Dear Disciples of Jesus,
The season of Lent is a wonderful time for reflection and self-examination. It is a time to consider not only our spiritual condition but our Lord’s direction for our growth and development as his disciples.
Midway through this Lenten journey I was captivated by the lessons for the Third Sunday in Lent. I also was fascinated by the appointed epistle lesson for the Anglican community. It is an interesting combination of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Paul’s affirming words about the Law in Romans 7.
In our culture the word “law” seems to have an increasingly negative connotation. We have grown to resent anything that might restrict our freedom. “Law” sounds so authoritative, and we prefer not to be bound to any other authority than ourselves. In all our striving to define love as acceptance and tolerance, we accept those who refuse to live under the Law; we tolerate persecution and killing those who are called to enforce the law. Moral law, or morality, has been so relativized and personalized that any attempt to discuss moral behavior in absolute terms is considered a form of oppression.
Many indicators point to the fact that we have a problem with our understanding of the Law and its proper use, not just in our culture, but even among Christians. Such confusion will only lead to even greater moral decay and chaos. Recently, while watching the news in an airport terminal, I quietly commented that there is no need for anyone to attack us from the outside, as we seem to be on a path of self-destruction on the inside. Those sitting near me who overheard my comment all agreed. I believe that the Body of Christ has a role to play in overcoming that confusion by embracing, in word and deed, a proper understanding and use of the Law.
In attempting to clarify this understanding of the Law we begin where the Ten Commandments begin — with a relationship. That is my first point. The Law is relational. It is a covenant, an agreement between God and his people. Yes, it is authoritative because it comes from God. God initiates the relationship. God provides these commands and teachings because he loves his people. He gives his people his name and tells them what he is willing to be and do for them: “I am the Lord your God.” “You belong to me, and I belong to you. I heard your cries in the midst of your bondage and slavery in Egypt. I delivered you from oppression with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. I saved you because I love you and want what is best for you.”
There is a wonderful interplay between the indicative and the imperative tenses in these words. The imperatives always follow the indicative. The commandments are an indication of the relationship and the relationship demands healthy boundaries for living in the relationship.
Every commandment must circle back to the preamble. God is saying to his people, “Other people will have other gods, but not you because I am your God and you are my people. Other people may take my name in vain but not you, because I am your God and you are my people.” That is the way we must read each commandment.
The first table of the Law — the first three commandments — deal with our relationship with God and the second table of the Law — the last seven commandments — deal with our relationships with one another. It is only in living within the Law that we find true freedom from oppression. Apart from the Law, the oppression of chaos and anarchy will follow.
Every relationship of love has expectations for the beloved. Spouses have expectations for one another. Parents have expectations for their children. Children have expectations for their parents. Friends have expectations for each other. The very nature of love is to expect the very best of the beloved.
Every parent understands that relationships also include consequences. When expectations are not met, when the boundaries are crossed, there must be consequences for our actions. Loving relationships demand accountability and responsibility.
Many hold a three-fold understanding of the purpose of the Law:
1. It keeps our sinful nature in check through fear of punishment.
2. It is a mirror that reflects both God’s design for the human heart and at the same time this reflection exposes our sin and our need for Christ Jesus, the Savior.
3. It is a guide for faithful living once we come to faith in Jesus.
It is for this reason that Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that the Law and commandments are holy, righteous and good. What follows in Paul’s writing is my second point. The reality of sin in our life affects every relationship. Inside of each of us a battle is raging, as Martin Luther describes it, between the old Adam and the new Adam, between sin and righteousness, between my authority and God’s authority.
Paul writes, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. … What a wretched man I am” (Romans 7:15, 19, 24).
It is the Law that forces us to face this reality. Paul is not bound by pretending to be holy and righteous. He is freed to be honest and candid about this internal struggle.
In my 34 years as a sports official, I incurred a tremendous amount of criticism. I was the subject of name calling and curses that expressed amazing creativity with the English language through word choices and combinations of words. A wise senior official and mentor reminded me not to be so focused on their criticism but to engage in my own self-criticism. He said, “What makes you a professional is that you engage in self-criticism and are constantly striving to improve what you are called to do. You must keep learning and growing.”
As I thought about his words and applied it to my spiritual life, seeking to overcome a sense of self protection and defensiveness, I asked myself this question, “What is the worst thing that can be said about me?” It didn’t take me long to come to this conclusion, “I am a worthless sinner deserving death.” I realized that I had already accepted that verdict on my life. Additional criticism can’t be worse than that reality.
This is the nature of truth that sets you free. It is only when you reach this point that you realize the power of the Gospel. Only then did I realize my complete dependence on Christ for my redemption and salvation. There isn’t a commandment I haven’t broken. There isn’t a relationship that has not been affected by my selfishness. I no longer have to pretend to be righteous and holy on the basis of my own accomplishments and works. I am depending on the One who imparts his righteousness to me on the basis of faith. I trust in him and all that he has accomplished on my behalf. What I have learned in my own life is that people will never listen to your understanding of the truth from a position of selfrighteousness, but only from the position of a redeemed sinner.
That I am a worthless sinner deserving death is an important understanding of my life, but it is not the final verdict on my life. Through the grace and mercy of Christ in his death on the cross that paid the price for my sin and died the death I deserve, I have received complete forgiveness. Through his resurrection, I have received new life now and eternal life in his kingdom forever. In the waters of Baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I became his child and heir of his kingdom. This is the constant internal struggle between my sinful self and the righteousness imparted to me by Jesus.
And that brings me to a third point. What does this struggle produce in us? I believe Jesus intends for this struggle to produce both greater trust or faith in him and the transformation of our lives. My fear, however, is that we reduce the entire Gospel to what Dallas Willard calls, in his book Divine Conspiracy, “the Gospel of Sin Management.” He raises the concern that, on both ends of the theological spectrum, the Christian message has been reduced to how we deal with sin and wrongdoing.
Have we reduced the Gospel to the bumper sticker message: “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven”? If you have faith in Jesus Christ, you are forgiven, while in every other respect, your life is no different from those who have no faith in Christ at all. In this understanding of the faith, how we live makes little difference. It is only that we are prepared to die being insured of eternal life because our sins are forgiven. Of course, there are those who err on the other side of this equation and attempt to achieve eternal life by their own works and ways, believing their holy living forces God’s hand in declaring their salvation and granting them eternal life. Neither expression seems faithful.
Between these two extremes there is a path of discipleship. Repentance and amendment of life are still part of our understanding of confession and forgiveness. Abiding in Christ and his presence in our lives makes a difference in how we live, our values, our priorities, our relationships, our words, and our deeds. This life in Christ transforms our worldviews and our behaviors.
This transformation is not a few tips for selfimprovement. It is a radical transformation of death and new life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “The cross is laid on every Christian. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die. … But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 89, 91)
From the beginning of our lives in Christ, we are “dead men walking.” That is both Law and Gospel. We are dead men and women walking, dead to sin. We are walking, we are living a new life in Christ, even now! This reality — the reality of the cross and resurrection — frees us for the priorities of the Kingdom of Heaven, for ministry and mission, and for true discipleship, following Jesus.
The cross of Christ is the greatest sign of love the world will ever know. To live under the cross is to live a life filled with love. It is to live a life of loving service for the sake of others. It is to live a life of sharing this glorious good news, until the whole world knows. That is the nature of following Christ. In the midst of his love we learn from his Word, his teaching, and his commandments what needs to be transformed in us. We are not merely trying to imitate Christ but acknowledging that Christ seeks to be formed in us and manifested in us. (See Galatians 4:19) The alternative is falling into antinomianism and proclaiming “cheap grace.”
Because we are at once saint and sinner, we are never finished with this struggle and we must constantly turn to God’s Word, confess our sins, remember our baptismal identity, receive the Eucharist, and remain intimately involved in the fellowship of other faithful followers of Christ Jesus. As his disciples we are obedient to Jesus’ commands. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-17).
Finally, this understanding of our lives in Christ changes the way we share the Gospel of Jesus as well as his teachings, commandments and laws. Life in Christ is more than a list of “don’ts,” “shouldn’ts,” “can’ts” and “mustn’ts.” It’s not just what you give up that makes a difference in your life, it’s what you put in its place.
Luther understood this well. As he wrote the catechism, he not only dealt with the negative side of the commandments regarding what we are to avoid, but in his explanation to each commandment he wrote what it is we should be doing as a substitute for the negative behavior that was abandoned.
Luther writes, “we should love and trust God above all things … call on God in every time of need … worship him with prayer, praise and thanksgiving … assist our neighbor, protect him in danger and want … be pure and chaste in word and deed, honoring husbands and wives … protect our neighbor’s property … speak well of our neighbor … preserve and care for our neighbor’s family and property.”
My final point is that Jesus understands the Law as a matter of the heart. He summarized all of the teachings of the Law and the Prophets in just two commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the Law we see the true nature of love that finds freedom in the expectations, boundaries that provide safety, a covenant that defines the relationship, order that prevents chaos, and integrity that exposes our sin and points to our redemption and salvation, a life-giving relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Our world is dying to experience and understand this life-giving love of God even in his gracious giving of the Law. May such contemplation and action spill over from our Lenten journey to this Easter season.