When Jesus died, rose and ascended to the Father, he established a new relationship between humanity and God—a new covenant. No longer would we need to relate to God through laws, ordinances, sacrifices and ritual. Through Jesus, we can talk to God as son or daughter to a Father. We are part of the family — God’s beloved children.
Sometimes this new relationship seems too good to be true. Are the barriers really removed? Can we really come "boldly before the throne of grace" as if we belonged there?
This can be particularly difficult for people who have taken their "religion" very seriously. Even though we might understand grace with our heads, some of the old habits, fears and phobias, deeply etched through years of legalism, remain in our hearts. How exactly should we relate to God and his law under this new covenant? It was easy when we could measure righteousness with days observed, unclean food not eaten and time spent on our knees. What does God expect us to do now?
About a year ago I had an experience that helped me sort this out—I became an American citizen.
What I remember most about that day was an exhilarating sense of belonging. This was my country now.
Anyone who has ever sought citizenship of another country, be it the USA, Australia or wherever, knows it is not to be taken lightly. You commit yourself to a lengthy, quite expensive and sometimes rather nerve-wracking series of events. Why did I do it?
I didn’t need to. I was a Permanent Resident, a status that allowed me to live and work in the USA as long as I lived, providing I obeyed the law, paid my taxes and didn’t engage in "un-American activities." But I was still a foreigner, classified as an "alien." The longer I lived in the States the more I realized that I identified with the best of American values and way of life. I was accepted, but I was still on the outside, looking in. I was not content to be an alien. I wanted to belong. So I took the plunge and began the process of what is called "naturalization."
The naturalization process can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year. The first step is to be fingerprinted, presumably to make sure you are not on somebody’s "undesirables" list. A few weeks later you are summoned to an interview with an Immigration Officer. You are tested for your ability to speak and write English, and given a basic but thorough test of American history, geography and U.S. government and law. I suspect that in preparing for this test, most potential citizens end up knowing more about the USA than people who have lived here all their lives.
At all times I found the Immigration department’s personnel courteous, respectful and fair, but they were not overly friendly. They have a responsibility, because not all who apply to live in America have the best interests of the country at heart.
I passed the interview and test with flying colors. But I was not finished yet. Before my citizenship could be approved, there had to be a very thorough background check by the FBI. This, the officer warned me, might take a few months. "And remember," she cautioned, "You are not a citizen yet." She was only doing her job, but as I left her office, I felt more "alien" than ever.
Jesus paid for our transgressions, past, present and future. But does that mean we can lie, steal, kill and commit adultery with no fear of penalty?
In some ways the next few months were the hardest. Even if you are a law-abiding person, knowing the FBI is investigating you is unnerving. But eventually I received notification that I had been approved, with a notice to show up in five weeks at the courthouse in Indianapolis for the naturalization ceremony. However, this mostly upbeat notice carried one last caution. On the day of naturalization, I had to declare any and all infringements of the law I had committed between the time the FBI had finished their check and the actual ceremony.
I became very conscious of "the law" in those last few weeks. I didn’t want anything to go wrong after I had come so far. I tried to do everything — and I do mean everything — right. I became conscious of every rule, regulation and minor by-law. I drove slowly, parked legally and triple-checked my luggage for forbidden items before I flew anywhere. I became the quintessential legalist.
Alien no longer
On the day of the swearing in, I drove (very carefully) up to Indianapolis and joined 82 other potential citizens in the courthouse. Almost immediately I noticed a change of atmosphere. The usually formal officials were smiling and welcoming. The judge who administered the oath of allegiance was relaxed and friendly. He spent some time explaining what citizenship meant in very positive terms. My wife, who is a natural-born citizen, told me later that it reminded her of many things she had always taken for granted.
The judge explained that we were no longer "aliens." We would now become fully fledged Americans, with the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as every other citizen, except that we could not run for President. (You do have to be born here to do that — but that’s okay. I wasn’t planning on it.) He encouraged us to "make our citizenship count." And then we — a disparate group of Mexicans, Chinese, Egyptians, two Russians, several Indians, four Nigerians, one German and me, an Englishman — recited the Oath of Allegiance together and became America’s newest citizens.
What I remember most about that day was an exhilarating sense of belonging. This was my country now. Old Glory was my flag, and I had one ready to put up outside my house as soon as I got home. The world outside the courthouse was much the same as when I went in, but for me, everything had changed.
I do, of course, love and enjoy my other country — The United States allows people to hold dual citizenship. But I still feel a buzz as I offer my American passport to the Immigration office when I come home from travels. Or when I use the personal pronouns — "our," "we" and "my" — when I talk about America.
My whole attitude toward the law changed. I now wanted to not merely avoid breaking the law, but to live up to the finest ideals of my adopted country.
What I really noticed was how my relationship to the law changed. I no longer lived in fear of making a small mistake. That didn’t mean I could have a careless disregard for it. My new status as citizen did not permit me to do whatever I liked. To the contrary, now I had an even stronger desire to uphold the law and to avoid anything that might harm my new country. I noticed that I winced when America was criticized, and I often speak up in her defense when I hear disparaging comments.
In short, my whole attitude toward the law changed from one of caution and even fear to one of support. I now wanted not merely to avoid breaking the law, but to live up to the very finest ideals of my adopted country. It was not a case of having to—but of wanting to. I wanted to "make my citizenship count."
Citizenship in heaven
So what has this got to do with you? Most readers have no need or desire to seek citizenship of another country. However, if you have become a Christian you have been granted citizenship in the kingdom of God. "Our citizenship is in heaven," Paul reminded the church at Philippi (Philippians 3:20). "You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone," he wrote to the Christians at Ephesus (Ephesians 2:19-20).
Many if not most of these people were Gentiles, and it was hard for those who came from a Jewish background to hear this. After all, they, the Jews, were the chosen people, with whom God had made the original "old" covenant. Didn’t that give them some advantage? But this Paul fellow seemed to have a rather cavalier attitude toward their cherished laws and traditions. Surely these Gentiles had to do something.
They had misunderstood. Neither Paul, nor Jesus before him, gave anyone permission to break the law, or even to regard it lightly. "The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good," wrote Paul to the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome (Romans 7:12). He wanted them to understand that citizens of the kingdom of God can have an entirely different approach to obeying God. It was no longer necessary to live in nagging fear, or to assuage guilt by offering a sacrifice. Your status as a citizen is not in danger. No heavenly FBI is checking up on you. You belong — you are included in all God’s plans, and he has in Jesus established an unbreakable bond with you.
It takes time to fully appreciate this, especially if you have had a different relationship with God and his law. Even Peter, a man who had known Jesus intimately, but who took his traditional religious observances seriously, had difficulty at first. The New Testament tells us how, many years after Jesus had ascended to heaven, it still took a special miracle to convince Peter that "unclean" Gentiles should be included as fully fledged citizens of the kingdom (Acts 10).
However, when he did finally get it, he wrote confidently to all who were Christians, "You are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted (1 Peter 2:9-10, Message Bible).
We no longer have to tiptoe through life, treating the law of God as an obstacle course. But neither can we swagger around, abusing our status as citizens to do whatever we like, under the umbrella of "grace." Jesus paid the penalty for our transgressions, past, present and future. But does that mean we can lie, steal, kill and commit adultery with no fear of penalty?
If someone were to say to me, "Now that you are an American citizen, you can break the laws, cheat on your taxes, show disrespect to the flag and do things that subvert the country if you want to," I would reply, "That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Why would I want to do those things?" I want, as the judge exhorted at the naturalization ceremony, to "make my citizenship count." I want to do all I can to uphold, strengthen, support and be an asset to my new country.
So why would a citizen of the kingdom of God want to live contrary to its laws and way of life as revealed by Jesus? The answer to "how much can we get away with?" is "Why would we want to ‘get away’ with anything?" It becomes a stupid question.
It is not a case of "how much do I now have to do?" Rather, it is, "How do I live my life in the best interests of the kingdom of God? Not because I am afraid of it, but because I love it, identify with it, and want other people to know what it is like."