Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 19

Up till now in this survey of the basics of Christian faith, we've been looking at the Ten Commandments, the foundational laws of God that Jesus distilled in two succinct principles:
  • Love God
  • Love Neighbor
"On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," Jesus said. These commands are the core of God's will, plan, and purposes for our lives. There's no way to sufficiently emphasize how important they are to God.

But there's also something you should know regarding the Bible's teaching about God's law. The New Testament book of Galatians puts it this way: "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for 'The one who is righteous will live by faith.'” (Galatians 3:11)

To be justified means, in this connection, to have an excuse for taking up space in the universe, to have the right to live in the kingdom of God.

According to the Bible, which is God's Word, no one is capable of justifying their continued existences in this world or the next on the basis of performing the requirements of the Ten Commandments. The New Testament book of Romans, among other places in the Bible, asserts that "no one is righteous," that word righteous, in the original Greek, being the adjectival version of the verb, justify. We can't do enough good things to ever fulfill God's commands to love God and love neighbor.

This is true even for people who love God and want to do His will. The first-century preacher Paul admits:
I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn't that the real question? (Romans 7:22-24, The Message translation)
I think that it is the real question. And happily, God provides the answer. As Paul goes on to put it:
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:25, The Message)
In fact, going all the way back to the beginnings of Old Testament history, no person ever justfied herself or himself in God's eyes. Not since sin beclouded human behavior and culture has any human being been capable of completely shaking sin from their souls. And since the presence of one iota of sin in us is so repugnant to God as to prevent us from having fellowship with Him--from having our existences being justified, we needed God to send us a lifeline. That's what God has done in Jesus Christ!

Paul explains it this way in a passage that's usually read in the churches of my Lutheran tradition on the last Sunday in October every year:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
So, what then is the point of all of God's commandments?
  • First: In them, God confirms something we already knew to be true.
The law, the Bible insists, is written on our hearts. In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talks about this stubborn notion of right and wrong evident across cultures throughout human history, as a clue about the meaning of life. Through the commands, God confirms that our hunches are right: There is a right way to live and it's about living in a community of love with our creator and our neighbors.
  • Second: In the commands, God shows us that there's something wrong and we can't fix it ourselves.
Lewis summarizes our dilemma at the end of the extraordinary first chapter of Mere Christianity:
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.
Intrinsic in Lewis' summary is the insight of Martin Luther that God holds the commands before the human race like a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we truly are. Through them, we know that we don't measure up to what we know in our bones is the way human beings are meant to live.
  • Third: The commands then create what I would call a healthy despair.
Despair is, literally, hopelessness. When our hopes are falsely based, despair can be wise. There's a scene in the movie, Spanglish, in which the mother of a woman whose life is on the brink of total disaster tries to help her daughter. "Lately," she tells her, "your low self-esteem is just good common sense." Once we've come face-to-face with the false bases on which we have hoped, we are sensible enough to have become wide open to another, better possibility.

When God's law drives us to the despairing insight that we cannot justify our existences or feel whole or be reconciled to God and others based on our efforts to be righteous or perfect or beautiful or powerful or essential, we're driven to the only place and the only person Who can justify us: The Savior Jesus, Who died on a cross and rose from the dead, for us.

When we let it, the law of God drives us to Christ, Whose perfect obedience to the law and the will of God opens up eternity to us.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)
  • Finally: God gives the commands as a guide to those who have experienced justification through their faith in Jesus.
Once God's grace has changed you from an enemy of God to His friend, you want to do what you can to please Him.

One of the most intriguing passages dealing with the impossibility of keeping God's commands comes in the New Testament book of Acts, which tells the story of the Church from the day the risen Jesus ascended to heaven until about thirty years later. Non-Jews--Gentiles--had begun to believe in Jesus Christ. This created a problem in the minds of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews. No one they knew of had ever enjoyed a relationship with God without being a Jew, which for them meant obeying the many laws of Judaism, from circumcision of all males to many dietary restrictions. So, some of the Jewish Christians, understandably, argued that Gentiles who came to faith in Christ had to be Jews before they could be Christians.

A council was held in Jerusalem to decide on the matter. After some prayer and discussion, the apostle Peter spoke up. In the interest of comity and unity, he hoped that the Gentiles would abide by a few simple guidelines, not as a means of justifying themselves or proving their faith, but out of consideration to their Jewish brothers. But Peter (and the whole council) rejected the idea that by obeying laws, either Gentiles or Jews could make themselves right with God.

Peter reminded his fellow Jews that they'd never had much success at keeping the law themselves. I love Peter's words, in which he refers to when God chose him to be the first of the early Christians to share the Good News of Jesus with non-Jews:
"My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11)
When we let God's commands drive us to Jesus Christ for true and enduring hope, then they've done their work.

No comments: