Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Law

This post relates to my previous one in addressing the modern state of 'religion', specifically its perceived legalism. But I'm coming from a more dangerous perspective: one I have never had, that of the non-Christian, the outsider to the church. I'm talking about people who think being a 'good' Christian means you have to follow all of the (at times crazy) laws in the Old Testament. (Let's call them legalists) This is a common method of making fun of Christianity; I'm sure you're familiar with satirical websites on whom to stone or what kind of animals to sacrifice to God and such. More innocuously, maybe you've heard of the guy who attempted to follow all the Old Testament laws with rather humorous results.

The basic line of reasoning behind these occurrences, I think, goes something like this: the Bible is supposedly the inspired, always-true word of God, and it has all these incredibly specific instructions and laws in the first five books, so of course we have to follow all these rules if we claim to be Christians who hold the Bible in such high esteem.

Well lucky me, the previously-cited chapter, Ephesians 5, happens to be all about Christians who think they have to follow Old Testament law! Some context: in chapter 1, Paul says the Galatian church is "deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and [is] turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all." As my pastor told it, what happened was that after Paul planted the Galatian church, some Pharisees came along and told them they had to follow Jewish law (i.e. Leviticus and Deuteronomy) to be Christians. Specifically, they told the church they had to be circumcised, an outward symbol of God's old covenant with the Jews. (v. 2-6) In the beginning of chapter 3 Paul contrasts their efforts to observe the [Jewish] law with simply believing.

Indeed, the main point of the whole letter is to address the Galatians' reliance on following the law to be saved instead of simply believing. And he is at his harshest in reprimanding them; he had nice things to say to greet even the Corinthians, who were a seriously messed-up church (taking each other to court over disputes, cheering on a guy who sleeps with his stepmom, obsessing over the gift of tongues), but not here. Paul is pretty clear that the Galatians (and, by logical extension, believers in general) are not expected to follow the laws of the Jews; just read 5:2-6. (Or just about anywhere in the book except chapter 2)

Back to the modern misconception that Christians are supposed to follow all those rules just as the Galatians thought they had to. How do we answer that train of logic? Paul does it for us in chapter 3, verses 15-25, where he discusses the purpose of the law. Specifically, he says it was given "because of transgressions until the Seed [Christ] referred had come." The law was only a temporary measure given to keep the Jews from completely turning from God until Jesus came.

But that doesn't seem to be the main purpose of the law. In v. 23, Paul says "we [the Jews] were held prisoners of the law"--apparently he found it just as constraining as we do. Part of this is because no one can fully observe the law--"Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin." (v. 22) What's the point of a law that no one can follow? To direct people to the alternative to the law, the real way to be declared righteous and saved from the penalty of sin: faith in Jesus. (v. 24) Attempting to completely follow the law is not God's intended response to it; instead, we should see how impossibly high God's standard of holiness is (for all we know, it might even be above and beyond the Old Testament law) and that we have no chance at all of meeting it on our own; we need to be saved by faith in Jesus. Finally, in verse 25, Paul pretty much summarizes the whole book: "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law."

And that's a fine take-home, if you remember nothing else. By sending His son to take the penalty of our sins for us, God gave us an alternative to the futility of trying to be righteous by following the law. To use an extremely bad modern analogy, a Christian striving to be 'good' and obey the law is like a Monopoly player trying to roll his way out of jail instead of using the get-out-of-jail-free card he already has. Through Jesus, God gave us all a free ticket out of the penalty of our sins; who would turn down such a deal?

If I ended my post after that last paragraph, I might leave readers with the notion that since Jesus forgave our sins, we can just do whatever we want; after all, His grace is unlimited, right? Paul addresses this opposite idea to legalism in a different letter, Romans. "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (6:1-2) Going back to my Monopoly analogy, this would be like immediately returning to jail after getting out for free. You don't want to go back to jail.

Another example more applicable to my peers: say you've made it through college but have racked up enough debt to keep you busy for several lifetimes, when suddenly your parents step in and pay it all off. (Maybe they used their RV fund or something) You have a clean slate, a fresh start to life, financially speaking. There are two extreme ways to respond to this stupendous act of generosity:

1. "Sweet, my parents will bail me out! Let's buy that Lamborghini I always wanted and hit the casino! PARTY TIME!!!"
2. "Wow, I can't believe they paid it all. I'm going to be careful with my money and try to avoid getting into debt from now on!"

Which way do you think makes more sense? Hopefully #2. And so it is with the much greater gift of salvation. Responding by simply taking license and doing whatever you want with the assurance that you will be forgiven makes no sense; it shows that you don't appreciate the gift at all, only freedom from the penalty of sin. Instead, Paul says, we should consider ourselves "dead to sin" and live consistently. Not in order to be saved, but because we already are.

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