Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
A few years ago, I met and ministered with Stephan Tchividjian, the eldest grandson of Billy Graham, at a banquet for a ministry in Hill Country, Texas. He often says, "Rules without relationship leads to rebellion." His words really resonated with me.
When God gave His law to the people of Israel, He clearly explained the consequences, both good (blessing) and bad (cursing), that would come based on their obedience or disobedience.
The scattered, oppressed condition of God's people in Nehemiah's time was a direct result of their failure to remain faithful to His covenant and live in obedience to His law (Deut. 28:58-68). Their unwillingness to pursue the relationship with God that He intended made it impossible for them to live according to His law.
Even secular educators understand that knowing about an author's life and character has great value in properly understanding their writing.
The same thing holds true with respect to God and His Word. Without knowledge of the heart and personality of God, His law became increasingly subject to skewed and legalistic interpretations. Instead of receiving the law as God's provision to establish them in their chosen position as representatives of His glory and holiness to the nations of the earth, the Israelites either ignored the law or attempted to gain righteousness by following hollow formulas and ritualistic obedience.
Mount Sinai will forever be remembered as the place where God gave His law to the people of Israel. Although the law was perfect, no one could live in perfect obedience to its demands, so someone greater than Moses had to come and provide what the law was unable to supply—a heart of love for God. When we cultivate a heart of love for Jesus through intimate seasons of prayer and worship, it causes us to walk according to all that He has for us so that we fulfill our destinies and callings.
But there was a missing ingredient.
Before Jesus came, the people of God attempted to please Him by only living according to the law—half of what they needed. As a result, the law produced curses and condemnation instead of blessings. God had given the law through Moses, but it was necessary that Jesus come to supply the missing ingredient: grace.
Through the grace of God, Jesus brought forgiveness of sins and made peace between sinful man and a holy God. In God's everlasting mercy, relationship was established between Himself and His chosen people. The apostle John emphasizes the superiority of what God accomplished through Jesus in John 1:17:
"The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."
Jesus not only gives us the truth but also the grace to chew up and digest or accept the truth.
To understand the important distinction between the Mosaic Law and the grace and truth that came through Jesus, consider ordinary table salt. Salt has two basic ingredients, sodium and chloride. Sodium by itself is deadly when ingested; chloride by itself is also lethal. But if the two are put together, they provide a variety of benefits ranging from seasoning and preservation of food to medicinal uses.
The Lord knows that unrestrained grace, the license to go out and do whatever you want, will lead a person to be morally loose. The law checks sinful desires and provides moral structure for a life of godliness. But the truth of God's law without God's grace and mercy results in spiritual death because even redeemed human beings are unable to keep the law perfectly. Even the most zealous Pharisee was unable to accomplish perfection according to the law of God. For that reason, God offered Jesus to humanity as the perfect combination of grace and truth, mercy and law.
Another illustration of this truth is written about in Ezekiel, who had a vision of a valley of dry bones. In this vision, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones so they might live, and as he speaks, the bones begin to arrange themselves into human form. Ezekiel 37:8 says, "... the sinews and the flesh grew upon them, and the skin covered them. But there was no breath [spirit] in them."
As the prophet continued to speak, the breath of life came upon the assembled bodies and "they lived and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army" (Ezek. 37:10b).
Note that before God gave life to His army, He gave them structure. Likewise, when God gave the law, it was His way of providing a skeletal structure that He could energize and raise up into a living, breathing army of priests. The Pharisees rightfully understood the importance of pursuing obedience to the commandments, but they did not realize that the commandments were not able to bring life. They made the mistake of focusing their energies on a proper construction of the skeleton without understanding that no matter how well they achieved their goal, it was still a vain pursuit without the presence of the Spirit of God—who alone brings life. When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in his second letter, he called it "... having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Tim. 3:5a).
The law provided the form or structure of godliness, but it did not supply the power to live up to its standards. Many Christians today are entrenched in religious systems that acknowledge the need for the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in theory, but in reality, those religious systems are modern forms of legalism. Joy and vitality, necessities in a healthy relationship with Christ, are robbed through legalism. Basing relationships with God on performance rather than grace brings bondage that results in walking under clouds of condemnation because of attempts to perform the law without the passion and grace that come through relationship with Christ.
Below is a quote by the late Dr. Edwin Louis Cole in a book I wrote called Living Life Well ... the Spirit of the Commandments:
"Morality by majority is a plurality by partiality. People who rule by personal prejudice rather than principle are a danger to themselves. The more a man lives his life on principle rather than personality the straighter will be his course. Basic principles for true morality are found in the Ten Commandments. It is built on the first commandment of love for God. He is always right."
Grace Without Law
The U.S. Constitution is the written word of the country, and God's Constitution is the written Word, the Bible.
Whenever an agreement or contract containing legalese needs interpretation, it's left to attorneys to read the words without understanding the spirit of the document. The same happens with the U.S. Constitution, as well as the constitution of God.
Trying to live by the letter of the law—whether the law of the land or the law of the Lord—without acknowledging or understanding the spirit of the law will lead to one of two extremes. The first is legalism, which we see in Scripture in the lives of the Pharisees. The second is license. License occurs when we only see the law as "prohibitive" instead of "protective," when we see it as "lording" instead of "loving." Although they are opposite extremes, legalism and license both destroy.
In the U.S., we have lost the spirit of the law and often disregarded the spirit and intent of our Founding Fathers. Their desire was to establish a nation honoring God, founded on the principles of His written Word. We take the established law and make amendments to it so it will fit our license to do as we wish. We believe what's wrong or what's harmful can be made right by changing the law that prohibits it in order to make it permissible.
We do the same thing with God's constitution by denying His sovereign authority. We make our interpretations based on what we want to believe, ignoring God's purposes and intentions for establishing His authority. We make a license for what we desire to do, all in the name of grace. Jesus Himself said He came not to destroy but to fulfill the law. The intention of grace is to empower us to walk in purity, not to give us a license to fulfill the desires of the flesh. We must look beyond the words on paper—the words of the U.S. Constitution and the words of the Bible—and into the hearts of the writers, the Founding Fathers of the United States and our heavenly Father. Legalism and license bring death—but the Spirit of the law brings life!
Church history is filled with stories of men creating religious systems to supersede the grace and freedom that Christ bought at Calvary. When Martin Luther spearheaded the Reformation, he was seeking to bring the church back to a position of grace. The church established in grace through faith was freed from the religious bondage placed upon it by the traditions of men.
The pendulum now swings in the opposite direction. Some Christians emphasize the doctrine of grace at the expense of the law and this leads to a different, though equally dangerous, error. As previously noted, the law of God provides the skeletal structure for His life and grace to operate in the life of the Christian. Just as the structure without the grace of God results in dead Christianity, so the grace of God without the backbone of God's law results in a spineless, jellyfish Christianity.
The grace and liberty that came to God's people through Jesus was not meant to replace the law; it was meant to restore the law to its proper function in the predetermined plan of God. This lack of respect for the law has led to a tolerance of sin within God's people that God never intended. Instead of the church being a shining example of Christ in the earth, it has taken on all sorts of sexual sin, deceitfulness and greed. It remains largely unrepentant because the law has been deemphasized to such a point that sufficient skeletal strength to support God's grace has vanished.
The power of God is not present because we have disregarded the holy commandments and have become comfortable in our sin. Any understanding of grace that does not include the Christian's responsibility in our relationship with the Lord will only serve to exchange the bondage of self-righteous legalism for the bondage of sin and misery.
Doug Stringer is founder and president of Somebody Cares America and Somebody Cares International, a global network bringing hope and healing to communities through prayer initiatives, compassion outreaches and cooperative efforts. He is the author of numerous books, including In Search of a Father's Blessing and Leadership Awakening: Foundational Principles for Lasting Success.
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