The Exception and the Rule

The love of the exception--as over against that of the rule--seems to be prevalent in Christian circles in our day.

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.

 

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?

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