In a previous blog post, I observed that Scripture reveals a progression from law to relationship to faith. In Habakkuk, the prophet said, “The righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4) This statement in Habakkuk is the second half of a verse that contrasts “the proud one” whose soul “is not upright to the righteous one who lives by faith. The implication is that the righteousness is linked to faith and is contrasted to pride.
We see this theme continued in the New Testament:
“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Galatians 3:11)
“[M]y righteous one shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:37)
And the reason that salvation is by faith (in the grace of God) is so that no one can boast.
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:9)
When Jesus summarized all the law and prophets in just two statements (love God and love your neighbor) he whisked us past the academic details of the law to the simple heart and spirit of the law. (Luke 10:25-27) If we think this simplification of the law makes it any easier on us, however, we should think again. At the same time Jesus simplified the expression of the law, Jesus upped the ante on us when he said that, if we even lust in our hearts, we have committed adultery. If we have even gotten angry in our hearts at our brother, we may have committed the sin of murder. (See Mathew 5:21-48)
Jesus made the law simpler and more difficult to follow at the same time!
Maybe this is because our ability to follow the law (to maintain God’s standard of morality) isn’t the key point. In fact, the point is our inability, in ourselves, to live up to God’s standard! Until we realize that we can’t measure up, we don’t measure up, we are depending on ourselves and our own efforts to “be right with God”. But we never can. Whether it’s 613 laws or just two principles, we fall short.
Our focus shouldn’t be on the laws and other people. On this horizontal level, we compare ourselves to others, and we judge ourselves and others in comparison. This is where pride and self-righteousness dwell, and the focus is, ultimately, on ourselves. Rather our focus should be vertical, on God and our relationship to him.
This is, perhaps, why Jesus was harshest in his criticism of the religious leaders of his time. They multiplied laws on top of laws, but Jesus said they were nothing but whitewashed tombs – beautiful and clean on the outside, but empty and unclean on the inside. (Matthew 23:27) They devoted their attention to the minutest of details in tithing dill and cumin while ignoring the weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
Whether there are 613 laws to keep or just two, who tend to view morality as a competition in which we compare ourselves to others. The person who is focused more on the details than on doing what he knows and believes he should do, humbly, in deference to God, and God alone, misses the entire point of those laws in the first place. The laws are a way of measuring ourselves and should, if we are candidly assessing ourselves, point us back to our need to go to God for mercy, grace and forgiveness.
It almost doesn’t matter what the law is to which we ascribe. At least, it may not matter what nuances of the law we ascribe to Paul. makes this point in Romans 14 when he said:
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind…. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean…. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:5, 14, 22-23)
James says it this way: “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17) What is the law isn’t really the most important point; the key is what we do with what we believe the law to be. As Habakkuk said, “The righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4) This is the law summed up in one rule.
Whatever that law is that we feel we should, in sincerity, be living up to, we are going to fail. We are not going to be found righteous by God on the basis of how well we kept the law. We will be attributed righteousness from God by our faith – by our willingness to yield ourselves to God and what we know/believe He desires from us; by our relationship to/with God; by our dependence on Him as our source of righteousness, grace and salvation.
I believe that the fundamental point is that we need to yield to God. We need to let God be God and abandon ourselves to Him.
We see a progression and thrust in the Scripture from over 600 laws, to a couple of dozen laws, to a summary of one or two laws. This progression tracks our experience with God. We start with a code of morality, but the point of that code of morality is that we don’t measure up. We have to come to the end of ourselves and our own efforts so that we can begin to understand that our only source of salvation is God, and His mercy.
This is the beginning. From that point of yielding to God, both in recognizing our sinfulness and in accepting the gift of grace that God offers to us freely (lest any man boast), we enter into right relationship with God whereby He becomes our everything. He becomes our savior and our Lord. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live for God.
From there it is a faith relationship in which we seek to know, to respond and to conform ourselves to God. Not that we can do this by and of ourselves, but it is God working within us to change our will and desire so that it conforms to His will. (Philippians 2:13) God begins to conform us from the inside out. This faith, when active and effective in our lives, begins to bear fruit outwardly in our attitudes, goals and actions.
In my opinion, the fact that there is so much emphasis in Christian circles on the details of the law, the morality and the rules of Christian living is evidence of our immaturity as a whole in living the Christian life. It shouldn’t ultimately be about some universal set of rules to which we all ascribe, but individual lives lived earnestly in humility and faith before God as we encourage and exhort each other to be faithful to what we each know and believe to be true – to live out what we believe God expects of us.
If God is working in us, there should be some uniformity and similarity to what this looks like, but each of us different. Each of struggles with different things. Each of us have areas in our lives we want o hold on to, areas that God is gently addressing. How this works out – how God works it out – in each of us is going to be unique to the individual. We need to allow each other grace to grow in our vertical relationships with God.
But we tend, like the Pharisees, to live much nearer the surface, the entry level to faith, where we focus on the details of the rules, seeking affirmation, wanting others to subscribe to our view of the rules. We tend to be more concerned about polishing the outside that everyone sees, while the inside is neglected, empty and unclean. Faith is more of a vertical orientation toward God, but we often find the horizontal plain to be more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.
In the end, though, we are not justified by our own efforts. We are not running a race against other imperfect people. We are justified only by faith in the grace of God and sanctified by His working in us. Our prize will come from a perfect God who desires to work his perfection in us from the inside out.