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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Still Ticking Boxes

How many times have you heard that Christians are not under law, we are under grace?

A fair number, I’m guessing. But living by the Spirit rather than by the letter of the law requires more than just ticking boxes. We cannot read instructions in the New Testament in the same way many Israelites read their law; as if, having observed all direct commands, we are now free to behave however we may please.

Life by the Spirit just doesn’t work that way.

The Broken Rule

In the Old Testament, when you find God striking his own people down, you can usually point directly to a broken rule.

Nadab and Abihu died because the fire they offered before the Lord was not in accordance with the instruction given in Leviticus 8-9. Uzzah perished because David paid insufficient attention to what the Law of Moses said about transporting the ark of the covenant.

Avoiding the immediate earthly judgment of God was a matter of listening carefully and following instructions.

More Than the Mechanics

Of course, the problem with taking this approach to the law was that the readers often missed the lesson behind the laws they had been given. God never intended his people to get so caught up in the mechanics of obedience that they learned nothing about the God who had given the law in the first place. If God had desired nothing more than slavish adherence to the literal wording of his delivered text, he wouldn’t have instructed his people through Joshua to “meditate on it day and night”. After all, literalists don’t need to ponder things like principles and extended applications. What’s to meditate about?

Thus is was that when the Lord Jesus appeared on the scene, he condemned the Pharisees for failing to grasp that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Likewise, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates that using law-keeping to justify ourselves before God does not work. Those who attempt it always fall miserably short.

No surprise in that. That wasn’t what the law was for.

Not Quite So Clear

Fast forward to Pentecost, and to life by the Spirit rather than by the letter. Some people were still ticking boxes, and God was still passing judgment. But now the lines were not quite so clear.

Ananias and Sapphira fell dead at the feet of the apostles one after the other. But what rule did they break, really? There was no “don’t test the Holy Spirit” sub-clause handed down to Peter by God in the Articles of the Church in Jerusalem. To the best of our knowledge, at this point there wasn’t anything written down at all, let alone graven in stone. But Ananias and Sapphira didn’t need a rule to stay out of trouble. It’s not rocket science to reason your way from Jesus saying “I am the truth” to “It’s probably a bad idea to tell lies to Christ’s apostles”. Knowing Christ makes the rule superfluous, assuming you are paying attention.

Similarly, when Paul speaks of some in Corinth who were under the judgment of God, their problem was not rulebreaking, it was a failure to “discern the body”, something that is a good deal more subtle. But again, no rule is necessary to intuit that getting drunk while the Christian beside you goes hungry is violently out of character for men and women professing to gather to remember a Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep.

These are matters of Spirit, not law. Ticking boxes does not help with such things. The answer is not more rules, and neither Peter nor Paul proposed that.

Blessings and Potential Hazards

Today, when we meet together in the name of the Lord Jesus, we have a good deal more in the way of written instruction than those early Christians, a situation which is both a blessing and a potential hazard. A blessing, because we have more ways of learning about Christ than any group of believers in human history. A hazard, because having the whole counsel of God written down, open to us and available for reference is a huge temptation to the flesh to sit down and scribble out a veritable mountain of new rules.

But reading the New Testament without stopping to ask “What does this instruction tell me about the character of the God I love?” and “How can I reflect that character more accurately then?” is bound to miss the point as completely as those few, sad cases in the early church.

And some of us, I fear, are still ticking boxes.

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