Christians, Law, and GRACE (Part 2 of 3)

Yesterday’s blog post was about law in general and the audience was anyone. Today’s blog post is about moral and spiritual laws and is written specifically for Christians, although I hope anyone who is not a Christian will listen in to this conversation.

I want everyone connected with Living Word to understand the depths of wisdom we have in the Bible about the Christian life.

I want everyone to flourish, and I believe the teaching of the Bible that is fulfilled in, displayed by, and experienced in Jesus is the way to flourish. Jesus says he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

So, we need to talk about this thing called “law” or “commandments” or “instruction.”

My prayer comes from Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight.” And may they be useful for your edification as well.

I find many Christians struggle with the laws of God. By struggle, I don’t mean struggle to keep them. If that is what I meant, I would say ALL Christians struggle with God’s laws about adultery-lust, murder-anger, forgiveness of enemies, generosity, denial of self, taking up the cross, and so on. Holiness is not easy. The instructions about the ways of holiness, even when they are clear, are not easy to embody faithfully and consistently.

By struggle, I mean we wrestle with and are confused about the very idea that law is a part of the Christian life. Even the Ten Commandments! Even the Beatitudes of Jesus, which are much more intense than the Ten Commandments! Even the Great Commandment (from Moses and Jesus) to love God and love others.

Some of those Christians who struggle with law use the word/idea/reality of GRACE as the reason to ignore the laws of God. For them, grace means that the laws are irrelevant. The sacrificial death of Jesus has eliminated law (and obedience and faithful activity, etc.) as belonging to the old way of pre-Christian life. Christians are “free from the law.”

There are three misunderstandings behind this. So, let’s clear away these misunderstandings.

1: Following the law will lead to legalism.

Response: No, it doesn’t. I follow the laws of God and I am not a legalist. Legalism is a wrong form of following the law. Legalism makes (at least) four mistakes.

  • One mistake is that it comes up with laws to follow that are not laws that God has mandated for us. The older legalism had rules about length of hair for men, no beards for men, women could not wear pants or use makeup, no playing cards (even Go Fish!). The laws were trivial, tedious, and certainly not theologically sound.
  • A second mistake was to assume that one could follow the laws on one’s own strength and sheer determination. God’s gracious empowering and transforming presence was neglected. This became burdensome as a self-sufficient activity.
  • A third mistake was to neglect the truly great laws of mercy, compassion, justice, and so on. Jesus makes this very point in Matthew 23:23.
  • A fourth mistake was hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Ironically, those committed to diligently and self-sufficiently following their version of the laws were very susceptible to self-deception, hypocrisy, and a pathetic kind of self-righteousness about how well they were doing.

We must reject legalism with all its distortions, but we don’t throw the law baby out with the legalistic bathwater.

2: Jesus died to free us from the law.

Response: It is better to say it this way: Jesus died to free us from the penalty of not keeping the law. Jesus also lived to show us how to spiritually follow the laws of his Father in heaven as they were meant to be followed. Jesus also died so that the Deep Law would be engraved on our new heart. See Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 10:16. ­­­­­

The Sermon on the Mount is just one of the many teachings of Jesus about the true law and the true meaning of the law given by Moses and forcefully proclaimed by the prophets. Jesus said he did not come to eliminate the law but to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17-20). The word fulfill cannot possibly mean end, because if it does, then the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the Great Commandment teaching by Jesus, is just contradictory. So is every other instruction or command Jesus ever uttered! Fulfill does not mean to cancel or eliminate. It means to complete. Fulfill can also mean the culmination or the high point.

Jesus says two things very simply: (1) Love is the greatest “law.” (2) If you love me, you will obey me. Jesus does not say we are excused or exempt from this. His death, to the contrary, was to make it possible for us to live into and out of these beautiful teachings.

3: Paul preaches grace and tells us we are not under law, and that any kind of “works” are contradictory to the gospel.

Response: No, he doesn’t say that at all. In fact, Paul says much the opposite. In one of the messages about character formation I made this statement: Every author in the New Testament (the gospel authors, and I will include Jesus in the list of gospel writers [Matthew, Mark, Luke, John], Paul, James, Peter, and the unknown author of Hebrews) shows a wonderful integration of the grace that forgives, transforms, and empowers.

And they show the now forgiven and empowered Jesus-disciple who is intentionally and joyfully choosing to live according to the will and ways of God (i.e., the truth of EVERYTHING God has said—law, narrative, proverb, poetry, prophesy, instruction, parable—EVERYTHING).

Through the series I’ve been pointing you to New Testament texts that show the generous grace of God and then the grace-empowered faithful obedience of those who have received such grace. Here are some I haven’t talked about:

  • Read 1 Thessalonians 5:14-23. Notice the clearly given commands and instructions for obedience to the will of God and notice the prayer for the empowering presence of God to be with them so they can do this very thing.
  • Now read 1 Timothy 4:7b-10. It begins with the command to “train yourself to be godly.” It then explains why you should do this. Paul uses the words “labor and strive” (two strong activities), and then finishes by focusing again on the living God and Savior.
  • Next read Titus 2:11-14. Paul begins with grace and then tells us what grace does. It teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions (vice) and it teaches us to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives (virtues) right here and now. Then Paul returns to the person, the power, and the presence of our very great God and Savior. Pay close attention to verse 14. The death of Jesus was to redeem us from wickedness and to purify us as those eager to do what is good.
  • Finally, in Romans 7, Paul says the law is holy, righteous, and good (v. 12) and that the law is spiritual (v. 14). He says the law is NOT sinful (v. 7). He says the law is useful to reveal what is good and what is sinful (v. 7).

The problem is not the law. The problem is the sin nature. What the law cannot do, and it was never intended to do, is save you. The law can’t do that. The law can’t make you good. It can tell you what the good is, but by itself the law can’t make you good, nor can your efforts to keep the law make you good. If anything, those efforts simply reveal how far short you fall.

Almost done.

The Law of Love

Here is a great word about this holistic, biblical balance from David DaSilva, a New Testament professor:

God offers you the means to become reconciled with him and to become a new person who will want and love and do what is pleasing to him because the Spirit of his Son will live in you and change you. The result of God’s kindness and activity is that you will live a new kind of life now, and, after death, live forever with him. [Emphasis mine.]

This is the normative teaching of EVERY New Testament writer. Grace is free and grace is powerful, and grace will and MUST result in transformed lives of those who are obedient to the amazing Lord and Savior Jesus. You now are empowered to live according to the “law of love.” This is so consistent that you wonder how in the world we miss this!

Well, we miss it because there is inadequate teaching about grace. There is even more inadequate teaching about the commands-law-will-way-instructive words of God to us. And we miss it because there are deep sinful structures in our heart that resist the wisdom of God.

It is those very deep and sinful structures, by the way, that are overcome day by day, step by step, choice by choice, first by the saving work of Jesus that forgives you and then by the sanctifying work of the Spirit that frees you. So, keep in step with the Spirit’s work of helping you live in the freedom of the “law of love” (Galatians 5:6, 13-15).

Keeping in step with you,
Pastor Brian

Tomorrow: The commandments of God are for your flourishing, which is why the psalmist says, “Oh, how I love your law!” (Psalm 119:97).

Brian Rice