What is your gut reaction, honestly, when you hear the phrase: “Obedience to God’s law”? Do you smile, or do you cringe? And why?
In the previous entry on this subject, we considered our tendency to think of the Lord Jesus in terms more appropriate to Superman than to the Savior. We appreciate that he’s saved us from God’s wrath against us as sinners, but we struggle to surrender the autonomy which is the essence of our sinfulness. We want rescue more than we want redemption. Yet Scripture teaches us that salvation in Christ is about far more than being rescued from the consequences of our sin. Salvation has to do not only with what we’re saved from, but what we’re saved for: a life lived more and more in keeping with God’s moral law.
Sadly, however, when so many Christians hear the word “law” in a discussion about God, they bristle. In our contemporary Christian culture, the word has become synonymous with legalism. Legalism, however, is an abuse of God’s law resulting from its being redacted or reduced (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; Matthew 5:19.) Abusing God’s word is inevitably abusive to God’s people.
Relationally cold, unnecessarily strict homes and churches are spiritual dungeons in which Christians suffer deeply. Their pain is redoubled when they are told by parents, pastors and teachers that the soul-chilling strictures forced upon them are Scriptural. They intuitively understand that the commands of God reflect the character of God, so they inevitably believe that God is as cruel as the crushing moral/spiritual convictions pressed upon them. Jesus railed against the Pharisees for this very reason. Their shameful treatment of God’s Word in effect slandered God himself, presenting a false image of God to his people. Jesus, the true image of the invisible God (Hebrews 1:1-4), came in large part to cleanse God’s people from false understandings of their Father.
This cleansing is so much of Jesus’ intent in the Sermon on the Mount. While teaching his disciples how to pray to, trust and be like their heavenly Father, he also emphasizes God’s universal reign and his unrelenting righteousness (Matthew 6:33). God has the right to command, and his commands are right. Jesus did not go to the cross because the law was evil; he went to the cross because our hearts were evil!
“Law”, then, in its most essential sense, expresses God’s authority and goodness. God’s moral law, summarized in the ten commandments, is quite simply the character of God expressed in the form of commands. This is why God identifies himself as Israel’s Lord and Savior immediately before formally declaring his law to them (Exodus 20). The people redeemed by his grace were to live according to his law.
In the era of the Exodus, and in the rest of the Old Testament era, God’s redeemed people experienced his grace but looked forward to the fuller experience of that grace which would come with the Messiah. One of the pivotal Old Testament prophecies on this subject is found in Jeremiah 31. In verse 33, we learn that love for God’s law will mark the age of the Messiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
In the New Testament (covenant) era, inaugurated by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Messiah, believers experience this new fullness of grace. We are all the more empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8ff, Romans 6-8) to love and live out the law of the Lord. Paul puts it this way in Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age …”
When we compare that passage to Exodus 20:1-11, we see the same substance, the same structure and the same sequence: grace leads to a life of law keeping. And doesn’t that make perfect sense, when we realize what the law really is? If our fallenness is defined by our rejection of God’s right to rule and his right commands, shouldn’t our newness in Christ be defined by our embracing of the same? And that’s exactly what Scripture teaches. As new creations in Christ, we cry out with King David: “Oh how I love your law!” (Psalm 119:97).
It’s no secret that Christianity in our culture hurts deeply for want of holiness. Perhaps part of the reason why practical Christianity here often seems ethically indistinguishable from practical unbelief is that, in the name of preaching grace, we’ve crumpled up and tossed away the blueprint for holiness: God’s moral law. We’re understandably afraid of sounding legalistic, so we scrap messages about the law and try to teach and preach (and hear) grace, only grace. Grace, of course, can never be overemphasized and must be the driving force of our teaching and living as Christians. Grace gave us life in Christ! (Ephesians 2:4ff) And the great goal of the Christian life is to grow by God’s grace in God’s grace. But what does that growth “look” like? How is it measured?
We must remember that God’s saving us is a means to the end of his sanctifying us. We are saved by Jesus in order to become more like Jesus, Jesus who loves God’s law! “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing. It is the gift of God, not a result of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). We have been saved by grace, and we are, to Paul’s point in Titus 2, enabled and instructed by grace to live more and more according to God’s law.
As we grow in grace according to God’s design, we’ll inevitably have to confront our besetting sins. To go back to the superman analogy, we might call these sins our kryptonite – those habitual sins against which we feel powerless. Their presence in our lives is insidious and ironic: They make us feel powerful when we commit them, so we feel powerless to stop them. In the coming entries, we’ll focus more intently on developing the posture of heart from which to combat these antagonists as well as the practical means by which God’s grace teaches us to kill our kryptonite.
For now, we can sum up this entry this way: What does grace look like lived out? Law. Paul goes on in Titus 2: “…waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” God redeemed us to live lives which exude lawfulness (1 John 3). Truly lawful lives do not cast the cold shadow of legalism; they glow with the warm light of our Father’s likeness. As Jesus said to His disciples, “ …let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).