A new view awaits me as I sit down to write this blog. Facing me, on the street light on opposite side of Swanpool Lane, is a speed limit sign for 20, installed just yesterday I think. It adds some red to my view, otherwise absent.
This is part of Lancashire County Council’s policy to introduce the 20mph speed limits in residential areas and streets around all schools. Their aim is to change our culture of driving, to make our roads safer for children. You see a school, you slow down automatically. It’s what you do.
It’s fascinating to see how drivers in different countries respond to pedestrian crossings. Here zebra crossings – almost as old as me – have iconic status, . The pedestrian is king. Once your foot touches the white, even recklessly, you are a protected species. The driver slams on the brakes.
You go over to France: totally different, as a pedestrian you take your chance. And in Italy they seem to have no meaning whatsoever, just pretty colours on the road.
In other words it’s one thing having a law, making it work is altogether different. The apostle Paul – as a reformed Pharisee – knew this only too well, even in a law given by God himself . “Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God” he wrote to the Romans (2:12).
Paul’s attitude to the law is a huge area, whole libraries have been filled by theologians working out the implications of what he teaches.
As it happens my copy of Tom Wright’s new book “Paul and the faithfulness of God” arrived this week. At 3½ inches thick, its packaging was considerably larger than the Thomas the Tank engine Maron Station starter set, which arrived at the same time. I look forward to hours of meaningful activity.
But going back to law, how are we Christians to respond? At the most basic level, we want our children to be safe. Certainly the areas around schools need to be protected. The 20 mph limit not only reduces accidents but limits the injury. The law is for our good; it is in everyone’s interest.
But what happens when I am late for the Saturday wedding and I know the bride and her father are standing there, wondering where I am? In other words, we all claim special exception when it suits us. Traffic officers have heard them all. We push the law to its limit. It’s called human nature.
So we need the Holy Spirit who works – with our permission – deep within our personalities. The aim is that we do good (and drive considerately) not because we have to but because we want to. That’s the difference between law and grace.
But in practice the law acts as an interim, a holding operation. We see the 20 limit as well as the police car in our mirror – and slow right down. If we don’t, we pay the penalty (or go on a speed awareness course), even if there is not a single pedestrian in sight. That’s not the point. Our instinctive behaviour has to be changed – and that takes time and possibly a few court appearances.
In the meantime the law has an important but limited role in changing behaviour, how we act, if for the wrong reason. As Martin Luther King observed in a different context, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
However, the true breakthrough can only come when the Holy Spirit is able to fill us with the very love of God himself. Incredibly that is now an option since the cross, God himself paying the penalty for our law-breaking. And that is where we are heading, PTL.