In our local auto place, Dean, a mechanic, pulls me aside. “So, Keith,” he says, “head coverings. Whaddya got for me?”
First I wondered if Dean was referring to head gaskets, but as it turns out his church is suddenly intense about whether Dean’s wife can pray in their church without her head covered. Dean’s wife feels confused, guilty, and angry. Should she?
Back at church, Jeff suspects that as a preacher I am a little too lax on some black-and-white scriptural issues. But Jeff has come, wrestling with Sabbath observance, and informs me that his hobby will render him absent from church for three months. He looks at me worriedly, “That’s OK, right?” He hastily explains why this cannot be avoided and how he will “pray extra” during his time away.
Glenn asks me what specifically a tithe is. He wants to know, “a tithe is 10 percent of . . . what exactly? Before taxes? After taxes? On salary plus benefits, or not? How do we know when we can stop giving?”
All three Christians are asking for the same thing: The Bottom Line. The Rule. It would ease my mind, too, of so much uncertainty and guilt if I knew that God was satisfied with how I’m living, that I am “in the right.” (The dark side is, of course, that I also want to know if other people are “in the wrong.”)
God, however, for the glory and gladness of our salvation, won’t let us get away with that. In two explosive places in the Bible (Rom. 6-8 and Gal. 2-6), the apostle Paul tells us to stop counting our old religious beans and start mounting up on new spiritual wings.
Paul tells us that the “Law” (the Old Testament laws of Moses) was from God and good, but that it cannot keep up with God’s greater good in Christ, through whom “we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6). “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Gal. 3:25).
Trying to please God by written codes leaves us locked up like prisoners (Gal. 3:23), like children born in slavery (Gal. 4:21-31), and bereaves us like a widow who lives as though she is still bound to a dead husband by marital vows (Rom. 7:1-3).
It’s like visiting a logging festival.
It’s so impressive to see large men with beards felling trees with axes. It’s quaint. I think, “Yep, those were the good old days.” So I buy flannel, head home, and start chopping.
No, actually, as I rest by our warm wood stove, I am thankful for my chain saw. It just doesn’t have to be done the old way anymore.
Obsession with the Old Things kills our joy (Gal. 4:16), makes us keep score against each other (Gal. 5:15), leads to pride (Rom. 3:27), sets up a hopeless struggle against our own flesh (Rom. 7:7-8), and, in its full-blown expression, makes us stupid and hypocritical (John 5:1-15).
Even slavishly attempting to follow a New Testament law like head coverings (1 Cor. 11:1-16) will do nicely for killing freedom and joy. Instead of focusing on husbands and wives honoring God and each other in worship (the main point of the passage), Dean’s church pressures people to wear hats. Dean’s pastor may disagree with that interpretation, but he is not wearing priestly robes, blowing shofar trumpets, or slaughtering cows by the baptismal font. Also, the sanctuary carpet is made of exotic fabric blends (in violation of Lev. 19:19), but suddenly whether men cut their hair and whether women wear hats becomes essential. That’s not spiritual; it’s silly.
God gave the Law, and Jesus upheld it (Matt. 5:17-20), not because he was looking back to the glory days of Moses, but because his eyes were bright with the perfection and freedom of heaven.
God does, obviously, expect our lives to have moral structure and spiritual discipline. And the Law can guide us (tithing laws point us to generosity; Sabbath laws point us to rest and worship), but it can never keep up with grace. You are born again and cannot go back to the womb.
So, as I talked with Jeff about Sabbath, I will admit to pastoral cruelty. I leaned toward him and said, “Well, you know, Jeff, as a pastor I am duty-bound to tell you that according to the black-and-white word of Scripture, you’re busted.” He looked frightened for a moment, then we laughed and began to talk earnestly about Sabbath and how to live it as New Testament Christians.
And how do we do that? How do I live for God in a New Testament way, without worry and guilt?
I find great help, as a first step, in confessing utter brokenness. I used to think I was pretty good at doing God’s will, but I was a prideful fool. Even on our best days, we fall grievously short of the Law. We just can’t do it.
A.J. Jacobs, a self-described “Jewish agnostic,” just wrote a book about trying to (The Year of Living Biblically). He tried to live the literal laws of the Bible for one year. He is by no means a Christian, but one of the things that most surprised him is how often, and how completely, he breaks God’s laws.
Same with us. Some Christians have Sunday observance nailed but are very lustful. I have seen transcendent tithing and hellish racism wrapped up in the same follower of Christ. You can be great at commandment six (not murdering) but still struggle with hatred . . . and Jesus had words for us about that (Matt. 5:21-22). So first get loose from the lie, the pride, that has you gripping the Law with white knuckles.
Second, worship God—and be amazed that God chooses to love us, forgive us, and use us, imperfect as we are.
And then, finally, you’ll be free to prayerfully set a course and follow it, knowing this one central thing: with the grace of Jesus, you can’t lose. John Ortberg, in a wonderful sermon about treasure, said that once your heart gets its treasure right, it just “can’t miss.” What if you are simply captivated by Christ, and the desire of your heart is to somehow serve him?
What if Glenn prays to the Lord with a glad and generous heart and sets a number for his financial giving (and his alone) that is consistent, abundant, generous, and joyfully sacrificial? Then he can live in peace.
What if Jeff restructures his hobby to allow for Sunday worship? I encouraged him to do so. What if Jeff doesn’t, and instead takes special care for his study of Scripture and his prayers “on his own”? Either way he can be free and glad in all he offers to the Lord (Rom. 12:1-2).
This is the freedom, peace, and gladness God wants for us. Jesus died to give these blessings to us—to Dean and his wife, to Jeff, to Glenn, and to each of us swaddled in Grace.
A Christian band called “Burlap to Cashmere” once sang an invitation to the kingdom of God: “Kiss the light. Seize the day. Shine your shoes . . . come to play!” The Law can’t keep up with that, can it? In God’s kingdom, “all that counts is faith, expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
If you have a passion to please the Lord, well, against that there is no law (5:23). Live in the grace of Christ. Really, you just can’t miss.
- The author introduces us to Dean, Jeff, and Glenn and describes their questions regarding the Bottom Line. What’s your question?
- Do you believe that we have been released from the Law? What keeps you “gripping it with white knuckles”?
- Give an example of how you may be able to more fully “live for God in a New Testament way, without worry and guilt”?
- What does the freedom from the law tell you about God? What new insight do you have into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?
- What “laws” might you need freedom from in your church community? Discuss.