Sunday, July 07, 2013

Grace and a less selfish view of the law

I have heard many people talk about the role of the moral law in a Christian's life. Almost all of these talks have followed one or the other of these patterns:

I have heard this among groups that emphasize God's forgiveness:
The law condemns us. At best, it humbles us and leads us to repentance. But if we do not repent -- if we do not receive grace -- we should recall that the law is set to condemn us entirely for even the smallest of sins. In the law, we see the opposite of God's grace: we see his righteousness insurmountably above us and his wrath turned firmly against us.
This next I have heard among groups that emphasize man's obedience:
The law shows God's legitimate expectations of us; our faithfulness is not optional. We are to live up to God's standards, pursue our sanctification, reach towards our own perfection, and remain free from sin. A Christian may remain free not only of outward sins, but even of sins of the heart. By works done in God's grace, the faithful may fully satisfy the divine law. God's grace is something with which we cooperate in working out our salvation.
In both of those cases, the general outline may not be anybody's idea of a complete view of the law, but instead the part that seems most useful to the speaker's purpose at the time. The church I attend generally acknowledges three uses of the law: 
  1. To restrain our sin and our evil impulses;
  2. To show us our sin, bring us to humility, and lead us to repentance;
  3. To instruct us in righteousness and give us a rule by which to live our lives.
In practice, the church I attend focuses on "the second use" of the law, that is, humility and repentance. Some other churches tend to focus on "the third use" of the law, that is, holy living. (I think that "the first use", restraining sin, has been neglected all around to our own harm. People seem to suppose that our insistence on repentance or holy living will replace the need to restrain evil. The theory sounds plausible but that hasn't been working out too well for us in practice.)

When we look at the law and how it restrains our sin, we do not see the love of God there. "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" does not sound like the love of God to us, so we think of it separately from the love of God. We think of it as a merit or a duty or a call to holiness.

"You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" does not sound like the love of God to us -- but it is towards our neighbor. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" is again not so gracious towards us -- but our neighbor should be smiling by now. Imagine if you were certain that everyone you knew would not steal, or try to deceive you or your loved ones, or murder, or scheme after your spouse (or your family members' spouses), or even badmouth you behind your back. Is there anyone who has not endured heartache on those accounts, either for themselves or for a loved one?

We look at the law and don't see the love of God because we are so self-centered. If God's grace towards the world is supposed to be about us and what we receive, then the law has nothing to do with it. But what if the law is about something else? What if it not meant to ensure that God is gracious towards us, but that we are gracious towards others? What if it's not about us, but about our family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors? What if the law is about not lying to our neighbor, and not telling tales about our coworker, and not taking his stuff, or sneaking around with her husband or his wife? What if it's about not holding it against them that they have the newer car or clothes? What if the law is the next expansion of God's love -- not about God being gracious to us, but about us passing it on to our neighbors? What if it isn't about us earning or achieving or meriting anything, but about how God was gracious to us first? What if the law was never to make us better than our neighbors, but better for our neighbors? Just as our righteousness is "from faith to faith" (from God's faithfulness to our faith/faithfulness), it is also from grace to grace: from God's graciousness to our own. And the law calls us to be just as steadfastly gracious as God himself.

When we call on the the law to lead us to repent, or to restrain us from the wrong path, we may be diligent, or grudging. When the law instructs us in righteousness, we may be dutiful. But when the law instructs us how to spread the grace of God and show it to those around us, we may take up the task more willingly. Our love to each other is the point of the law; that is the reason that love fulfills it.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yes, this is a better way of looking at it.

We always need to remember that ever time God commands something, it is because He knows ,even when we don't, not only what is good for our neighbors, but also for ourselves. It is strictly for our sake, no His own, that He commands anything.

That's one reason we don't "merit" anything by keeping His commandments. Merit was never what they were about.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

As for those three uses of the Law, Jesus is more efficacious for each one of them than the Law could ever be. Loving Him restrains us better than remembering our duty. Being bathed inHis Love shows us, by simple contrast between Him and us, all our sins starkly, even those not specifically covered in the law. Seeing His life as our example, and having within us His Spirit, instructs us how to live, even when the question of how to apply the law seems fuzzy.

Martin LaBar said...

". . . that hasn't been working out too well for us in practice . . ."

No, it hasn't.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

Interesting insights. Hope things are going ok over in Greece?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF