A thought crossed my mind a few days ago. It continues to float in, wander around, and float out again. Last night I ran upstairs to jot down a few notes so that I would be able to somewhat clearly remember the jumbled thought, and, hopefully, organize it and make it a little more coherent. As I start to write this I can feel my heart beating a little faster because I tend to keep thoughts like this, thoughts concerning my faith and understanding private with the exception of a very small number of people.
Perhaps a little back story is required…
When I first began to read the Bible and other texts concerning the Christian faith in earnest, I was struck by the image of Jesus’ openness and vulnerability in the garden of Gethsemane. It was just him and God. There he prayed, alone, and asked God “may this cup be taken from me,” (Matt. 26.39 NIV). Alone, in solitude with others watching outwardly in order that he not be disturbed during such an intimate act. Also, he, himself, directs that prayer is an act to be performed in private in Matthew 6, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen,” (Matt. 6.6, NIV). Long story short, I rarely, if ever, pray in public. When I do pray in public, either in church, at the dinner table, or reciting the Lord’s prayer before an athletic event in high school (in my youth), it does not feel the same. There is a lack of intimacy, a lack of depth. It is not empty, but definitely not full either. Does that make sense?
I also take very seriously words from earlier in chapter 6 of Matthew, verses two through four, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret,” (NIV).
As I said, I keep my thoughts private, probably to an extreme. I keep my actions concerning my faith private, definitely to an extreme.
There are other reasons, well really only one reason, why I tend to keep quiet concerning my faith, and that is because when it comes to the very loud and outspoken conservative evangelical point of view, I have always seen myself in the minority and did not want to attempt to defend my thoughts against an overwhelming number of people driven by an unwavering opinion, belief, or faith in their rightness over others. And I am not just referring to more conservative Christian points of view, but also atheists and agnostics that are just as fervent and unmoving in their opinions and/or beliefs. It hits harder, though, coming from a fellow believer, because a fellow believer will tell me that I am missing, or have missed, the point, attempt to correct me, and then tell me that because I do not agree that I am lost and going to hell. Though those closest to me may never tell me that to my face, they do support and follow those that proclaim such, and, I won’t lie, that stings. That stings a lot.
So where am I going with this?
The thought that crossed my mind the other day was this. Grace vs. legalism. That’s it. One word against another, but oh, isn’t it so much more complex. A couple of definitions to start:
Grace- (in the Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings; a divinely given talent or blessing; the condition or fact of being favored by someone.
Legalism- excessive adherence to law or formula; theology dependence on moral law than on personal religious faith.
(Both definitions come from the handy-dandy New Oxford American Dictionary app on my computer)
Grace is further defined by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland as “God’s unfailing commitment to love,” (If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, p.7).
Those that read, study, have read, or have studied the Bible know that both legalism and grace are within it. Grace tends to abound in the New Testament, and legalism is firmly rooted in the first five books of the Old Testament, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Why is that? The simple explanation is that Jesus came as the Messiah, or Savior, and fulfilled the old law (Matt. 5.17), bestowing upon the world God’s grace (John 1.17). There is more to it than that, especially if one reads the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) while considering what the Israelites living under the law were doing.
Think about it. These men, women, and children were freed from their bonds of slavery after generations. They had no real identity as a free culture. Little set them apart as God’s chosen people and descendants of Abraham from those other Middle-Eastern cultures surrounding them. They wandered to and fro seeking land to establish themselves. Not only were they seeking land to establish themselves as God’s chosen, but also they needed a law or code to set them apart, or sanctify themselves, from those around them that did not subscribe to their one God.
So there they were, a small, wandering tribe of people with little cultural identity to set them apart and a belief system that was completely alien to all of the other cultures around them. What better way for God to set them apart than to give them a strict code of law to follow and attempt to fulfill? A strict code that would not only keep them safe from natural harm (it protected them from eating spoiled shellfish, parasite ridden pork, and other harmful things (Lev. 11) ), but also directed the propagation and growth (the classification of homosexuality as an abomination/sin (Lev. 18 and 20), etc…) of the small tribe into a larger, established society dedicated to continuing its sanctification.
The Israelites eventually settled on a piece of land and continued to grow through observance of their God-given law. In this way, legalism served a positive purpose. It gave a group of people a direction for positive growth and security. It helped them establish a stable society in a time when the state, as we know it today, did not exist. As all of this was happening, they continued to live in anticipation of their Messiah who would save them from the perils of the surrounding world.
They did not follow the law word for word. How could they? It would take a true act of God for anyone to be able to follow such a strict and regimented code without falter. They did, however, follow it well enough to continue to multiply and reestablish themselves after being conquered and moved and resettled again, and being hellenized by the Greeks and later ruled by the Roman state (though different than the modern nation-state, a state nonetheless).
Seeing that His people were set apart distinctly from those surrounding them, and that their society was stabilizing and that the world around them was growing more organized and stable, God felt the time was right to bring forth a new law, one different from the law under which they lived that promoted outward sanctification, but inward sanctification. A law that would not only provide for their salvation but also the salvation of those with whom they lived and interacted, namely Gentiles. Thus enters into the world, Jesus.
Arriving in a time of Roman rule over the kingdoms of Israel and after the hellenization of the region by the Greeks, with trade routes and roads coming together and stretching to the limits of the known world, Jesus knew that the time had come for the law to change and that the gospel could and would be spread to the corners of the earth, allowing for the salvation of all people under his new covenant, regardless of their lack of observation of the old one. The Hebrew people had managed to maintain their society and culture under foreign rule and that through peace, they could continue doing such.
The law became one of spiritual sanctification. Followers were to no longer set themselves apart with action and behavior governed by law, but through their faith and their behavior as guided by that faith, with the complex old law being reduced to one phrase, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,” (Matt. 7.12, NIV). Followers were also commissioned to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Matt. 28.19-20 NIV).
The law became one of internal observation rather than observing that others were keeping the law. It became a law of forgiveness of others and bestowing grace and love on others, because we, ourselves, are inadequate to fulfill the old law. Through the same forgiveness shown to us, and the life given to us, we can forgive others and live a life of love, free from the judgment and punishment of others. In short, the law became love, and that love is shown through grace and mercy.
The writer of James said it well. “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement,” (James 2.12-13 NIV).
We all think of the impossibility of following the legalism of the Old Testament and the kind of discipline that must take. Little is ever said of how incredibly difficult it is to live under the covenant of the Gospel. How much more infinitely difficult is it to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5.44 NIV). Remember the “love” spoken of by Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth? The love that is “patient” and “kind”? The love that “does not envy” or “boast”? That “is not proud” or “rude” or “self-seeking” or “easily angered”? That “keeps no record of wrongs”? That “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth”? That “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”? That is a hard love to give, even to ourselves and those we love. Imagine showing our enemies that kind of love. Imagine the kind of grace it takes to give that kind of love.
I have read those words many times in private and a time or two at weddings and one funeral. Yet, it still hits me at how difficult it is to show that kind of love, and I imagine it is just as difficult for all of us. I don’t just imagine, I know it is. It is infinitely easier to show contempt toward those with whom we disagree or disapprove. It is easy to show disapproval. Replacing that contempt and disapproval with love and mercy is our calling. It is what we are supposed to do, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (John 13.34 NIV).
It is an endless road to walk. I know I will spend the rest of my life attempting to learn how to love the way in which we are instructed, and I will likely not ever get it completely right. I suggest we all do a little walking ourselves before we try to tell others where and how to walk. That is the whole point of the Gospel, not how, or about what, my neighbor thinks and lives, but how I think and live, and do I live and walk a life of love.
I partially stole the title of this piece from Philip Gulley’s book The Evolution of Faith. It’s a pretty good book and one that I will likely flip through again.