In Christian circles, one of the worst labels you can be tagged with is “legalist” or have a behavior you advocate called “legalistic”. It means you emphasize externals rather than the heart. It means you’re Pharisee - keeping the outside clean but enabling corruption on the inside. Christian doctrine explains we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Works are opposed to faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, you cannot be made righteous on the basis of your good deeds, performance, or behavior.
And yet the Bible is full of injunctions regarding outward behavior - good deeds and religious works. In fact, the list of biblical imperatives drastically outnumber the faith-identity passages. Imagine you took a cursory glance at both the Old and New Testament and segregated scripture passages in two categories: imperatives governing behavior vs. faith-identity. Now if you placed all the behavior-imperative passages on one end of a scale and on the other side, all the faith-imperative/identity passages, the number of words containing rules and regulations would outweigh the number of words describing faith-identity by 5-10x.
The law-grace controversy has led to all kinds of disagreement on the nature of Christian ethics and behavior. Consequently, the question of understanding law is a crucial question for so many aspects of life: Our understanding of law and grace - how we construct the relationship between faith and works - filtered through our upbringing, culture, and personality will impact how we raise children, how we approach evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth, our work ethic in our vocation, how we view money and generosity, and how we address toxic emotions like guilt, shame, and condemnation.
So how do Christians resolve this tension between law and grace?
Theologically, it appears simple. Our identity of righteousness by faith results in action. Thus, we behave out of our identity.
Practically, it’s a lot bumpier. We don’t resolve this tension well. We claim to live by faith but in reality, we live by a strict code of behavioral standards. We use tactics of guilt, shame, and condemnation as internal motivation. I’ve seen some fascinating extremes. In some churches, Christians coerce each other with specific and explicit behavioral expectations. You receive a phone call if you miss a Sunday worship service. The check-in is intended in love but can feel heavy-handed. These churches grow and thrive - likely because people yearn for clarity, structure, and explicit consequences around how to live the Christian life.
At the other extreme, I know Christians who claim any kind of behavioral expectation is a “law” - a moralistic standard that justifies or condemns the participant. In one church, many members are reluctant to suggest behavioral admonitions out of fear of being perceived as “legalistic" and neglecting grace. I have a mature Christian friend who recently stopped using a to-do list and calendar reminders because they felt like a form of moralism. In this culture, grace is primarily expressed through license and permissiveness. In this environment, ambiguity and freedom reign while guidance and structure are conspicuously absent.
I’m more sympathetic with the latter extreme but I’m decidedly uncomfortable with both. Permissiveness is a caricature of grace. And yet burdening with people with specific behavioral expectations strikes me as ironic. I’m also confident that finding a happy medium between the two is not the answer either. I’m dissatisfied with a one-dimensional plane of license vs. rules.
What’s the right answer? That’s the purpose of this series. This series will attempt to explain Paul’s understanding of law in the New Testament - particularly his epistle to the Romans. From there, I want to import principles of Paul’s understanding of law into our cultural context so that we can negotiate the tension in a gospel-centered way. I already know there will be many possible behavioral and cultural expressions of not being under law; that’s the nature of the Spirit working in grace and truth. What I’m concerned with is to think about law in a thoughtful and biblically consistent way.