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The Role of the Law in Christian Life

At the heart of Paul’s theology, in the center of his good news message about Jesus Christ, is the doctrine of justification by faith. God accepts us when we believe in his Son — he accepts us as righteous on the basis of what Christ has done, not on the basis of what we have done.

This may be interpreted as bad news by people who think they’ve done pretty well. Such people tend not to like the idea that God would lower his standards and accept people who aren’t as good as they are, who haven’t tried as hard as they have.

However, this is incredibly good news for those of us who know that we have messed up pretty badly, and that we could never redeem ourselves, no matter how many good things we do. We realize there is no special merit in doing the things we should have done. We know we can never make up for the fact that we have let God down — all we can do is rely on his mercy.

A demonstration of justice

The good news is that God has guaranteed that mercy. He sent his Son to die for us. Because of Jesus’ death for us, God remains righteous even though he declares the wicked to be justified (Romans 4:5; 5:6). God presented Jesus “as a sacrifice of atonement…to demonstrate his justice” in leaving sin unpunished (Romans 3:25).

As odd as it may sound, the death of Christ was a demonstration of God’s justice — because it shows that God has the right to forgive sin. In forgiving us, God does not just pretend that sin does not matter. Rather, he shows how much it matters by sending his Son to die for us, that is, by taking our sins upon himself. God has done everything that was needed so that he can justify the ungodly — he does not violate his own righteousness when he declares us righteous and acceptable.

This is grace. Since Christ died for us, we can be forgiven. Paul makes it clear that we are justified by faith (Acts 13:38; Romans 3:22, 26; 4:24; 5:1; etc.). We are accepted by God as his children — this is the heart of the good news of God’s kingdom. We don’t deserve it — it comes by grace — but it is guaranteed by God. The means of salvation is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

Which law to obey?

So far, so good, say some people. God brings you into his kingdom if you have faith. Now that you are here, they say, you should obey God. Specifically, you should obey the commandments he has given his people, commandments we find in the Holy Scriptures — clear commands regarding circumcision, festivals, Sabbaths, etc.

This was the Galatian heresy: false teachers said that Christians had to have both the old and the new covenants, both Moses and Christ, both law and faith, both merit and grace. It was an emphasis on continuity, on covenant faithfulness, on living by every word of God. It sounded logical, it sounded worshipful, but it was fundamentally flawed.

It is true that Christians should obey God, but the Law of Moses is the wrong law. The book of Galatians makes it clear that the Law of Moses is obsolete. Its authority has expired, and we are no longer “under the law.” Paul even says that the Sinai covenant produced a religion of bondage (Galatians 4:24-25), but that Christians are free.

We are children of the promise, children of the free woman (3:29; 4:31). “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1). If you try to be justified by the law, then you will be alienated from Christ, and you will have fallen out of grace (verse 4). Paul emphasizes that we “were called to be free” (verse 13).

Not only is the old covenant the wrong law, Paul’s point is that we cannot be saved by any law. “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21). If a different law could have given us life, then God would have given us the life-giving law. But the very nature of law prevents it from giving us life. All a law can do is set forth requirements and prescribe penalties for failure. Since we all fail at some point, the law prescribes penalties. It cannot give us life.

Since we never achieve perfect obedience in this life, we can never look to law as a standard for salvation. We can never say, Grace covered my past sins, but now my salvation depends on my obedience. If that were true, we would all be doomed. Our acceptance with God is always on the basis of grace and faith, and never on the basis of our obedience. We can never say that we deserve eternity with our Creator.

Loyalty to God

What then is the role of law in a Christian’s life? We know that Christians do not “sin deliberately so that grace may abound.” We know that Christians want to please the God who saved them. We know that sin caused our Savior to suffer and die, so we do not want to have anything to do with sin. We want to obey God as best we can, even though we know we can’t do it perfectly. We are obeying not because we earn anything through obedience, but because we love God and want to obey him. We are his children, not hired servants.

Our relationship with God is based on faith, not a list of rules. It is a personal loyalty to God, a loyalty that leads us to obey, but a loyalty that always looks directly to God, not to a list of rules as a gauge of our relationship. We never boast of obedience, nor despair of falling short. God has already made fully sufficient provision for justifying us even when we were wicked and ungodly.

When we are used to thinking of religion as a list of rules, Paul’s teachings seem self-contradictory. If our salvation doesn’t depend on the law, the reasoning seems to go, then why would anybody want to obey? Surely there has to be some kind of threat involved, or else the people of God would quickly jump into immorality. I exaggerate to make a point. The point is that we need to think about law in a different way, and we need to think of Christianity in a different way.

When people see laws and commands only in terms of reward and punishment, then they are naturally bewildered about the role of law when it is neither a basis of reward nor of punishment. Christ has removed it from such roles.

Why then should anybody obey? We need to reorient our thinking about law — away from thoughts of reward and punishment, away from a standard that we are measured by. We need to think of God’s laws as a matter of personal loyalty, as integral and natural to a personal relationship.

A new form of righteousness

God’s law, which for us is the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21), provides forgiveness for every transgression (except that of rejecting the forgiveness provided by Christ). This forgiveness is received by faith, not by penance, not by good works, not by our paying a price (Romans 3:28). This is not the kind of “law” that we are used to.

Christianity is a faith, not a list of rules. It is a belief in God’s grace, in his love, in his promise and power to forgive and cleanse. God grants his children not only forgiveness of sin, but also a new life — a life in Christ. Where once we lived for ourselves, now we live for Christ. And we do so because the Holy Spirit resides in us, not because we have suddenly become righteous ourselves.

The New Testament does give us rules and behavioral expectations, but these should be seen as the result of a faith relationship, not as the basis for it. They are not the measurement of our righteous standing before God — and that’s good, because we all fall short. We have no righteousness of our own, but when we put our confidence in Christ, God counts us as righteous (Romans 4:23-25). We have peace with God, not directly ourselves, but through Christ (Romans 5:1-2).

There is now a new righteousness that God has made known (Romans 3:21). It is a righteousness that does not come from the law. It is a righteousness that comes only from God himself (verse 22). The law and the prophets testified to this new righteousness, but it does not come from them; it comes only from God (verse 21).

This new righteousness comes from God through faith, to all who believe. Everyone is a sinner, and the only way we can have righteousness, the only way we can have peace with God, is by God giving it to us (verses 22-23). All who believe are made righteous, or justified, freely, by God’s grace through the redemption that comes through Jesus Christ (verses 23-24).

The fruit of the Spirit

Our righteousness, then, is not really ours — it is Christ’s. God attributes the righteousness of the only righteous human, Jesus, to us, if we are united to him by faith. More than that, he actually works in us to live righteously. That is why the good that Christians do is called “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-26). It is fruit of the Spirit because it is done only because God lives in us. The fruit is his, not ours.

God produces the fruit of the Spirit in us through faith, not because we “set our wills” or “try really hard” to be good. The root of righteous living is faith, not personal virtue. Sin is no longer our master, because we are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14).

We strive to be found in Christ (Philippians 3:7-9), not to be found personally good. Christians are not pursuing a righteousness of our own that comes from the law, but the righteousness that comes from God through faith in Christ (verse 9). When we pursue knowing and loving God, our lives will naturally (because God is at work in us) begin to produce righteous fruit. We can’t become righteous by trying to become righteous; we can become righteous only by trusting God, who makes believers righteous.

When our minds are set on knowing and loving Christ, the Spirit brings forth righteous fruit in us (Romans 8:5). When our minds are set on the desires of sin, we bring forth fruit of sin. The way to righteousness is through faith, and faith is strengthened when we are spending our time with Christ. It is through Christ, and not through ourselves, that we fully meet the righteous requirements of the law (verses 3-4).

As Christ loved us, so we are to love one another (John 13:34-35). In this kind of love, the whole law is summed up (Galatians 5:14). That is why John sums up God’s law for us (which Paul calls the law of Christ) in the commands that we are to believe in Christ and that we are to love one another (1 John 3:23-24). Only when our trust rests in Christ can we love one another as he loved us.

Communion with Christ

It is only because we are in Christ that we are able to live righteously. And that is not because we can do so, but because he already defeated sin for us. It is God who makes us stand firm in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). It is not our doing. All the glory is his because he has done every bit of it.

When we are in close communion, or fellowship, with Christ, we remember who we are and to whom we belong. We remember how destructive sin is, and that we have been set free from its power (Romans 8:1-4). We are inclined to heed the prompting of the Spirit and follow his lead (verses 12-16).

Our minds are led by the Spirit when we are spending time with Christ. But when we put our minds on the things of the sinful nature, we forget that we belong to Christ, that he has defeated the power of sin for us, that we are saved and that God loves us. All those things remain true, but our ability to see and believe them becomes clouded. In that condition, we are easy prey for the sinful nature.

We are no match for sin. It “so easily entangles” us, Hebrews 12:1 says. But when we are in Christ, the victory is already won. We do not have to let sin rule, because it no longer has power over us. How can we “throw off” sin? By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus (verse 2), the author and the perfecter of our faith. Our “feeble arms” and “weak knees” (verse 12) receive strength when our time and attention are kept on knowing and loving Christ.

That is why spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, meditation, simplicity, service, worship, etc. are so basic to the Christian life. These are means God has given us to stay “tuned into” the real truth about God and about ourselves: God loves us, we are his beloved children, he has saved us and he has freed us from the power of sin. Through such means, we remain “close to” God and have the courage to stand in the power of Christ’s resurrection — power he has given to all his children (Romans 8:10-11).

God’s grace and power are wonderful beyond description, brothers and sisters. May we continually grow in our faithful walk with our Lord, Savior and Teacher, Jesus Christ.

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