Do you think you are a good person? If you consider ignorance to be bliss, then perhaps you should contemplate your further reading of this blog. What follows may severely disappoint you.
When trying to answer the question, “What does obedience and law have to do with grace?” the Word of God might not always give us the answer that we expect. Many of us might know some of the Ten Commandments or maybe we have even heard some of the commands that Jesus or Paul gives to us in the New Testament; that we should love one another, obey our parents, not to kill or steal, etc. Based on our knowledge of God’s commands (however minute or extensive it might be) we might think we are doing pretty well when it comes to following them practically. We might have a good relationship with our family. We might even attend church once a week (at the least), read our Bibles as often as we are able, or pray as often as the opportunity presents itself. On top of all of this, we haven’t killed or mugged anyone lately. So we might say, when it comes to God’s law, we should earn a gold star for all of our efforts and good performance. In fact, we might have a special place in our hearts for Gods law because it shows us how great we are and how deserving we are of God’s blessing.
But if we think in this manner, the Bible might become a bit confusing to us at times. For instance, Paul in Romans 3:20 tells us, “For by works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” He reiterates this idea in Romans 7:7, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” And in Romans 4:15, contrary to the notion that the law ultimately brings us blessing, Paul tells us, “For the law brings wrath…” Again, if we understand the function of the law to be to show us how pretty we look to God, then what is all this coming from Paul? Is he really telling me that the law shows me how disgustingly sinful I am? That the law can never bring the blessing of God to me but only provokes his wrath? At this point we might be tempted to choose our own views instead of Paul’s. Maybe Paul is being a bit too extreme, right? Why would God give us his law to show us how bad we are doing? That seems a bit counter productive. And why would God want us to feel bad about ourselves? That’s not very nice at all.
But if we approach the subject of the law biblically (which is what we ought to do since the Bible is the very Word of God) then no matter where we turn we cannot escape this one function of the law: to show us how utterly sinful (and therefore helpless) we are before a holy and just God. The Bible portrays this idea plainly in a number of ways.
For starters, the law exposes the true state and nature of our hearts. Let’s look at all the reasons we might be on God’s “good list” again. We read our Bibles, pray and attend church. We might be part of a ministry inside or outside of the church. We might be experts at random acts of kindness, helping those in need whenever or wherever they need it. We haven’t killed anyone, stolen anything, or committed adultery before. So that makes us law followers and good people, correct?
Well, the truth of the matter is God is not-so-much concerned with our outward acts of obedience to the law as he is the actual state of our heart. For instance, in Mark 12 a scribe asks Jesus, “Which command is the most important of all?” (vs. 28) Jesus answers the scribe saying, “The most important is…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (vs. 29-31) Jesus holds not outward actions of obedience as the highest virtue, but an inward affection for God that overflows into a life that honors and obeys him with everything. And in case we have a petty notion of what this looks like, we ought to look more closely as to what the law requires according to these verses. It involves the heart, soul, mind, and strength; the entire being is captured in this love and adoration for God. The law requires that every single little thought, motive, and action be fueled by a passionate love for God and his glory alone. And this love spills over into a love for others that mirrors the love, care, and caution we have for ourselves. In addition to all of this, the love that the law requires is not a momentary love, but a constant love; lasting every minute of the day, every day of the month, every month of the year to the end of our lives. (Deut. 11:1) So it is plain that the law, when it calls for this kind of love, is requiring more than just outward actions but delves into the deep recesses of the motives of our hearts.
This qualifies Jesus’ teachings in his sermon on the mount. We might say we have never murdered anyone. Have we been angry with or felt hatred towards someone? Jesus says, then, that we are guilty of the same crime. (Matt 5:21-22) In the same manner he tells us that if we look at a woman with lust we have committed the sin of adultery. (Matt. 5:27) This, again, is because the law is not-so-much concerned with our outward acts of obedience as it is with the motives of our hearts. This is why Paul in Romans 2:16 tells us that on the Day of Judgment, God will judge us not by outward obedience, but by our secrets; our motives, thoughts, and intentions.
Looking at the law will lead us to despair, and rightly so, because it shows us the true states of our hearts before a holy God. It shows us that we do not treasure God as we ought; that we do not love and cherish others as we are required to. Even Paul tells us that because we are sinners by nature and choice, we are entirely unable to submit to God and his law in this way. (Rom. 8:7) Thus, we are under God’s condemnation, for the law tells us, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” (Deut. 27:26) As we have studied in Romans 1-3, because we are sinners by nature and choice and have not submitted to God and his law, we are cursed under his wrath and judgment. We should feel the weight of this and tremble.
An interesting thing that Chad said in his sermon last week is this: “Sometimes help hurts.” This certainly is a fitting comment when reflecting upon God’s law. Why would God allow us to despair in this way? Isn’t that cruel? Isn’t that sadistic? Absolutely not; when the law shows us how unable we are to please him and make ourselves right with him, it might be painful, but it is God’s abounding grace to us. One of the functions of the law is to get in our faces and snap us back into reality; showing us that we are not as good as we think we are, but are actually in a state of ruin and misery because of our sin. It shows us that we are absolutely helpless and that we are in dire need of a savior. The law functions to point us to Jesus in this way. (Gal. 3:19-26)
Paul tells us in Romans 5:19 that “by the one man’s (Jesus’) obedience the many will be made righteous.” We are not able to obey God’s law, but Jesus did. Jesus lived the perfect life we were completely unable to live. He satisfied every single little demand of the law in this way. He also died, taking on the curse that we brought upon ourselves for breaking God’s law. (Gal. 3:13) The law, then, is God’s severe mercy to us. It brings us to our knees in despair, showing us that we are completely unable to do what God requires of us because of our sin nature and points us to the God-Man who has done it all for us; namely, Jesus Christ.