One lazy afternoon in 1999, travel writer Bill Bryson discovered a shop that sold pet supplies and pornography.1 It was at the far end of the main street of an unassuming Australian country town called Young.
The front of the shop contained rather mundane supplies of flea powder, fish flakes, and other pet accessories. But at the back of the shop, behind a small wooden gate, there was a whole section devoted to the sale of explicit pornographic material. Bryson was apparently baffled by the existence of such a bizarre establishment. But I think I can explain what it was doing there.
If memory serves me correctly, there was a period during which various local planning laws existed to get rid of the ‘adult’ industry in Australian towns. The lawmakers didn’t ban small stocks of pornography in shops that existed for other purposes (e.g. newsagents2). But they did try to make sure that all such stocks were strictly controlled. No shop was allowed to have pornography comprising more than a certain small percentage of its total stock. Therefore, no dedicated ‘adult’ stores could exist. The laws were designed to create a safe and wholesome town environment by ensuring that the sale of explicit material couldn’t become a business in its own right (remember, at this point the internet was still taking off).3
But what actually happened? Did the laws work as intended? Not quite. Instead, bizarre shops started to spring up, shops like the one Bryson encountered. The shops still had pornography as their real core business, but to get around the planning laws, the stores put up not-very-subtle ‘fronts’. A shop that advertised pet supplies out the front could ‘legitimately’ claim that it was not really an adult store, since its main purpose was something else. And since there were more individual packets of cheap flea powder and fish flakes on the shelves than there were magazines out the back, the stocks of pornography technically came under the legal limit. But everybody knew what the shops were really for. The laws, despite their good intentions, had failed.
This is a clear illustration of a problem that crops up whenever we try to use laws to make things better. These planning laws were good. They were worthy manifestations of our community’s desire to uphold marriage as the proper context for healthy sexual expression, and to limit the harm and exploitation that arises when this context is ignored. I’m glad the lawmakers did what they did. But the legislation couldn’t, by itself, get to the heart of the problem. The laws couldn’t make men love their families more. They couldn’t convince people that being a real ‘adult’ is about care and responsibility, not self-gratification. The letter of the law did nothing to make people love the spirit of the law. It just brought about grudging compliance and tragically comic workarounds that exploited loopholes. A good law doesn’t make people good.
This isn’t just a problem for Australian planning laws. In fact, the problem also crops up when we try to put God’s law at the centre of our lives. In Romans 2:17-24, the apostle Paul has a debate about this very issue. Paul and his debating partner were Jews. This means they were law-people, and glad of it. The God of the entire world had especially revealed himself to Israel through the law of Moses. Jews had a fantastic privilege: they knew God’s will in the law. They knew what was good and right and proper, because the Creator himself had told them all about it. Jews were also equipped to teach other people all about this great revelation of God’s will. But Paul insists that God’s law-revelation has a fundamental problem. It’s not that the law is bad; actually, the law is great. But the problem is that the law won’t change the heart. God’s good law doesn’t make God’s people good. In fact, as Paul goes on to show in Romans 3, the law does something else entirely. In the end, the law makes our sin and hypocrisy crystal clear. It silences every mouth, and holds us accountable to God (Rom 3:19-20). The law doesn’t save us. Instead, it shows up our failure, and points to something greater: the forgiveness and transformation that we find in Jesus Christ, through the word of the gospel and the Spirit of God.
A heart that relies on the law to find salvation before God is a bit like that store at the end of the main street in Young. It might look respectable and well-ordered. It might seem quite attractive to a casual passer-by. It might have a plentiful stock of law-compliant good deeds on the shelves. And yet there are those sealed sections, the bits at the back. At one level, these sealed sections might seem small or insignificant compared to the much more obvious good deeds that can be pointed to as examples of that heart’s own inherent goodness. But in fact, it is these back sections that truly show up the heart’s real orientation. And if we admit it, there’s a bit of that hypocrisy in all of us, isn’t there?
Simply knowing God’s character and will, even his character and will as expressed in the pages of the Bible itself, will not solve our biggest problem. If we want actual forgiveness, salvation, and transformation, we need something far more radical and powerful than God’s law. We need God himself to forgive us. We need the cross of Christ. And we need God to change our hearts, imperfectly now, and soon our whole heart, soul, and strength perfectly on that last day.
1 Bill Bryson, Down Under, Black Swan, London, 2001, pp. 109-110.
1 Newsstands to American readers.
1 I’m relying on my memory of news reports. I’ve tried hard, but haven’t been able to track down the laws that were in effect twelve years ago.