Law and Grace, Faith and Works

legalLast week we were looking at some unhealthy attitudes toward the Old Testament (and the Gospels, along the way). But it’s not just about the attitudes toward that (huge) section of Scripture. It’s really about how we look at the Bible itself.

For some people, the Bible is merely a book of rules, a legal code, the constitution for God’s Kingdom. Wade Tannehill said it well the other day:

But here is what has changed. The legal texts of Moses were in some cases highly detailed and prescriptive. Some would read the New Testament literature as if it were the same genre as the Book of the Covenant or the Holiness Code. This amounts to viewing the New Testament books, not as occasional literature written to aid disciples in a Christocentric reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, but as a flat law code of new legal stipulations for Christians.

Where the old law / new law dichotomy really misses the point is its misunderstanding of law in Scripture. Those seeking to understand the New Testament writings as a legal code are making a similar mistake to the Judaizers of old. The law is imagined to be in a position it was never intended to hold. The law has never been a means of salvation. No one has ever been saved by law-keeping, under any covenant. Salvation has always been by grace through faith.

Yes! Exactly. When we think that what Jesus did was substitute one written code for another, we fall into the trap that Paul condemned in the Galatian letter. When we depend on law, any kind of law, then we are no longer depending on grace. And that’s a dangerous thing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)

I heard a man speak at a youth camp 30 years ago, presenting the argument that the New Law was merely an improvement on the Old Law. He argued that when Paul says we aren’t saved by works, he only means works of the Law of Moses;”obviously we are saved by works.”

No! The New Testament is not a revised copy of the Pentateuch. It’s about coming into a relationship with God through Christ, seeking to live out our lives as an imitation of our Redeemer. We do that not to be saved but because that’s who we were called to be.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may 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)

Not saved by works, but created for works.

We don’t need a new legal code. We need a Savior.

System of grace

Not much time to write, but I wanted to throw this into the discussion we’re having this week. Years ago, I heard Dan Coker say, “Many of the church’s problems arise because men try to take a system of grace and turn it into a system of law.”

How fair is that? How do we avoid turning grace into law while still seeking to have an obedient faith? Are statements like Dan’s no more than an attempt to avoid law altogether?

Created For Good Works

I believe that we are saved by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t believe in earning salvation, though I acknowledge that my understanding of an active faith is different from that of some. I do believe that faith that doesn’t respond in some way isn’t really faith at all.

That being said, I often find that when I mention things that I believe the Bible says we should do, someone says, “Ah, you believe in salvation by works.”

No, I don’t. Neither do I believe in a mere transactional relationship with God. That is, I think that my relationship with God isn’t just about getting what I want from Him (in this case, salvation). In a relationship of love, you seek to please the other, not because of what you might get by doing so, but because you love the other.

It’s interesting in the book of Titus that Paul twice tells Titus to emphasize grace in his teachings. The first time, he concludes that section by saying that God saved people by grace “to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14) The second time, Paul concludes by saying, “And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:8)

In Ephesians 2, Paul emphasizes in verses 8 and 9 that we are saved by faith and not by works. Then he says in verse 10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) Not saved by works, but saved for works.

Talking about himself, Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

You see, a proper of understanding motivates us to work harder than a sense of legalism ever could. When motivated purely by a desire to please God, we won’t be nitpicking over exactly what we have to do to be in sin. I’m not just trying to be “good enough.” I’m trying to be like God. Christlike. Perfect. Holy.

Will I achieve that on my own? Of course not. But I echo the words of Paul: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)

Call it legalism. Call it liberalism. Call it what you want. My aim is to please God, and I want to learn more and more about what please Him and what doesn’t. Not to try and make myself “good enough” to be saved. I do it to try and be the person my God and Savior wants me to be.

We’ll get back to our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount next week. I just thought it was an appropriate time to clarify some things.

Ticking Time Bomb

You may remember the old television show M*A*S*H, the show about a group of doctors during the Korean War. One of my favorite episodes involves a bomb that falls into the camp and fails to detonate. As luck would have it, the bomb is an American bomb. The doctors take it on themselves to defuse the bomb, following instructions from a manual. Two doctors work on the bomb while their colonel reads the instructions from a safe distance. At one point the colonel reads, “Carefully cut the wires leading to the clockwork fuse at the head,” and the doctors do as instructed. The colonel continues reading: “But first remove the fuse,” and the doctors look at one another in shock, realizing that they have failed in their efforts to carefully follow the instructions. They quickly verify that the bomb has indeed been activated (don’t worry; it turned out to be a propaganda bomb and merely rained pamphlets on the compound).

Some people see God that way, don’t they? You can be trying to follow instructions, meticulously observing each detail, but you miss one item and KABOOM! Say the wrong words, make the wrong gesture, or fail to notice one small command and your salvation blows up in your face.

These people see God as a ticking bomb and the Scriptures are our manual for defusing that bomb. The Bible becomes “God’s little rule book” whose only purpose is to keep us from being blown up.

Is that our God? Is He a God who spends His time looking for reasons to punish or is He a God who looks for chances to save?

The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that God is a gracious, forgiving God, slow to anger and quick to forgive (Exodus 34:6-7). He is a holy God in whose presence sin cannot enter. He is a just God, who will punish evil. But His overwhelming desire is that men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

We should respect God’s holiness, but we should also trust in His love, His mercy and His grace. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Rock of Ages

(I’m finishing up a trip to the Northeast; let me post a bulletin article I wrote a few years ago)

When it comes to church music, I have to admit that I favor the old songs. Generally speaking, the older the better. These are the hymns that have endured, that have stood the test of time. I’m moved by today’s praise songs (like “Awesome Power” or “Highest Place”) and enjoy singing the toe tappers of the 20th century (like “Gloryland Way” or “Just A Little Talk With Jesus”) but the old hymns are the ones that tend to touch me deep inside with their elegant music and reflective words.

One such hymn was written in 1776 by Augustus M. Toplady. The words preach a sermon in and of themselves:

1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

Toplady begins with the sacrifice of Jesus. This is the basis of all gospel preaching. We preach Jesus, not ourselves. We preach his sacrifice, not our works. Paul said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our preaching should imitate his.

2. Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

Here is a key thought that must be brought to the minds of all men, especially those of us who have come to know Jesus. In our zeal to obey Him, we can sometimes forget that our obedience does not work our salvation. We are saved by grace, not by works. Jesus’ words should ring in our ears: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”” (Luke 17:10)

The Christians of Galatia became confused about this. They began to think that salvation came through works and not through faith. Paul called this a “different gospel” and condemned it. He wrote: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing — if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1-5)

3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

How hard it is to put all of our trust in Jesus! Especially in a country which stresses independence and self-sufficiency. We are taught to believe in ourselves and our own accomplishments. Yet Jesus calls us to believe in Him and His accomplishments.

4. While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.

In the end, all that will matter is whether or not we are in Christ. If we have surrendered ourselves to Him, burying our old selves in the waters of baptism and rising to a life dedicated to Him, we need not fear those final moments. We will be able to approach God’s judgment with joy, knowing that our salvation depends not on ourselves but on Jesus and His blood.

If you find yourself feeling anxious as you think about that final judgment, it may be that you are trusting in your own works and not in Jesus’ all-sufficient work. Surrender yourself to the Rock of Ages. Only He can save your from sin and make you pure in His Father’s eyes.