one of the law’s important functions

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 1:8-11

I don’t think we would think well of a road in a mountainous region which had no guardrails near a steep cliff. That is one important way to appreciate the role of God’s law in Scripture. It is not meant to keep us from enjoying ourselves, but rather, to keep us from harming ourselves. It is also meant to point us to the necessary correction we need.

While the law tells us what’s wrong, only God’s grace in Christ can help us repent of our sin, and turn in a different direction, toward God, and toward pleasing God. We can’t do it ourselves simply by checking off the right boxes, and changing our behavior. We need God’s grace in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the new life through which we can see change occurring in our lives through a changed heart and a renewed mind.

Not easy, but given to us day after day in and through Jesus.

 

devotion to closeness to God

Their leader will be one of their own;
their ruler will arise from among them.
I will bring him near and he will come close to me—
for who is he who will devote himself
to be close to me?’
declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 30:21

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:7-10

The NET Bible note says Jeremiah 30:21 is a rhetorical question with a “no” answer expected. That is not clear in the NIV nor the KJV, perhaps more “literal” in English from the Hebrew, but clearer in other English translations. No one would dare seek to draw near to the God of Israel on their own. Hebrews 10 makes it clear that the way has now been open to all of God’s people through the blood, the once for all sacrifice of Jesus in his death on the cross. We in Jesus are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5,9), and “made…to be…priests to serve…God” (Revelation 1:6).

So the way that was once made open through only designated ones necessarily year after year is now made open to all through Christ’s fulfillment in his atoning sacrifice. Not that “Old Testament” people couldn’t draw near to God who were not priests. They could do so only through the sacrificial system when possible, of course through faith. Enoch would be a prime example before the law was given (Genesis 5:21-24), and David (Psalm 15) and Daniel afterward (Daniel 9-12).

The passage in James quoted above makes it clear that this must be both in attitude and action. We’re told of the need for ongoing repentance, keeping short accounts with God. As well as simply taking the time to come near to God. This must become a priority, maybe we should say the priority of our lives.

I have more or less tried to do something like this over the years. I would in theory seek to be doing this all day. I did have a few special times, one I can remember early on in particular, “a date with God” as I called it, of drawing near to God. But special times each day were not a part of my life such as what evangelicals call “personal devotions.” I thought I would more than less be seeking to do that all day. I think at least to some extent this was a mistake. It is better to err on the side of making sure one has that “quiet time” with God. I used to listen regularly to God’s word being read. And now open my little Bible off and on throughout the day. But there needs to be those special times in prayer and in the word, not just thinking we can do that as we run throughout our day. But God will honor our attempt to do that even in the midst of the rush of life. Yet we need those times in silence before God.

Then hopefully as a pastor friend, Marvin Williams reminded me, we’ll have the scent of Christ on us, and be enabled by the Spirit to lead others to him. In and through Jesus.

the righteous requirement of the law: love

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

…in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us….

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 8:4b; 13:8-10

It is interesting how it seems that the reason for Christ’s atoning work and the Spirit’s work for believers is that they might love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus made it clear that includes everyone, that actually we’re to be a neighbor to all in actions of love for those in need (see the parable of the Good Samaritan). And that this is one command with the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength.

Of course we’re going to love no one perfectly in this life. Only God can do that. But love should be the overriding passion for all that we are and do. And it’s not a love defined by us or on our terms, what we might think love is. It’s always in terms of God’s commandments. A friend pointed out to me recently that the law of sin and death overcame the law (Torah) God gave, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus overcomes the law of sin and death (see Romans 7). And that’s so that we can love others, really love them in terms of God’s love.

That should be what moves us beyond anything else through the everyday routines of life, and the intricacies within the challenging, difficult places. And it’s a love steeped in God’s love. We love because he first loved us (1 John). Believing and knowing we’re loved, and living in that love through God’s grace and gift in Christ, will help us extend that same love to others. In practical, needed, down to earth ways. And in avoiding what is contrary. In and through Jesus.

law or grace?

No matter how you shake it, and it’s not an easy passage to interpret or understand, Romans 7 makes it clear that there’s a strong human tendency to buck law, especially when it’s in your face, or one’s well aware of it. Law in Scripture is given for the good of people to show them how they ought to live in a flourishing free way, but it also serves to show people their sin and therefore their need of God’s grace. Grace here I refer to as both forgiveness and new life as in ability to keep the law. And by keeping the law, I’m referring to keeping the requirements of the law not by law keeping, but by a life which in a way is above the law in that it transcends mere law keeping, the life naturally doing what God requires.

One of the most memorable portions of Philip Yancey’s classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace is the story about the man who sought to escape the evil of western society to what he saw as a society in which law and therefore righteousness could flourish. The only problem was that he got entangled and overcome by his own sin in stark, dark and troubling ways. His Christianity fell by the wayside because it was not formed by grace, but simply informed by law.

Law is important in its place, and in societies good laws are needed, for example against the taking of life, or practices which might endanger life such as driving when intoxicated. Law as mentioned in Scripture serves to convict one of sin, though the Spirit is needed to make that conviction more than condemnation and instead a life changing repentance.

I remember Christian schools that made a lot out of rules to the point of more or less micromanaging the students’ lives with the presupposition that such would keep them out of harm’s ways, curb their sinful tendencies, and even form them into godly people. The only problem is that it is grace which changes us, not law. Though it should be noted that God’s grace changes us through the law. God’s grace does the changing apart from law, but uses the law to help us see our guilt, need, and utter helplessness.

Grace and law in Scripture are not easy subjects. But having lived through some sad scenarios in the Christian world, I would say that one has to be aware of the place of both. And how our lives are truly transformed only by grace, God’s gift to us of forgiveness and new life. And how this is both in terms of a point of conversion and ongoing conversion in a process by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

grace instead of law: “I want to” compared to “I have to”

The law is not a necessary evil in scripture. The evil lies in us (Romans 7). The law tells us what we ought and ought not to do. The law is from God and is good.

What we need is grace, which amounts to God’s undeserved favor given to us in and through Christ. It is a gift that we receive, pure and simple. Through Christ’s death for us on the cross, we are forgiven of our sins when we repent and believe as in entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, and committing our lives to him.

Law necessarily condemns, but in grace there is never any condemnation. Christ has taken all the condemnation on himself at the cross. The Spirit is given to us, and we have the assurance that we are once for all time forgiven. But that doesn’t mean that the law no longer applies to us.

By grace through the Spirit we actually fulfill the requirement of the law, which in shorthand amounts to love, but not without details spelled out in scripture. For example, we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves when we commit adultery, or either do, or fail to do a number of things.

If we’re living under God’s grace, then we’re made both willing and able. And we in Christ are under grace, not under law (Romans 6). Law comes to us in a coercive way: we have to or else. Grace comes on us in a compelling way: we want to, period. Yes, out of love in love. And it’s a want to placed in us by God. As those who are forgiven and given new life in Jesus. To follow on and be victorious. In and through Jesus.

speaking against other believers unlawfully

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4:11-12

James has a lot to say about the tongue. This section follows, or perhaps (as NIV heading might suggest) is part of what preceded on submitting oneself to God, and one can see the possible connection with the opening thought on quarreling and not getting along.

To slander is to speak some untruth against someone, but the word might only mean to speak against someone, period, even if what is said is the truth. Only God knows the entire truth, and the truth through and through, so that we must beware of thinking we know in any final sense.

And when we speak in that way we also somehow put ourselves in the place of God. God alone gave the law, and God alone can make judgments based on it. Our judgment invariably won’t measure up to God’s, nor will our application of the law. In fact we will be so amiss, that we in effect will be judging the law itself. Exactly what that means is hard to pinpoint, except to say that our judgment on others inevitably means we are judging the law, and not getting at the true meaning of it, making the law into something other than it is. It is for living according to God’s will in love. We simply are incapable of making any such judgments on others.

And that’s what might be key to understanding the passage. It is referring to judging others in a sense in which we can’t. There are necessary judgments in life which we must make and receive. And best to do so together, always in a prayerful attitude.

What we might take home from this is simply to be cautious, so that if and when we speak we will do so in complete humility, emphasizing mercy, and God’s work in the entire process. Only God can convict the wrongdoer, and bring them to repentance. We can’t. We may necessarily have to confront someone, but we do so gently in love, realizing that we can easily fall into sin ourselves. But we are included in God’s work of restoration (Galatians 6).

We must beware of taking matters in our own hands, and brashly applying the law, when inevitably we who judge do the same things ourselves (Romans 2). When we stand in that kind of judgment of others, inevitably we not only distort what they did due to our own sin, but we also distort the law itself, somehow making it conform to our own understanding, beset with a heart not right, and therefore not seeing everything clearly. Only God can judge, convict, sentence, and redeem. We can’t.

So we best take a cautious attitude. And not slander or speak against our brother or sister even when our gut reaction is to do so. When we have to consider problems, we best do so before God, and when necessary, together. And not tolerate anything that doesn’t accentuate mercy along with the utmost humility concerning our own weakness and shortcomings.

grace is the answer, period (in Jesus, of course)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the 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 wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

Much much Christianity, I’ve seen over the years. And grace has been sprinkled on all of that. First though, it would be good to give a definition or description of grace. Grace is God’s gift and favor to those who don’t deserve it, and could never earn it. Back to the original thought: Christianity is New Testament Christianity insofar as it is imbued with grace. And to understand that, we need to contrast it the same way the New Testament itself contrasts it: with law.

The law condemns us, because none of us lives up to its demands, or even can do so. The law ultimately points us to our need for a Savior. And that’s where God’s grace come in through Jesus and the cross, Jesus’s death. It is on the basis of Jesus’s death, by that and that alone by which we can be saved. And that is God’s gift of grace to us received by us through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And as the Titus passage above makes clear along with the Ephesians 2 passage, that opens us up to a new life. But grace alone is the means to forgiveness and new life in and through Jesus.

Jesus, or Moses?

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

John 1:17

Law and grace is a theological theme from scripture. It is interesting how both John in John’s gospel account, and Paul handle this theme (see Paul’s treatment in Romans 7 for one example of his teaching on it).

The Law/Torah ends up being preparatory for the grace that would follow in Jesus. Essentially the Law is both directive, put in place for a new nation, Israel, certainly for individuals as well as the nation as a whole, and the Law was the means of convicting the people of their sin, that they are sinners, and thus the preparation needed for people to receive the needed salvation in Jesus. So the Law is important in its function and place. Another example from Paul, the Law a temporary guardian/disciplinarian to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24), and see the entire book of Galatians.

We may think this is not an issue for us today. After all, aren’t we Christians, and not Jews? How could we be followers of Moses rather than Christ? Inadvertently so, I’m afraid. It’s our tendency to think that the answer is to know more and do more, and that’s essentially the effect of the Law front and center. And again, it’s needed in its place to convict us as sinners (Romans 3:20).

This is a big subject, a glimpse of it here, hopefully. Christ brings the grace and truth which Moses evidently didn’t and indeed couldn’t. Truth follows grace, which I think is a hint that what we’re talking about is more than truth as knowledge, but truth in life, ultimately found in Jesus himself (John 14:6) and yes, in his death. By his death we die as well, so that our salvation not only from, but to and for is begun only in and through Jesus.

a meditation on Psalm 51: our need of God’s grace

Psalm 51 is one of the great passages of the Bible. The NIV‘s translation of the superscription gives its alleged and at least possible setting. Scholars aren’t sure if the superscriptions were added later, or written when the psalms were. And even if added later, they could still be considered a part of scripture itself.

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Many times people relegate the Old Covenant to the era of the Law, and fail to see that, while it is indeed preparatory for the fullness of grace (and truth) which came in Jesus, it was actually grace oriented itself. God’s grace, as in undeserved favor and sheer gift is foundational for all human relationships with God, certainly no less true for that time as it is today.

If there is one thing that we need to see when reading Psalm 51 above anything else, we have to see from this psalm the truth of David’s need, and our need today of this grace from God. Of course like the rest of scripture, we need every line, which contributes to the whole toward the understanding God wants to give. But unless we grasp this truth of our need of God’s grace, all the other truth won’t matter, and will be essentially lost, except to condemn us. If we read the psalm carefully and slowly, we will find this to be the case.

Theologians have a term for what I’m getting at here: prevenient grace. We need grace from God even to properly know and have understanding of our sin, and to properly be broken and grieved over it in repentance. The last thing we need to be doing over our sin is to beat ourselves up, and try to make some great sacrifice to God ourselves. Instead we need God’s grace, so that we can properly see and act in the faith which God in that grace gives us in and through Jesus.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

grace strengthens our hearts (but the law doesn’t)

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Hebrews 13

The language of grace is different than what we’re accustomed to, in fact I would say it’s largely foreign to us. We tend to fall into one extreme or another: into living an obligatory life in trying to please God (law), or less likely for myself and people I know, simply believing that we can’t not sin in this life, so we might as well get on with it. But if we’re to learn the language of Paul, we’ll have to learn another tune altogether than either one of these.

It’s true that someone other than Paul most likely wrote the letter to the Hebrews. But that person was certainly in sync with Paul and the message of grace found in Paul’s letters. It’s a message that is radically simple, and simply radical. What we could never do ourselves, Christ did for us through his appearing (the Incarnation), his teaching (pointing us to the kingdom come in him, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel for the world), and his death and resurrection.

Particularly through Christ’s death, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, our sins are forgiven, and we live in a new realm, the realm of grace. This might be a hard one to wrap our heads around, since most all of our lives we’ve been accustomed to living in the default of law, or obligation. Where we’ve lived is tricky. We believe and feel that we’re obliged to do something for the one who gave his all for us.

That’s tricky and even a bit deceptive since in reality we certainly can’t add a thing to what Christ has done for us. Nor can we delete a thing from it, either, by what we do or fail to do. Of course we can sin against that sacrifice, even as Hebrews itself warns us (see Hebrews chapters 6 and 10). We can treat it in a contemptuous or careless way.

The heart is not strengthened when it is under the constraint and obligation of law. See Romans 7 for the clearest indication of that. There Paul is referring to life under the law apart from grace (Romans 6) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). Our only hope for beginning to live the new life is the very same grace through which we entered into that life in the first place. Our own effort, or prescribed works (or proscribed as in forbidden, for that matter) will not carry us into that new life, in fact cannot be a part of it. But on the basis of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we indeed are put into a realm in which there is a new life to be lived, but a life never dependent even on our own faithfulness, but only on that of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20; see the CEB and context).

That is what I’m working on now. To better understand so as to begin to more fully live in the grace of God in Jesus. And by that live a life in which the heart is strengthened to carry on well in and through Christ himself from the Father by the Spirit.