The Practice of Law and the Practice of Grace and Truth

by Mr Richard Magnus

My foundational text is John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realised through Jesus Christ.” Using the literal canon of interpretation, this verse of two statements of fact is to be read as it stands. Only the word “truth” has a prescriptive definition. Its original Greek reads “aletheia”, and means “divine reality”. In the context of this verse, it is the divine reality of Jesus.

The practice of grace and truth

As lawyers, judicial and legal officers as well as in-house counsel, we are to obey and practise the law. I use the word “practise” in a wide sense to include private and public practice. Our professionalism, integrity and our competence are presumed. This is a sine qua non and basic to our practice of the law. This is the expected standard. But this is not the gold standard, perhaps, the silver standard only. The law, our compliance and practice of it, is set within the overall Singapore national ideology of a secular state. I make no apologies for Singapore being a secular and I will say why later in this message.

But within that same ideology, as members of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), are we called to practise in another Bar of distinction? I am not, of course, referring to the Senior Counsel regime. Our text inspires a narrative for us and that is, there is yet a higher practice: the practice of truth and grace besides the mere practice of the law. Our practice is only complete when we practise truth and grace in Christ Jesus. This is the gold standard. The text nuances that obedience to law is inferior to the simple acceptance of grace and truth. In this verse, John identifies for us the logos for the first time specifically as Jesus Christ.

Let me elaborate what I mean by a complete practice. And why having a complete practice is more meaningful.

Our basic jurisprudence will inform us that our laws are essentially morality traceable to the law as given through Moses. Inherent in that law as given to Moses was that God was too holy to be approached directly and certainly could not be seen. There was an incompleteness. Just as there was an incompleteness when creation spoke of God’s existence and power but not of His essential character. Life testified to God’s personhood but told nothing of His deepest emotions or plans. Light, as awareness of morality, reflected God’s holiness but somehow, His heart remained hidden. So when the psalmist in Psalm 119:142 declares, “your law is truth” that declaration is only complete in Christ Jesus. In other words, in the truth, which is Jesus, we see a morality that goes beyond law and can only be identified as grace. If only Pilate had waited for an answer to his question: “What is truth?”

You know about this grace and this is portrayed in verses John 1: 9-13. The Creator entered the world He had made. He came to His own people to whom He had given life. But His own people would not receive Him. He was rejected, scorned and ultimately, crucified. In spite of this, He reached out to individuals who would receive Him, and He gave them the right to become the children of God.

The human race did not seek out a family relationship with God. The reaching was God’s, and His alone. In spite of mankind’s failure, God drew men and women to Himself and lifted them up, adopting them as His children and heirs. In this act of pure grace, a glorious light burst into history. In Jesus Christ, the eternal word, the truth, we discover that God’s ultimate morality is one of love and grace. The splendour of God seen in the Son goes so far beyond the glimpses of glory that shine through the law.

Advocates of faith

Now, we must learn to live in grace’s new relationship with the Lord, so that we can share His glory. Our practice is complete when we practise the incarnational life. Our practice takes on a fresh and deeper sacredness, a daily worship unto God. Our area of influence must become our perimeter of faith. God’s plan is for transformation to happen in our circle of influence. We are now advocates of the law. We must in addition, become advocates of faith. We must be witnesses of the truth. This is being primus inter pares in Singapore’s legal practice (first among equals, senior counsel included).

An advocate of faith speaks to the area of his influence and to the larger public square, the marketplace. Listen to the advocacy of wisdom in Proverbs:

“Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; (notice the plural) She cries out in the chief place of concourse, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: How long, will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?” (1: 20-22)

“Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat of the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes, For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.” (1: 29-31)

Pastor Martin Roemeller was a man, who had influence during the Auschwitz. He retreated from the public square, not only of his country but also from universal essential morality. There is nothing wrong with our theology, only our practice of it. Pastor Roemeller advocated a resounding and deafening silence, much less law or truth or grace. Pastor Roemeller echoed his ex post facto conscience when he reflected on Auschwitz:

In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Not being an advocate of faith becomes a life and death issue. In Auschwitz, five million human beings died. We must be serious about changing the wrong paradigms.

Nearer home, in Cambodia, I visited the killing fields where two-three million of babies and Kampucheans were slaughtered during the Pol Pot regime. In the S21 Prison, the incarceration regime is embodied in The Security Regulations in Kampuchean and English languages, which is found on every cell. Let me read the last Regulation. Regulation 11,which provides the final sanction:

Regulation 11: If you disobey any point of my regulations, you must either get ten lashes of (electrification) or five shocks of electric damage.

Advocating a larger circle of influence

Jesus’ advocacy on earth caused a major paradigm shift and changed people’s understanding of the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred to God’s Kingdom as present (Matthew 26:28), imminent (Mark 9:11) and in the future (Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25). His audience was accustomed to seeing the temple as the place where God manifested Himself.

Jesus did not want the presence of God to be confined to the temple, much less to the synagogue. A mystery was revealed - the body of God’s people. You are part of that body. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell on a group of people not in the temple or synagogue but in a marketplace and the upper room. The first converts of 3000 was harvested in an open-air meeting rather than inside a religious building. This was a departure, and it gave birth to a movement.

Jesus advocated a larger circle of influence for each one of us. The order in terms for this movement was benchmarked against nations, cities, regions and the world. ”Go and make disciples of all nations…(Matthew 28:19) “You will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the remotest part of the earth.“(Acts 1:8). Our advocacy is centripetal.

Let me put the cart before the horse as it were, by posing these challenges to us within our nation’s context. But first, something on the national context in which we practise.

We are living in a nation that honours the rule of law, justice, transparency, accountability and essential morality. Some examples are - essential morality underpins our legislative policies and we see clear expressions of this in our criminal laws, our corruption laws, money laundering, our Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code including its intended latest amendments, in our full disclosure and competency provisions in our corporate and securities laws, in the duty of care to our neighbour in our tort and the overall fairness requirements in our contract. The essential morality is also expressed in our social and labour policies, an inclusive society taking care of the poor, the physically and mentally challenged, and the jobless. Again, essential morality is evident in our bio-medical research and concern for our environment, which the Lord of Creation has entrusted to us.

We have unfettered freedom of worship with generally proper conservative beliefs. When you compare this with the recent developments with the practice of the Christianity in Europe with the European Commission Constitution, in United Kingdom and Australia, we should be thankful.

No doubt, Singapore is a secular state as it must be, but we should not forget that the secular state was Christianity’s legacy to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities should be respected but never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance. The word “secular”, originally from a Latin word meaning “generation” or “age” was adopted in early Christian writings to mean “this age” or, more precisely, “confined to this present age that is passing away”. This was something the early church understood well. In Peter’s letter to Christians scattered around the eastern Mediterranean, he told them they were a ”people belonging to God” but that did not mean that they owed nothing to the earthly rulers under whom they lived. On the contrary they were to “submit…to every authority instituted among men; whether king…or…governors, who…punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2.13-14). But this in turn does not mean that such kings and governors are by definition, right, and Peter proceeds to advise his readers what they should do when injustice is done.

Similarly the anonymous 2nd century writer of the Letter to Diognetus, explains to his reader: “Though Christians are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens…their days are passed on earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens. They obey the prescribed laws, but in the own private lives, they transcend the laws.”

Jeremiah 29:7 puts it this way: “And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you have welfare.”

Singapore requires us to be good advocates of the law and provides an opportunity for us within the prescribed laws, which reflect proper societal and legislative sensitivities, to be advocates of faith.

Challenges for Christian lawyers

Here are some of the challenges:
1. Do we want our Singapore society in which we practise to be genuinely thankful for us? Us meaning that we are members of the LCF or lawyers who are Christians.
2. Do we want our city leaders to value the LCF’s friendship and participation in the community, and even ask for its advocacy?
3. Do we want our clients and stakeholders talking behind our back about “how good it is” to have Christian lawyers because of the tangible virtues we have offered them of God’s love?
4. Do we want a large number of our LCF members actively engaged in, and passionate about community service, using their gifts and abilities in ways and at levels they never thought possible?
5. Do we want the communities changing because of the impact of our LCF’s involvement? Proverbs 11:11 says “through the blessing of the upright, a city is exalted but by the mouth of the wicked it is torn down”.
6. Do we want many in our city, actually praising God for the LCF and the positive contributions our members have made in Jesus’ name?
7. Do we want the spiritual harvest that would naturally follow if all these were possible or true?

So how do we begin? In a recent poll, George Barna compared the lifestyle of Christians and non-Christians using 131 different measures of attitudes, behaviours, values and beliefs. His conclusion: “In the aspects of lifestyle where Christians can have their greatest impact on the lives of non-Christians, there are no visible differences between the two segments.” Yet in 1 Peter, we are reminded that as sojourners and temporary residents we are commanded to abstain from fleshly conduct in order to present an attractive lifestyle. We can be a passionate people by discovering a calling higher than ourselves - a calling that falls in line with the gifts and abilities God has given us. The responsibility is ours.

When the Times of London once asked several of Britain’s leading intellectuals what they thought was the problem with the world, the celebrated Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton sent back a postcard response: “I am”. You are the light of the world, Jesus reminds us, shine in the darkness. You are the salt of the earth, He declared, make a tasteful difference. Otherwise, we fall into self-congratulation and finally irrelevance.

Let me end as I had begun with God’s Word. Luke 24:50 records: “When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven.”

But not before He left us an inheritance: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18)
(This talk was given at the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship Annual Dedication Service on 3 January 2009 at St Andrew’s Cathedral)