Law

The Pain of Knowing

Romans 7:7-13 (NLT)

Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.

But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes.


 

We’ve been hearing a lot about the law, specifically God’s law given to the Jews, the last couple of weeks. Paul doesn’t always seem to be talking about the law in a positive way. But let’s go ahead and get on the same page with him: The law is holy, a representation of God’s will.

The problem is not the law. The problem, Paul is saying, is us. Sin, which seems to have the characteristics of a person in Paul’s writings, is clever and always finds a way to trick us. From the time we are born, and certainly from the time we first commit sins, we simply are too broken, too weak, for Satan and his minions not to find a way in.

The law’s primary role is to educate. Without God’s teachings handed down through history, we would have trouble distinguishing what is sinful from what is good, sort of the way we had trouble telling a noun from a pronoun until a good elementary school teacher explained the difference.

Paul also reminds us of a simple theological fact. Sin, Satan, demons and anything else we associate with deep, pure evil cannot create. Only God can create; even the most evil spiritual beings were created by God, becoming evil only because they were given free will and chose to turn against what made them.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a collection of correspondence—fictional, of course—from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood, regarding how to ensure a human soul ends up in Hell. Here, Screwtape speaks disparagingly of God as Creator, as you would expect a demon to do.

“He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without his minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.”

In other words, God offers us the good life. Yes, the law is often couched in what we think of as “shalt nots,” but let’s consider the positives in drawing bright line boundaries around certain behaviors. We can do this by looking at the core of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments. Let’s hear them King James style:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But of course, what this implies is we are invited to a special relationship with the only God who matters.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Look at it this way: There is something more than the stuff around us. There is a great being to worship, a being so great that he cannot be reduced to any object in the universe!
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Using the name of a god amounted to magic tricks; somehow, the god had to be manipulated for people to receive goodness from the god. But not Yahweh, not our God—he pours out love and grace, no magic tricks required.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Our God seeks rest for us and relationship with us.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Our God also wants us to maintain what should be, in a properly behaving family, our closest relationships, just as we maintain our relationship with God.
  6. Thou shalt not kill. Under God, we are invited to live in a society where we are not in danger of losing the greatest possession we have in this world, our lives.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Through marriage, a man and a woman are invited to a unique relationship, one built on a lifetime of trust. In many ways, we are invited to reflect in our marriages the relationship between God and humanity.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Again, this is about the abundant godly society to which we are invited. We should never fear not having enough because someone has taken what is rightfully ours.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. In this godly society, truth should win out whenever justice is at stake.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. In giving up a desire for what other people have, we are invited to live lives of contentment, knowing the God whom we worship will provide for all our needs.

In a sense, the Ten Commandments were designed to do what the single commandment of Eden did. There, the One Commandment was, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” We are being taught by the Creator that with proper boundaries, Paradise is available.

But still, there’s that disconnect, our inability to live up to, or maybe we should say, live into the law God has offered us. What do we do?

Well, in this Easter season, we’re back to our core gospel message, a message Paul has already taken us through early in Romans. God saw that while the law educates us, it could not save us. We could not simply follow it and somehow become holy.

So God sent his son. We call him Jesus. The Son also educated us, helping us to better understand the deeper aspects of God’s will.

And then, he committed the great act of submission, allowing his perfect, holy self to be crucified in our place. His death freed us from the grip of sin and Satan. The resurrection proves the victory.

Believe, and know that in believing, we now have power to grow and become the kind of people we were made to be, holy and living out God’s will in ways we never imagined possible under a system of laws.

Letter and Spirit

Romans 7:1-6 (NLT)

Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only while a person is living? For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.


Paul begins with an illustration from marriage to demonstrate that even before Christ, the law of Moses, the law given to the Jewish people, had power only in this life.

Spiritually, as he has said before in Romans, we die to our old lives when we “die with Christ” by believing in his death on the cross and his resurrection. Therefore, the Jewish law has no power over us.

As Christians, I’m sure you care about the cross and the resurrection. But frankly, I suspect most of you haven’t thought much about how God’s grace undoes the power of the Jewish law. Life under the Jewish law is foreign to most of our experiences.

As Christians far removed from the Jewish experience, consider the matter this way: What is the basis for how we live? A good Jew would have simply answered, “The law given to Moses tells us how to live.” We need a similarly clear answer.

Instead of the letter of the law, Paul says, we are called to live in the Spirit who inspired the law. Behind the law there were universal principles that existed before the law—the law can be thought of as an expression of those principles.

Jesus spent a lot of time trying to teach the principles behind the law. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is a good example. Again and again, Jesus told his listeners, “You have heard that it was said,” a reference to the letter of the law. He would then go on, “But I say … .” And what followed was a statement pointing to the principle.

You have heard that it was said, do not murder. But I say, don’t even be angry.

You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery. But I say, don’t even look at a woman with lust.

You have heard that it was said, there’s an easy way to get a divorce. But I say, marriage is to be taken with lifelong, serious commitment.

You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, you must love your enemies!

These and other sayings reveal principles about how the heart should work when aligned with God. Remember how Jesus spoke of the law when asked to define its most important part.

His answer rooted the law in love. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Also, love your neighbor as yourself.

“The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments,” Jesus said.

Let me tell you a little secret. In some ways, it is harder to live as an expression of God’s grace and love than it is to live by executing a set of laws. When you’re grace-minded, there often is no checklist to work from, no clear way to say, “Yup, got everything right today.”

Imagine a stereotypical “helping the poor” scene, a homeless man holding out a cup. Is putting money in the cup good or bad? To really know, you have to love the homeless person enough to know his backstory.

By giving him money, are we helping him eat, or are we feeding an addiction? Is he simply needing a quick financial boost back to a normal life, or is he cyclically impoverished? What actions might we take other than dropping a little change in the cup?

Under grace, the homeless man before us becomes a call to a relationship.

If we take such matters seriously, we find ourselves driven to pray for guidance, and we will spend a lot more time studying the New Testament for lessons of love applied. We test what we think we hear from God by examining his revelations to the early church, and where we find alignment between answered prayer and revelation, we know we have received clear guidance.

We also have to acknowledge that when we don’t pray and study, we can do a lot of damage. Through a youth ministry I worked in nearly 20 years ago, I knew a man who had come to Christ in his 40’s. He went to a different church than mine. The particular church he attended emphasized the importance of speaking in tongues, noting correctly that the ability to speak in tongues was New Testament evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

He had a problem, though. He prayed and went to church Sunday after Sunday, but he could never speak in tongues. He was an earnest Christian; this man truly loved the Lord and was thankful for his salvation. But one day, the leaders of his church pulled him aside and said that because he could not speak in tongues, they doubted whether he really knew Christ.

He called me that evening, weeping. Fortunately, Paul had dealt with this issue in another letter, the one we call First Corinthians. In its 12th and 13th chapters, Paul acknowledged tongues as being a gift from the Holy Spirit, but he placed them among a variety of gifts. Prophecy, counsel, special knowledge, faith, healing and miracles are just some of them.

He also put those gifts in their place relative to love. “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

My friend’s church leaders had read the part about tongues and taken it very seriously, but they failed to read on. They failed to show love to a man who really, really needed it. When he understood what Paul had said about speaking in tongues and the primary importance of love, he seemed restored, and went looking for another church.

Paul is also encouraging us at this point in Romans. As we grow in our ability to love God, align ourselves with God, and love the people around us, our actions begin to make a difference for Christ’s kingdom. Good deeds happen, the kind of deeds that move people from lives of sin, brokenness and death to lives that never end. Through our Holy Spirit-inspired good deeds, people move from anxiety and sadness toward the constant experience of God’s joyful presence.

In the coming weeks, we’ll spend a lot of time exploring what Paul has to say about life lived in the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, let’s look at every situation we encounter and ask God, “How do you call me to show love here?”

 

The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.


The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.

This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.

This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.

And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.

If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.

We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.

There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.


The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.

Mercifully Knocked in the Noggin

Sometimes we can think we’re so right and be so wrong.

The classic example would be the man now remembered as the Apostle Paul, called Saul when among his fellow Jews. Paul always believed himself to be a zealous champion of God, but early in his life that meant persecuting a new sect that had popped up. Its members were followers of a man who had claimed to be the messiah before finally being crucified.

Trained by the finest Jewish teachers, Paul traveled in his work, carrying with him what amounted to arrest warrants. But everything changed on his way to Damascus to nab some Christians.

If you don’t remember the story, you need to take time to read it in Acts 9:1-20. Paul was literally blinded by the light. More importantly, he encountered this resurrected messiah directly, hearing him say, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

It was a terrifying experience, not one most of us would choose to undergo. But I will say this: After his “road to Damascus” moment, Paul had no questions about who Jesus is. And Paul certainly understood what he was to do with this newfound understanding.

What exactly was in this “light from heaven” that shattered and then quickly reformed Paul’s worldview? I would call it pure holiness. In a flash, a wrongheaded man was made rightheaded, filled with an instant understanding of God’s will for the world.

It was a very special, very powerful kind of grace, the mercy of God poured out on a sinner who until that moment was sure he knew what he was doing. Paul seems the kind of sinner least likely to reflect and repent, but Jesus Christ made Paul his own, anyway. In fact, that’s how Paul described his conversion experience years later in a letter to a young pastor named Timothy.

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:13-14. “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Few of us have converted to Christianity after actively persecuting Christians, but most of us are at least familiar with how our faith can deepen and shift over time. After all, until we reach the point when our will is aligned with God’s will every second of every day, it’s quite possible that we can think we’re doing God’s work when we’re not.

Like Paul, our antidote to poor thinking is understanding and remembering the power of God’s grace. Until Paul’s conversion experience, he best understood God through the Jewish law and a strict adherence to that law.

We do need rules; in particular, we need the guidelines for living offered to us through Scripture. God’s law continues to have tremendous value. But God’s grace, made evident in Jesus Christ and poured into us via the Holy Spirit, is the path to eternal life.

Here’s a question to keep before us: Without affirming ongoing sin, how do I inject grace into a situation? In particular, how do I offer God’s grace to others, especially those I might like to convict under some unbending rule I carry in my head?

Better to seek and offer grace on our own than to have God knock us into an understanding of its value.

The Heart of the Matter

Matthew 22:34-40

During October, we’ve been listening to what the Bible has to say about God’s law, given to us so we may better understand who God is.

We heard how poorly the Israelites responded to the law, despite the powerful revelation they received at Mount Sinai. And last Sunday, we explored how Jesus’ answer to a law-related question puts all of us in a quandary.

The law’s demand that we worship only God and let nothing come between us and God seems to be a hopelessly high hurdle. When faced with God’s high standards, humans throughout history have often chosen one of two options: throwing up their hands in despair and turning from God, or attempting a kind of hyper-obedience, trying to outdo others in observance of the law.

Certainly, turning away doesn’t help. And because sinless perfection is not humanly possible, I’ve never understood how hyper-obedience is supposed to save anyone from the separation from God brought on by sin. I assume that practitioners of extreme legalism think that God will save the best of the bad, like a teacher grading a failing class on a curve so that a few students receive A’s.

There is a better way to understand how we are to relate to God under the law. In fact, that’s the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And by listening to Jesus and understanding his story, we can follow this path to reunion with God.

Matthew’s gospel records in chapter 22 a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. (This lawyer also was a Pharisee, one of those groups that strove for hyper-obedience.) The lawyer tested Jesus by asking him, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus gave a highly orthodox answer, quoting the Shema,  a Jewish liturgical prayer rooted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

He added that there is a second like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” quoting from Leviticus 19:18. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Luke’s version of this conversation, Jesus’ assertion is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we learn that we are to define even our traditional enemies as our neighbors, showing them mercy.

Jesus was affirming that nothing about the law had changed. After all, the law as given to Moses is a revelation of the unchanging God. But Jesus also was clarifying the law’s purpose: to teach humanity that love is the core behavior for those who follow God.

The need for obedience doesn’t go away; Jesus proved that later in Matthew when he was obedient to the point of going to the cross, even after asking God the Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”

Love, however, shapes everything, even our obedience. Jesus went to the cross to save us from the punishments we are due for our sins, out of love for all of creation.

Love as the primary driver behind everything we do sounds nice. I get visions of a television show from my childhood where a giraffe, a chipmunk and some other puppet critters sang, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love … .”

We should never forget, however, that love complicates a religious life. Legalism is in some ways the easier path to choose, at least if you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to say, “Just tell me the rules so I can follow them.”

Love forces us to think, to analyze our actions, to check our motives.

I’ll give you the toughest example I know right now in the Christian community. It is what many simply call “the homosexual issue,” a catch-all phrase covering debates about the ordination of homosexuals, whether homosexuals should be able to marry each other, and whether pastors should bless such marriages.

Working from the Bible—which I take very seriously as being inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit—I find it nearly impossible to justify homosexual acts. It is possible to contextualize the Old Testament prohibitions, something Christians do all the time with other Old Testament rules. But I cannot get around the first chapter of the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

Its author, the Apostle Paul, clearly understood the impact of God’s grace and love being poured out on the world through Jesus Christ. Paul still, however, deliberately linked homosexual acts (and several other sins) to a general turning away from God by humanity.

And yet, I am troubled by my own desire to say to homosexuals, “There’s the rule, get over it.”

I know followers of Christ who struggle with their homosexuality. I care for them. Love forces me to think beyond simple assertions, acknowledging the powerful feelings they live with day after day, their pain, their craving for acceptance and community.

I love God, I trust God’s Word, and I desperately want to better love my neighbors, but love sometimes leaves me a little stumped. All I can do is pray that the love that resulted in the cross and the resurrection will eventually provide complete answers.