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.

Slippery slopes and fences

I’ve written before about the rabbinic principle of building a fence around the Torah. The idea is that one creates a barrier of rules around the Law to prevent the accidental breaking of the Law. According to some sources, Deuteronomy 22:8 is used to justify this practice: “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.”

It was, of course, this fence around the Law that led the Pharisees to condemn Jesus; they accused him of not following “the traditions of the fathers.” He didn’t violate the Torah itself, but he was willing to go beyond their fences.

I realized recently the modern day expression of the fence around the Law is the slippery slope. Things that aren’t seen as condemnable in and of themselves are condemned based on what they might lead to. That is, action A isn’t seen as sinful, but it might lead to action B, therefore action A is wrong.

One church was discussing hand clapping during worship. Someone said, “If we allow this, next thing you know they’ll be dancing in the aisles!” That’s the slippery slope.

Problem is, of course, almost anything can be seen as leading to anything else. Are the Wright brothers to blame for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center? Slippery slope reasoning would lay the blame squarely at their feet. Reminds me of the song “Ya Got Trouble” from the musical The Music Man. In that song, Harold Hill warns the citizens of River City that the presence of a pool table in their community was a sign of impending moral corruption among their youth. (If you haven’t heard it, you can find it on YouTube)

One thing does not invariably lead to another. Slippery slopes are great for skiing on, but that’s about it. We need to judge things on their own merits, not conjectured inevitable consequences.


Photo by Spencer Ritenour

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?

The pursuit of holiness

Regarding what we discussed yesterday about good and evil, I think that a big problem that Christians have is that they have no sense of the need to pursue holiness. Part of that goes back to something I referred to before, the transactional view of God. That is, people only see their relationship with God in terms of what they can get from Him, the primary “good” to be gotten being salvation. All that matters is whether or not your are saved or lost, according to this view. Therefore, the only concern about sin is whether or not it will “keep us out of heaven” or not.

It’s that viewpoint, for example, that fears teaching about grace. If people are only focused on doing enough to get saved, then any teaching about grace will remove their motivation for doing what’s right. You’ve got to preach fire and brimstone, or people will become complacent.

The New Testament, of course, teaches that grace motivates us to work all that much harder. Because of the grace we’ve received, we pursue holiness. Even as we acknowledge that we will never be perfect, we imitate He that is perfect, becoming holier in the process.

With that sort of view, we begin to look at right and wrong in a different way.That’s where a study of the Old Testament concept of holiness becomes helpful. We choose to do things not only because they are prescribed or proscribed but because they reflect the nature of God. Admittedly, it’s an advanced way of thinking, one that’s not easy to teach to children, for example. But as we mature, I think we have to start looking at things in terms of holiness.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Peter 1:13-16)

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.