Jerry and I sat across the table from each other in the company cafeteria, having our morning coffee together. We are not what you would call close friends, just good ones, who like to keep in touch periodically.
Jerry: So, how’s your small group going these days?
Me: Good. Good. Great bunch.
I took a sip from my cup.
Me: Interesting discussion this morning.
Jerry: Oh? What was so interesting for a bunch of old fogies?
Me: Old fogies? Look who’s talking!
Jerry: Alright, let’s get past the obvious and get back to your small group. I’ve never heard you describe that group as “interesting” before.
With his fingers, Jerry put quotes around the word “interesting,” fully intending to poke fun. Returning a mildly sardonic smile, I continued.
Me: We’re in I Corinthians 11, where it talks about how we ought to examine ourselves whenever we take communion.
Jerry: Sounds like a good practice, but, forgive me if it doesn’t sound all that interesting.
Me: The guys argued that this “examining” refers to comparing our lives to some standard or, to put it more plainly, to determining how well we’re doing with obedience to the law.
Jerry: Law? What law?
Me: Well, not the Jewish Law, certainly. I think what they had in mind was something a little less concrete. New Testament law, I guess. Things like “love your neighbor”; “husbands, love your wives”; “flee immorality.” Stuff like that.
Jerry: I repeat: sounds like good advice. Mmm…maybe more than good advice. Where’s the interesting part?
Me: I think this obsession with obedience to the law, however you might define it, is contrary to the New Testament.
I watched Jerry’s body language carefully for any reaction. As he sat back in his chair, I had to decide in an instant if he was intrigued, angered, or worried that I was an apostate. I took a chance that it was the first option and decided to continue.
Me: In fact, I think it’s anti-Christ.
Jerry sat up immediately, almost aggressively, crossing his forearms on the table.
Jerry: Where do you get off saying that behaving well is anti-Christ?
Me: I’m not making this up. Paul said it in Galatians 2: “If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
Jerry: But Paul was talking about keeping the Jewish Law. He was a Pharisee, remember?
Me: True, he was a Pharisee and the Mosaic Law would have been front and center in his thinking. These days, in addition to the Ten Commandments, we have the New Testament with its multitude of directives, plus two thousand years of institutionalization of the church, all of which amounts to myriad laws, rules, and guidelines. It seems appropriate in our modern day to read Galatians with a broader definition of “the Law.” In fact, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase consistently renders “obedience to the Law” as “rule-keeping.” The guys in my group concur that what they try to obey is not the Jewish law, but a code of ethics or a code of behavior that is based ostensibly on the Bible. In fact, one of them wondered a couple of weeks ago if we find in the New Testament a law that is to be substituted for the Mosaic Law. However you might conceive it, we have what amounts to a “Christian law.”
Jerry: Okay, I’ll buy that Paul was, in principle, talking about more than Jewish Law. But when you say that obedience to a law is anti-Christ, are you saying that obedience is not at all important?
Me: It does seem that Paul said that in Galatians: “For through the Law, I died to the Law.” I would paraphrase that to say, “I came to recognize that keeping the Law was a complete waste of time.”
Jerry: “Let anarchy reign.” Is that what you are saying?
Me: Anarchy already reigns, at least partially. To the extent that we are unable or unwilling to behave with both body and mind according to a standard set by the absolute holiness of God, anarchy reigns. Things are worse than we think, too. Jesus tried to communicate the magnitude of the gap between how we and God think about sin. Everyone knows that it’s adulterous for a married man to sleep with another woman. Jesus said that just lusting, a mental activity that doesn’t even involve the body, is adultery. Because we are fallen and so accustomed to living with sin, we have little appreciation for just how offensive to God is the tiniest sin. How many of us would ever have thought that saying, “I hate you,” would be just as lethal as pulling a trigger?
Jerry: And you think keeping the law is a waste of time? Imagine what the world would be like if no one obeyed the ten commandments. Surely, you aren’t saying that we should just abandon all commitment to obedience, to behaving well, are you?
Me: Paul addressed that question in Galatians 2, where he said, “We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over ‘non-Jewish sinners.’ We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.”
Jerry: Wait a minute! I think we need to separate out two issues. On the one hand, people might obey the Law “to be set right with God” as Paul put it and I’ll concede that Paul views this as problematic. On the other hand, there is a need to behave well in order to have a civil society. We have laws just so we can live together; but our faith in Christ is what justifies us before God.
Me: That’s what I found so interesting about this morning’s discussion with the guys.
Jerry: Elaborate, please!
Me: Here’s a bunch of guys who have been Christians for 30-odd years, all trying to figure out the details of the law they should be obeying. The focus was on more than just creating a civil society.
Jerry: Well, of course! There are certain things that we have to do in order to mature in Christ and most of these come out of Paul’s epistles. If not for the effort of bringing our lives into conformity with these rules, how else are we supposed to make progress in the Christian life?
Jerry leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. If he had been wearing glasses, he would have been looking over the rims. I continued, citing Galatians 3.
Me: “Only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it?”
Jerry, with some vigor: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? How do we become better people? And, I’m telling you, it’s by striving to keep to a high moral standard of behavior. There’s no other way.
Me: Christians who do this are charlatans, though. “If I was ‘trying to be good,’ I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.” Even if I substitute one law for another, say a New Testament law for the Mosaic Law, the effect would be the same. Not only that, but if I, one who claims to have faith in Christ, keep trying to be good by obedience to a law, then, for all practical purposes, Christ died needlessly.
Jerry: It doesn’t seem right that we should stop “trying to be good.” Otherwise, it looks like Christ has associated Himself with a bunch of worthless, no-good, si… Ok. I’ll take that back. But, you still haven’t answered my question: Without striving, how will moral progress be made?
Me: Paul says that rule-keeping is peer-pleasing, impersonal, and a repudiation of God’s grace. He recognized that virtue can never be perfected by rule-keeping or self-effort. In contrast, life in the Spirit is God-pleasing, personal, and suffused through and through with grace, the favor of God. Virtue is perfected by the Spirit, not by us.
Jerry: Sounds good on paper, but let’s apply some logic. If all Christians have the Spirit, then all Christians should be perfectly virtuous and even you will have to agree with me that the reality is far from the theory. Something’s wrong somewhere.
Nodding my head, I continued, somewhat pensively.
Me: Here’s what I don’t understand. Given a choice between working really, really hard at self-improvement, a strategy with a 100% failure rate, versus letting go of our will and connecting so intimately with the Spirit that His Life shines out through us, we seem to always choose the hard road. Why is that?
Jerry, lightening up a little: Maybe we’re stupid?
Me: Maybe. But I’m more inclined to think that we are so self-absorbed, so self-willed that we cannot see any other way. To one extent or another, we are all like the rich young ruler of Matthew 19 who maintained, however unlikely, that he had kept the Law from birth. According to Jesus, he lacked only one thing. The young man needed to give all his wealth to the poor and follow Christ. Even when Jesus [God Himself, mind you] gave His personal guarantee that he would thereby become rich, the young man walked away.
Jerry: I don’t think most Christians are like that. Unlike the rich young ruler, we put our faith in Christ and have decided to follow Him.
Me: And what did Jesus say to His followers? He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Isn’t it interesting that the first thing we do with this verse is to ask, “What does it mean to deny myself?” This is what makes me wonder if we really do “get it.”
Jerry: What do you mean? It seems like a good idea to look before we leap.
Me: Well, one day, Jesus was talking to some religion scholars and He highlighted a very simple command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The scholar’s knee-jerk reaction was to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jerry: That is the most logical question to ask.
Me: The fact that we, in the West, have a very large legal profession suggests that law is inherently…vague? broad? I’m not sure what the right word is, but laws seem to always require definition and refinement. That’s what the scholars were after, because they saw “love your neighbor” as a law. Their question was really, how can we circumscribe and, therefore, minimize the impact of this command on our lives? When we ask, “What does ‘deny yourself’ mean?” we are interested in the same thing.
Jerry: But, how can we possibly obey a law if we don’t understand it?
Me: What if we got rid of the law?
Jerry: You can’t do that!
Me: That seems to be exactly what Paul did. “What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a ‘law man’ so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it.”
Jerry: This still sounds like a concession to anarchy. The fact is that we all do the best we can and, when we fail, Christ forgives us and we move on.
Me: So, Jerry, where does following the law leave you? What does it get you?
Jerry: A civil society, that’s what!
Me: No, I mean, what does it get you, personally?
Jerry: I behave well, at least most of the time.
Me: And, for that, you will go to hell. “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.”
Jerry: Not if Christ has anything to do with it. By faith, He saves me from hell.
Me: So, we should view Jesus as our safety net?
Jerry: I suppose so. Yea.
Me: How different this sounds from what Paul wrote in Philippians 3: “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” No matter which epistle I read, I never get a sense that Paul was intent on self-improvement, but he was forever and solely focused on Jesus with every bone in his body. We know from common experience that when two people spend a lot of time together, they tend to start behaving and thinking like each other. Paul probably figured that the better he knew Jesus, the more he would become like Him: kind, loving, thoughtful, helpful, other-centered.
Jerry: Go on.
Me: Here’s the real rub, though. In Jesus, we are associating with someone whose goal in life was to “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” And, on top of that, He said, “If you want to be My disciple, you must take up your cross, too, and come after Me.” Paul took Him up on this and it showed in his life: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” We moderns read that and walk away because it doesn’t sound like a very fun life.
Jerry: If you ask me, I’d go even further and say that it’s unreasonable for those of us who have to make a living in the 21st century. We can’t all emulate Paul’s life. He was an apostle, not a carpenter or a truck driver or a doctor. “Deny yourself” must surely mean something else, at least to us.
I ignored the fact that Jerry didn’t seem to notice that he was thinking just like the religious scholars of Jesus’ time.
Me: It didn’t seem that hard for Paul, like it does for us. I have to wonder if we perceive reality the way he did. He seemed to think that a life focused totally, absolutely on Christ was worth more than anything this world has to offer. St. Teresa put it this way: “His will is for us to desire the eternal, whereas we prefer that which passes away; His will is for us to desire great and sublime things, whereas we desire the base things of earth; He would have us desire only what is certain, whereas here on earth we love what is doubtful.” We have our distractions, our hobbies, our jobs, our wives, our toys. Sex…power…money. What if we turned our thinking completely around so that we would value Christ so much that, like Paul, we would see the “surpassing value” of all that is wrapped up in Christ and, at the same time, we could perceive that everything else is rubbish? Not Christ and all of our toys. Just Jesus. Wouldn’t the law “go away”? Wouldn’t Jesus become the sole driving force in our lives? The sole driving force that would move us, not out of obedience to a law, but out of love and fear, to live as Christ did, to live well, truly well. Abundantly.
Jerry tipped his head back to extract the last drop of coffee from his cup then plunked the empty vessel down on the table.
Jerry: If that’s what’s necessary, then don’t be surprised if there aren’t many takers. Keeping the law is far less intimidating…and safer than Aslan. I’m not sure I buy all this but I do agree that the issue is interesting. I’m heading back to the distractions of the world, or at least the distractions in my office. See you around, my friend.