The role of law in the Christian life
Christians are not under the Law of Moses, and we cannot be saved by any law, even the commandments of the New Testament. But Christianity does have behavioral standards. It does involve changes in the way we live. It does make demands on our lives. We are to live for Christ, not for ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:15). God is our God, our priority in everything, and he has something to say about the way we live.
One of the last things that Jesus told his disciples to do was to teach people "to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). Jesus gave commands, and as his disciples we must also preach commands and teach people to obey them. These commands are not as a means of salvation, nor a standard of condemnation—they are instructions from the Son of God. People are to obey him not out of fear of punishment, but simply because he is their Savior, and he wants them to.
Perfect obedience is not the goal of the Christian life; the goal of the Christian life is to belong to God. We belong to God when Christ lives in us, and Christ lives in us when we put our faith in him. Christ in us leads us by the Holy Spirit toward obedience.
God is transforming us into the image of Christ. By God’s grace and power, we are becoming more like Christ. His commands involve not just outward behavior, but also the thoughts and motives of our hearts. These thoughts and motives of our hearts need the transforming power of the Holy Spirit; we cannot just change them ourselves by willpower. Part of faith, then, is trusting God to do his transforming work in us.
The greatest command—love for God—is also the greatest motive for obedience. We obey him because we love him, and we love him because he has graciously drawn us into his own household. It is God who works in us, both to will and to behave according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).
What do we do when we fall short? We repent and look to God’s grace for forgiveness, in full confidence that it is available for us. We do not want to take it lightly, but we should always take it.
What do we do when others fall short? Condemn them, and insist that they do good works to prove their sincerity? That’s the human tendency, it seems, and yet this is precisely what Christ said we should not do (Luke 17:3).
New Testament commands
What does the Christian life look like? There are hundreds of commands in the New Testament. We are not lacking in guidance for how a faith-based life works itself out in the real world. There are commands for how the rich should treat the poor, commands for how husbands should treat their wives, commands for how we should work together as a church. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 contains a simple list:
Live in peace with each other....
Warn those who are idle,
encourage the timid,
help the weak,
be patient with everyone.
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong...
always try to be kind....
Be joyful always;
give thanks in all circumstances...
Do not put out the Spirit’s fire;
do not treat prophecies with contempt.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.
Paul knew that his readers had the Holy Spirit, who could guide and teach them. He also knew that they needed some basic exhortations or reminders about the Christian life. The Spirit chose to teach and guide them through Paul himself. Paul did not threaten to kick them out of the church if they failed to measure up—he simply gave commands that instructed them in the paths of faithfulness.
Warnings about disobedience
Although forgiveness is available, sin has penalties in this life, and this sometimes includes social penalties. Paul writes, "You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat" (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Paul did not want the church to become a haven for blatant, defiant sinners. The church is a hospital for reform, not a "safe zone" for social parasites to practice. Paul told the Corinthian Christians to discipline an incestuous man (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), and he also encouraged them to forgive someone after he had repented (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
The New Testament has a lot to say about sin, and it gives us plenty of commands. Let’s look at the book of Galatians. In this manifesto of Christian freedom from the law, Paul also has some bold commands. Christians are not under the law, but neither are they lawless. He warns, "Don’t let yourself be circumcised, or else you will fall out of grace!" That is a pretty serious command (5:2-4). Do not let yourself be enslaved by an obsolete law!
Paul warns the Galatians about people who would try to prevent them "from obeying the truth" (v. 7). Paul is turning the tables on the Judaizers. They claimed to be obeying God, but Paul is saying they were not. We disobey God if we try to command something that is now obsolete.
Paul takes another twist in verse 9: "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." The sinful leaven in this case is a law-based approach to religion. This error can spread if the truth of grace is not preached. There are always people who are willing to look to laws as the measurement of how religious they are. Restrictive rules appeal to many well-meaning people (Colossians 2:23).
Christians are called to be free, but Paul cautions: "Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13). With freedom comes obligations, or else one person’s "freedom" would infringe on another’s. No one should have the freedom to preach other people into bondage, or to gain a following for themselves, or to make merchandise of God’s people. Such divisive and anti-Christian behaviors are not allowed.
"The entire law is summed up in a single command," Paul says in verse 14: "Love your neighbor as yourself." This summarizes our responsibility toward one another. The opposite approach, fighting for self-advantage, is self-destructive (v. 15).
"Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (v. 16). The Spirit leads us to love, not to self-centeredness. Selfish thoughts come from the flesh, but God’s Spirit produces better thoughts. "The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature" (v. 17). Because of this conflict between Spirit and flesh, we sometimes sin, even though we don’t want to.
So what is the solution to the sins that so easily beset us? Bring back the law? No! "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" (v. 18). Our approach to life is different. We look to the Spirit, and the Spirit will develop in us the desire and the power to walk according to the commands of Christ. We keep the horse before the cart.
We look to Jesus first, and we see his commands in the context of personal loyalty to him, not as rules "that have to be kept or else we’ll be punished."
In Galatians 5, Paul lists a variety of sins: "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like" (v. 19-21). Some of these are behavioral, some are attitudinal, but all of them are self-centered and stem from the sinful heart.
Paul warns us sternly: "Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (v. 21). This is not God’s way of life; this is not the way we want to be; this is not the way we want the church to be.
Forgiveness is available for each of these (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Does that mean the church should close its eyes to sin? No, the church is not a cover, or safe sanctuary for such sins. The church is to be a place where grace and forgiveness is expressed and extended, not a place where sin is given permission to abound unchecked.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the product of a heart devoted to God. "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires" (v. 24). With the indwelling Spirit at work in us, we grow in our desire to reject the works of the flesh. We bear the fruit of God’s work in us.
Paul’s message is clear: We are not under the law—but we are not lawless. We are under the authority of Christ, under his law, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are based on faith, motivated by love, characterized by joy and peace and growth. "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (v. 25).