Type your search below

‘Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation’ – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Scroll to explore

Title: ‘Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation’ (Marcus Borg) 

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Date: Sunday 2 June 2024, The First Sunday after Trinity


“Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation” (Marcus Borg) 

This afternoon the lectionary brings us pretty gloomy readings.

Jeremiah – not known for his sunny disposition – is full of prophecy about God’s chosen people failing to learn the lessons of the past. Now things will catch up with them and their falling away from God will lead to disaster. In the second reading, Paul writes about the inner struggles of faith and practice. Despite what we believe, what we know to be right, we end up time and again doing the thing that is wrong.  It’s a sad reflection of a people who failed and a person who fails.  

I’ve always rather liked the distinction made in industry between a mistake and a defect. A mistake can be something excellent. When a mistake is found we can learn from it, change and make things better for the future. By contrast, a defect is a mistake that no one notices, and it keeps being made for a long, long time. We might think of those times when a car company issues a recall notice because of a defect. It means that thousands of cars have been produced and sold which all carry a fault. The inconvenience and cost can be immense. 

Both Jeremiah and Paul can see the mistakes that are being made, by a people and by an individual. There’s some discussion by scholars about just what Paul means when he says that there was a time when he writes “I was once apart from the law”. The debate arises because elsewhere Paul writes about being under the law from the time he was a child. For that reason, there are people who think Paul is using ‘I’, but means the whole people. 

It is true that the Israelites were, at one time, “apart from the law”. The law being delivered by Moses about 430 years after the promise made to Abraham.  

St Paul tells us that “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin”. In other words, the law sets out the description of what leads the law to be broken. It helped the Jewish people recognise when mistakes were made, for individuals and also for the relationship of the people with God.  

Paul knows and understands the relationship of the law and our mistakes. In this passage from Romans, he makes it crystal clear that we sometimes know what it’s right to do, but we end up doing the opposite. For this reason, the law can only take us so far. The problem is, as Paul puts it: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”. 

So, apart from the law which can help us identify our mistakes, there is a more fundamental defect in human nature. Because, even when we see the good that needs to be done – and the sin to avoid – we still get it wrong. It’s something in the Bible goes all the way back to Adam in the Garden of Eden. And it’s not only an issue about seeing our mistakes, as Paul writes: “ I do not understand my own actions”. While the law might take us so far, there is a real risk that we simply don’t see – or don’t understand – the impact and nature of our actions. 

When Paul comes to the end of his rather gloomy reflections he suddenly exclaims:  

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 

The expectation of the law was that human beings would abide by the commandments in their own strength and keep their faith with God. However, since his conversion, Paul knows that he doesn’t have to do all this in his own strength. And even when he falls and fails, God’s loving mercy – God’s grace – brings forgiveness. That’s why Paul makes his sudden exclamation of faith in Jesus Christ, because grace fulfils the law with love; forgives and restores. As the theologian Marcus Borg has put it: 

“Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation”. 

In the law we know when we go wrong, the law provides the information about our mistakes. But in Christ we experience an inner transformation. We don’t get everything right, but we are on the right path. The defect is put right, not by our own efforts, but by the cross and resurrection.  As Paul will go on to say in the next chapter, this truth means that northing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. 

The Collect appointed for today which – as collects should – expressed far more succinctly what I have attempted to say just now and so I end with a few lines from this evening’s collect: 

“because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace…  Amen”.  

Share this sermon

Stay up to date with York Minster

  • Event alerts
  • Seasonal services
  • Behind the scenes features
  • Latest Minster-inspired gifts