In my last post, I wrote about how I understand grace to work. My basic contention is that striving for righteousness ends in more sin. Receiving God’s grace results in righteousness. The question arose, where do the Old Testament and and the teachings of Jesus (which seem to be more law and expectation oriented) fit into this? What role do they play?
Take a quick trip with me in your imagination. You are in going to a friend’s house for the first time and you are unfamiliar with the part of town they live in. So what do you do? 20 years ago you had to grab a map. You had to find your location, find the destination, and plot a course. This was not always easy. To me, this is like life before the law – little help from external sources and you did the best with what you had.
About 10 years ago you would have hopped on Google maps (or, God forbid, Yahoo maps) and printed out directions to reach your destination. You didn’t have to know where to find it on the map; you just followed the directions. As you drove, you would have been looking at the map, trying to read the street signs, and doing your best to avoid a head on collision with a Mack truck. And if you’re anything like me, you were listening to music and trying to eat your lunch at the same time. This, for me, is a picture of living by the law. It’s hard. It’s stressful. You’re always looking out for mistakes and wondering if you made the right turn. To make matters worse, you have this thing called the flesh that is actively working to steer you off course.
Thankfully, that scenario is a thing of the past for many of us. When I’m going somewhere new, now I just plug an address into my GPS. Think about it. I don’t have to even know where I am, just where I want to get. I drive with my eyes on the road while a friendly voice tells me where to turn and even what lane to be in. Talk about an easy yoke. Driving like this is a joy. This is what living by grace is like. This is what it looks like to listen to the Holy Spirit. In this process, your flesh is limited in the amount of confusion it can cause, but when you are knocked off course the GPS automatically redirects you back onto the correct route.
Now, which of the alternatives gives you the correct route? You might find your way with a map but no directions. You will certainly have the correct route with the Google Maps directions. These directions might be identical to the GPS directions. In other words, this is not about finding a different route. This is about what method you take to follow the route.
The Old Testament laws, for example, would lead us in the same direction most of the time as the the Holy Spirit. But keep in mind there is not a law for every circumstance. It is impossible for laws written in one time to be relevant and binding for all people in all times because situations change. Using our driving scenario, what do you do it you come to a stop light and the sensor is broken. You wait through two or three rotations of the light, but no one moves. I’ve been there. People will wait until some brave soul goes through the red light. In that circumstance, following the law will result in the opposite results of the intention behind creating it (i.e. to keep traffic moving smoothly). Going back to the OT, what do you do when your bull gores someone’s slave? Well, who cares? I don’t have an bull. And if you have a slave, I’m calling the FBI.
But here is another challenge, what if you misunderstand your GPS? In the real world (as opposed to our analogy here), the GPS can be out of date or lose the satellite connection. In those situations, it is good to have a map or directions handy. In our attempt to listen to the Holy Spirit, our motivations and eccentricities hinder our ability to hear and follow the guidance of God. So we have the Law and the words of Jesus (among others) as the standard by which we measure our ability to follow. If I think the GPS is telling me to drive south on I-95 to get to a place that is north of my home, I trust instead the road sign that says I-95 North with a list including the city I’m trying to reach on it.
Leaving our analogy behind now, the law is the right and true standard of God. It let’s me know what God expects of me and gives me insight into how closely I’m aligned to his heart. But I cannot use the law as the method for aligning myself with his heart. I think I can, but it doesn’t work. At the end of Romans 7, Paul says that in his mind he is serving the law of God but in his flesh he’s serving the law of sin. He thinks he can serve God this way but it only results in sin (that’s basically how I take it).
The same with the teachings of Jesus. I think Jesus is truly calling us to a new way of living, thinking, and being. But we won’t get there by trying harder. We only get there by letting go. We have to cease striving for righteousness and simply receive righteousness. Then, as we receive it by grace, we can operate in that righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Until our flesh is renewed (heavenly bodies?) we will still fight and war within ourselves, but by submitting to the Spirit we can begin to win the war.
So the law says do not covet, do not lust, do not steal, do not lie, and so on. In trying to live like this, I can strive to do it in order to be righteous. Or, I can trust that God has given me righteousness and trust that he will empower me to do the right thing. So when I’m tempted to lie, I don’t look to the law for strength. I look to God. It’s not about quoting Scripture (a common recommendation), unless that helps me look to God. I simply say, “I trust you, God, that you have my best interests at heart. I trust you that you can give me victory over sin. So if you say so, I’ll tell the truth now.”