "Can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?" by stating, "No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience..." 

Be this as it may, those who have been redeemed by Christ are called to be a people who love his commandments. Heidelberg Catechism 114 goes on to say, "Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments." Believers can now confess with the Apostle John that we do not "find his commandments to be burdensome." Christ has borne the heavy load for us by fulfilling the Law and by taking the curse of it in our place and for our good. Believers will neither be justified nor condemned by the Law (WLC 97). Jesus has died and risen to give us rest from the guilt and shame of our sin. He has satisfied God's justice and propitiated His wrath for us. Having forgiven us all of our trespasses, he has sent his Spirit to write his Law in our hearts and in our minds (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). With David, we cry out, "Oh, how I love Your law. It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97). With the Apostle Paul, we affirm that "love is the fulfillment of the law"--the motive and animating principle by which any true Spirit-wrought obedience occurs in our lives. 

Believers are called to understand the nature and purpose of God's commandments. This certainly includes understanding what exceptions there are to the rule--while always recognizing that exceptions are what they are by virtue of the rule being what it is. We must refuse to turn the exception into the rule, without pressing the rule to such an extent that we exclude the exceptions. As we seek to walk in ways that are pleasing to our God, may He give us great care to know and love His rules as well as the exceptions that He has defined in His word. 
Posted April 27, 2018 @ 7:54 AM by Nick Batzig

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