Skip to main content

How are we "not under law"? Part I: Unpacking the Dilemma

Romans 6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

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.  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Dad's Review of Passport 2 Purity

[3,100 words, 11 minute read]

The sex talk is one of the most dreaded conversations parents anticipate having with their children. To make things easier, an entire industry exists to help parents with sex education. Dozens of books have been written to help parents navigate this treacherous topic with their progeny. One of the best known among evangelicals is called the Passport 2 Purity Getaway package. It is produced by FamilyLife, a division of Cru (former Campus Crusade for Christ) and consists of a five lecture CD package including a journal and exercises designed as a weekend retreat for a pre-pubescent child and his/her parent(s).

Passport 2 Purity was not my initiative. Our trip came about because Judy had heard from several home-schooling mom friends how they had taken their daughters on a road trip to go through the CDs. She even heard how a mom took a trip with husband and two sons to through the curriculum. So a couple months ago, Judy suggested we take our two older boys o…

Planting a Church. Finally.

James Taylor, the great grandson of Hudson Taylor, the famed missionary to China who founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF) once said: “It is a tragedy so many foreign Chinese have left the evangelization of China up to the non-Chinese.”

James spoke those words over twenty-five years ago during a Chinese church retreat when I was a senior in high school. His calling out of the Chinese diaspora vis-a-vis white missionaries challenged and haunted me. This challenge was the impetus behind my plans to join Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) staff to do a one-year mission trip to China. But I didn’t go. Rather, I accepted an invitation from my hometown pastor, Tom Chow, to return to San Jose and reach my American-born Chinese peers.

After nine years of working as a project manager and volunteering with the youth group and young adult ministry, I joined the staff of my home church, Chinese Church in Christ - South Valley (South Valley) in 2006. In the summer of 2007, South Valley l…

Why Asians Run Slower

My brother got me David Epstein's book The Sports Gene. It is a fascinating quick read. If you're interested in sports and science, it will enthrall you. I finished it in three days.

Epstein's point is that far more of an athlete's performance is due to genetics than due to the so-called "10,000 hour" rule promulgated by books such as Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (both which are very good). The 10,000 hour rule states that any person can reach expert level of performance in a sport if they devote 10,000 hours of deliberate and intentional practice. 
That's a lot of hours. Most people aren't capable of anywhere close. And that's precisely Epstein's point.
Someone who devotes 10,000 hours of sport-specific practice is likely genetically gifted for the sport in extraordinary ways AND genetically gifted in their ability to persevere and benefit from practice. Therefore, a person who can practice that much is…